“The first step in starting a new religion is to claim it’s the old religion.”
So said my friend and neighbor Michael, as we sat around the dinner table after our equinox feast. It was some years ago — I can’t even recall if it was vernal or autumnal — but the comment stuck with me.
He was joking, I think. Michael happens to be a theologian with a curmudgeonly sense of humor. I’m not sure what he was referencing, exactly, but my mind immediately leaped to Neo-Paganism, a new religion which (sometimes) claims to be an old religion.
In the popular view, we are backward-looking people, interested in the restoration of antique religions. Common stereotypes would have us all dressing in medieval garb, hanging out at Ren Fairs and SCA tournaments. If you fit this description, more power to you; in my experience most Pagans don’t. Yet my very own wife confessed that this is the thing that bugs her most about Paganism: our supposed fixation on the past. Given the very name “Pagan”, I suppose it’s an understandable conception, and not wholly inaccurate.
Nevertheless, it’s evident to most everyone that contemporary Paganism is a relatively new spiritual movement. Those who claim an unbroken lineage to ancient religions might appear to be charlatans or fools. (There are important exceptions. See, for example, Christopher Blackwell’s fascinating interview with Andras Corben-Arthen or Nikolaus von Twickel’s 2009 article in the Moscow Times on the Mari native religion.) Those who seek to re-establish a connection to the past might be viewed as romantics, at best, and possibly regressive.
I worried: Is that how my friends and family see me, as duplicitous, or as a dupe? As a romantic or a retrograde? Is that how the world sees us?
It’s part and parcel of our practice of naturalistic philosophy and ethical humanism to attend to the integrity of our teaching. What do we really know, and how do we know it? What should we do, how shall we live, and why? We constantly ask ourselves these questions.
When it comes to the ancient past, I’m painfully aware of how little I know. Part of that is my lack of scholarship, but even the most diligent scholar faces substantial limits. Much has been lost, and a great gulf of time separates us from our ancestors. Our view of them can only ever be partial, fragmented, obscured and occluded. That our access to the past is irretrievably damaged is part of the tragedy of the human condition.
Yet, in another sense, these limitations don’t trouble me, because I have an eclectic heart. I pick and choose bits and pieces here and there to construct something that resembles a self, that approximates an identity. I utilize the hip-hop aesthetic: my life is made of samples. I value the parts of the past that resonate with my contemporary understanding of the world.
Despite the stereotypes and misconceptions, my orientation is more toward the present and the future than the past. My desired religious attitude is forward-looking, but I also desire balance. I want a religion that honors the past, lives in the present, and actively shapes the future.
If this all seems excessively abstract, let’s get down to earth — specifically, to our changing orientation toward planet Earth, our home. Bear with me as I generalize rather egregiously.
To ancient pagans and indigenous peoples, Earth was and is the sacred center of the universe, with humans an integral part of nature. Somewhere along the way, Western thought was perverted into a radically different worldview, that Earth was created for the benefit of humanity, that humans participated in a divine transcendence over nature. This essentially religious perspective was carried over into the secular thrust of the Enlightenment, while at the same time science steadily displaced Earth and humanity from a central position in the cosmos. There was plenty of money to be made in exploiting Earth’s natural resources, to say nothing of human labor; greed is surely a driving force in the disenchantment of the world.
In recent decades, however, we’ve come to see once again the unity and coherence of Earth, the interconnectedness of humanity with other forms of life and the environment, and the extreme contingency of our existence. We’ve learned that all life on Earth is likely descended from a single ancestor, so that we are all related. We’ve seen Earth from space, and re-conceived her as Gaia, drawing on the metaphor of the ancient Greek goddess to give poetic emphasis to our new understanding, which continues to develop.
Have we returned then to ancient views? Not exactly. The vantage we’ve obtained is a novel one. It resonates with the past but does not duplicate it. We’ve come not full-circle but full-spiral. At this juncture, we recognize the need to live more lightly on Earth, in harmony with nature. A substantial course correction is needed, if we are to sustain our high-tech, globalized civilization. We need a paradigm shift to an eco-planetary perspective.
If we can pull it off, this chapter of humanity’s adventure becomes comedic, in the best and highest sense of that term. Failure to make this shift only serves to hasten our slide into an age of ignorance, tribalism, technological regression and ecological cataclysm. Many people much wiser than me have observed that this is not a technical or scientific problem but a political and fundamentally spiritual proposition.
Thus, a tragic irony emerges: to dismiss Earth-based religious perspectives — as too backward-looking, too regressive, too fixated on the past — is to deny one of our best avenues for true progress. If we cling to our modern modes of existence, we guarantee a bleak future for succeeding generations. Funny how that works.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.