Critiquing “Naturalism”, by John Halstead

With the new year, we are starting a new series called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”.  It is an opportunity for our readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means fto you.  We are looking for essays between 1000-3000 words.  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot]com.


Recently, the contributors at NaturalPagan.org had a discussion about what would qualify someone as a Naturalistic Pagan and, hence, qualify them to be a contributor at NaturalPagan.org.  The answer was not clear, because not all of us mean the same thing when we talk about Naturalism.

“Naturalistic”: A Confusing Term

The terms “Naturalism” and “Naturalistic” are problematic for a couple of reasons.  First, most people, including most Pagans, understand “Naturalistic” to simply mean that something is in some way associated with nature.  Since many Pagan (rightly or wrongly) consider Paganism to be an “earth-centered religion” or a “nature religion”, they mistakenly think that all forms of Paganism are necessarily “Naturalistic”.

In the past, when I have been asked what “Naturalism” means, I would say that a “Naturalistic” religion or spirituality is one which seeks to explain the universe without resort to supernatural causes.  But even after explaining what Naturalism means, many Pagans remain confused. When they hear that Naturalism is contrasted with Supernaturalism, many other Pagans will just nod their heads and proceed to explain why their belief in magic or literal gods is not Supernaturalism.  They may invoke quantum physics or chaos theory or vague allusions to unspecified “energies”.  Meanwhile, the Naturalistic Pagans roll their eyes.

Basically, the problem is this: Naturalistic Pagans think a lot of other Pagans are Supernaturalistic, but very few of those Pagans identify as Supernaturalistic.  So the term “Naturalistic” really doesn’t clarify anything.  We know what we mean by the word, but no one else does.

Scientific Paganism?

In the attempt to clarify what we mean by the word “Naturalistic”, the Naturalistic Pagan will usually invoke science.  When science is invoked, by either side, an argument inevitably ensues about what counts as science.  In Paganism, this manifests as a debate about whether quantum physics etc. provides justification for the belief in spirits or what have you.  There is a difference between the speculative pseudo-science that many Pagan resort to in order to justify their beliefs and the peer-reviewed science that Naturalistic Pagans are talking about when they use the word “science”.  But I don’t think the resort to science really resolves anything.

For one thing, science is an open-ended endeavor.  It proceeds by disproving things today that were taken as fact yesterday.  So no “scientific fact” is ever really final and unassailable.  This means that the Supernaturalistic Pagan can always resort to the defense that science just hasn’t discovered proof of the existence of gods or spirits or magic yet.  Based on their own experiences of these things, many Pagans are confident that science will one day in the future discover the missing link that will justify their belief.

Belief and Dis-Belief

When I have written before about the difference between Naturalistic Pagans and others Pagans, I have said that Naturalistic Pagan prefer not to engage with theories which have not been proven by science, while other Pagans are more or less comfortable with the not-yet-proven.  The former adopt a “wait and see” attitude, while the latter take more of a “proceed until proven wrong” approach.  The Naturalistic Pagan, for example, will not practice magic or invoke gods until these are first proven to exist, while the average Pagan will practice magic and invoke gods until they are convinced that these things do not exist.

Having said that, I’ve actually come to believe that I’ve been giving both sides more credit than they deserve.  It now seems to me that, in most cases, both Naturalistic and Supernaturalistic Pagans have made up their minds about things like magic and gods, and we pick and choose the “evidence” to support our respective positions.

Supernaturalistic Pagans want to believe in the supernatural, so they grasp at any psuedo-scientific theory which might arguably support their pet belief.  But Naturalistic Pagans do this too.  Most Naturalistic Pagans I know have made up their minds that gods and spirits don’t exist and magic doesn’t work.  They aren’t just skeptical; they actively disbelieve these things.  Rather than saying, “I don’t know”, they say, “That’s not real.”  Rather than saying, “Science has not found persuasive evidence to support the existence of spirits or the efficacy of magic,” they say, “Science has proven that spirits and magic aren’t real.”–which I don’t think isn’t accurate.

The Disenchantment of Science

The focus of Naturalistic Pagans on science is problematic for another reason.  Science can open our minds to the wonder of nature and the enchantment of the world.  Bur it can also cut us off from that sacramental consciousness.  For example, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough describes how her scientific understanding of the universe ruined the night sky for her, by reducing it to an object of scientific study, which drove her to nihilism.  Later, she discovered a sense of wonder at the mystery of it all and the universe became a sacred place to her again.

Too often it seems, Naturalistic Pagans mistake objectivity as a methodology with a conclusion about the nature of reality.  This a form of category error.  The scientific method of removing (or attempting to remove) the observer from the observation has given us incredible predictive power and technological control over our environment.  So much so, that the word “objective” has come to mean “true” for many of us, while while the word “subjective” has come to mean “untrue.”

But a purely objective account of the world, a world devoid of subjects, is a necessarily an incomplete account of the world, a one-dimensional account of the world.  We gain a certain power to control our environment when we attempt to bracket our subjectivity, but we also lose something–we lose the reality of our own experience and the sense of our own participation in reality.  Other Pagans see this and react in the opposite direction.  They seek to escape a completely objectified world devoid of mystery and wonder, and so they embrace another form of category error: confusing the subjective with the objective.

A New Vision of Naturalism

Debates between Naturalistic and Supernaturalistic Pagans usually center on the question whether or not an experience of something is “real”.  But both sides seem to have have implicitly bought into the objectivist assumption that “real” means “objective”.  This manifests as literal-minded theism and literal-minded atheism.

Instead of contrasting Naturalism with Supernaturalism and battling over what does and doesn’t count as scientific proof, I want to propose a new understanding of Naturalism.  It begins with the common meaning of Naturalism as “relating to nature”,  but this is not the objectified nature of the scientific method.  Rather, it is a nature which includes subjective human experience.

Because we human beings are part of nature, our subjective experiences are part of nature as well.  Hence, our subjective experiences are real.  Our experiences may or may not correspond to objectified nature, but that does not make them any less real, as experiences.  Gods and spirits do not exist objectively, but neither do a lot of meaningful human experiences.  A truly Naturalistic Paganism should take these experiences seriously–not as delusions, but as real human experiences.

As Naturalistic Pagans, I think we are uniquely positioned to transcend the limitations of both reductionist science and superstitious forms of Paganism.  We can can elucidate the distinction between subjective nature and objective nature, without denigrating the former.  We can valorize human experience, without confusing experience with objects.  This is how we re-enchant the world, not by looking for gods or fairies in the space between atoms or or in the space between DNA strands, but by imbuing both–gods and atoms, fairies and DNA–with human meaning.


About the Author

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (previously hosted by Patheos) and about spiritual activism and activist spirituality at PrayWithYourFeet.org. He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.

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4 Comments on “Critiquing “Naturalism”, by John Halstead

  1. To me, my naturalism is about thresholds for credulity. No one with a genuinely scientific orientation claims to “know absolutely” anything, but when we say we “know” something, we really mean that sufficient evidence has been identified and verified to give confidence that that something is real.

    Gods, spirits, and physically effective “magic” do not meet this threshold. Accordingly, I choose not to believe in them until such time as that standard is reached.

    I do not agree that science has a “disenchanting” nature. Understanding how something works does not reduce the marvel of the fact that it does; in fact, in many cases the explanation only adds to the wonder and awe I feel in perceiving it.

  2. Excellent post, especially in light of the resurgent “debate” about whether Paganism is, or should be, a Nature religion (whatever that means).

    For me, Naturalistic Paganism is about the fine balancing act between Truth (that which is) and Meaning (that which makes life worth living), to borrow John Beckett’s definitions. Science is the best tool we have figured out as humans to investigate truth. Mythology, poetry, art, religion, are all tools we have created to search for meaning. And I feel you need both.

    While I agree with Mark above, that science doesn’t disenchant the world but rather reveals it to be more awe-inspiring than we thought possible, I think there is another facet of modern life that does disenchant our relationship with the world, and it’s one that parasitises science for its own purposes: materialism (as in capitalism and “stuff” not the philosophical position regarding the nature of matter).

    The Romantic revival that led to the rebirth of my own tradition, Druidry, was a direct pushback against the industrial revolution and the commodification of nature and human life. I can see a renewed Naturalistic Paganism, in the sense in which you use it as “relating to nature” possibly filling a similar role today.

    There will always be literal theists and there will always be hard atheists. But there will also always be those who value both science and myth, inner and outer, and want to live lives of meaning that also allow for exploration of reason.

  3. John,

    Are you still taking articles for the “What Naturalism Means to Me” series? If so, I would like to submit the attached article.

    Thanks.

    Thomas Schenk

    On Tue, Mar 13, 2018 at 9:02 AM, Humanistic Paganism wrote:

    > John Halstead posted: “With the new year, we are starting a new series > called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”. It is an opportunity for our > readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means fto you. We are looking > for essays between 1000-3000 words. Send your submissions to h” >

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