Religious Naturalism and Nature Religion

The name “Naturalistic Paganism” can be confusing, first of all because Paganism, especially Neopaganism, is generally already considered to be a nature religion or an earth-centered religion. Consequently, some Pagans may think the term “Naturalistic Paganism” is redundant. So if a person describes themselves as a Naturalistic Pagan, another Pagan might respond, “I’m naturalistic too. I love nature.”

But the confusion does not stop there. Different Naturalistic Pagans will draw the line between what is “naturalistic” and what is “supernatural” in different places. For instance, some Naturalistic Pagans seek to reclaim terms like “magic” and “gods” and give them naturalistic meanings. A Naturalistic Pagan may invoke the Greek god of travelers, Hermes, or perform “magic spell” before a marathon to help them focus and perform better, but the spell is not understood to any real change except in the mind of the person performing the spell. Other Naturalistic Pagans discard such language entirely and prefer not to invoke “gods” or speak about “magic” for fear of creating confusion.

In addition, defining Naturalistic Paganism in terms of a natural/supernatural dichotomy is especially problematic when talking to many Pagans for whom the line between the natural and the supernatural is fuzzy at best. For many Pagans, things like magic and gods are entirely “natural” phenomenal; they are just phenomena that science has yet to verify. Oftentimes Pagans will invoke scientific metaphors (like “energy”) or actual scientific theories, like quantum mechanics or the Uncertainty Principle, to brush off the objections of philosophical naturalists. Regardless of the pseudo-scientific nature of these explanations, even the most dogmatic Naturalistic Pagan should admit that there are many things science has yet to discover or explain.

What then is the difference between something that is supernatural and something that is natural but not yet discovered by science?  It is easy to get bogged down in trying to define just what is and is not “naturalistic”, and we tend to talk ourselves in circles. Similar distinctions between physics vs. metaphysics and material vs. immaterial lead to the same place: “We just know it when we see it.”

It may make more sense, then, to describe Naturalistic Pagans in terms of attitudes, rather than bright line definitions. Naturalistic Pagans tend to be skeptical of claims that have yet to be proven by science, while other Pagans tend to be more skeptical of science — or at least skeptical of the reach of scientific competency. While many Pagans take a “proceed until proven wrong” approach to things like magic and gods, Naturalistic Pagans take more of a “wait and see” approach. The average Pagan will practice magic or invoke gods until they are convinced that these things do not exist, but the Naturalistic Pagan will not do any of these things until they are first proven to exist. Each is problematic in its own way: The first risks being foolish, while the second risks being paralyzed. Naturalistic Pagans work in community to try to find the right balance between these extremes.

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3 Comments on “Religious Naturalism and Nature Religion

  1. I have a question. I tend toward skeptical, but I do believe that certain things like spirits exist, especially based on experiences that I have had that I have not been able to explain otherwise. Would it be fair to describe Naturalistic Paganism as a sort of spectrum?

  2. I think of myself more in terms of a Skeptical Pagan, with varying degrees of skepticism. For instance I am more skeptical of the idea that there exist deities who regularly interfere in human affairs than I am of parallel universes or different realms of existence on earth possibly inhabited by different life forms that we are occasionally aware of. Is this under the Naturalistic Pagan umbrella? Or am I just a geeky weirdo who reads too much sci-fi/fantasy?

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