So I’ve been mulling this over for a few days now, since John Halstead’s brilliant post over at Allergic Pagan: ‘I worship the blind God‘. Go over there and read it. Go on! With the recent pagan/polytheist manufactroversy, some people have decided that the point of paganism should be to worship pagan gods. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus in his essay on Patheos: ‘Bringing back the gods‘ contrasts polytheism with ‘nature worship‘ in a pretty unfavourable way.
Now, I’m not pagan, so I don’t really care too much about the whole thing, but I am trying to become a Druid, and I do revere, perhaps even worship, nature and don’t believe in the existence of gods. So I wanted to give my tuppence worth as a response to some of the points raised.
Warning: Long post ahead!
Lupus points out, quite rightly, that:
Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence
I couldn’t agree more.
We homo sapiens are one species in one brief period of time on one tiny speck of dust suspended in one sunbeam. Nature is so much bigger, would it not be arrogant to think it should care for us in any way? This to me emphasises the awesome (in the traditional sense of inspiring awe) scale of the universe and puts all our petty problems into perspective. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and 47 billion light years across. I’m 25 and 5 foot 9. I mean, come on!
Lupus makes the argument that this indifference means that interaction with nature is impossible, and rituals, meditations and the like for the nature-worsipper are pointless. He states:
“Nature” doesn’t care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won’t stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won’t prevent it from raining. The best way to “honor” nature is to do things like recycle, not drive, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and so forth.
And again, I agree. I think that practical methods to honour nature, such as recycling and being more environmental, are absolutely vital and I doubt you would find any nature-lover, or nature-worshipper, who would disagree. I do those things as well as hold festivals and the like. Praying to pagan gods (who probably don’t exist), will also not halt global warming or rain. Lupus admits as much himself:
But, if one… personifies nature to some extent as genii loci, land wights, and other spirits of nature and place, then one can usefully interact with these things even if it still might rain, have earthquakes, or get warmer.
Where I disagree with Lupus is at this point.
I do not see the need for personification of nature, or adding a layer of fantasy over our wonderful natural world. I do not need to believe in land wights to honour the land, and the only spirits of nature I recognise are the plants and animals, fungi and bacteria with whom we share our ecosystems in an intimate interconnection and interdependence. I think nature as it really is, is enough.
And if praying to gods or spirits does nothing, and revering nature also does nothing, then why bother with the extra entitites whose existence we are not even sure of? Occam’s razor would shave away the downy fuzz of the gods and leave nature stripped bare and starkly beautiful.
Interaction with nature sans deities can and does take place, even more so in my opinion since I do not ‘interact’ with gods or spirits but with nature itself. When we gather in a group for ritual, we interact with each other (humans are part of nature after all), and we re-enact our beliefs that nature is sacred and should be cared for. Ritual can serve as a reminder of this. I don’t perform ritual to ‘get’ something for myself from nature, I do it to align my thinking closer to nature and change the way I relate to the world.
Making prayers and offerings to a spirit of nature that doesn’t care about humans and is indifferent to us–which is the model science provides–is as useful as making offerings to the blind idiot god Azathoth.
As a Lovecraft geek, I appreciate the reference, but this viewpoint is only true if you characterise worship as wanting to get something from a god in return for your offerings and praise. The word worship comes from Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship: to give worth to something. One of the OED definitions of worship is ‘To regard with extreme respect or devotion; to adore‘. Worship is thus not a give and take business transaction, or a wish-granting mechanism, but simply an acknowledgement of something greater than oneself, and a surrender to it.
When I was a Christian, I frequently encountered the attitude of prayer as a ‘cosmic vending machine’: “please God, get me the job I want, get me good grades, cure my cold, get me a parking space…oh and help some sick or hungry people too, if you have time after doing all the stuff for me me me me ME!”
I think nature’s indifference is a useful corrective to this way of thinking, and I wonder if too much focus on gods (pagan or otherwise) distracts people from reality, makes them more likely to ask for things and adopt the selfish ‘vending machine’ model. I find it reassuring that ritual and prayer to nature won’t result in miracles, and the rain will still fall on the just and unjust alike (Matt 5:45).
Modern Paganism should not have, as one of its major goals, a self-presentation defined by “nature worship.”
Surely that is up to each individual pagan to decide for themselves? Not all pagans are polytheists after all, and even some who are (such as ADF Druids)also hnour the ‘Earth Mother’ as the supreme entity in their worship. And even if the gods did exist, surely they would be part of nature too?
As an atheist, I believe in no other entity worthy of worship than nature itself. There is for me no supernatural world of gods and spirits, only this. And I don’t understand the view that this is not enough, that we need ‘more’. I see no point in adding extra entities or interpretations to the raw stuff of pure natural experience. The more science reveals, the less room there is for such things, and the better our awareness of the real natural universe becomes.
Without gods, I still have music, breathtaking landscapes, animals, trees, good food, tea, love, sex, books, holidays and everything else that makes life worth living. Not a day goes by when nature does not make me gasp with awe: a sunrise, birdsong, rain, flowers, even the ingenious methods of evolution manifest in parasites controlling their hosts like zombies. It’s all amazing!
John Halstead writes:
I worship nature. There is definite element of devotion in my practice. I ask: Is not this world worthy of love?
Were I a religious man, I would say ‘Amen’.