What “Nature-Based Religion” Means to Me

One of the big divisions in the Big Tent of Paganism seems to be between those who consider it to be a “nature-based” or “earth-centered” religion and those who say they are centered on the gods. Back in the early 2000’s when I first ventured into online paganism it was Wiccans vs. Reconstructionists. Now it’s changed somewhat to “naturalist/humanist/atheist pagans vs. “devotional polytheists”, but the overall argument doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. “Do you worship Nature or do you worship the Gods?” is the question.

I’ve always thought that division was strange and doesn’t really fit my understanding of the main distinguishing feature of the Abrahamic monotheisms from the various indigenous religions of the world. I first got into paganism growing up as an atheist kid in a very Christian culture, and indigenous religions were very appealing precisely because they don’t have this division between the divine and nature. The thought that you had to pick between the gods and nature didn’t even occur to me until I got online and started reading the flame wars between the nature-worshiping pagans and the god-worshiping pagans.

As I always understood it, the main difference between the Abrahamic religions and pretty much all the indigenous religions of the world is how they view the relationship between the divine, humans, and the rest of nature. Abrahamic monotheism teaches that humans are the most important thing in all creation, specially created by the One God, who is separate from nature, and God created all the rest of nature to serve us. None of the polytheistic religions I know of put humans in such a privileged position.

That’s a big difference in world views, and the monotheists I’ve discussed this with agree with me. The only difference is they think it’s a good thing and shows monotheism is superior to the polytheistic indigenous religions they replaced.

I remember when I was a kid, and one of my cats died. All my friends were Christians, and we got into an argument about whether cats have souls. It always bothered me that anyone would assume only humans have souls and no other animals do, but that seems to be a standard belief among Christians.  Some Christians will go ahead and allow for the idea that beloved pets go to Heaven, but only because they would miss their pets when they got to Heaven, so God would allow their pets to be there with them. Your beloved dog or cat will go to Heaven for your sake, not for their own sake, as if they earn a soul through the love of a human. Wild animals don’t have this honor.

That just seemed wrong to me, and really put me off Christianity at an early age. When I was a freshman in college, I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center that specialized in injured birds of prey. Most of them had been harmed by humans in some way, either directly (by getting shot or caught in traps) or indirectly (by running into windows or getting tangled in barbed wire). Sometimes we couldn’t save the animal and it had to be euthanized. By this time I had just discovered Wicca and would say a silent prayer to “the Goddess” as the bird died, because I knew that everyone else working there were either Christians or atheists and all thought of the birds as being objects with no souls. The point of saving them was completely utilitarian, because they were useful as pest-control in the ecosystem, not because they had any kind of intrinsic worth. I liked the idea that there would be a deity out there who cared about these birds for their own sake. When we released a bird back into the wild, I hoped that the Goddess appreciated what we had done, not because we had repaired a damaged object that belongs to us, but because we had saved the life of a fellow creature and had righted a wrong that had happened when humans caused this animal harm.

The anthropocentric and utilitarian view of nature seems to go hand-in-hand with being monotheistic. There is only one God, and humans are his favorite creature. All the rest of Nature was created for his favored creatures to have dominion over and use as we please. Only human life has intrinsic value. Nonhuman life only has value in that it benefits human life.

In polytheism, however, there are lots of gods and spirits, and some of them favor humans, but not all. For example, in Heathenry the Aesir and Vanir have more to do with humans, while the Jotnar don’t seem to be big fans of humans in general. This leads some Asatruar to view the Jotnar as “evil”, but what if they are just the gods of other parts of nature? Maybe they favor wolves or sharks or rattlesnakes over humans. The only reason they’re “evil” is because they aren’t on our side, but that’s just a matter of perspective.

In “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter of the book The Wind in the Willows, the god Pan is depicted as the savior of the woodland animals the same way Jesus is the savior of humans. This book was written when western society was just starting to re-discover paganism. It was a revolutionary idea that animals would have their own god that cared about them and protected them from the traps and snares humans set for them. After all, according to Christianity, don’t humans have the right to trap as many animals as they want? Animals are just objects for us to use after all.

I know not all monotheists think this way, but even the most nature-friendly monotheists still put humans in a superior position. Maybe instead of conquering Nature, God wants us to benevolently care for it as “stewards”, but the One God still ranks us above everything else.

Since the universe has been put into this hierarchy, with God on top, then humans, then the rest of nature, it also means God is separate from nature. In the story of Exodus, Moses demonstrates that his God is the only true God when he breaks the rules of nature by doing things like turning the Nile to blood. If you know anything about the Egyptian gods, you know Osiris is the god of the Nile. Turning the Nile to blood was a direct attack on Osiris, and Osiris can do nothing to stop it. The Egyptian gods are bound by the laws of nature, but the Hebrew god can override them. Hence Moses proves his god is superior.

And from then on, people got the idea that a “real” god must be able to violate the laws of nature. I see this attitude even in modern pagans. The problem is no one has been able to demonstrate a god actually doing that, which leads some people to become atheists because if a god can’t perform these types of “miracles” then they must not be real.

The lack of any evidence for miracles that defy the laws of nature is discussed in John Michael Greer’s excellent book A World Full of Gods as an argument in favor of polytheism over monotheism. In polytheistic cultures, the many gods are all bound by the laws of Nature. They can tweak the odds in our favor, but they can’t outright stop the sun in the sky for us. In Norse mythology, the gods are still bound by Wyrd, and other polytheistic cultures have similar concepts of some sort of natural order that the gods are subject to. That seems to fit better when our observations about reality than the idea of an all-powerful God who can suspend the laws of nature at will.

This difference can also be seen when comparing Genesis to other creation stories. In Genesis, God comes first, and then he creates the universe. In the creation stories from polytheistic cultures the universe come first and the gods come later. In Norse mythology there’s a union of Fire and Ice. In Greek mythology there’s a union of Earth and Sky. In some stories there’s a vast cosmic ocean, or a cosmic egg, but in all of these stories, the gods we worship come later after these vague and hard-to-personify cosmic forces do their thing.

So if anything, Nature is superior to the gods, rather than the other way around. I realize this may sound terribly impious to some polytheists, but that’s not how it looks to me in the mythology and in my observations about reality. However, I prefer to say the gods are part of Nature, just like humans and other animals and plants and mountains and rivers, and lose the hierarchy altogether in favor of an interconnected web. John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Sounds a lot like Wyrd to me, which makes me think our polytheistic ancestors knew about these “invisible cords” too. Monotheism instead tries to “pick out” God and humans from the rest of Nature.

The Theory of Evolution shows that humans are just another animal. This is the main reason why Creationists object to it, because in their worldview, humans have to be special. They also hate the idea that that the universe was around for billions of years before humans existed, and humans have only been around for a minuscule fraction of the history of the universe. If that’s true, then how could the universe have been created just for us? But nothing in polytheistic theology says the world was created just for us, just like nothing suggests that the gods are separate from and superior to nature.

Some Heathens say that the Jotnar, being the gods of wild nature, are our enemies, and therefore nature is our enemy. The Aesir, the gods of human civilization, separated us from nature, and that was good for us. Life was harsh before we had technology that could shield us from nature. Then we got agriculture, cities, running water, electric lights, television, air conditioning, modern medicine, the internet, and life just keeps getting  better and better for us the more separated we become from nature. Right?

Yet anthropologists are starting to discover that life for hunter-gatherers was much more pleasant in many ways than it was after the adoption of agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had better diets, suffered fewer diseases, and actually worked less and had more leisure time than people living in agricultural communities.

And while modern life has given us many benefits, it also brings with it many maladies (mental and physical) never seen before. Not to mention the damage it’s done to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we’ve been separated from nature too much, and perhaps it’s not only making us physically and mentally ill, but spiritually ill as well.

I don’t think Norse mythology supports this view that nature is bad and must be conquered. The Jotnar are not always enemies of the gods. The gods are the children of giants. Many gods also marry and have children with giants. Even Thor, the god who defends us from the giants, is the son of a giantess, and not just any giantess, but Mother Earth herself. Thor only fights giants that directly threaten humans or the Aesir. Other than that, he leaves them be. He knows wiping them out would be a very bad idea, and he also knows he couldn’t if he tried. Thor may favor humans, but he’s not an all-powerful god, only one Power in a universe with many.

In “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold writes about how we need to redefine our relationship with the Land as a community which we’re a part of. He writes, “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth,” to illustrate the utilitarian, anthropocentric view of humanity’s relationship with nature. I find it very significant that he uses Abraham, the father of monotheism himself, to make his point. He then goes on to discuss how this worldview has led to the environmental problems we face, and how we need to replace it with a “Land Ethic” where the Land has rights just as humans do, and humans have an ethical obligation to respect those rights.

It seems to me that polytheism is much more compatible with the Land Ethic than Abraham’s monotheism. In polytheism, the universe is one big community of many gods, many spirits, many species of plants and animals, and humans are just another citizen of the community. Of course, you can have a community with no gods in it, which may be how “atheist pagans” view it, but if pagan gods like Pan or Osiris do exist, they are part of the community too. They are not separate like the monotheistic god supposedly is.

To be frank, when polytheists insist upon the same utilitarian and anthropocentric view of nature that monotheists have, it saddens me. It seems like a wasted opportunity to really radically overhaul our worldview to something much closer to what our ancestors believed. They seem to be merely substituting the pagan gods in for the monotheistic god but keeping everything else the same. To our ancestors, it was completely obvious that humans and the gods were part of nature just like everything else. Perhaps it was so obvious that they didn’t even have to talk about it or write about it much, which might give us the impression that nature wasn’t as important to them as it was. It’s like the old saying about how fish don’t notice water until they’re not in it anymore. For most the history of our species, we were just another animal playing our part in the ecosystem like all the other animals. We didn’t need people like John Muir or Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold to tell us how important nature was. We couldn’t miss nature and long for it until we were separated from it. Terms like “nature-based religion” weren’t needed until “religion” was no longer nature-based.

The modern pagan movement is not just an attempt to get back to our Old Gods, but also our old relationship with Nature where we were part of it rather than its conqueror and master. After hundreds or thousands of years of this, humans are finally starting to look back at to how we saw the world before, worshiping many gods and living in a community of many different creatures. They’re starting to see the damage that believing in only One True God that favors us above all the rest of nature has caused to us and the rest of our community. I think this is a very positive thing.

But in order to be successful at this, we have to get rid of all those harmful beliefs we got from Abrahamic monotheism, and that includes a utilitarian view of nature, the idea that nature is evil and must be conquered, and the idea that humans are special and set apart from the rest of the natural world.

After all, in the myth of Ragnarok, the Jotnar make war against the Aesir, and the Aesir lose. If you view the Jotnar as gods of wild nature, and the Aesir as gods of civilization, then maybe this means that if civilization tries to fight nature, it will always lose. Yet fighting nature is what we’ve been trying to do for hundreds of years, and look where it’s gotten us. We’re living in a totally unsustainable manner that will destroy us in the end if we don’t stop.

Perhaps it’s time to give the Jotnar and other spirits of the wild their due respect, quit being so anthropocentric about everything, and start viewing ourselves as part of the community again.

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