Paganism and Environmentalism

And here I begin to delve into politics. Sorta.

There are a lot of Pagans out there that regard activism and environmentalism as integral to their paganism. If that’s their deal, then fine: I won’t hold it against them. My issue is when they assume that because those elements are central to their religious understanding, that they assume that those elements must be central to my religious understanding, and that if they aren’t then I aren’t a “real Pagan” or I’m not “enlightened” enough, or I’m a hypocrite because I’m part of a “Nature Religion” and I’m not committed enough to protecting “Nature.”

Because nothing is more endearing than a bunch of people who reject the labels and pigeonholing of the dominant and oppressive overculture, only to have them insist that you live by their rules, labels, assumptions, and dictates.

I came across this post by Shauna Aura Knight at Pagan Activist. Knight is offering a criticism of our culture of wastefulness and offering suggestions for more environmentally sustainable and responsible behaviors, and sure, that is a good thing. But the underlying assumptions and judgmentalism annoy the ever living fuck out of me.

It starts with a seemingly simple question:

If we call ourselves Earth-centered, how do we do that without being hypocrites?

“We?” Is there a mouse in your pocket?

But assuming that all pagans share her values,politics, and spiritual understanding isn’t enough. We get outright condemnation:

I’m going to offer a harsh statement here. If you call yourself Earth-centered…or if you turn and face the North in ritual and invoke or honor the Earth, and you are littering like this, if you aren’t sorting your trash and recycling, if you are drinking bottled water and not making any attempt to begin to live more sustainably, you have no business standing in ritual and calling Earth, honoring the Earth. It’s hypocritical.

And that probably pisses you off. And, maybe instead of being ticked off at me, the messenger, you can acknowledge where you might need to do some work to use less resources. For those who called me a hypocrite for calling for the use of less resources, particularly not using styrofoam or plastic cups in a ritual, being a hypocrite would mean I’m not working hard to reduce my use of resources. If you are honestly, sincerely trying, then you’re not a hypocrite. But, we can all do better.

We aren’t perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m using resources too. But, like many others, I am working hard to reduce my use.

It’s hard, and my greatest fear is that it’s not going to have enough of an impact. But I’m going to try my best, because, I am Earth-Centered. I value the Earth and my relationship to it. I consider it a contract, a sacred trust. It’s my job to live in better harmony, to reduce my use of resources, and to help others do the same.

Yes, it pisses me off for you to call me a hypocrite. But not because you’re a grand messenger calling me to task on my own failures to live up to my professed values. But because you’re calling me to task for not living up to your expectations, on the assumption that because I’m Pagan I’m your kind of Pagan, and that I must share your values and motivations, and that if I don’t then I must lot be legitimate. And that the only way I can atone for my sins is to admit the error of my ways and adopt your dictates for how I worship and how I live.

Because my Paganism is not based in environmentalism. It is not “Earth-Centered.” And you have absolutely no right whatsoever to tell me that I can’t invoke the powers of the element of Earth unless I obey you.

The issue of Paganism being “Earth-Centered” or “Nature-Based” is something I’ve talked about before:

The concept of Paganism as a “nature religion” is a very modern understanding, and assumes a very romantic worldview relating to worshiping nature. I have found little to suggest that ancient pagans were “nature worshipers” as we conceive the term — most of them sought to placate the gods and spirits of nature to preserve order from chaos. It is far more accurate to say our pagan forebears were “order worshipers.” My own Roman ancestors did not worship nature in any meaningful sense, and in fact celebrated their grand civilization and the order it brought to people’s lives as having divine origins.

This reflection was inspired by commentary by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus:

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.

[…]

The idea of Pagans as “nature worshippers” fits in perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society, and therefore no business doing their rituals indoors.

My Paganism is based upon my interaction with the spirits and the gods, which in turn helps to inform my place in the Grand Scheme of Things. Many of those spirits dwell in nature, and embody natural forces, and as such interacting with those spirits often necessitates and understanding and respect of nature. But the central focus of my worship is those spirits, not the environment that they dwell in.

Paganism is frequently depicted as nature worship, and I disagree with this assumption. The Romans gods celebrate engineering feats and the cultivation of philosophy and learning. These are hallmarks of what we classify as civilization, which is frequently placed at odds with nature.

See, the gods of Rome were beings that embodied the forces of nature. They were not worshiped or petitioned to celebrate nature, but to moderate it. To keep it at bay.

Raw nature is scary. There are hardships there. You struggle to find things to eat, and there are things that can and will eat you. Nature is chaos.

And the gods were petitioned to keep that chaos at bay, so that life might be easier for us.

And this isn’t even considering the fact that our insistence on viewing “Nature” as a real concept worthy of reverence, as distinct and opposed to the idea of the “Artificial,” is itself a dubious political construct that I argue actually serve to alienate us from the societies and cultures we live in.

Nature as a concept is a romantic notion, one that brings to mind pristine and peaceful wilderness where noble savages live in peace and robust health. This is contrasted to the concept of the “artificial” or the manmade, which  is seen as exploiting or going against the virtues of Nature. This ignores three simple facts: 1) The “natural” world is inherently dangerous, and doesn’t give a flying crap if we survive comfortable or die slow, agonizing deaths; 2) The “artificial” world has bestowed upon us many things that have proven greatly beneficial to our comfort, survival, and well-being; and 3) Humans are animals, and are a part of Nature, and as such any activity we undertake, no matter how complex, is “natural.”

[…]

Worshiping “Nature” seems redundant to me. Everything around us and that we do is nature. Our very existence, and even our pondering it, is a part of nature. Nature itself is an artificial construct. So why would I worship a political concept instead of the gods and spirits in the world around me?

Now I obviously understand that many Pagans don’t have the understanding of “Nature” that I do, and I’m fine with that. If your brand of Paganism is centered on the worship of the Earth, and it works for you, then that’s fine. But I will take issue with any Pagan that 1) Questions the “authenticity” of my Paganism for lacking the environmentalism (or other political concern) that their Paganism has, and 2) Calls me a hypocrite for not living up to the standards of their brand of paganism.

Many people are drawn to Paganism because they reject the idea of a powerful central authority that has the right to define or dictate their relationship with the divine. To insist that members of such a group — one that prides itself on its complex diversity — must conform to your political requirements is far more hypocritical than Pagans who use too much toilet paper.

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9 responses to “Paganism and Environmentalism

  1. This might surprise you, but I’m largely in agreement with the second part of your post here. Not all Pagans *are* indeed Earth-centered. The “we” is not actually a mouse in my pocket. I’m referring to the “we” that have identified as Earth-centered. The quote you use from my article, “If we call ourselves Earth-centered,” has a central word there–if. I don’t assume that every Pagan identifies as Earth-centered. If I’m specifically calling out the people who do identify that way.

    If you don’t identify as Earth-centered, then you’re not a part of that “we.”

    For what it’s worth, most of the Pagans I encounter do identify as Earth-centered, or, articulate to me that they find the Earth itself to be divine, etc. I’m calling people out as hypocrites who go to rituals and festivals and leave trash behind, and drive away in their SUV with a “Save the planet” bumper sticker. The folks who talk about being Earth-centered, or who have banners outside of their tents about the beauty/divinity of the earth, with a stack of plastic bottles and styrofoam plates right next to it.

    If you don’t consider yourself Earth-centered, then no, you’re not a hypocrite for using resources indiscriminately. I might take issue with your use of resources, but it has nothing to do with your spiritual values.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t even call it politics, though unfortunately that’s the battlefield where these things often get fought. For me it’s a complicated thing, connected to my values as a Pantheist and my desire to see people leading a good life, a healthy life, a life with the resources and plenty needed to be happy in a way that is sustainable for future generations.

    For me, environmentalism crosses heavily into social justice. And I suppose, there’s another place where it becomes a political issue, but I guess I just look at it as personal responsibility. For me, nature includes me, my body, my community, the ecosystem I live in, the cycles of life, the spirit world, all of that. If I use resources today that are not renewable, or if I use products that damage the environment, then I’m in part responsible for what happens decades from now. I’m contributing to, for instance, the potential shortage of clean water, contributing to pollution, contributing to nonrenewable resources being more expensive, all of which are problems that hit the poorest the hardest. For me, the people around me–and the people that will come after us–are part of what I see as divine, as part of nature.

    I totally understand that not everyone sees things that way. Again, I might disagree with someone, but they aren’t necessarily a spiritual hypocrite. The folks who are hypocrites are the ones who are identifying as Earth-centered and then fail to live that value in any way.

    • Then I apologize for my misreading of your audience and my attendant snarkiness directed towards you.

      The thing it, it was really easy, especially with your set-up of condemnation from others, to read that “If you call yourself Earth-Based” to imply that all Pagans call themselves earth-based.

      And while you did qualify “earth-based” with “if,” toward the end you offered an “or”:

      If you call yourself Earth-centered…or if you turn and face the North in ritual and invoke or honor the Earth, and you are littering like this, if you aren’t sorting your trash and recycling, if you are drinking bottled water and not making any attempt to begin to live more sustainably, you have no business standing in ritual and calling Earth, honoring the Earth. It’s hypocritical.

      So you can hopefully see where I was coming from and forgive the harshness of my response.

      What it comes down to is that I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to Pagans implying that I’m not an authentic Pagan, or I’m hypocritical, or I’m not a good Pagan, or the right kind of Pagan, because my Paganism isn’t like their Paganism. Or, more commonly, because my Paganism doesn’t include their politics. I think that part of this is because I was guilty of this myself not very long ago, part of it is because there is still a lot of squabbling over what “Paganism” means, and part because I’m sick to death of other people telling me how I need to be, live, or worship. I also very much resent the assumption that if I identify with group X, then that obligates me to adhere to ideology A, B, and C, because most other people who affiliate with group X do.

      And I do very much appreciate your taking the time to read my post and offer your comments.

      • “And I do very much appreciate your taking the time to read my post and offer your comments.” I’d like to ditto that. I know plenty of people who would not handle this that well.

      • As far as I’m concerned, we’re all good. I write a lot about communication and group dynamics as well, so I’m pretty good at holding paradox. I might disagree with you on some things, but, that doesn’t mean you and I can’t both be “right” or authentic, if that makes sense.

        I also would be inauthentic if I weren’t transparent that, yes, I use a bit of sensationalist, button-pushing language in my post. I’m trying to raise awareness of issues around the environment and sustainability. Part of my…I don’t know what to call it. My optimism about humanity, perhaps…is that I believe that if people really understood what their impact was, they would be more responsible. And maybe that’s naive. Certainly my inner pessimist likes to punch my optimist in the face a lot. But I have found that sometimes cool things can happen when we (we/humans, or we/Pagans) talk about things.

        I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I believe that many Pagans out there literally have not made any connection between saying, “Yes, I’m Earth-centered,” and being part of a practice/tradition that includes honoring the Earth specifically, and then, actually living that value by their actions and what products they use. So if anything, the button-pushing language at the end of my post was geared towards the folks that are just rotely turning North to welcome Earth, or who say, “Oh, yeah, let’s do an Earth healing ritual!” and then make no connection to how their daily actions don’t support that spiritual work. I teach at a lot of Pagan events, I meet a lot of Pagans, I see this all the time, and one of the few things that I can do–other than reducing my own use of resources–is to bring attention to resource use, at least within the communities I touch, whether that’s online or in person at events.

        I can go further and say, I’m actually not even mad at the folks who are clueless on this. I don’t think they are “bad Pagans,” I just think they aren’t aware of the dissonance between, saying they are Earth centered, and using styrofoam cups for cakes and ale.

        I’m not the person to tell someone they aren’t a “good enough” Pagan. That part of my post was specifically targeted to folks who identify as Earth-centered, which, not all Pagans do. But yes–I also wasn’t super clear about that, so I can see where you were coming from 🙂

        Actually, when I host rituals work, I’m kind of tradition agnostic. I vaguely offer rituals that look like Reclaiming. So, sort of post-Wicca–there’s a grounding and centering, a sort-of circle casting, elements, deities/allies, storytelling/trancework/energy raising, closing…but, I’m also using a lot of shamanistic trance techniques, along with educational theory and psychology and installation art, to get people into a trance state to do their personal work, or commune with the divine. And I tell people, “We’re working with Aphrodite as the Goddess of Love here, but, you don’t have to believe in Aphrodite as a goddess, she can just be an inspiring mythic tale that gives shape to our work. You are free to believe what you want.” I typically work more with archetypes.

        In ritual at least, my job is to get people to the door. I’m not there to teach theology. I’m not there to tell them what the door looks like, what the divine looks like, what they have to believe. I’m just there to get them out of their heads enough to commune with something deeper.

        My approach to Paganism is the same–we all believe a vast array of different things. We’re connected more as a Venn diagram of overlapping subcultures, with dozens and dozens and hundreds of individual religions. Your theology and mine might differ, but that doesn’t make either of us a bad Pagan, so I’m right with you there.

      • I avoid hyperbole at all costs myself. I never resort to sensationalism. Or sarcasm. Ever. At all.

        For me its all worth it if we get an interesting conversation that makes us think about something we haven’t considered before, even if no one actually changes their minds about anything.

        And page views. It’s all about the page views.

      • I also like to point out that I post that stuff as one of several contributors to the Pagan Activist blog–it’s Pagan Activist blog, not, Pagan we-all-agree-on-all-this blog 🙂 So there’s occasionally some turbulence.

        Actually, the whole post was motivated by someone who threw an actual sh*t fit at me on someone else’s FB wall about my use of toilet paper. Pun…intended I guess? So I thought, fine. I’ll talk about toilet paper. Throw down the gauntlet, and I will talk TP! LOL

      • Yeah, I didn’t really pay too much attention to that specificity of your target audience. Like I said, I’m kinda hyper-sentitive to this kind of issue, so it doesn’t take much to get me going.

        I did read about the toilet paper thing, and frankly I thought that was kinda funny. Perhaps your critic has figured out the three seashells thing. But from the context you were coming from, I do agree that yes, to make a big deal out of identifying your religion with your environmentalism and then not living up to ideal that you hold others to is a bit hypocritical.

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