A Pagan's Personal Reply to the New Atheists
In this essay, I plan to analyze the following TWO questions: "Do you believe in God?" and "Do you worship Nature?" Although in my culture, the first is usually asked with reference to Christianity and the second is usually asked with reference to Paganism, I have come to realize the two questions are eerily parallel. And they both share the same crop of problems.
Let's start with "Do you believe in God?" I have been asked that question with surprising regularity for almost as long as I can remember. It didn't take me too long (high school, perhaps?) to come to the conclusion that this was one of the most absurd questions anyone could ever ask me --or anyone else. What could such a question possibly mean? In order to answer whether or not I believed in "God", I would obviously need to know what my questioner meant by the term. Even in high school, I was already acutely aware that there was an infinite number of ways in which people the world over conceptualized the term "God". If I myself were asked what I meant by "God", it would probably take the better part of a day to begin to construct a meaningful answer. Plus, I also had a sneaking suspicion that my own definition of "God" might not have much in common with the person asking me the question. My first hint was the way such a person would silently stare at me with glassy eyes, waiting for my simple "yes" or "no" answer. How on earth was I to give anyone a simple "yes" or "no" to a question like that?!?
Well, perhaps I could, at that. If I stop to consider what kind of people ask me this question, and what their definition of God is likely to be, then I might be able to muster a quick monosyllabic answer, after all. For example, if my questioners are a couple of Fundamentalist Christians standing on my doorstep (as is often the case) and their concept of "God" is the God of the Christian Bible, who created the world some 6,000 years ago, and sent His only begotten Son to die on the Cross, be resurrected from the grave, and thus bring salvation to humans, washing away their original sin and saving them from the torment of perpetual damnation, then I probably could manage to spit out the single-word answer of "no". And watch their eyes bulge and their jaws drop, and their expressions turn into a mixture of incredulity and pity. But at least I would then be free to brightly add "Have a nice day!" while closing the door in their horrified faces. The problem with this scenario is that I am not a very good bully, and I don't like to intentionally cause people alarm and concern. Nor would my answer do justice to my own understanding of "God"; and thus I would also, at the very least, be misleading my well-meaning inquisitors. So, no one wins. Unfortunately, the alternative would seem to be to ask them to come inside for an afternoon of discourse.
So then, what do I mean by the term "God"? I actually think I can answer that, but it will be easier if I first take a detour into that other question with which I started this essay, "Do you worship Nature?" This question might come from any person who is at least open to, or curious about, modern Paganism. (Unless the person is actively antagonistic to Paganism, in which case the question is transmuted into "Do you worship Satan?" However, there have been so many articles explaining why Witches don't even believe in Satan, let alone worship him, that I will not go into it here.) For me personally, the question is most often posed by fellow Pagans, and in its negative form, "Don't you worship Nature?" That is because, over the years, I have become rather well known for being something of a Pagan iconoclast: I detest camping. I prefer to live in a large metropolitan city, a center of culture and the arts. The mere thought of living in the country, or on a farm, fills me with the kind of unspeakable horror that could only be described as Lovecraftian. The outdoors is a place I visit, not live in.
This supposedly anti-Nature bias has turned into a kind of comic trope for me, one that I will sometimes play up, for the sheer whimsy of it, calling Nature "what I walk through to get from my car to my house". So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised (or hurt) when I express awe at the beauty of a winter sunset, or the colors of an autumnal forest, and someone turns to me and says, "But Mike, I thought you didn't like Nature!" This is certainly not true, and never was. But in order to explain myself, I must resume addressing the question, "Do you worship Nature?"
After becoming a practicing Witch and Pagan, I was asked the question "Do you worship Nature?" with surprising regularity. And It didn't take me too long (college, perhaps?) to come to the conclusion that this was one of the most absurd questions anyone could ever ask me --or anyone else. What could such a question possibly mean? In order to answer whether or not I worshiped "Nature", I would obviously need know what my questioner meant by the term. And I was already acutely aware that there was an infinite number of ways in which people, even within the Pagan community, conceptualized the term "Nature". If I myself were asked what I meant by "Nature", it would probably take the better part of a day to begin to construct a meaningful answer.
Okay, I'll stop. You get the point. The similarity is unnerving, isn't it? Besides, I do intend to try to unpack the meaning of the word "Nature" right here, right now, in order to answer whether or not I worship it. In exploring the word "Nature", I will also examine the way modern Pagans define and interact with Nature, using a three-tiered approach, starting with the narrowest view, and slowly expanding it to the widest.
I once swore that I would never use the term "Fluffy Bunny" in any essay I wrote on Paganism. Alas, it can no longer be avoided. Because the first version of Nature I wish to examine is the one held in reverence by the tree-hugging, sweetness-and-light, New Agey, unicorn-and-rainbows, so-called "Fluffy Bunny Pagans". They do exist. I've met them. Too often. These people seem to think that Nature sits on a continuum from positive to negative, pushed all the way to the positive pole! It must be nice living in a world like that. Although I have often observed that these same Pagans are extremely vulnerable to life's down side, and are hit particularly hard when something bad happens. I call this view of Nature "tier one".
"Tier two" knows better. They take a much wider view of Nature. To them, Nature can be both positive and negative, can contain those winter sunsets that make our spirits soar, as well as the destructive forces of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. They are under no illusions about Nature. They know that labels like "positive" and "negative" are human attributions, and that some of the most destructive forces in Nature are there merely to make way for something positive: the way a forest fire can create opportunities for new growth and habitat, for example. Nature isn't good or evil. It just IS. Still, even this second tier definition of "Nature" often places humans "above" or "outside of" Nature, and the creations of humans are often seen as "artificial", standing in marked contrast to unsullied Nature, where the hand of man has never set foot.
Slowly, inexorably, I have found myself moving from the second tier definition of Nature (which is the one I suspect is held by the majority of Pagans) to the more rarefied, probably minority view of the "third tier", in which not only are humans themselves not "above" or "outside of" Nature, but neither is any of their handiwork. From this perspective, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is just as much a part of "Nature" as a rock. From this perspective, I'm just as much "in" Nature sitting in my air-conditioned apartment watching Netflix as when I am sitting in the woods watching a campfire. If that sounds counter-intuitive, try to look at it this way. Beavers, with their sharp teeth and ability to haul logs while swimming were meant by Nature to build dams. Humans, with their opposable thumbs and ability to think were meant by Nature to build cities. It is in our nature to do so. By using the gifts that evolution has bestowed, both beavers and humans alter their environment in an attempt to make a better world for themselves. There is nothing "artificial" about this; both activities are completely "natural".
Oh, I know what you are thinking: But the activity of humans plunders our resources, destroys our environment, and could possibly bring about our own near extinction! But you know what? We wouldn't be the first. Other species have ravaged their own habitats to the point of decimation. Given time, humans may do the same. But the process is still "natural". No, I am not advocating gross negligence in our responsibility to our environment. In fact, that's the encouraging thing about the human ability to think. We may yet think of a way to get out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into, if we are not already beyond the tipping point. But the point I'm making here is that the human mind is a part of Nature and, as we know, Nature cuts both ways. Thus, the human mind can produce the Mona Lisa, or germ warfare. Therefore, my own definition of "Nature" (at long last!) is simply the sum total of everything that exists, including the creations of the human species.
Which brings me full circle, back to defining "God". Because, by some weird alchemy, my own personal definition of God is exactly the same as my definition of "Nature". "Nature" = everything that exists. Everything that exists = "Nature". "God" = everything that exists. Everything that exists = "God". Therefore, "God" = "Nature". And "Nature" = "God". Not too surprising for someone who has long considered himself a pantheist, I suppose. The great Catholic theologian Meister Eckhart once said, "God is an IS-ness. And giving Him any other characteristics is making Him less." (The irony of the masculine pronoun is duly noted, but let's not miss Eckhart's main point, okay?) So, "God" is that which IS. And "Nature" is that which IS. Having come all this way, it's time to once again face the question, "Do you believe in God?" Or, "Do you worship Nature?" Or, are they really the same question? At this point, I think it might be instructive to move to the second question first.
Do I worship Nature? I have spent all this time trying to define "Nature", only to now realize the word "worship" might even be more problematic! What could it possibly mean to "worship" Nature? Well, every Yuletide, I raise my wassail glass in toast. Every Beltane, I grab the end of a ribbon to dance the Maypole. Every Samhain, I carve my jack-o'-lantern. If anyone would know the pleasures of celebrating the turning of Nature's seasons, it would be me. But are these acts of "worship"? Somehow, I don't think so. Somehow, I don't think you think so, either. Then what is "worship? How do I do it? DO I do it?! I'm actually starting to doubt it. At least, not unless I radically redefine the word "worship", just as I did with "Nature". So I will begin with a confession. I've never liked the word "worship", not even as a child when I was being raised as a Catholic . But far less so now. Why? "Worship" is a transitive verb. John worships something-that-is-not-John. John worships Nature. We have now introduced a paradox. John is a part of Nature, just as everything that exists is a part of Nature. Therefore, how can John worship Nature, without becoming a total narcissist? Clearly, the word "worship", as I first understood it from my Catholic childhood, does not apply here. To "worship" seems to set one apart from that which is worshiped. I don't wish to participate in any activity that sets me apart from the very thing I am so very much a part of. So, I guess my answer is, "No, I don't worship Nature." And since I have already established that, for me, "Nature" = "God", then I guess I would say that I don't worship God, either. At least, not unless I radically redefine the term "worship".
Perhaps "worship" can mean something else. Since we humans have the capacity to think, perhaps my "worship" can take the form of thinking about my being a part of Nature. Maybe I am worshiping merely by contemplating my connectedness to the great All-That-Is. But even wrapping my mind around that can be a bit difficult. After all, I am trying to contemplate my oneness with the infinite. It sounds a bit more like meditation than worship, actually. But human beings not only have the capacity to think; we also have the capacity to feel. So perhaps worship could include that feeling of bliss that saints so often express when they feel a oneness with God. Maybe we can feel that same euphoria at the thought of being at one with Nature. But, hold on a second. We have already acknowledged that Nature is not all sweetness-and-light. It can also be terrifying and destructive. And, being a part of Nature, we humans can be terrifying and destructive, too. So, even though I may think about, and have feelings about, my connection to Nature, I'm not at all certain my feelings should all be blissful. Profound, maybe, but not giddy euphoria. By the way, since I have taken the pantheistic stance that "God" = "Nature", then everything I've said here about the worship of Nature also applies to the worship of God. So, do I worship Nature? Certainly NOT in the way that most people conceive of "worship". But if you warp the definition into a profound sense of my awareness of my connection to all of Nature, then perhaps I do.
And finally we return to the question, "Do you believe in God?" I have spent all this time trying to define "God", only to now realize the phrase "believe in" might even be more problematic! What could it possibly mean to "believe in" God? Especially now that I have advanced the idea that "God" = "Nature" = "All that IS". From this perspective, how could I NOT believe in God? It would be like NOT believing in my computer desk. Of course I believe in it because it's right here. I can see it! (I also tend to believe in some stuff that I can't see, like dark matter and dark energy, because science tells me so.) But that's hardly a "leap of faith". Rather, I believe in it because it exists. But is that what most people mean by "believe in"? Somehow, I don't think so. Somehow, I don't think you think so, either. For most people, "believe in" usually carries the connotation of having faith in something that cannot be proved to exist or, worse, something for which there is not a shred of evidence. Well, I'm sorry, but I simply don't believe in things that don't exist. If, on the other hand, something exists (like "Nature" or "God", as I define them), I know it to be true, and I don't have to "believe in" it. So, in answer to the ultimate question, "Do you believe in God?", I would say certainly NOT in the sense the good nuns at my Catholic grade school wanted me to believe in God. And certainly NOT in the way that most people conceive of "believe in". But if you warp the definition of "believe in" to something that requires no "leap of faith", and you warp the definition of "God" to mean "all that IS", then perhaps I do.
By now, I realize I may have disappointed two contingents of readers, and I would like to address both of them. First, I fear that some of you may have come to the mistaken conclusion that I only believe in those things in Nature which can be "proved" to exist. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, science can never prove things with absolute certainly. You can do proofs in math. You can do proofs in philosophy. But all scientific "proof" is provisional. It is based on the data currently available, and may need to be tweaked when anomalous data is encountered. So, things that have been "scientifically proven" are simply things that have an extremely high probability of being true, based on our current knowledge.
Also, I fear I may have given my readers the impression that I have given up on the idea of the "supernatural". Let me reassure you, nothing could be further from the case. I confess that I do, indeed, believe in many things that many people call "supernatural". Let's take ESP as an example. While it is true that many scientists claim that there is no evidence supporting the existence of ESP, they are simply revealing their own uninformed prejudices. Any intelligent person who reads the peer-reviewed scientific journals in the field of parapsychology, and who approaches this data with an open mind, will come away with the near-certain conviction that ESP does, in fact, exist. But what about the scientists who say that it doesn't?
The best answer I've ever heard to that is a quote by psychologist Lawrence LeShan: "Scientists, especially when they leave the field in which they specialize, can be just as stubborn and pig-headed as anybody else; and their unusually high intelligence only serves to make their prejudices all the more dangerous." Yet, to me, if ESP exists, then it is NOT "supernatural"; it is natural. If ghosts exist (and there is an extremely high probability that they do!), then they are natural. If anything exists, it is "natural". Science may not have a full explanation for why something exists, but that is beside the point. If something exists, it is natural. That is my mantra. And all things that exist, from here to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, are part of "Nature", and part of "God".
The second contingent of readers I may have disappointed are those who focused on the subtitle of this essay, and have been waiting with baited breath to hear my rebuttal to specific ideas championed by men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. You may now be thinking that I did not, in fact, engage them in debate. And you would be correct. What I did do was redefine the terms of engagement. What else could I have done, believing as I do, in the nature of “God”? In fact, I may have redefined the debate so much that these men would find little disagreement in what I have written here. And yet, these same men define themselves as atheists, whereas I define myself as a theist (albeit, of the pantheistic variety). So be it.
Finally, some of you may be disappointed that, as a practicing Pagan, I did not specifically defend the Gods and Goddesses of Paganism against the anti-theist stance of the “new atheists”. To be sure, I have many ideas about that, but that is for another essay, another day. At any rate, any such discussion would absolutely require this essay as a prologue. But for now, I'm thinking that there is enough material presented here to keep you thinking about this topic for quite some days to come.
Mike Nichols has taught classes in Wicca for 20 years and was the first Wiccan representative on the Kansas City Interfaith Council. Nichols has been a featured speaker on National Public Radio, Blog Talk Radio, and the Eclectic Pagan podcast. He continues to write and teach extensively and guest lecture at Pagan festivals.
This informative guide discusses the history, myths, customs, lore, and traditions associated with the eight Pagan holidays. More than merely a listing of events for each holiday, this examination explains the origins and symbolism of the Sabbats and why they are celebrated. The literary quality of the essays, coupled with the comprehensive knowledge of folklore, has made this book an essential text.
Thanks to Mike Nichols for allowing the republication of his wonderful work.
Mike Nichols's website The Witches' Sabbats