Joseph Bloch has made an interesting case that Pagan religion cannot always be labeled a “nature religion”  because  historically most weren’t. Instead they were concerned primarily with human affairs. I argue here that he is wrong, and do so in three steps. The first two explore crucial concepts he ignores. The third looks at errors of fact.  Grasping how he is mistaken deepens our understanding of what Paganism is and how we relate to the world today. 

The issues he does not examine are what we mean by “religion” and how Paganism reflects the times in which it exists. 

Religion is always a community affair.  I can be spiritual without having a religion and many people practice a religion without considering themselves particularly spiritual.  But they value highly the link it makes with their broader community as defined by that religion. 

The Gardnerian coven of which I was long a member consisted of many people with varied Pagan theologies.  Some were basically animist, some Neoplatonic, some understood what they did in Jungian terms, and likely there were other understandings as well. We rarely discussed such issues of personal spirituality. Instead we practiced ritual together, including having common meals and celebrations as well as providing a place for advice during crises and receiving healing when needed.

The quotations Bloch provides of Heathen perspectives on the human community could be mirrored in almost any religious community, certainly including Wicca. They describe common human conditions but within a context of greater than secular meaning. He writes “When I hold my daughter in my arms, that is sacred. When I hold high a horn of blessed mead and toast to an ancestors, that is sacred. When I grasp the oath-ring and swear an oath to do something on behalf of my family or my tribe, that is sacred. When I make offerings to the landvættir in thanks for all they have done and continue to do for myself, my family, and my tribe; that is sacred.”  The same is true for equivalent actions among Wiccans. The sacred is expressed in the world of relationships.

Then there is the issue of time.  Before the rise of the modern world nature was obviously the senior partner in human existence. As hunter-gatherers people had to adapt to Her rhythms or suffer dire consequences.  When we shifted to agriculture we partially freed ourselves from nature’s most immediate pressures, but at the cost of increasing our vulnerability to more long-term concerns.  Normally food was more abundant if not better, but when a drought struck, hailstorms destroyed crops, or a flood ruined fields, an agricultural people could not easily move.  Nor could they simply revert to hunting again, given their increased population

In both cases the all-encompassing presence of sea and land, of sky and all that live in and on it was undeniable.

With modernity’s rise we are not only freer from this immediate dependence, we are also divorced from the intimate awareness of the natural world within which we arose and on which our own still ultimately depends.  Light bulbs have liberated us from subordination to cycles of day and night but also increasingly drown out the stars.  Modern transportation ended famines, which were mostly local affairs, but ultimately destroyed local agriculture and with it the awareness of many of their dependence on the natural world.  Modern medicine freed women from fear of death in childbirth and helped most children to outlive their parents, but staving off death at progressively higher costs created profound problems regarding when it is appropriate to die rather then spend ever more putting off the inevitable.  Cities increase our opportunities for creativity, friendship, and material prosperity, but at the cost of isolation from the living world which has been shown to increase physical health   Nature also has a noticeable impact on psychological health.  The collective impact of our numbers and power is now destroying many of the natural systems on which our human world rests.

Across time the Pagan nature religions have praised harmony and balance as their ideal. It is our equivalent to the Christians’ emphasis on salvation or the Buddhist focus on enlightenment. In their rituals tribal religions seek to acknowledge, celebrate, or restore harmony.  In a place and time when the natural world seemed secure from major human impact, this usually took the form of harmony within the human world, especially within the tribe. But even then, the natural world was hardly ignored. My examples are from Native American peoples, but it is my understanding these patterns are almost universal.

The "Navajo Blessing Way” prayer goes as follows: 

In beauty may I walk.

All day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.

With dew about my feet may I walk.

With beauty may I walk.

With beauty before me, may I walk.

                                   With beauty behind me, may I walk. 

With beauty above me, may I walk.

With beauty below me, may I walk.

With beauty all around me, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

                  In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

It is finished in beauty.

It is finished in beauty

When a Lakota enters a sweat lodge he or she touches the ground and says “Mitakuye Oyasin,” “all my relations. “  The focus is not just on the human world. The sweat lodge is not only one of the most universal practices among Indian peoples, it exists throughout the northern hemisphere and is likely the origin of the sauna. 

Today, when the natural world is in serious disharmony with the human world destroying all around it that does not immediately serve its purposes, the focus has shifted, and not just for Wiccans. As illustrated by an example from Guatemala, indigenous people across the world are united with us on the issue of preserving the natural world from destruction.

Mr. Bloch grants Wicca is a nature religion.  It is therefore illuminating to see that our Wheel of the Year links the natural cycle of the seasons with the cycle of individual life.  It recognizes each dimension of this cycle as ideally being in balance and our ritual year can be understood as a year-long meditation on these themes so universal in virtually all that lives.

Mr. Bloch argues that native peoples used the natural world. And of course they did, and not always wisely.  Religion seeks to encourage wisdom in every society and succeeds fully in none.  But another Native American, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday explains how to interpret their using the world: “You say I use the land and I say that is true. It is not the first truth. The first truth and the final truth is that I love the land and I see that it is beautiful. I delight in it. I am alive in it.”

Momaday writes about the land the way many of us would write about someone we loved.

Out here on the West Coast, up in salmon country, the First Salmon Ceremony was common among the tribes.  The first fish of the season was eaten collectively and its bones returned to the water, to ensure that the salmon would continue to come and nourish the tribe.  Other stories explained that if the fish were treated without respect disaster would befall the people.  Similar kinds of stories existed among other tribes. I know of others in interior Alaska and also among the pueblo peoples of the southwest which do not deal with salmon. What these tribes shared was a understanding they lived in a more-than-human world where they would prosper if relations were kept harmonious with the other “nations” with and among which we two leggeds lived.

Bloch’s own example of  giving thanks to the landvættir  seems to me an echo of this recognition, although from his description the relationship seems to be one of them serving humans rather than reciprocity. But I doubt this is how they were conceived in old times for these spirits of the land are spirits of place in a way any nature religion would find familiar. 

 Today human power recognizes no obligations of reciprocity to spirits and powers recognized by Pagans then and now as independent entities and forces that we wisely treat with respect and with which we can even enter into relationship.  Pagans from contemporary indigenous peoples to modern Neopagans are largely united in opposing the brutal and immoral ethic of domination that looks at everything in the other-than-human world in terms of its utility to us, or even worse, its utility to the most powerful among us.  This common attitude grows from our seeing and often directly experiencing the natural world’s sacred dimensions.  I think it is clear that a deep understanding of Pagan traditions, including those of earlier tribes as well as modern Neopagans indicates that yes, we are a nature religion, it is one of our most distinguishing traits, and this aspect of who we are is particularly important today when our civilization treats the rest of the world with an amorality that is as blind to others as it is short sighted in understanding its own interests.

I think that Mr. Bloch's confusion comes from setting the human world over against the natural.  This is something the nature religions have never done, and so would not recognize the spiritual dichotomy he, and our society as a whole, has created.


Anne Niven suggested I add a word to my opening sentence, from "...Paganism cannot be a nautre religion..." to "...Paganism cannot always be a nature religion..."  She is right that the point is more clear, but it is no different.  If there are exceptions, and Bloch claimed there were many, Paganism as a class cannot be labeled a nature religion.