A Secret Paganism Fetish

My cultural setting and religious background is Christian. So although I self-identify as an atheist, I would also be comfortable calling myself a Cultural Christian. I still participate in some religious ritual, and celebrate Christian holidays.

But I also have a soft spot for (modern, or neo-)Paganism. Now, just like Christianity, Pagans often make claims that are totally anathema to my sense of reason. I don’t believe in a Goddess, in boggarts, or in magic. But I do believe in the wonder of the cosmos. And I do believe in the rhythms of the planet: I sleep when we rotate away from the sun, I feel a burst of optimism as the nights draw longer, I respond differently to rain than to snow. To some extent I believe in Gaia*. And I have no problem with the idea of pantheism**.

I am attracted to unmanaged woods with their thickets and impromptu clearings. I love the ruins of old religious buildings: whether the henges of pre-Christian Britain, the abbeys deserted from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the Kivas of Chaco Canyon. I am energized by group meditation, song and chant. I am susceptible to the increasing poignancy of preparing for some religious observance. All these things I perceive to be more vital in the neo-Pagan tradition than in the cultural Christianity of my upbringing.

A couple of years ago I began to bring the celebration of Yule into our yearly routine. We decorate a yule log and burn it on our wood burning stove to mark the winter solstice. I haven’t worked out how to celebrate the other 3 solar quarters, however. I would like to, but I’d like to do it in a way that was gentle, didn’t take up a huge amount of time, and that seems natural to introduce into my cultural context. I’m a little stuck.

Do any of you feel an affinity for nature religions? Do any of you have any ideas how to bring that into a rational and culturally different context?

* I can understand the whole planet as a single autopoietic system potentially capable of reproduction, I don’t assign it any divinity

** God is the whole of the universe – I have no problem with it, but I can’t see the point of using the word ‘God’ at that point, when ‘the Universe’ is the same thing!

[Edit: Footnoted my equivocations]



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18 responses to “A Secret Paganism Fetish

  1. Kay

    Oh my goddess! 😉 (Heh. Kidding).

    Kidding aside though, yeah, I have a deep affinity for nature religions. In fact my “spiritual meanderings” have been a split between trying to be pagan and trying to be Christian, but I find both mostly impossible to be part of because of some (though not all) of the woo. (Paganism is easier though, believe it or not.)

    There aren’t many of us pantheist (pagans). Try to find a group, online or IRL, who do not practice magic, believe in astrology or the literal use of Tarot. It’s pretty damn difficult.

    I found your blog yesterday during my blog hopping expeditions. I’m not sure how. I started out at PZ Myers place and it went from there. Anywhoo, glad I found ya. 🙂

  2. Ian

    Hey, you’re most welcome Kay. I’m impressed that I’m in a continuous click-stream from PZ’s blog 🙂

    So can I ask how your “trying to be pagan” manifests? What do you do to practice paganism?

    I’ll dial your blog into my RSS – I particularly like your cosmology venn diagrams!

  3. Lovely post Ian!

    We (Unitarians) tend to incorporate a lot of exactly what you are talking about – an awe, wonder, and connection with the natural world. I’m not sure how helpful it might be, but there is a web site of the Unitarian Pagans.

    It seems as though the modern scientific outlook has drained much of the believability from the awesome old stories of deities and their magic. It’s progress and it’s right as far as I’m concerned, but it’s also a little sad. We need that amazement in our lives. And now, millions are looking to a lot of ‘woo’ (and some very good stuff too) to replace it in what has come to be called ‘spirituality.’

    In truth, the universe around us is magnificently splendid in many ways. When we learn to revere creation in this sense, well, then we’ll really have something, won’t we?

  4. Kay


    My “pagan-ness” doesn’t manifest too well at all. 😀 I belong to no groups. I do no magic. I loathe astrology.

    I do use tarot, in a meditative and introspective sort of way, not for fortune telling.

    I’ve struggled with identifying as a pagan for the same reasons I’ve struggled with Christianity. I don’t really fit. But the affinity I feel with nature and what I feel when I sit beneath a star filled night sky keeps me coming back, hoping perhaps that this time I’ll find like minded souls.

    So I guess what I do when I’m “trying to be pagan” isn’t too much at all. Hugs trees. Play in the dirt. Get mesmerized by the night sky.

  5. Kay

    PS – I think my cosmology diagrams have been the most popular posts on my blog over the years. They sure are fun to mess around with. I’m flattered you found them interesting.

  6. Ian

    @Andy – Thanks for the link. Hmmm, it really is a shame there’s not something around here to connect to.

    I often wonder what such a faith would look like. The religion Carl Sagan said he wanted. A religion that is happy to engage in beauty and wonder and awe of what’s real.

    I also think that the old stories also undersell the wonder that is really there. We’ve lost the wonder of god breathing a new soul into every conception. But I’d trade that for the wondrousness of the unimaginable dance of genes and signals, of cells and tissues, forming and entwining in the month after conception. Many science minded people say the same thing, but I’ve never met anyone who actually does set aside the time to be awestruck in that way – to enjoy the wonder, without analysis or reduction. That seems to me to be the loss – the loss of the framework in which wonder and transcendence is a regular part of our lives.

    @Kay, “Hugs trees. Play in the dirt. Get mesmerized by the night sky.” Amen. I love that phrase.

  7. imarriedaxtian


    Did you take the quiz on Beliefnet here? I found it when I linked to Kay’s site.

    Apparently I am a UU (100% at no. 1), a Secular Humanist at no.2 (92%). I am only a Neo-Pagan at no. 5 (75%) 😦 But I am last as Jehovah’s Witness (0%) 🙂

    Why don’t you see if you are truly Neo-Pagan? 😉

  8. imarriedaxtian

    Just to say that in the UK, UU = Unitarian. There’s a bit of different history in the US that cased Unitarians to become “Unitarian Universalists.”

    So… maybe I’ll see you in the congregation then!!!

  9. Ian

    I did, Neo-Paganism wasn’t in the top 3, I didn’t really notice. I was Secular Humanist and UU joint first at 100%, then Theravada Buddhist in third. I was also JW last. I suspect the author of the survey is probably not a JW!

  10. @Ian

    Yes! Yes! We must talk about this. I’m in a position to do that and, despite being a PhD biologists with good access to some of that story, I’ve not yet figured out how to tell that story…

  11. imarriedaxtian

    @Rev Andy Pakula

    I have visited your site several times already. Its on my RSS feed.

  12. Pingback: Discombobulated Ruminations » The Paganism Box

  13. “I’ve never met anyone who actually does set aside the time to be awestruck in that way”
    You have.

    Science taught me to see a coniferous member of Family Pinacaea, bearing bright to glaucous green needles triply in alternate bracts, ridged bark, cones with smooth scales, height to 40′,
    Life taught me to see the wonder of an unimaginable dance of genes and signals, of cells and tissues, forming and entwining in the ongoing process of life we both share,

    and call it a ‘tree’. The two are not mutually exclusive, though often treated as if they were.

    I believe in … the whole planet as a single autopoietic system potentially capable of reproduction, proceeding directly from the universe that gave form to it, and …
    when I stand in my yard and ‘feel transported by an inexpressible joy that goes beyond the everyday, when the sense of self seems to dissolve in an ecstasy of awe’, am I not praying? Oh hell, no, I’m an atheist.

  14. Ian

    Uzza, I’ve no idea why WordPress decided to spam this comment of yours, especially as you are on the white-list. I’m sorry I didn’t spot it earlier

    Thank-you for the comment, I agree, that put it much better than I did. I’m glad I have met you then 🙂

    It is that very last bit that I also struggle with. I’ve been told many times that I really am praying in that case. Well yes, maybe I am. But for a definition of praying that doesn’t match most people’s definition. I think the words become unhelpful. As you said in your post we think of praying as a transitive verb. “I am singing” is semantically complete but “I am praying” seems to require a “to ….”. Maybe it shouldn’t. But them’s the brains we have to work with.

    This is my major problem with religious naturalism. I struggle between not being able to express those things for fear of using religious language and using the words we all know refer to that stuff, but fearing that anyone listening is merrily getting the wrong impression.

  15. Kay

    Definitions are such a pain in the ass sometimes. 🙂

    On another post I said that I am comfortable using the word “God” to describe that something more that I believe in. I should say that I’m more comfortable using it than using some other words – like “Ground of Being” or “the All” or “the Source.” They are probably more accurate, but I just don’t like them.

    Still, I should probably try to give up the word, as it really does convey the wrong impression – just like the word “praying” (which really does imply a “to”). I know that if I heard you use it I’d be thinking you meant one thing, while you were thinking another.

    Like I said – definitions are a pain in the ass. 😉

  16. Pingback: The Paganism Box : Sunshine & Starlight

  17. Kay

    I decided to check on this post to see if there had been activity, only to find out that my old blog (linked to my name in the comments above) seems to now be a Japanese porn site. Oy. 🙂

  18. Ian

    Oh dear, Kay! I’ll remove the links then, thanks for the spot. And thanks for stopping back in.

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