Labeling oneself with a religious belief or philosophy can be tricky, especially when there are so many preconceived notions of worldviews that fall outside the Abrahamic religions. I’ve found the words “pagan” and “pantheist” come to conversations already loaded with their own sets of misconceptions. Many times, I’ll use the term “atheist” to tell a friend what I believe, although “non-theist” resonates with me most since I have my own preconceived notions about the term “atheist,” mainly the idea of “anti-theism,” which is not what I’m about.
I was recently asked to describe my beliefs to a couple of old high school friends during a girls’ day out. I hadn’t realized, as I was fumbling through my definition, that explaining pantheism to a non-progressive Christian is only going to be met with a blank stare and the occasional creasing together of eyebrows. Laying my beliefs out on the table in such a way, and explaining my reasons for not believing in their god anymore, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the only reaction was one of accusation.
“Well, you only studied the biblical history in English, not in the original languages, so you’re wrong and we’re right,” was basically the response. Never mind that I had immersed myself in Messianic Judaism for a couple of years prior to coming out of Christianity, even going so far as to keeping kosher, reading the Talmud, learning the Hebrew alphabet (which I can still sing, by the way), and overall being a holier-than-thou judgmental pain in the arse.
So let’s break down some misconceptions, shall we?
Pantheism is not to be confused with panentheism. The latter is the belief that god, which could include a monotheistic god or polytheistic gods, is in everything. God is in us, in animals, in rocks, in trees, beyond the horizon, in the stars, living in the middle of Jupiter, you name it. God interpenetrates every aspect of nature and has always and will always exist in it and beyond it. This is a beautiful belief, but it’s very different from pantheism.
Pantheism, at least naturalistic pantheism, is the belief that god is nature. I don’t mean that god is a rock or a tree, but that the Divine is the creative and destructive forces of the universe, not the supernatural cause of those forces. The Divine is the spark, if you will, of the laws of physics—the natural drive behind the laws of the universe that exists as naturally as an atom.
It’s my personal belief that the laws of the universe naturally lead to life and always have. The universe naturally creates, just as an atmosphere naturally creates rain, clouds, and storms without anyone telling it that it should. On the other hand, the universe also naturally leads to destruction. Everything that is created will ultimately be destroyed. This is true whether creation exists in human form or as a star. Religion explains this amazing truth with a grandfatherly god in the sky who controls everything. Pantheism simply says these things are as they are, and there’s no wizard behind the curtain.
There is also dualist pantheism, as well as a few other sub-categories of pantheism, but I’ll save those for another day.
Paganism is another term many people misunderstand. For example, not all pagans are witches or Wiccans, although all Wiccans are pagans. Paganism simply defines people who practice a belief outside of the three Abrahamic religions, so if you aren’t a Jew, Christian, or Muslim, you’re pagan by default. By this definition, Buddhists and Hindus are pagans.
I personally don’t identify too strongly with the term paganism—I will always say, first and foremost, that I’m a pantheist—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I am one. Even a naturalistic pantheist like me can lean toward expressing her spirituality in a very earth-centered, pagan way, and that’s a concept I’ve loved for quite a while but never really understood how I could incorporate such practices into my daily life.
Misconceptions and preconceived notions can be hurtful, not to mention dangerous. I won’t get into political talk on this blog, but this year’s election has brought out the absolute worst in some of my evangelical friends. It’s become perfectly clear from their rantings on facebook exactly what they think of someone who doesn’t accept their god as the one true savior of all mankind. It saddens me to have to keep silent about my own beliefs in fear of their judgment while they complain about their Christian beliefs being persecuted. Their “persecution” is simply the refusal of this country to accept dominionism, of course, which is not persecution at all, but it’s exactly this type of unjustified fear and dominionist attitude that lead to events like the witch trials. That is why the label “pagan” can be a tough one to wear, although I applaud those that do wear it so openly.
Maybe the more exposure these terms have in the general population, worn by everyday people like us who want only peace and understanding, the quicker the walls of ignorance will come down, and both pantheism and paganism will be seen for the beautiful beliefs that they are.