Thinking about ‘Nature Religion’ in the Snow

I spent about an hour today on the snow shovel after fifteen inches fell yesterday, laughing a bitter and sardonic laugh at people who associate flowers and bunny wabbits with the spring equinox. (At least the Sun is stronger now than in midwinter.)

Today’s preoccupation is the talk that I have to give tomorrow on nature religion to some Unitarians.

First off, it’s not an easy term to define. I can think of at least three definitions for “nature religion.”

1. One was developed by Catherine Albanese, historian of American religion: “a symbolic center and the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values that encircles it.” (Nature Religion in America, 7)

To Albanese, the term was a “scholarly construct” that made it possible to talk about various attitudes and activities under one heading, everything from “natural healing” to national parks to New Agey dietary fads.

I was present at an American Academy of Religion panel c. 1998 when Professor Albanese learned to her surprise that “nature religion” was also a term self-applied by many contemporary Pagans. Pagans had simply not been on her mental radar.

2. My own research, however, showed various Pagans using “earth religion” and “nature religion” to describe themselves (and to avoid loaded terms like Witch and Pagan) at least as long ago as 1970. And 1970 happens to be the year when the first Earth Day was observed.

3. Somewhat similar to Albanese, another religious studies professor, Bron Taylor, has a recent book called Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.

Not particularly theistic, Taylor defines “dark green religion” as “religion that considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care.” The “dark” suggests not just intensity but also nature religion’s propensity to “precipitate or exacerbate violence” (ix).

Once jokingly described to me as “the house intellectual of Earth First!” Taylor has had a long interest in studying ecotage and other environmental violence, along with more peaceful manifestations of nature religion as  surfing culture.

Consequently, where Albanese tends to be more interested in the nineteenth century, Taylor is more focused on contemporary environmentalism and politics.

8 thoughts on “Thinking about ‘Nature Religion’ in the Snow

  1. Robert Mathiesen

    Let me help out a little with some sources I have been collecting for a similar project of my own, focused more on the West Coast. Feel free to use them as you like.

    The roots of nature religion in the United States are, I think, much older than is commonly realized. Tom Paine, in Part I of _The Age of Reason_ (1794), emphasizes that the only sure revelation of the Divine is the natural world itself, and Tom Paine was enormously popular in parts of the United States (Western New York and New England) throughout the first half of the 19th century and beyond. This was the region from which much of the West Coast was eventually settled in the second half of the 19th century. It includes the so-called “Burned Over District.”

    In California we find an early expression of something similar in the popular poet Joaquin Miller (ca. 1840-1913), and it becomes a dominant theme in his contemporary, John Muir (1838-1914). This easily slides over into a form of pantheism, which has been recognizable thread in California spirituality since the end of the 19th century.

    T. K. Whipple, who taught at UC Berkeley until his death in 1939, wrote in an essay “The American Land” (1934) that in America — especially the American West — the grandeur and vast scale of nature causes us to mythologize it, to personify its noticeable features: “The experience is accompanied by a heightening of consciousness, a sense of freedom and enlargement; it is an ecstasy. Those in whom it is frequent tend to become mystics and pantheists, to develop a religion of nature worship. . . . If one judged by our literature alone, that is, one would say that the only genuine religion the United States has had has been nature worship. Probably, however, the statement would be too extreme to be quite true.” (T. K. Whipple, _Study Out the Land_ (1943), 52-53. There is a lot more grist for this mill here and elsewhere in Whipple’s forgotten book. He also offers a theory of magic.)

    More recently, William Everson (alias Brother Antoninus, 1912-1994), the poet and critic developed the theme of a long-standing West-Coast pantheism in his _Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary region_ (Berkeley: Oyez, 1974), bringing in many more sources and authors.

  2. Rombald

    The term “natural religion” predates Tom Paine, having been used by David Hume, and maybe earlier. However, it just meant religious beliefs that were thought to be rationally demonstrable, without recourse to revelation, and was thus more what we would now call rationalism, although it was deistic rather than atheistic.

    I would say that nature religion in the modern sense has its clearest roots in the Romantic Movement, with Wordsworth in particular, and also artists like Constable, Turner and Friedrich, leading on to writers you mention, especially John Muir.

    I think we tend to forget how close a lot of 19th-century writers were to what we would now think of as neopagan and earth-based perspectives – Kenneth Grahame in particular comes to mind.

  3. Pitch313

    A sense of–although not the term itself–nature religion provided one deep green root of my own developing Pagan practice. I have written several blog posts about my early experiences (pre and early teen).

  4. Robert Mathiesen

    There is a difference between “natural religion” (as Hume used the term) and “nature religion.” Paine’s _The Age of Reason_ has several striking passages that express “nature religion.”

    I agree that the Romantic era took the idea of “nature religion” and ran with it. But Paine is somewhat earlier than the Romantics, I think, and yet he has the same idea in several places.

    Hume is notoriously a much tougher read than Paine. Do you suppose Hume was ever as popular in the United States in the first half of the 19th century as Paine was? I would be surprised if he was.

  5. Rombald

    I don’t know. I’ve read a fair bit of Hume, but I’ve never read Paine – maybe why I assumed that his “nature religion” was like the Enlightenment “natural religion”.

  6. Hi. I think an interesting issue to include in your lecture is whether or not Paganism, as Nature Religion, includes or does NOT include a transcendental dimension. If divinity is present in nature, it is also present beyond nature? Is there only divine energy flowing through trees and stones, or does it exist outside of, beyond nature? Let’s not forget that our nineteenth century Romantic forebears often became interested in Eastern religion’s notions of a higher, greater power that did not invalidate the divinity of nature, but also went beyond nature in some way. Emerson’s “Oversoul,” for example. I see the need for the transcendent, though on the other hand I do not want to fall into a body vs. mind, immanent vs. transcendent trap. I hope you can settle all these issues within the limits of a 50 minute lecture!

  7. Robert: Whipple seems to be describing what Albanese (following Roderick Nash in “Wilderness and the American Mind”) describes as “republican nature.”

    Michael: The lecture was only 20 minutes, so I did not settle the issue of transcendence other than to say that some forms of nature religion were theistic and others were not, or less so!

  8. Robert Mathiesen

    Chas: I delayed replying until I could find time to reread Albanese’s chapter on “Republican Nature,” and then Paine’s _Age of Reason_ and Whipple’s essay. Albanese’s view of republican nature is indeed broad enough to accommodate all aspects of Paine’s nature religion, even the few passages that seem to me to anticipate the Romantics.

    But Whipple’s take on nature religion doesn’t seem to me to fit there at all. She could have used it in her next chapter, “Wilderness and the Passing Show,” I suppose, but it doesn’t even fit there too well.

    She does remind me of Whipple a little once in her “Republican Nature” chapter, where she writes “… if any genuinely new popular religion arose in New World America, it was a nature religion …” Yet what comes before and after the quoted words puts a different twist on them than Whipple does on his similar words that I quoted earlier.

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