I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

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12 thoughts on “I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

  1. SO HEAR YOU. All that work I once did as a Neopagan trying to force the amazing unstructured relationships I had as a child, all the being inside visualizing this concept called Nature, it was nothing like the huge experience of returning back to nature telling me how to be in relationships with nature, including my own nature. The path is similar. We follow myth to try to get the reality we knew and get led so far away in metaphors we end up having to jump into nature outside our heads and have nature remind us YES this is what you wanted, me,not secondhand substitutes. I have noticed a lot of animists who spent time in the Neopagan scene (not the go outside Druids though) realize we all the forced work to be natural was unnatural and now we’ve stepped into a more mature, stable relationship with what is, what we always had known. Really captures this.

  2. I do dislike the way the modern world denigrates subjectivity. It is practically a dirty word! But “objectivity” as practiced is pretty pornographic on its own….it does reduce almost everything to objects; well considered thoughtful objectivity opens vistas of exploration. And yes, can include both science and spirit…thank you for this post.

  3. Interesting and encouraging, as I seem to be going through a similar evolution in my beliefs. It’s difficult to understand, however, when you expect things to turn out a certain way or have a specific idea in your head with how your spirituality works. Your post gives me a hopeful way to see this last year or two, so thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience! I definitely know how you feel. I had little sense of formality in religion to begin with. I was a member of a formal tradition for awhile and the formal language, thees and thous and “guardians of the watchtowers,” etc. never felt right. Now that I’m solo again I find myself settling into a very informal and familiar relationship with Deity, spirits, etc. and it feels more natural than ever.

  5. Wow, this is how I’ve been feeling. To a point, and boy is it sharp. thank you lupa, you helped me unlock something I thought was lost.

  6. I wasn’t that inclined towards any religious practice, though I prefer to call it a private practice. I have recently started to explore such territory and have realised that the traditional religious routes paint a poor relationship between us and the non-human world, which I see as clashing badly with my understanding of the universe as a researcher-in-training. So now I stand, struggling to juggle between my strong yearnings for deep relations to the non-human world…and some fears about losing my sense of rationality–after all, I consider rationality to be a rare virtue in a human world fuelled by distrust, lack of respect for knowledge and blindness to our current predicaments as a species, amongst others. It’s a long journey ahead for us, I suppose.

    • I agree. We aren’t really taught how to resolve these sometimes seemingly conflicted parts of ourselves; we aren’t good with dialectics. But that balance is a really subjective one, and perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to teach. Still, more skills for self-exploration in that regard would be a nice addition to a high school curriculum.

      • So how do you try to deal with such conflicts? My current strategies revolve around the idea that all of our human tools have limits. This prevents us from applying them in areas of life when they don’t work so well. For instance, when it comes to intuitions, I know that I can’t apply the heavy machinery of science to bear upon them, since intuitions are a private affair and don’t require intensive empirical inquiry in the same way as, say, understanding the forces of nature. It’s a useful heuristic which requires some fine-tuning in my opinion, but it does have a lot going for it, given that I’ve seen way too many people vouching for scientific ‘proof’ of their own experiences, which I find unnecessary.

      • For me, I just don’t worry about any of my beliefs being true outside of my own head. If I try to make them be otherwise, then they come into conflict with science. And I’d rather spend my time creating a spiritual path that I know works for me than to beat my head against trying to make it be true for everyone else, too.

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