Anthropocentrism: seeing human beings as the most significant beings in the Universe, or at least on Earth. I daresay that many pagans will argue that they aren’t anthropocentric, that perhaps they see the gods and spirits as more significant, or even all of us being equal, human and otherwise. However, in a broader sense, we are anthropocentric in that we have a tendency to align with and sometimes value what resembles us more over what resembles us less. We ally ourselves more with animal totems than plants, and even among animals we tend more toward liking or working with mammals than invertebrates.
And then there are our deities. With rare exception, all of the gods and goddesses are human in form, even if it isn’t their only form. And, with rare exception, all deities fall along a sexual dichotomy—female or male. Our deities are in our own form, whether we want to admit it or not. You can take a pantheon of deities and map out the human psyche to a great degree. (Whether or not the gods came from this mapping, or vice versa, is another debate for another time.)
I don’t feel there is anything inherently wrong with this. But when it is applied to specifically nature-based religions, which covers many neopagan religions, I have to question how much of Nature people really understand, and how much Nature is really being brought in as a basis for the spirituality in question.
Here’s why. We are most familiar with sexually dimorphic species, those that generally develop male or female reproductive structures, and we are a dimorphic species ourselves. Yet there are a wide variety of animals and plants that are not sexually dimorphic. Some, including but not limited to microscopic beings, reproduce asexually through division, budding, spores, parthenogenesis, and other ways of passing on genes without sex. And there are many species that either possess both male and female reproductive organs, or that literally change their physical sex as a natural part of their life cycle.
If we’re going by sheer numbers, sexually dimorphic beings are far outnumbered by the count of individuals—not just species—that are asexual or hermaphroditic. And if you want to include all of Nature, then you also have to include non-reproducing parts of nature, like stones and waterways.
So why do we persist in applying a dimorphic dominance to our understanding of nature and nature-based religion? Because we know that best. Because it’s comfortable. Because for most of us as humans, being a human animal means falling into the categories of “female” or “male”. I don’t think most people realize just how many species aren’t dimorphic, so it just doesn’t occur to us to think of nature in any other terms—hence the Wiccan (and co-opted by other paganisms) Goddess and God mythos, and pantheons of male and female deities paired off together.
I would challenge readers to look at Nature, and nature-based religion, in different terms. Put aside, for just a few moments if you will, the idea of paganism as being about a God of the wild animals and war and phallus-shaped mushrooms, and a Goddess of domestic agriculture and family nurture and having a bun in the oven. Think about how we are outnumbered by the non-dimorphic entities of the world. Think of Gaea not as a loving mother Goddess, but as an all-encompassing Both/And deity who is all things. Allow yourself to see the Divine as including all reproduction of all types, not having a specific form, but being manifest in everything, from stones to amoebas to helium to cacti. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, perhaps even try creating mythology about deities that aren’t dimorphic, aren’t anthropomorphic, aren’t even necessarily animals. What might that look like?
Even if ultimately you prefer a female/male dichotomy and dimorphic deities, you may find value in appreciating that that’s not all there is. And maybe if we can expand our minds beyond sexual dichotomy, we can embrace other continua. So many of our magical and spiritual correspondences are based on either/or pairings—female/male, light/dark, cold/warm, good/evil, etc. Even if we personally may still feel comfortable with a Mother Goddess and Father God or other similar duality, what if we could transcend more of these as a way of expanding understanding and consciousness?
My “worship” is given to an invertebrate. There is no human form, although there is sexual dimorphism. It is not impossible to think outside the human box, and there’s evidence that way back when it wasn’t all just human form anyhow. Then again, spirits weren’t always spirits as in ethereal forms, they were literal, physical beings for many cultures. Animals and plants weren’t always just messengers of some deity or an omen, they were a deity themselves. This still happens today, in continuing traditions like Shinto cults or in recon traditions like Forn Sidr. It is still a useful and viable way of understanding beings and the world around us and I agree that it should be encouraged. At the very least, for others to understand the idea even if they choose to remain with what they have always done.
Slightly off-topic, but this reminds me of the Wild Hunt’s pagan label debate. This way of viewing beings/spirits you’ve introduced is actually a sticky point in heathenry, especially among hardcore recons, and is one of the many differences that can be seen between those that call themselves pagans and those that call themselves heathen. Bringing this back to the post’s topic then, understanding this (the post’s) way of viewing the world could be helpful in understanding others.
why is it a sticky point in heathenry? -curious-
Because it’s a part of an older worldview vs. the modern worldview of those coming into heathenry. I meant a sticky point with newcomers trying to understand what the recons are saying.
Hmm, I thought I already replied to this. Must have not hit the reply button…
Basically it’s one of the differences in worldviews. A newcomer coming from a (protestant) Christian, New Age, or Neopagan background tends to have a modern worldview for obvious reasons, whereas recons have an older worldview, again for pretty straightforward reasons. So sometimes it’s difficult for the newcomer or stranger to wrap their minds around the older concepts. Obviously it’s not impossible and it’s not all Pagans vs all Heathens, but it is a common difference that I’ve seen brought up in discussions in heathen groups.
I loved this post. Thank you. 🙂
SO yes. Leave behind what you think you know and see what you learn, about gender and sex, about the powers of the People, about the dichotomies and dualities that we tend to think define the world. I’m there with you!
In my worldview there are deities and major spirits who are male or female, or at least that’s the way they prefer to interact with humans. But I really doubt the larger forces of the universe, the ones that govern creation, evolution, and destruction, are in any way “male” or “female”. I can understand seeing Nature as a human woman, but no more than Nature is also a male wren or magnolia tree or volcano. You can contemplate the whole of Nature in any of its parts, no part being a better or worse representation than another.
As a genderqueer I have had to look beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ in my interactions with spirits or my views on deities, though I admit I’m rather focused on human-like beings and animals, so. Food for thought. I’ve had occasion to ponder on what I consider the three genders/sexes of honey bees (we humans are so anthrocentric as to decide there are merely two ‘types’ of female, and one of male,) so mayhap I should process that further.
You’re statement about bees intreques me. I’m going to have to do some thinking on it.
Thanks for writing this–whether intended or not, it reminds me to not give in and give up at the discomfort I experience when specifically male or female deities are carried about. It isn’t that I necessarily prefer invertebrates (I hadn’t thought of that), but it’s just that I know spirit is so much more than gender. Maybe it’s because I’m gay. Of course, gay people can be just as gender-bound as anyone, but it always bothers me when anyone claims that one spiritual attribute is male or another is female. I have struggled with this my whole life. It’s false because I know I can be both nurturer and warrior, despite what my genitalia advertises! And it’s why haven’t embraced any particular path that emphasizes gender roles. It’s disappointing because I believe that pagans–of all people–should be able to get past this.
And thanks for the reminders about plants, too!
You know, I’ve never liked the whole Father God/Mother Goddess dichotomy because (at least in the kind of Wicca I was exposed to) it seemed to scream “heterosexual attraction and sex is the GREATEST EXPERIENCE IN THE UNIVERSE” which, as an asexual who was just starting to come to terms with herself, was an extremely painful and erasing thing to hear at the time. (I wonder if other non-straight people get that message from the language some Wiccans tend to use…) I had not given any thought to the gender/sex roles we assign such energy.
Creating a pantheon of non-dimorphic, non-humanoid deities would be an interesting challenge; one I would gladly undertake if I could draw well, since I feel an artistic representation would be an important part. Hm…
One of the images in my belief is of the Divine as a neutron giving off an electron and an antineutron to become a proton, or a proton giving off a positron and a neutrino to become a neutron, as God Herself and the Divine Twins. The image is very non-dimorphic and non-humanoid.
As a pansexual, I find it painful too. =/ I never could embrace this worldview because it was to much hetero-centred. It was like it was saying me either “you have masculine energy if you like girls, you are like a man” (I’m female, and if I’m not the kind of “yeah feminity” and if I am interested in “male” human energy, pattern and archetype, I’m not a man. I’m a human being first, gosh !) or “nop. You’re not in the good schema, sorry for you~.”
Have I ever shown you some of the work that Myra Hird has done on (what I like to call) “bacterial queer theory”? She says some of the same things you have here, and thus uses that fact to argue that gender and sexual orientation/etc. is a far more fluid thing than it may at first appear; in fact, if the end-all/be-all of “sex” isn’t, in fact, reproduction, then it opens many vistas that a lot of people aren’t really comfortable even thinking about…which is why they’re so damn cool and important to think about! Anyway…
Along those lines, I’ve thought a lot about instincts. I’ve never had an instinctual drive to reproduce, but I have had such a drive to have sex. I don’t have sex to get babies, I have sex because I desire to and get pleasure from it. I think the reproduction is more a side effect of sex.
Except gender is not binary. The existence of trans men and transwomen, plus those who consider themselves a third, androgyne gender, proves this. Even physical sex is not always dimorphic; even in humans, there are hermaphrodites; there are chimera, who have both male and female genetic material; there are women born with androgyne sensitivity disorder who, though born physically female, have abnormal chromosomes, fail to produce oestrogen, and to all intents and purposes endocrinologically are male. To say that humans are dimorphic is a vast over-simplification.
Which is why I say “generally”, such as in “We are most familiar with sexually dimorphic species, those that generally develop male or female reproductive structures”.
I took the freedom to reblog it.
I enjoyed this. A lot of what I encounter isn’t gendered or clearly/cleanly gendered, nor human (though admittedly humanoid) most of the time, and people find this so bizarre. My logic is exactly what you said, here on Earth we’re the minority by individual numbers, by species, and that’s just Earth’s evolution, how many other sex-gender systems could have evolved elsewhere. This human male-female divide may make sense psychologically, but in practice I feel it’s a problem of scope, then again, for the last few months I’ve been realizing how much of people’s beliefs are a problem of scope.
Lupa, I luv (and have lived for many years) this article. I am always so glad to see yr writing, b/c we hav a lot in common, so u help me feel less alone. Here is why u r preaching to the choir, in case it provides u some support:
1) I am partially an animist 2) I worship trees 3) I think god is an herb 4) I see Gaia as way more than just mom but as a complex system that, spiritual speaking, weaves around me and that I intentionally weave with (for one thing, I create and teach rituals that do it) 5) I created a system of nature based divination (eg, there is a lesson on it in my book “Be a Teen Goddess,” if anyone here happens to own a copy, yes, I am rambling a bit, but it is in keeping with my next item) 6) One way I see the Divine is as a huge weave of stone, and plastic, and jokes, and bears, and barbie dolls, and blogs and buses and bugs and … (which I know u already know about me, b/c u have my manuscript right now) whew, I’ll stop the list there, but I cld go on, b/c i am so there with you. I luv yr mind. Thanks for being you. Now if I cld only worship these mosquitos who r biting me constantly b/c I live by a creek! Oh, one just flew at my eye twice!!! My whole body itches from bites. Oh Most Holy Mosquito God, please chill! Ps, yes I am trying to b funny, but I also am honestly describing 100% what is going on: this really is happening with mosquitos, and I am actually making a prayer that that god chill. I am red all over from its bites. Argh.
Pps if the above items seem contradictory, yay!
Ah. Now I a possible reason why the Abrahamic religions forbid images of their deity. Don’t want the people to think about God in terms of sex, and having God as a hermaphrodite or a snake? Oh noes!
Thank you very, very much for this article. I’ve often told people who come to me looking for the Craft that if they want to find the gods, don’t look at statues, don’t read myths – go observe nature directly. I appreciate the way you pointed out that nature goes beyond gender duality in the many ways the many species on earth reproduce (and let’s not be geocentric here either – who knows how the alien beings on the multitudes of worlds beyond – also all a part of nature – reproduce.)
I apologize if I offend anyone, but I feel called to say something here. Thinking about “paganism as being about a God of the wild animals and war and phallus-shaped mushrooms, and a Goddess of domestic agriculture and family nurture and having a bun in the oven”, makes me realize that I really don’t consider a religion worshiping deities with those associations as a “nature-based religion”. In fact, I don’t think of theism in general as a nature-based religion. When I look at what I consider to be nature-based cultures (native hunting/gathering/horticultural cultures), I don’t see a theistic way of looking at the world, I see an animistic way of relating to spirit. To me, the difference lies in recognizing spirit in all things (everything as an individual being, whether animal, plant, mineral, spirit, ancestor, or natural phenomena), and sort of confining spirit to abstract deities that represent those beings (for example, the god of lightning).
Basically, I think you summed it up when you said: “Allow yourself to see the Divine as including all reproduction of all types, not having a specific form, but being manifest in everything, from stones to amoebas to helium to cacti.” That is animism – how nature-based cultures view the world. I define theism as viewing the Divine as having, as you say, a specific (human-like) form.
I think this anthropocentrism is exactly why I haven’t been able to really connect with paganism in its most common forms, despite being strongly drawn to various aspects for much of my life. I believe in spirits, and that spirit is in all things (all beings), but I believe that deities only exist as thought-forms that have been created by the belief of many humans over the centuries. I also consider deities to be a product of civilized cultures, which I consider to be disconnected from the earth in a very fundamental way (which explains why they have caused so much destruction, death, oppression, and suffering).
In many animistic cultures, though, some beings are thought of as deities separate from, or over-and-above, actual things and places. Many of the most important kami of Shinto are like this, for example. There is a great deal of crossover between animistic and polytheistic ways of thought.
Also, most animist and polytheist systems do not require, nor have any acknowledgment of, “belief,” nor is its necessity at all implied. They recognize the spirit in all things simply because “it is there,” and it has nothing to do with believing or not believing. Insistent creedal monotheism, however, has made far too many people think that belief is the end-all, be-all of religion, when it only ever has been for a small number of creedal monotheistic religions (specifically, Christianity and Islam). What one believes in animist and polytheist religions is never as important as what one does (i.e. how one acts in the world and practices one’s spirituality), or what one experiences (and if one has direct experience of gods or spirits, then “belief” is no longer necessary because of that experience).
Lots of food for thought, thank you. When you say that in many animistic cultures, some being are thought of as deities, I think that maybe what you mean by the word deity is a bit different than what I was referring to in my post? Everything you say totally makes sense to me if I think of a deity as a “great …[insert animal, plant, etc here].. spirit” – in other words, the spirit of all individuals of a certain kind (like a clan spirit, the spirit of the whole “race”, rather than the spirit of an individual). But I guess I see those kinds of deities as fundamentally different from the anthropomorphic deities that govern various entities, actions, phenomena, areas of life, etc. I think the difference parallels/reflects the difference between the way civilized and nature-based cultures view (and relate to) the world.
I’m a Christian, but not a traditional Christian. For example, I’m under no illusion that the Bible is to be taken literally. I believe when Jesus said “do not throw pearls to the swine!” He specifically was indicating that we are to not give knowledge to the uninitiated lest they come back and crucify us for it. That is where Christ went wrong.
Thanks for a very well written and contemplative website!