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What are Nature Religions?

Distinguishing Characteristics, Beliefs and Practices

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Those systems known as nature religions are often considered among the most primitive of religious beliefs. “Primitive” here is not a reference to the complexity of the religious system (because nature religions can be very complex). Instead, it is a reference to the idea that nature religions were probably the earliest sort of religious system developed by human beings. Contemporary nature religions in the West tend to be very “eclectic,” in that they may borrow from a variety of other, more ancient traditions.

Nature religions are generally focused upon the idea that gods and other supernatural powers can be found through the direct experience of natural events and natural objects. Belief in the literal existence of deities is common, but not required — it isn’t unusual for deities to be treated as metaphorical. Whichever is the case, there is always a plurality; monotheism is not normally found in nature religions. It is also common for these religious systems to treat the whole of nature as sacred or even divine (literally or metaphorically).

One of the features of nature religions is that they do not rely upon scriptures, individual prophets, or single religious figures as symbolic centers. Any believer is treated as capable of immediate apprehension of divinity and the supernatural. Nevertheless, it is still common in such decentralized religious systems to have shamans or other religious guides who serve the community.

Nature religions tend to be relatively egalitarian in terms of leadership positions and relationships between members. Everything that is in the universe and which is not created by humans is believed to be connected by an intricate web of energy or life-force — and that includes humans as well. It is not unusual for all members to be regarded as clergy of some sort (priestesses and priests). Hierarchical relationships, if they exist, tend to be temporary (for a particular event or season, perhaps) and/or a consequence of experience or age. Both men and women can be found leadership positions, with women often serving as leaders of ritual events.

Nature religions also do not usually erect any permanent sacred buildings dedicated to religious purposes. They may at times build temporary structures for special purposes, like a sweat lodge, and they may also use existing buildings like a person’s home for their religious activities. Generally speaking, however, sacred space is found in the natural environment rather than constructed with bricks and mortar. Religious events are often held in the open air in parks, on beaches, or in the forest. Sometimes slight alterations are made to the open space, like the placement of stone, but nothing resembling a permanent structure.

Examples of nature religions can be found in modern neo-pagan beliefs, traditional beliefs of many native tribes around the world, and the traditions of ancient polytheistic faiths. Another often ignored example of a nature religion is modern deism, a theistic belief system concerned with finding evidence of a single creator God in the fabric of nature itself. This often involves developing a very personal religious system based upon individual reason and study — thus, it shares with other nature religions characteristics like decentralization and a focus on the natural world.

Less apologetic descriptions of nature religions sometimes argue that an important feature of these systems is not a harmony with nature as is often claimed but instead a mastery and control over the forces of nature. In “Nature Religion in America” (1990), Catherine Albanese argued that even the rationalistic deism of early America was based upon an impulse for the mastery of nature and non-elite humans.

Even if Albanese’s analysis of nature religions in America is not an entirely accurate description of nature religions generally, it must be conceded that such religious systems do indeed included a “dark side” behind the pleasant rhetoric. There does seem to be an inclination towards mastery over nature and other humans which can, though it need not, find harsh expression — Nazism and Odinism, for example.

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