Full of Sound and Fury; Signifying Nothing:

Earth Religion and the Experiential

Michael York

The concept of deity is one that I have always found attractive. Part of this for me stems from early encounters with marvelous Dravidian figures of Shiva, Vishnu and Durga that were shown to us by Joseph V. Noble, then an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Methodist church in which I was raised in the suburban town of Maplewood, New Jersey. The iconography of deity representation is rich and varied – ranging from Greek Kouroi, Egyptian temple relief and Aurignacian female statuettes to Mesoamerican sculpture, African ancestor guardian figures, Yoruba orisha representation and Polynesian images as well as the classical figures of Western art – including depictions of the members of the Christian Trinity. The human impulse to locate deity is both natural and ancient.

But the portrayal and description of gods and goddesses as well as the religions and non-religions that have developed in reference to them are chief distinguishing features between different human cultures. I wish to posit that the world’s religions may be understood along the lines of four fundamental orientations: the Abrahamic, the dharmic, the pagan and the secular. The religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have focused – and focused exclusively – upon a god of division. Whether the supreme figure is known as Yahweh, Adonai, God or Allah, he is divisive on virtually all fronts. In the realm of the supernatural, for instance, this god claims a monopoly and that which is not ‘of God’ belongs to the devil from astrology, divination, sorcery and magic to any competing religion. The polarity of God and Satan, then, is one instance of the nature of the Abrahamic figure. A further illustration of the schismatic nature of Judeo-Christian godhead is that it is exclusively male – sundered in both historical association and terminological reflection from the female. But even from the world of physical nature, the God of Abraham is ganz andere ‘wholly other’ – distinct and irrevocably separate.

In contrast to the god of division is what I, following an Indo-European tradition, like to term the ‘heptatheonic god’ – a heptatheon being a proto-pantheon of seven figures. By its very nature, this composition cannot be divided – at least into equal parts. It precludes division into such fixed or dogmatic dichotomies as good and evil, male and female, positive and negative, matter and spirit, light and darkness. While it may include and/or generate a range of polarities, the nature of the plural god is to interconnect its pluralities harmoniously into a functioning and dynamic process. Strife and competition are not precluded but co-opted into cooperative viability. The pagan plural god is – or at least is reflected in – the manifestation and reality of nature.

So to re-cap, we have two fundamentally distinct understandings of godhead: the divisive god and the plural god. To these, we may add two further ideal-types, namely, the all-god of the pantheists and the no-god of the atheists. The secular position is to diminish and/or eliminate theological practice and reflection. It assumes either that there is no god or gods whatsoever or, agnostically, that knowledge of them is beyond human capacity and the remit of empirical investigation. Secularists, consequently, will deny that they represent a religion, but what they cannot deny is that theirs is a religious position. Admittedly, this begs the question of what then is a religion. My own answer to this is the understanding that accepts a religion as a shared positing of the identity of and relationship between the world, humanity and the preternatural in terms of value allocation, meaning assignment and validation enactment. None of these – empirical reality, mankind/womankind and the magical or supernatural – need be accepted as ontological realities, but a position qua position is nevertheless taken on them by default, and this position itself constitutes religion in the sense I am employing it.

Consequently, along with the divisive god, plural god and no god positions of religio-cultural orientation, there is also the ‘all is god’ understanding. This last is chiefly understood as a dharmic comprehension, but it may also be pagan. There are in fact two all-god understandings: the divine as transcendent and the divine as immanent and/or corporeal. The Hindu or Vedanta take is that phenomenal existence is simply an illusion (māyā) and that reality, the all god, is the transcendental ontology behind the illusion of material existence. However, that the Buddhist understanding – at least the Theravada – accepts the corporeal world of matter as real but of no value simply indicates that we are here considering ideal-types to which actual religions merely conform but do not completely coincide. In fact, with the Theravadin perspective, we have strictly speaking the no god understanding of the secularists. Mahayana Buddhism is closer to the Hindu-Vedanta outlook that pictures a transcendental as the only bona fide reality.

Nevertheless, there is also a pantheistic position that accepts or even affirms tangibility as god or the body of god. This is again a pagan position. What really distinguishes pagan pantheism from secular pantheism is the consideration of enchantment by the former and its rejection by the latter. Once again, we are to be reminded that we are dealing here with ideal-types, that is, ideals against which the actual manifestations ‘on the field’ are to be measured and understood. A purely materialistic pantheism is one that holds only corporeal/tangibility to be real and the transcendental to be a fiction. A more comprehensive pagan pantheism accepts the whole gamut to be divine and real – the transcendent and immanent as well as the natural and preternatural.  But this pagan pantheistic understanding of the all as god is, in practical outcome, little different than the plural god position. The all of nature and other-nature is multiple and comprised in the multifaceted and pluriform course of nature and her on-going movement as well as intrinsic harmony between competing and divergent parts. From a pagan perspective, the all god and plural god are virtually one and the same.

Consequently, I will employ the designation of the ‘all god’ primarily as dharmic and a reference to a transcendental reality for which our phenomenal world of nature is merely a mask or foil. If you are still with me, these distinctions are important when we come to consider the raison d’être or purpose of life. Each position on the godhead, namely, the divisive god, the plural god, the all god and the no god, has different consequences as far as the notion of advance and progress is concerned.  

While Judaism has a less clear concept of an afterlife, the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam possess a more linear goal so that the purpose of life becomes the attainment of heaven or paradise. Despite differences concerning the soul between Shiites and Sunnis, one’s future is understood as determined by the moral quality of the individual’s life on earth. The idea of final judgment is held not only by the Abrahamic religions but also by Zoroastrianism. From this last, the three monotheistic faiths have borrowed much. The notion of salvation, however, is particularly developed in Christianity. Nevertheless, the purpose of life becomes one of obedience to, and worship of, the Abrahamic god. Everything else and anything else become secondary. As Anthony Grayling expresses this:  “In all three Religions of the Book the fundamental presupposition is that a god commands and we must obey. Sin is disobedience to the commands of god; virtue is obedience to them or, in the more graphic conception of Islam, submission (which is what ‘Islam’ means).” [1] In considering the expulsion from Eden, Grayling claims that by today’s standards, such action by a deity would violate the conventions of human rights that forbid excessive, cruel or inhuman treatment, i.e., punishing the entire human race.

By positing one and only one god, division follows automatically in that everything that is not god is other than god. In other words, such a transcendent male god renders whatever is other than itself – whether the feminine or nature or each and every competing deity - inferior or evil or both. The Abrahamic figure contrasts with the impersonal godhead of Hinduism. Here again we have a transcendent entity or non-entity that  ‘insists’ that phenomenal existence itself is an illusion. All may be god, but all that we know, see, feel, smell and taste does not exist or, at least as the Buddhists would have it, is valueless. Consequently, purpose, advance or progress from a dharmic viewpoint is meaningless. Within the wheel of dharma, there can be no positive movement other than that of escaping phenomenal existence itself.

In contrast to the otherworldly preoccupations of Abrahamic and dharmic religions, the notion of progressive this-worldly movement is secular or pagan. The chief difference between the two is that for the secularist there is no god, no creator, and the world or cosmos itself is ideally conceived of as a self-generating machine or mechanism; for the pagan, the world or nature is instead a self-generating organism – something alive and not simply inanimate and mechanical. By contrast, for the Abrahamic religions, nature is at best a work of art that has been created by a supreme craftsman – one who claims additionally a monopoly on the sacred. Nature is the other.  With the dharmic religions, nature is simply the illusory mask of the sacred. For the secularist, there is no sacred, but, for the pagan, there are many sacreds. Perhaps these basic and contrasting positions may be summed up as the duality of God and enchantment for the Abrahamic; no God but only enchantment (māyā) for the dharmacist; no God and no enchantment for the secularist; and God as enchantment for the pagan. Moreover, and specifically relevant in considerations of purpose and progress, meaning is something external for Abrahamic and dharmic religiosity – having its provenance with a transcendent God for the one and in the consideration of phenomenal existence as meaningless for the other. By contrast, meaning is subjective for both secularist and pagan – being essentially here and now for the one but with a greater trajectory for the other.

The Abrahamic and dharmic religions may be thought of collectively as gnostic with their affirmation of transcendental origins for the material world. Together, the secular and pagan are non-gnostic or ‘agnostic’ not because knowledge concerning the divine is considered to be necessarily impossible, but because wisdom is held to be an emergent rather than an a priori. There is no ‘ultimate goal’ for the ‘agnostic’ religions as there is with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But if there is no ‘ultimate goal’, can there still be progress or advance?

To answer this question, we must take into consideration the full remit and implication behind our terms ‘religion’, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Each of these is controversial and debatable. When any single religion asserts that it alone possesses ‘the truth’, other religions are by default inferior or incorrect. But the assertions of a religion are simply the affirmations of what the adherents of that particular religion consider to be the proper values and goals to pursue within the cosmological framework that that religion holds to be operative.

Nature is also an ambivalent and contested field of debate. Transcendental pantheists dismiss it as an illusion. For them, the primordial void – depicted perhaps as the ultimate cosmic zero (0) – is the end goal, the final and total release from the wheel of karma. For the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, by contrast, the primordial void is an eternal emptiness and condition of fear from which their ‘God’ offers salvation. While nature as the ‘gift of God’ is a good, it is not an ultimate concern because it is temporal and inevitably caught up in an ‘end of days’ scenario. But again, by contrast, the pagan and secular takes are different than both the dharmic and Abrahamic. For them, nature is real and at least sacred for the pagan if not also for the secularist. The primordial void is of little concern apart from being a thing of curiosity. On the one hand, the cosmic zero for the agnostic and company represents either ‘doubt’ – the fundamental skepticism behind methodological inquiry – or it ‘becomes’ the wheel that allows movement, advance and progress. The cosmic zero, on the other hand, for the pagan, is or becomes the circle – the circle again as the wheel of advance but also as the spiral, the metaphor caught well by Starhawk in her book The Spiral Dance. But even beyond these symbolic reinterpretations, the pagan circle comprehends the very rounds of nature: the rise, apex, setting and nadir of the sun; the lunar cycle of new moon, waxing moon, full moon and waning moon; the seasonal turns from spring, summer, autumn, winter and again spring; the constant shifting between high tide and low tide; and the fundamental pattern of birth, growth, maturity, decline, death and then re-birth.

Consequently, in the pagan understanding, the symbolic cosmic void or zero/circle becomes – or is replaced – by the whole of nature. While secularists may share this metaphorical illustration, for the pagans it is something ‘more’ than the disenchanted iron-cage of rationality and the mechanical laws of nature: the zero or cosmic circle transforms into the all of nature as the ultimate amulet against the terrors and emptinesses of the primordial void or pre-singularity. So to return to the primal circle, we find it as the goal of the dharmacists, replaced by the Abrahamists with their ‘one’, utilized by the secularists as a pragmatic vehicle, or transformed by the pagan into the talismanic powers of nature – nature as both the empirical reality we can see, touch, smell and taste, and an ‘other nature’, the preternatural, that is accessed through ritual imagination and corporeal avenues of passion and otherworldly insight.

Behind several of the terms I have been presenting, we find a seminal linguistic verbal radical that is depicted as *kwel- signifying ‘to revolve, to move around, to sojourn, to dwell’. From this root concept, our English language derives its very words for wheel, cycle and chakra. The underlying idea is that of the ‘circle’. From the Greek derivative telos or the ‘completion of a cycle’ as a consummation, perfection, end or result, the Arabs developed the term talisman which was, in turn, re-imported into English and other European languages. But the *kwel- derivative I wish now to focus upon is that which emerged as the Latin colere meaning ‘to till, to cultivate, to inhabit’. In other words, the very act of dwelling, residing or being at home is to be understood as itself a circling – a zeroing in. The local, immediate focus of the pagan is itself an act of colere, which in Latin takes the form of cultus as its past participle. It is from cultus that our very words for agriculture and culture themselves derive. The neolithic turn from hunting and gathering as well as nomadic subsistence to the development of farming became possible when people settled in one place. That is, tilling the earth and cultivating her is possible when one dwells in a home location.

But at the same time, the Latin colere is also the Romans term for ‘worship’. Subsidiary verbal meanings to the act of cultivating in Latin are ‘to improve’ and ‘to study’. In English, we also derive our word cult from this same etymological complex, but the fascinating implication in all this is the fundamental link between tilling the physical earth and the very act of worship as the creating or making of something of value or worth – originally, food. Consequently, we can understand a primordial link between religion or worship and culture or the cultic. Certainly, religion is itself a particular kind of culture, but the interplay and interconnection between the two – religion and culture – dissolve together in the earliest stages of human reflection. How then do religion and culture – or religious culture – relate to nature?

Dictionary definitions of ‘culture’ refer variously to ‘the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought’; ‘those patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population’; ‘these patterns, traits, and products [when] considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression’; and ‘the predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.’ If not an originator of the idea, Freud formulated a major articulation that posited culture or civilization as other than, and in conflict with, nature.

From a Freudian perspective, the primitive impulses of the individual self conflict with both the delaying function of the ego and the censorious demands of an inculcated morality. In other words, natural instinct is posited against both pragmatic assessment and social acceptance. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud (1991:284, 286) considers civilization to be the replacement of individual power by community power and, as such, founded upon renunciation of instinct. Nature is presented by Freud as something that civilized humanity seeks to subdue, dominate and utilize for its own benefits. [2]


Freud (1991:278) conceives civilization as that which protects us against nature. Culture becomes the various activities and resources employed for making earth useful, and in as much as it is founded upon a renunciation of instinct, civilization is – or represents – a community superego. [3]

Along with the domestication of fire, the use of tools, the construction of dwellings and the ability to symbolize and develop written language, humanity has reputedly disconnected from the natural world. It is this separation from what is understood as ‘the natural’ that has come to be seen as the ecological disaster that is unfolding for planet earth in our present times. Our needs for shelter, clothing and fire for warmth and cooking render us different from the animal world we encounter in nature. But is this difference one of degree or kind? Are not these developments that insulate us from the vagaries and rawness of nature products, natural products, of our own natural propensities? While our technological proficiencies are indeed remarkable, how different in essence are they from the manipulation of nature we see with the construction of dams and dwellings by the beaver? Rather, the global difficulty that appears to arise concerning the sustainability of our planet is one between cultures rather than one of culture itself. In a world of limited resources, while culture is rooted in agriculture and prayer – the collective articulation of value and desires to a god or no god, increasing competition and strife in the face of limited resources is the rule – and mismanagement is the result.

If the human is to be situated within nature and not placed in some way outside or superior or both to nature, it is through natural religious culture – that interplay between culture and religion and between these and nature or at least between culture and religion and the natural world that a viable course alone resides. While a Luddite rejection of technology might be one solution, the dynamic between religion, nature and culture is caught by Erik Davis when he addresses “the powerful archetypal connection between magic, tricks and technology.” In his Techgnosis, Davis explains the Greek techne as the art of craft. He describes Hermes’ magic as

ambiguous, because we cannot clearly distinguish the clever ruse from the savvy manipulation of some unseen natural fact. With such Hermetic ambiguity in mind, we might say that technology too is a spell and a trick, a device that crafts the real by exploiting the hidden laws of nature and human perception alike. [4]

The population of the planet and its expected steady exponential increase virtually preclude the possibility of viably eliminating technology. As a religious option, my argument is that paganism need not eschew the technological but approach it instead as something magical and, like all magic, to be controlled when its negative and destructive potential is high but managed as we might manage a garden – and utilized - when its potential, benefit and beauty are positive.

The basic idea of the circle and the recurring cycle is what we find not only in the seminal patterns of nature but also in the human activities of farming, worshiping and civilized cultivation. This is encapsulated by the complexity theory concepts associated today with the Santa Fe Institute and, in particular, with the notion of the feedback loop. Overall, complexity theory centers on the notions of the feedback loop (iteration) and spontaneous self-organization.

Feedback refers to the process in which information, relationship or the generated product is ‘fed back’ into the source. ...  Complexity seeks to study the kinds of saturation that can develop when output is returned to input and possible new and emerging patterns result. In non-linear activity, while entropic dissolution is one possibility, the more interesting option occurs when an emergent is other than simply the sum of its constituent components. A human or animal body, let alone an economy or social culture, is something more than a mere collection of parts. Complexity terms this process of becoming more, becoming unpredictably more, ‘spontaneous self-organization’. [5]

Iteration or repeated feedback allows any given system through multiple folding back onto itself to have both the range and time to exhibit new properties and organizational forms. [6]

The iteration of the feedback procedure is dynamically circular. For the Romans, the circular process that involved tilling the earth and producing food as a result enabled the sustained farmer to re-till subsequently and once again produce subsistence. Likewise, the act of worship or praying to a deity – whether one of the earth or one of the sky, etc. – cultivated divine favors in response that allowed or encouraged one to worship the deity once again. In both instances, the Romans referred to the activities as colere. The past tense of this verb is the source for our words agriculture, cultivate, cultic and culture.

If we acknowledge there to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and gnostic cultures, on the one hand, and agnostic, secular and pagan cultures, on the other – each with or without their own understanding of telos, if there is no ‘ultimate goal’ for the ‘agnostic’ religions, as there is with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, can there still be progress or advance?

Etymologically, the word and concept of advance may be broken down to ab- meaning ‘away from’ and ante meaning ‘before’. Advance is simply a moving away from that which was before. Need this be necessarily progressive? Our word progress derives from the Latin prōgredī ‘to advance’, that is, ‘to walk or go forward’. Any measure of advance, however, is subjective. It refers to forward movement and, figuratively, to progress or improvement for some specified situation. It is precisely against the emptiness of a purely secular evaluation of life, culture and civilization that religion will tend to take its affirmative stand – or at least what at first glance appears to be the counter position of affirmation. The onus for both secularism and paganism is to establish what progress might be under the circumstances of there being no transcendental, a priori God or standard.

When I was sixteen, I attended a summer Methodist Youth Fellowship convocation at Purdue University. I do not remember the plenary speaker’s name, but I do remember what he said. He explained that for most of the past two thousand years the principal goad to human development had been the effort to overcome sin. In our more recent secular age in which religion no longer played the dominant role it had had for the past millennia, the negative that humanity sought to combat had become pain – pain in the form of illness, hunger, poverty, the adversity of the elements and so forth. The professor continued to explain – in accord with the positive belief in science in which I had myself been raised – that the world was increasingly on the brink of eliminating pain, at least pain as the dominating motivating factor of life, through advances in technology and medicine. Disease was increasingly being brought under control; shelter and energy needs were increasingly being met through technical development – as was the production of food for everyone. With the reduction of pain as the predominant consideration in the achievement of human well being, the professor predicted that in the near future the greatest concern, the greatest negative, would become boredom. With the increase of leisure brought through the advances of science and technology, it would be the role of the arts to fill the void and lacuna brought about by having nothing to do and no real concerns in life – those of either sin or pain.

It has been many years, more than I wish to admit, since I heard that talk and its promise. Science was to free us so that art could then provide the answers and emotional fulfillment that a satisfied humanity would need. It is certainly true for the West that we have become increasingly a society that is largely cajoled and appeased by entertainment. But when this is measured against industrial pollution, the dis-equality of wealth distribution, the fears and inflictions brought about by terrorism, and the territorial wars of competition and destruction, the great promise of science offered in my youth and what it would be able to deliver have proven to be more the will-o’-the-wisp than a genuine panacea.

From the perspective of the cyclical rounds of nature, advance could simply be repetitive if not also regressive. In contrast to both secularism and the Abrahamic religions, Christianity in particular, with their linear emphasis on time’s arrow, earthen, pagan and/or green religions entertain a prevailing stress on the returning rounds as exemplified by the diurnal, lunar, solar and seasonal cycles: birth, growth, apex, decline, death, decay, rebirth. But the circle is also a zero, and are we left with the very nothingness that a Macbeth bemoans?

With pagan sentiment, there is no final omega point toward which the advance of time concludes. Instead, we have the possibility of complexity theory’s feedback loop in which information is continually fed back/ put back into the whole so that there is the greater chance of its becoming more than the mere sum of its parts. It is precisely here where the third element of our present focus comes into play. Culture is the lynchpin between religion as the valuing or denial of god and nature as the all-nurturing matrix – one that is no less vulnerable when we come to the natural balance of the planet. While paganism is rooted in origins and immediate endeavor to one’s locality, one’s pagus, district or ward in which one lives, in our day and age in which the host planet that supports all of our individual communities is itself increasingly likely to be destroyed as once paganism’s corpo-spiritual emblems and repositories in the form of her idols, icons, sacred trees and groves and worshipped figures were smashed or cut down, the religio-spiritual option known as paganism also seeks to champion a global culture as humanity’s overriding collective prayer. Paganism supports an earth-oriented and nature-as-sacred culture that endorses worth, value, protection and growth for everyone, for every community and for a sustainable and interrelated and flourishing planet as a home for all individual flourishings and well-being.



Davis, Erik. 1998. Techgnosis: Myth, magic & mysticism in the age of information. London/New York: Serpent’s Tail/Harmony Books (Crown Publishers).

Freud, Sigmund. 1991. Civilization, Society and Religion: Group Psychology, Civilization and Its Discontents and Other Works (The Penguin Freud Library 12). London: Penguin.

Grayling, Anthony C. 2003. What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live. London: Orion/Phoenix.

York, Michael. 2001. “The Nature and Culture Debate in Popular Forms of Emergent Spirituality.” From Virgin Land to Disney World: Nature and Its Discontents in the USA of Yesterday and Today, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath. New York/Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi. Pp 277-296.

“ 2008. “Pagan Theology.” Handbook of Paganism, ed. James R. Lewis and Murph Pizza. Leiden: Brill.





[1] Grayling (2003:67). As Grayling concludes, “for most of the history of the Religions of the Book, god’s edicts have been set to rest either on the promise of punishment and reward, or in Christianity as it reinvented itself …, on the vaguer sentimental appeal of the paternity and love of the deity as somehow making a demand that its creatures respond in kind. Or both (p. 71).

[2] York (2001:277).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Davis (1998:17).

[5] York (2008:298f).

[6] Frederick Turner (in Raymond A. Eve, Sara Horsfall & Mary E. Lee, eds. Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage, 1997:xv, xxiv).