The Nature and Culture Debate

Michael York

Study of Religions
Bath Spa University College

The popular resurgence of contemporary forms of paganism, `goddess spirituality’ and nature as representational paradigm is a current attempt to reclaim `the return of the real’ against the alleged bankruptcy of exclusive rationalism, rampant industrialization and a perceived emptiness in Disneyesque commodification. If nature has been understood in opposition to civilization, it is also considered to be opposed to science as well as to both art and magic. The hinging question in the nature and culture debate concerns what do we mean by nature and what do we mean by culture. Are these separate categories, realms or phenomena? Can they be distinguished? And should they be? Finally, what is the alternative suggested by the collective stance understood as contemporary nature religion?

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 (1930, 1961), 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.

The father of psychology conceives civilization as that which protects us against nature (Freud, 1991:278). 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. In this sense, there is a parallel with the individual’s struggle between id or erotic instinct and the death-wish or moral guilt. This is all the more so, according to Freud, because humanity’s power over nature has not lead to increased happiness (1991:276).

In the contemporary emergence of popular forms of spirituality, the conflict between nature and culture is often a – if not the - central issue. Freud’s `Civilization Thesis’ forms the foundation of the debate over this conflict and any efforts toward a reinterpretation. While Freud (1991:340) recognizes that human success in controlling nature also allows the possibility of total mutual extermination, he nonetheless perceives the super power of nature as a major source of human suffering (274). Another source of anxiety and discomfort is civilization itself – that which seeks to bind humanity together despite humanity’s primary mutual hostility. In other words, the greatest hindrance to civilization is, according to Freud, natural human aggressiveness and self-destruction. As this natural aggressiveness becomes internalized through the frustration of instinct, the superego develops as a controlling mechanism within the individual but also as a community "super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds" (Freud, 1991:335). Civilization and guilt, therefore, are intimately connected – with guilt arising through fear of both authority and the superego.

For Freud (1991:278), the first acts of civilization consist in the use of tools, the domestication of fire and the construction of dwellings. It is certainly the gaining of control over fire that comes in the long run to separate humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, though Freud does not mention this, it is also the human propensity to symbolize and eventually to develop written language that allows civilized culture and the human race’s disconnection from the natural world.

Consequently, the individual for Freud "can only defend [himself/herself] by some kind of turning away from … the dreaded external world" or, collectively and "with the help of … science, going over to the attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will" (1991:265). The options are simply to attempt to hide from nature or to subdue it. But when one becomes a "member of the human community," then "one is working with all for the good of all" (ibid.) Nature becomes a resource and something to be exploited as well as tamed. But, unforeseen by Freud, in the `march’ of civilization, nature is not only becoming conquered, but, as the growing awareness of industrial pollution and technological fallibility increasingly reveals, nature - or at least an ecologically balanced and sustainable earth - is being destroyed. It is this `loss of nature’ and a planet capable of supporting a rich diversity of living forms including the human that constitutes the immediate focus behind the contemporary emergence of `nature religion’ as a distinct spirituality.


Contemporary paganism continues in large part a recurring theme throughout classical paganism, namely, that expressed by Celsus who saw "the descriptions of the gods as metaphorical personifications of the forces of nature" (Halbertal & Margalit, 1992:7). In classical paganism, an intimate relationship exists between humanity, the divine and the natural. However, from the subsequent Romantic perspective, nature is typically presented and stressed as an autonomous realm of being. In his The Future of An Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud largely inherits this Romantic concept. But Freud also extends and complicates the Romantic notion of nature as an independent force of the external world. For Freud, nature is not only the exterior world but also the natural instincts of the individual. It becomes as much the interior unconscious drives that motivate each and everyone of us: our pleasure principles, our erotic impulses, our aggressive proclivities, and, vis-à-vis the dictates of civilization and the community superego, our senses of guilt. These interior urges are, in Freud’s understanding, as natural as is the exterior world of mountains, trees, rivers and seas as well as earthquakes, storms, droughts and volcanoes. Nature is something which is both `in here’ and `out there’.

The current trend in contemporary nature religion, on the other hand, appears to reify nature into a self-independent and autonomous realm of being. Its concern is to protect this nature from the destructive side of civilization. If modern-day New Age focuses on a preoccupation with self and self-development, modern-day nature religion centers on the planet and a desire to protect as sacrosanct all human-free territories from edifice development, road building, construction of dams, nuclear waste exposure, genetically modified contamination, noise pollution – in short, all the hallmarks of technologically advanced `progress’. While such efforts may be applauded by someone like Ken Wilber, he also condemns eco-romanticism along with rational empiricism for equally perpetuating the colonization of subjectivity by the empirical domain (1996:311). What is this nature religionist’s concept of nature, and is its reification viable?

`Nature’ can be defined as the fundamental qualities of something; its essential identity or character. A more Freudian interpretation refers to the desires or instincts that govern behavior. More broadly, nature signifies disposition or temperament, but we also employ the term to designate the normal biological needs of the body. However, in the sense often employed by the nature religion perspective as well as in the Freudian nature-culture dichotomy, nature refers to something other than humankind – whether all plant and animal life as distinct from humanity, a wild primitive state untouched by us, even natural unspoiled countryside, or the whole system of all physical life and its forces that are beyond human control.

The question remains whether separating humanity from nature is fully legitimate and not something artificial or even counter-productive. The etymology behind the term `nature’ indicates it to have derived from the Latin nâtus, the past participle of nascî meaning `to be born’. From this perspective, the natural and/or organic comprise that which is born as well as that which can give birth. But if we use this sense for understanding the natural, we cannot be too literal. Otherwise, we would have to exclude from nature that which reproduces not through the process of bearing young but through subdivision and/or replication, namely, sporangia (fungi, mosses, ferns), protozoa, viruses, and even, if we were to be completely literal, the plant kingdom itself. However, what we must conclude is that nature is itself a metaphor – one based on mammalian nativity – that has been extended to apply to all existence that originates organically. The irony here is that while the adjective `organic’ refers to deriving from or relating to animal or plant constituents or products, the term itself is obtained from Greek organon meaning `tool’. And, as Freud points out, the use of tools constitutes one of the first acts of civilization. In other words, while the etymological origin of words may help to clarify conceptual developments, it also allows us to recognize how our processes of seminal abstraction depend on our very ability to employ metaphor. This use of symbols, the human ability to symbolize, is one of the fundamental faculties that separate the human species from the rest of animal nature. It is itself a constituent feature of the matrix of culture.

The Latin natura is a translation of the Greek physis which ultimately derives from the verb phuein `to make grow’. The root idea remains one of production, growth and bringing to birth. For Aristotle, the five characteristics of nature are that it is not artificial, that is, it has not been made; it is neither eternal nor immutable; it requires matter or potency; it involves movement as an immanent principle; and it has form or essence. Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle’s implicit contrast between natural things (entia naturae) and mental things (entia rationis), distinguishes between the order of secondary causes and the order of the first cause, that is, between the natural and the supernatural. It is in the line of this Aristotelian/Thomist thought that Cartesian dualism, the Kantian division between the phenomenal and noumenal orders, and, to some extent, the Freudian opposition between the natural and the cultural all descend.

Freud may have also, however, been influenced by Marx who condemned capitalistic instrumentalism that reduces nature simply to the status of a tool. By treating nature as merely a means to continued human survival, Marx argues that humanity becomes alienated from that of which we are part. Since nature functions within us as well, we also become alienated from our own bodies. This more integrative position might be traced to both the Stoics and Spinoza – both of whom regarded nature as an all-inclusive system from which there was nothing beyond. In other words, nature included humanity, finitude and God or the supernatural. For Spinoza, the division is one between natura naturans (`nature naturing’), that is, the eternal and infinite essence, and natura naturata (`nature natured’) or temporal existents.

Contemporary pagan nature religion follows in the Stoic and possibly Spinozan traditions inasmuch as it sees nature as an all-inclusive phenomenon. Theologically, it ranges between immanental pantheism and immanental-transcendental panentheism. If this last would appear to violate the understanding that nature is all, it at least does not regard nature as either unreal or non-sacred or both. Nature is either the godhead or part of the godhead but not something inferior, of lesser value and simply something to be used for the exclusive benefit of mankind.

Consequently, the Stoic-Spinozan-nature religion position does not – and ultimately cannot – separate humanity from the natural world. While not necessarily overlapping with Marxism, contemporary paganism seeks to reverse human alienation from nature. The question that remains in this context, then, is what is culture? Does it necessarily preclude humanity from a natural state of grace?


The term `culture’ derives from the notion of `tilling as worship’. In this implied neolithic shift toward human intervention in the production and survival processes, culture represents if not a rupture from the natural than a development from or of it. In other words, culture is an extension of nature. But from its aboriginal origins, we can also see that each of the planet’s cultures may be thought of as a kind of collective prayer. Certainly, this is obvious with religious cultures or religions, but all culture may be regarded as subliminal articulations of communal wishing. Implicit in the nature religion perspective is that cultural prayer or wishing – apart from the question whether there is anything to which or to whom to pray to – is a ubiquitous, universal and natural development. In other words, nature and culture are not, contrary to Freud, antagonistic opposites.

And, finally, in this light, nature religion/culture may itself be seen as a collective prayer. The sociological shifts in the emergent popular religiosities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries predicate themselves on a denial of the Freudian civilization thesis. Freud argued that the discontents of civilization arise from the frustration to our natural instincts that it is causing. Civilization was presented not only as a protector against nature but also as an inter-human regulator. In this last, it rests upon a renunciation of instinct, a conflict of the individual’s erotic interests and a suppression of man’s fundamental aggressive nature, and it operates through fostering a sense of guilt. For Freud (1991:319), guilt arises from fear of both authority and the superego – where this last is identified as internalized aggressiveness. But if the social contract remains as one source of human unhappiness, the discontents of civilization that are perceived increasingly today rest more with the sterilization of nature that civilization is alleged to be causing. And this destruction of the natural ecological balance is understood less in terms of civilization per se as in the form of corporate multinational capitalism civilization has come to assume.


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Freud (1991:252) cites the oceanic feeling between the ego and the world about it as the fons et origo of religion. As a product of the pleasure principle, religion deals with the purpose of life (1991:255). It is, nevertheless, a mass delusion that attempts to re-create the world (1991:269). In a similar Freudian vein, Faber (1996:345) sees religion, cultural symbolism and ritualization "as cozening bromides that narcotize … away from reality." While Marx condemns religion as an opiate of the masses that allow the perpetuation of social inequality, the Freudian perspective sees religion as something which postpones the maturation process.

But if enchantment is written off as delusion, one spiritual postmodern endeavor is, nevertheless, to relocate the magical through reconsidering the world in terms of divine immanence. The resistance to this kind of religious approach comes not only through Marxist and Freudian antagonism, but also in opposition from mainstream religion – particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition. This last perceives any form of paganism as idolatrous. As Harbertal and Margalit (1992) elucidate, the biblical condemnation of idolatry rests upon the argument that idolatry has two aspects: worship of false gods, and worship of God falsely. In other words, the idol is rejected as both a false idea and as the false belief that it can become an independent locus of the numinous and hence something more than simply an intermediary. This last is understood as the transformation of the idol into a fetish in which it "acquires the traits of the thing it is representing" – becoming either a direct concentration of the deity’s powers or even "the body of the god, the residence of its soul, and [therefore, in both cases,] an independent object of ritual worship" (Habertal & Margalit, 1992:42).

Pagan nature religion, on the other hand, represents a true alternate theological worldview. The pagan idol (from idolon `idea’) conforms not only to the symbolic representation characteristic of all language and the symbolic propensity of humanity, it also is celebrated as immanent presence. In this, in contemporary pagan terms, it becomes subsumed in a `one and many’ interchange with nature itself as the very idolon/idol par excellence. For when nature is regarded as the ubiquitous all, no room is left for an excluded other and, therefore, there can be no external or transcendent focus constituting the so-called `proper’ object of worship in the biblical or talmudic sense.

In this orientation, the reputed opposition between nature and art no longer becomes tenable. While nature refers to the `born’ (natus) or organic, art is supposedly the artificial, i.e., that which is made. This artificiality, however, is not a making out of nothing – as the Christian God creates ex nihilo, but rather the more demiurgic re-arranging of (born, i.e., already made) parts. In this, the term `art’ betrays its cognate link with the word `rite’. The central function of all nature religion ritual is not an attempt to put together parts into `a proper sequence’ for reasons of artifice but rather to put together for purposes of birth/rebirth/renewal. This kind of pagan ritual allegedly aims for the restoration of nature and the development of a viable civilization/culture that both sustains nature and becomes its flower.


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In summary, nature religion can be seen to assume a radically different position from both traditional Judeo-Christian orientation and Freudian rational skepticism. It considers nature as real and not an illusion. It denies that nature and culture are in intractable opposition. Humanity is seen as part of nature and not the controller or dominator over nature. And, finally, it understands nature as divine. In other words, it embraces an affirmation of physical spirituality.

From this perspective, nature is not and cannot be a separate, exclusive category or realm of being. Inasmuch as it conforms to the empirical, it can at best be contrasted to the supernatural. In other words, it can be distinguished from whatever is accepted or believed to be non-empirically operative. In the fully pantheistic perspective, however, nature includes both the empirical and the non-empirical. To the degree that religion or a religion of nature might be differentiated from empirical science, the nature religionist argues that nature and science still need not be considered as oppositional simply because one is empirical and the other might include the sacred if not the supernatural.

Moreover, much nature religion, in conformity to contemporary western paganism, incorporates the notion and practice of magic – often referred to as `eco-magick’. The general pagan understanding of magic is psychological along the lines of Aleister Crowley’s consideration that it is `the science and art of causing change in conformity to will’. This is nowadays less associated with the supernatural but is viewed rather as a series of techniques altering consciousness for the facilitation of psychic activity. Whether the American Reclaiming, Circle or Covenant of the Goddess, or the British Dragon or the road-protest camps with their pagan affinities, magical rituals are undertaken in conjunction with environmental activism and invariably with the objective of restoring ecological balance and integrity and/or preventing their destruction.

Nature is nonetheless perceived as ambivalent in that incarnation involves each of us to be subject to the inescapable laws of pain, shame and loss. For all its joie de vivre, nature religion is forced to retain an implicit understanding of Weltschmerz. Yet, at the same time, nature is understood as cyclic. It is in this promise of the eternal return that nature is perceived to affirm that the nature religionist in both America and abroad celebrates and legitimates any inevitability of suffering as ultimately of limited duration. What contemporary nature religion appears to foster, however, is a shifting from humanity as central concern to its replacement by nature. It is invariably argued that earth would survive even if mankind were not. Part of this nature religion perspective incorporating nature and culture is prefigured by Freud (1991:281) himself who notes that "civilized man [is required] to reverence beauty wherever he sees it in nature and to create it in objects of his handiwork so far as he is able." Freud (283) admits that any high level of civilization implies religious systems, philosophic speculation and ideals. Nature religion may, accordingly, be seen as a contemporary reaction to perceptions of a planet under threat that seeks to affirm or reclaim the ideal of physical spirituality. It endeavors to revere the terrestrial eco-sphere as sacred embodiment and fully commensurate with cultural flowering.

Although framing his talk in a more traditional understanding of a "sacred trust between mankind and our Creator," in his BBC Radio Four address on May 10th, 2000, Britain’s Prince Charles echoed the salient features of current nature religion sentiment. The Prince spoke about the need for "a sacred stewardship of the earth." He deplored "the prevailing approach which seeks to reduce the natural world to a mechanical system," and he recognized that modern science is forced to rule out the existence of the sacred as a nuisance that can be evaded or at least manipulated. Instead, we need, in place of the science of manipulation, a science of understanding – one that sees science as a part of nature and not something opposed to it. The Prince proclaimed that "We need to rediscover a reverence for the natural world and to understand the reciprocity between God, man and creation." This must be founded upon "humility, wonder and awe over our place in the natural order." Since "the earth is unique, and we have a duty to care for it, … we must restore the balance between the intuitive and the rational scientific mind."

Prince Charles’ appeal speaks to an emergent form of popular spirituality that we find not only in nature religion, New Age and goddess spirituality but also in more innovative developments across the Christian mainstream. The central chord in this appeal and the emergent spirituality it reflects is a denial of a civilization and nature opposition. Culture is to be situated within the natural and not as antagonistic to it. In face of the shifting imperatives behind human survival, culture in its original sense of cultivation or even reverent cultivation is perhaps the only solution for an endangered planet. Freud (1991:262) himself refers to Voltaire and how "he ends Candide with advice to cultivate one’s garden." But rather than consider this a deflection to the pains, disappointments and impossibilities offered by life, the emergent perspective in today’s world is to regard our planet as itself a garden that must be cultivated. In the art, science and religion of gardening, civilization and the magic of nature can be combined in sustainable development. We might have then what we could label a culture of nature.



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Michael York
Study of Religions
Bath Spa University College
Bath BA2 9BN, United Kingdom
Tel: *44 - (0)1225 - 875779
Fax: *44 - (0)1225 - 875776