Massimo Introvigne, "Religion and the Politics of Nature: the Aumist Religion in France."

For the ideas expressed in this and the following three paragraphs, I am indebted to David Coulby (1995:146 -149).

As Segal explains in "The Modern Revival of Ancient Gnosticism," the atheistic existentialism of Sartre and Camus is a form of modern gnosticism, that is, an understanding of human beings' alienation from themselves. For Jung, the aim is no longer to sever the soul from the body but to reconcile and overcome alienation. His psychological gnosticism, in contrast to the transcendental affinity of philosophical gnosticism, resonates with the holistic integration sought in a broad `nature religion' orientation, though Segal argues that Jung's harmony is solipsistic and not really a harmony between one's self and the world. Coulby (1995:149).

Two works which present Complexity Theory are Kauffman (1993) and Waldrop (1992). While the former more technically examines molecular biological self-organisation and selective evolution (ecosystems, genetic regulatory circuits, catalytic polymers, connected metabolisms, etc.), the latter furnishes an accessibly historical overview of the Santa Fe Institute and the development of Complexity Theory. Jencks (1995:37).

The first law of thermodynamics asserts that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. Recognising that heat is a form of energy, it follows that no machine can work indefinitely without a permanent source of fuel or heat. Mathematically, the second maintains that entropy always increases in any closed system not in equilibrium but remains constant for a system which is in equilibrium. In other words, heat cannot self-sustainably be transferred from a cold body to a hot body. Entropy is understood as a measure of disorder among atoms within any given system and is the basis for predictions concerning the ultimate heat death of the universe. Whether the second law of thermodynamics is then meant to be comforting, it maintains that it is impossible to cool down a system to absolute zero.

Genesis 1.26 -28. David Hawkin's denial of Lynn White's `mastery hypothesis' concerning "The Disenchantment of Nature and Christianity's `Burden of Guilt'" is based in part on a reading of the original Hebrew text. However this may be, the actual influence of the Genesis account on the West derives from its Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original. While Hawkin's contention that the disenchantment of nature derives from the ideas of Francis Bacon may be true in the overall development of the present-day ecological crisis, it cannot be plausibly refuted that the biblical injunction to `subdue ... and have dominion' over the earth (King James Version) has not also been influential. For instance, Margaret Rose (1992:127) claims that "theories of the post-modern which do not see it as aiming to double-code the modern with another code, but as simply `deconstructing' the modern, should themselves only be seen as being `late modern'." Likewise, during the Nature Religion Today Conference, Jeffrey Richards ("The New Middle Ages"), while considering that the rise of postmodernism is accompanied at present by a rise of interest in the middle ages, asserted that postmodernism does not represent a rejection of modernism. See further, Jencks (1995:24 -25).

See Arecchi (1992:352). Complexity is defined as the cost of a computer programme (the Length of the instructions multiplied by the processing time) which enables realisation of a particular sequence of information. By contrast, for Peter Beyer ("Globalization and the Religion of Nature: Experience, Imperialism, and the Quest for Wholeness"), `nature religion' is simply an analytic abstraction. On the other hand, during his talk to the Nature Religion Today Conference ("The Chthonic Imperative: Gender, Religion and the Battle for the Earth"), Richard Roberts asserted that the chthonic imperative, the demand that we reconnect to the earth, while pre-figured in the works of D.H. Lawrence and Robert Graves, remains deeply ambiguous in the twentieth century. But neither ambiguity or the hidden agenda fraudulence outlined by Ronald Hutton ("The Discovery of the Modern Goddess") - concerning the Romantic development of the concept of the Goddess as associated with nature, the moon and night sky - preclude the fundamental theological divide running through most if not all religions which distinguishes between the earth, matter or the physical as the origin of life and (the perhaps subsequently independent) spirit and the same as a prison, the soma sema, as something to be escaped by returning to a non-physical source from which we have `fallen'. Unlike the transcendental or gnostic orientation, `nature religion' in whatever form or state of articulation does not consider life as intrinsically a form of entrapment or a loss of grace. In contrast to creatio ex nihilo, demiourgos and deus ex machina, nature religion's telluric divinity is generative.

Concerning the notion of sectarian development, Peter Beyer (see note 3), following Victor Turner's polar opposites of counter-structure and structure, claims that `nature religion' is "not a religion" but an "oppositional stance." Manifesting as holism and the emphasis and valorization of physical/local place, the counter-structural strategy of `nature religion' affirms, reinforces or legitimates the normal social structure and consciousness, that is, the dominant global normality. From the Turnerian analytic, the sectarian protest of the counter-structure encompasses the very possibility of structure. Because it negates the status quo, the counter-structural strategy creates communitas; in `nature religion', marginalisation becomes a sign of greater authenticity. In a stance reminiscent of the notion of emergence in Complexity Theory, Beyer concludes that the global whole springs out of the counter-cultural strategy of `nature religion'. In Jencksian terminology (Jencks, 1995:63), "The aesthetic of emergence contrasts the difficult whole with the fractured surprise." While the Beyer-Turner understanding would appear to doom sectarian dissent per se to failure, if globalisation is not modernisation but rather a whole series of modernizations which are localised or particularised, a proliferation of pluralities, a cultural pluralism, in view of the cosmogenetic strategy endorsed by Complexity Theory to "maximize the alternative models of growth" (Jencks, 1995:165), `nature religion' would appear to be part of an emergent process in which instrumentality is translated to, or appropriated by, local levels.


Michael York
Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, BCHE
Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies, London

The Aumist religion as described by Massimo Introvigne with its grandiose, Disneyesque statues of deities is yet one more illustration of the rich variety of religion on our planet revealing itself as something both colourful and fascinating. Nevertheless, during this Lake District conference on "Nature Religion Today" sponsored by the University of Lancaster, audience reaction to Mr. Introvigne's presentation of this `odd' religion headquartered in the south of France included a noticeable degree of laughter. Here is a religion which to the outsider can appear bizarre and even silly; hence its risible character in general consciousness. But all the same, these very adjectives - kaleidoscopic, distinctive, intriguing, esoteric, funny - apply no less in the eyes of the majority mind-set to what we are here calling `nature religion'. It is yet again an example of human diversity which, through its unfamiliarity, causes uneasiness to those who generally or even ephemerally identify with the `status quo'. The response of laughter becomes a mask and means by which we can safely distance ourselves from what we do not understand. To the same established consensus, `nature religion' is no less an alternative, minority perspective and practice.

The title of this paper, `Nature Religion as a Contemporary Sectarian Development', raises two immediate questions: (1) what do I mean by `nature religion', and (2) what do I mean by sectarian development? Let me begin with the first question. The title of the Lancaster University five-day conference in April 1996 is <<Nature Religion Today>>. The subtitle of the conference proceeds to give an explanation of `nature religion' - namely, `Western Paganism, Shamanism and Esotericism in the 1990s'. With this I would largely agree, although I am not certain that Esotericism in itself suggests `nature religion' per se. For instance, while individual practitioners may orient themselves toward nature and ecology, I do not feel that the thelemic and chaos and perhaps other forms of ceremonial magickal systems would in themselves be considered under the banner of `nature religion'. Likewise, I would suspect that most varieties of gnosticism as well as cabbalism entertain essentially a transcendental metaphor which would distance them from the earth-orientations of `nature religion'. Robert Segal's explanation of Jungian Gnosticism (rather than of what an earlier version of the conference programme listed as Gnostcism and in contrast to ancient forms of Gnosticism which postulated a dualism of soul versus body) agrees in principle with this understanding. In fact, the general themes suggested by a casual run-through of the talks listed in the conference programme delineate - as we might hope since this has been intended to be a conference on "Nature Religion" - what we mean by `nature religion'. Paganism, shamanism, Goddess Spirituality, native tradition, alternative spirituality and, yes, although I may agree in large part with Monica Sjoo's critical viewpoint, even some elements within New Age: all these conform in large measure with what I believe we are all addressing as "Nature Religion Today."

But what underlies these names? How do we identify `nature religion' in the broad sense? I suggest that apart from whatever other aspects any particular brand of `nature religion' may include, all forms contain a this-worldly focus and deep reverence for the earth as something sacred and something to be cherished.

The urban and engineering creations of human civilization may or may not be considered natural evolutionary developments, but for the `nature religionist' they tend to be seen as obstructions or masks of the earth's natural equilibrium, that balance that we perceive in undisturbed and uncontaminated environments. And to the degree that the achievements of our Western technological civilisation not only hide the natural equilibrium but disrupt or even destroy it, today's wider ecological movement may be viewed and included in basics as a secular form of `nature religion' as well. And when discerned especially in the light of the growing concern for the preservation of our planet and its restoration - reclaiming the waters and seas, eliminating the build-up of toxins, reversing the expanding ozone holes, sanely managing if not stopping nuclear wastes and any of the countless other perceptible madnesses which are inflicting such permanent and irretrievable damage to the earth, `nature religion' in both its secular and sacralised forms may itself be seen as a growing and expanding religious movement.

Nevertheless, when viewed against the dominance of today's mechanistic and materialistic paradigm along with the vestiges of the West's Christian legacy and its biblical injunction for man or humanity to subdue nature, and, in the modern understanding, to become its master, to harness it to the needs and aspirations of humanity as something to be carved up, re-allocated or transformed, `nature religion' is still a minority viewpoint and/or practice. In short, vis-à-vis mainstream society, `nature religion' is a sectarian protest movement. It conforms to a sociological stance which questions or challenges a dominant position. And this of course is my second question, that which addresses sectarian development.

However, before I proceed with the sociological study of new religious movements and sect and cult phenomena, I want first to endorse the contemporary analytical framework which distinguishes between the traditional, the modern and the postmodern. Many of the speakers at this conference have expressed a dislike for the term `postmodern'. It suggests to some an anti-science bias, an anti-rationalistic methodology, which is confusing and counter-productive. But I believe this is essentially a question of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are many different interpretations of `postmodernism', and in the postmodern arena of analytic debate, the term itself continues to become clarified through a process we might call `progressive selective interpretation'. In my usage, I follow the lead expressed by Charles Jencks, Charlene Spretnak, Andreas Huyssen, Linda Hutcheon, John Barth and others who envision a positive dynamic, a postmodern reconstruction, following upon the achievements of deconstructionism.

This understanding of the postmodern does not reject the modern or the achievements of rational methodology and technology. It is rather a question of `yes, but...' or even `yes, and also...' (Re)constructive postmodernism does not deny the Babel heyday with its soaring vision and clear light of reason, but it recognizes we live now in a post-Babel world of many voices and many interpretations. Postmodernism in this sense is a celebration of pluralism and difference.

But whether we are approaching the traditional, the modern or the postmodern, in all cases we are dealing with the community, the social totality, and its various ethnocentrisms. These invariably suggest a dichotomy, and the traditional forms are those of the inside versus the outside, the citizen versus the foreigner or outsider, the living versus the dead, the ethnos or tribe versus the other. Boundaries become important in the society's separation of stability and order from chaos and disruption.

This kind of structure or dichotomy is to be seen in the traditional pagan community, whether ancient Rome, present-day Japan, the Native American tribe, the pre-Christian Celtic moieties and so forth, with focus on boundary definition and maintenance, purification and riddance of pollution, use of the scapegoat, etc. This traditional boundary focus has of course been carried on and into the post-pagan or Christian world such as we see even still today with the beating of the bounds of the local parish.

From a traditional perspective, knowledge is systematically organised and based on religious belief, the centrality of the family, group or national integrity - even supremacy, reflex of traditional thought patterns appears in stereotypical gender and family pattern expectations, religious intolerance, homophobia, and xenophobia. For many of us, not a very pretty picture.

Does the modern replacement of the traditional offer something better? The systematic organisation of knowledge in the modern perspective is founded on five basic assumptions: (1) the belief in progress in the acquisition and accuracy of human knowledge, (2) the belief that science is the method and subject matter of knowledge, (3) the objective of not truth alone but its useful effectiveness - especially in both work and war, (4) the acceptance of the academic divisions of knowledge as both pragmatic and epistemologically valid, and (5) the belief that class, gender, culture and intelligence influences one's access to knowledge - especially modern or scientific knowledge. The modernist perspective is holistic, progressive, that is, endeavouring toward social betterment, and politically liberal. It relies on professional competence, bureaucratic institutionalisation, stratified conceptions of human ability, and hierarchical modes of organisation. In a word (or two), modernism is both elitist and stratified. It functions on an illusion of organic unity between theory and policy. It affirms that there is one science, one method, one system. Consequently, knowledges and cultures of non-dominant groups are devalued politically, economically and academically.

Inasmuch as modernism is perceived as the product of Europe and the United States as an European extension, it is ethnocentric. Now with the advent of the EU and the emergence of a new self-confident supernationality, modernism becomes even more dangerously ethnocentric - reinforcing a simplistic historical continuum: Greece-Rome-Christianity-Renaissance-Enlightenment-Modern Science. Civilisation is white, Western and European. An ethnocentric bias is equally traditional and modern. Both stress the sanctity of the community - whether this last is ancient Rome, the Christian Church, the EU or Western civilisation. However, the breaks or fractures in both traditional and modernist perspectives have come from critiques based on class, gender, culture, religion and sexual orientation, and these critiques have called into question the mechanistic paradigm exalting exclusive rationalism, efficiency and technological achievement which lies at the heart of modernism and its ascendant version of ethnocentrism.

These critiques are collectively labelled postmodern. The postmodern perspective itself may be understood as one of cultural relativism which denies that any group's belief systems, family practices, technical or cultural productions are inherently superior to those of other groups. "Nature Religion Today" is part of the postmodern critique of both the traditional and the modernistic. Where traditionalism asserts a monopoly on the sacred, and modernism denies the existence of the sacred in preference for the mechanical, contemporary `nature religion' re-envisions the sacred as implicit within nature. In a word, `nature religion' questions the traditional and modern status quo. It assumes a sectarian position vis-à-vis the established tenets of contemporary civilisation. Its ecological protest movement is a sectarian protest.

From a sociological view, the `nature religion' ecological movement and environmentalism will follow the trajectory of the sect as a phenomenological construct. It will be either wiped out, or remain marginal and insignificant, or transform the perception and practices of mainstream society. To the degree that `nature religion' is part of the wider postmodern spectrum of critique and protest, it may survive and even flourish as the postmodern perspective of cultural relativity and celebratory pluralism comes to replace the ethnocentrisms of traditional and modern societies.

This last, however, is really a fourth alternative possibility, namely, that society itself might change and accommodate an innovative perspective - making way for `nature religion' to flourish and become itself a majority expression. Let me conclude with a word on the Santa Fe Institute's Complexity Theory which, although emerging from the modernistic thought of science, supports the postmodern perspective.

Concerning the organic relationship between the modern and the postmodern, in like manner, Brian Bocking (1995:227) cites universal compulsory education as a distinctive feature of modernity, but "the power it offers to make discriminating choices from a wide range of sources of information is arguably the prerequisite of post-modernity." Unlike the `conceptual elegance and analytical simplicity' of modern, ethnocentric reductionism, Complexity Theory contends that no one metaphysical system can be entirely adequate - be it modern or traditional. It is this emergent idea, however, which is helping to provide a conceptual framework for cultural relativism including the pluralities represented in `nature religion' today with its various paganisms, shamanisms, Goddess Spiritualities and even New Age.

Complexity Theory focuses on complication, adaptation, sudden phase transitions or upheavals at the edge of chaos, non -linear dynamics, spontaneous self-organisation, emergence and such concepts as increasing returns, lock-in and unpredictability, as well as the immense historical consequences that can result from tiny events. According to Complexity Theory, the universe is ever increasing in information, i.e., negentropy (negative entropy). In other words, Complexity Theory is a counter to the Second Law of Thermodynamics which argues that information (including heat or energy) disappears rapidly as entropy increases to maximum. Negentropic proliferation of new religious movements, of pluralism, and of proliferation and pluralism within new religious movements such as `nature religion', is part of the inevitable move toward an evermore complex and information-full universe. This emergence of new parts inevitably challenges the status quo and its ethnic and class domination or ethnocentrism, its European imperialism or Eurocentrism, its anthropocentrism, its destruction of nature, the dissolution of community and tradition, the rise of alienation, and the death of individuality in bureaucracy.

Complexity Theory counters what is known as `scientism' or the belief that science provides the only way to knowledge. Scientific methodology is based on the Galilean choice of a single, quantitative point of view from which to interpret the world. This approach to knowledge imposes limits on itself from the start and excludes the possibility of answering questions which do not fall within its scope. But this very certainty of science has come to be questioned: (1) by Einstein who demolished Newton's concepts of absolute space and time, (2) by Heisenberg whose principle of indeterminancy discredited Laplace's assertion that knowledge of a particle's position and velocity is simultaneously possible, and (3) by the ideas of deterministic chaos which counters belief in macroscopic determinism - that is, that even the physics of a small number of objects makes long-term prediction impossible. In other words, Complexity Theory affirms an ambiguous and unpredictable world. It is based on two fundamental ideas of complexity: (1) dynamic complexity or the understanding that nature more typically behaves according to the principles of non-linear dynamics in which proportionality and traceable trajectories are inapplicable, and (2) structural complexity, that is, that at every level of complexity there appears new properties so that one cannot construct the behaviour of a complex object on the basis of knowledge of its component parts alone. So-called `non-ergodic' systems are those which allow many possible states of equilibrium. In anthropomorphic terms, complex systems comprise those in which choice operates: the multiplicity of legitimate viewpoints as opposed to the monocentrism of the single viewpoint.

Like postmodern thought and Complexity Theory, `nature religion' adopts an ecological paradigm in place of a mechanical one. It views the events of nature as internally constituted by their appropriations from other things. This internal relatedness of all things or the interconnectedness of the universe is the holistic affirmation of the ecological paradigm. It seeks a reenchantment of nature. And by approaching objects, both animate and inanimate, as having subjective experiences in terms of feeling, memory, purpose or decision, postmodern `nature religion' is part if not the epitome of current moves in overcoming the traditional dualism between subject and object.

Christianity itself began as a sectarian development or protest movement against a dominant religio-political system. Likewise, Protestantism began as a protest movement against the dominance of Roman Catholicism. In other words, both Christianity and Protestantism exhibited sect-like or cult-like behaviour vis-à-vis the established status quo during early stages of their respective developments. Though by no means certain, it is still possible that the constellation of ideas and perspectives converging from postmodern reflection, recognition of uncertainty in scientific analysis, spiritual bankruptcy inherent in ubiquitous consumerism, growing perceptions of ecological crises, the real possibility of our planet's death, and the return of animistic veneration, a new way of seeing the world and organising knowledge, a new religion, a nature religion, may gain the day and move from a minority, sectarian protest position to become the majority, universal and established status quo. If not at the vanguard per se, nature religion could certainly contribute importantly to the emerging celebration of difference by providing a necessary experiential grounding in immanent sacrality. This would be more certainly the case if the phenomenon known in Complexity Theory as `lock-in' captures the expanding imagination and concern of the general public as it comes to terms with the ever-diminishing but no less real quality of life on Planet Earth.



Tito Arecchi, `Chaos and Complexity', Post-Modern Reader (ed. Charles Jencks), New York: St. Martin's Press / London: Academy Editions; 1992:350-353.

Brian Bocking, `Fundamental Rites? Religion, State, Education and the Invention of Sacred Heritage in post-Christian Britain and pre-War Japan', Religion 25 (1995:227-247).

David Coulby, `Ethnocentricity, Post Modernity and European Curricular Systems',
European Journal Teacher Education 18.2/3 (1995:143-153).

Charles Jencks, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe, London: Academy Editions; 1995.

Stuart A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Margaret Rose, `Defining the Post-Modern', The Post-Modern Reader (ed. Charles Jencks), New York: St. Martin's Press / London: Academy Editions; 1992:119-136.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, New York/London: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Michael York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan
Movements, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.

“            "Postmodernity, Architecture, Society and Religion: A `heap of broken images' or `a change of heart'," ch. 4 in Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (ed. Kieran Flanagan and Peter Jupp), London: Macmillan / New York: St. Martin's Press; 1996:48-63.