Since the early 1970s the term nature religion has been used to denote religions that share a reverence for nature and consider it to be divine, sacred, or populated by spiritual beings. Practitioners of paganism and Wicca use the term as a descriptive umbrella for all earth- and nature-oriented spiritualities. Under nature religion they place spiritualities and customs they believe were prevalent before the expansion of the world's dominant religions. Nature religions thus include Norse, Celtic, and Germanic myths and folkways; polytheistic, pantheistic, animistic, fertility-oriented, and goddess-worshiping religions; shamanism and tribal (indigenous) religions; many New Age beliefs and practices; environmental spiritualities such as deep ecology; and the increasingly plural forms of contemporary paganism. Nature religions are often portrayed by contemporary pagans as having survived repression by the world's dominant religions, recently emerging from hiding or being revived through imaginative reconstruction based upon the surviving fragments of earlier repressed forms of nature-based spirituality.
This typical pagan understanding sees nature religions as resisting the centralized authority and global expansion of secularized, modern capitalism, as well as the world's dominant religions, which are said to desacralize nature, thereby removing constraints on its destruction. Pagans tend to view nature religions as pursuing decentralized social, economic, and religious communities as a path toward harmony with nature and intimate spiritual connections with a sacred world.
Some scholars express a similar understanding of nature religions. Others, however, through an anlysis of European and American history, understand nature religion to include a much wider range of phenomena. Indeed, they include under the "nature religion" rubric groups with whom most contemporary nature religionists would rather not associate.
In Nature Religion in America, Catherine Albanese argued that nature religionists, despite their rhetoric and their own perceptions, often seek not harmony with nature or other people but control and mastery over them. She analyzed the natural rights and republican philosophies of America's founders, for example, and found that their ideas were grounded in freemasonry and deism, both of which in turn claimed to ground religion, through reason, in nature. These two influential forms of nature religion in America perceived nature as sacred and certainly articulated the universalistic ideals of the Enlightenment. However, such nature religion, Albanese claimed, reflected republican nationalism and masked an impulse for the mastery of nature as well as nonelite humans. Moreover, such religion obscured and justified the worst features of the young, expansionist, agrarian nation.
Through an analysis of many additional examples of nature religion in American history, Albanese concluded that it is difficult for nature religions to escape the mastery impulse. She also noted the irony that in nature religion mastery is often pursued through magical or mystical means, through the attempted supernatural manipulation of the natural.
Scholarly attention to the ironies and "shadow side" of nature religion has increased. Ferry (1995), Kaplan (1997; 1999), and Olsen (1999), for example, recently documented the sometimes close connection between racist and far-right political movements, including Nazism and contemporary right-wing ecology movements in North America and Euope. Various nature religions—perhaps Ásatrú and certainly its racist counterpart, Odinism—fit this category as well. (Ásatrú and Odinism, forms of paganism that draw on pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic myths and folk cultures, are currently undergoing a revival in Northern Europe and America.)
Given their inventiveness and perhaps reflecting the penchant of participants to be influenced by scholarly analyses, some current forms of nature religion are developing science-based worldviews and cosmogonies that seek to eschew supernaturalism and resist the "mastery impulse." Deep ecology advocates usually view humans as only one species among others, for example, endowed with no special divine privilege. Meanwhile a number of newer organizations, such as the Epic of Evolution Society and the Society for Scientific Pantheism, as well as some practitioners of paganism and Wicca, are like-minded in this regard.
An interesting question for the future, therefore, is whether forms will evolve that overturn the "mastery impulse" and the supernaturalism that seem to be persistent, if ironic, characteristics of nature religion in contemporary America.
Albanese, C. L. Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. 1990.
Ferry, L. The New Ecological Order. 1992. Reprint, 1995.
Kaplan, J. Radical Religion in America. 1997.
——. "Savitri Devi and the National Socialist Religion of Nature." Pomegranate 7 (February 1999): 4–12.
Olsen, J. Nature and Nationalism: Right Wing Ecology andthe Politics of Identity in Contemporary Germany. 1999.
Taylor, B. "Nature and Supernature—Harmony and Mastery: Irony and Evolution in Contemporary Nature Religion." Pomegranate 8 (1999): 21–27.