Facts & Fallacies About Urban Spirituality

FALLACY: Urban spirituality is about hating the wilderness and / or rural lands.

FACT: Urban spirituality is simply lacking a spiritual connection to the rustic lands. We acknowledge that the rural lands are necessary, and we acknowledge a dependency on them for survival, but the celebration of said is kept to a minimum, and is never a lifelong focus of the urban spiritualist.

FALLACY: Even people with a deep spiritual connection to cities must get out in the woods every so often for their physical and spiritual well-being!

FACT: That really depends on the person. Some do, others do not. People with allergies to pollens tend to avoid rural and wooded lands as a precautionary measure for their physical well-being — and sometimes, all the antihistamine in the world can’t prevent an allergic reaction, sometimes one even has an allergy to allergy meds. While one cannot deny the higher concentration of pollutants in urban areas, recent studies now suggest that the biggest contributor to both urban congestion and local pollution is actually people commuting from the suburbs. In large metropolitan cities, a proportionately very high percentage of people use public transportation as their primary mode of travel, when compared to that percentage in smaller towns (which seldom even have decent, if any public transportation), a majority of cars on the streets of Chicago at any one time are most likely to belong to people from the suburbs who’d rather ferry themselves in inside their little status-symbol-on-wheels rather than taking the Metra in from Aurora. If you want to reduce pollution, become a farmer who ventures out to the city a few times a month, or move to the city and get a transit pass.

As for spiritual well-being, a lot of urban spiritualists actually experience a spiritual unbalance in rural lands. Sometimes, this unbalance can be settled by merely entering a city.

FALLACY: Ancient cities were NOT “urban” by modern standards! Ancient cities were far more connected to the green lands around them!

FACT: The above statement could not be any more false. Ancient cities were typically loud, smelly, polluted, cramped, and hotbeds of criminal activity. Sound familiar? Heck, I just described 1960s Detroit. Sure, the technology wasn’t to the point it’s at today, so the ancient concept of industrialisation sure was different, but that’s the only real difference.

Furthermore, the idea that ancient cities were somehow so much more connected to the rural lands, if only for a source of food, might make sense in print at first, but if you really dig into the history, you’ll discover it’s also false. Food shortages in Rome were relatively common compared to food shortages in even major cities just prior the Industrial Revolution. It was a common tactic of war for one city to cut off trade routes to the city they were battling with, specifically to cause a food shortage for civilians and manipulate the politics to their favour. If there was even some deep physical connection between the cities and the farmlands back then, then how was it so relatively easy to cause famine in the cities? To say things like the above statement is simply nothing more than romantic notions about the relative spiritual “purity” of ancient people compared those of us in the modern age based on false ideas and pure ignorance of ancient realities.

Yes, there is a clear emotional disconnect between the average Amerikan city and its source of food —your typical Amerikan store-bought meats are faceless, limbless, and clothed in styrofoam and clingfilm, but the shelf life of meats being what they are, I can guarantee you that not a single major U$ city is more than a couple hours drive (tops) from a slaughterhouse, and even New York City still has an operable meat-packing district. The biggest physical disconnect that modern people have from their food source is basically all the cheap imported grains and produce, which have longer shelf-lives, especially if it’s things that can be packed in tins and airtight jars, dried, or otherwise preserved for longer shelf-life.

That said, the average middle class Greek or Roman had at least one slave doing their shopping —at ancient Rome’s peak, it’s said that there were more slaves than freepersons within the city limits— so there was still a clear physical disconnect between one and one’s food —if one was free, and even if not, there was a political disconnect. And even the ancient urban freeperson working-class still tended to pay some-one else to do the dirty work of slaughtering and feathering chickens, tilling and harvesting beans and barley, and so on.

If you break down the basics of ancient versus modern realities, is there really miles of disconnect between the city and the countryside now, in comparison to then, or is it more like only a few steps? And how important are those steps, really? I’d wager if the average rural pagan truly believed those steps were all that important, there would be far more pagan homesteaders than there currently are now —and even then I’d still wager that some would be (and are!) urban spiritual.

FALLACY: There is no historic or mythological basis for urban spirituality. Everybody knows that!

FACT: Wrong! Fortunately, I don’t see or hear this one all that much, because even the most cursory skimming of any relevant text will show that there are, indeed, deities and spirits that the ancients believed were connected to their cities, there were religious festivals that were connected to the cities, and even Pan, the most rustic of the rustic gods, was believed to inhabit the alleyways of ancient Athens.

FALLACY: There’s no such thing as urban paganism! LOL! Everybody knows that “pagan” means “nature religions”!

FACT: First off, I get this more often than some people are likely to believe —both explicitly and implicitly. The fact of the matter is, anthropologists tend to refer to any pre-Christian and / or polytheistic or animistic religion as “pagan” —including the religions practised in large, nay metropolitan ancient Mediterranean cities including Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, so clearly from an anthropological sense, there is such a thing as “urban paganism”. Furthermore, there is even “urban paganism” in a modern sense, though it is a very small niche market of pagan publishing. I only know of THREE “general neo-poagan” books ever published that relate specifically to urban spirituality and practise: The Urban Pagan: Magical Living in a 9-to-5 World by Patricia Telesco, City Magick: Spells, Rituals, and Symbols for the Urban Witch by Christopher Penczak, and The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle by Raven Kaldera & Tannin Schwartzstein; the first of these is out-of-print, the last of these is so heavily steeped with an unapolgetic bias toward rural spirituality that I cannot, in good consciousness, recommend it because it celebrates many of the false beliefs illustrated above (and not to mention many others unrelated specifically to urban spirituality). I haven’t yet read City Magick, now in its second edition, but I hope it’s at least slightly better than Urban Primitive, with regards to its portrayal of urban spirituality —even if the rest of it is, as the sole one-star reviewer on Amazon states, “New Age pot-pourri rubbish”. It’s also been so long since I’ve read Telesco’s book, and I lack my own copy for reference, that I simply cannot give it a fair assessment —though, for what it’s worth, I remember it being somewhat better than Kaldera and Schwartzstein’s implicitly impugning portrayal of urban spirituality. Compare this to the literally dozens and dozens of books about “pagan gardening” and “finding the divine in the woods” and how much even the most ostensibly generalised neo-pagan manuals will dedicate to hailing the rustic and woodland divine to the point of practically ignoring the divine urban.

FALLACY: There is no need for urban spiritualists to feel so left out —the pagan community is very open-minded and welcoming to ALL!

FACT: The reasons for the urban spiritual market being so small and still so biased toward rustic spirituality are clear to any pagan or polytheist with a sense of history and a well-rounded lived reality: The neo-pagan movement really hasn’t moved past its initial 19th Century Romanticism that disproportionately celebrates the countryside and “getting back to nature”. As such, there is very much a self-enforced standard in the modern neo-pagan community of “city = BAD!!!! >:-( country = Good! :-)” —and nearly every pagan / polytheist I’ve personally met, self included, who has dared to proudly declare their lived reality of completely lacking any spiritual connection to the rustic lands has voiced being blamed for all manner of societal ills that really have nothing to do with urban life (including things that even rural people are no strangers to, like racism or sexism and war), being told one’s spirituality realities are false, and sometimes simply being clearly actively ostracised from the local community (sometimes in kinder ways than in others). While many pagans insist that they’re open-minded when the reality is that there is really very little open-mindedness when it comes to urban spirituality. While many pagans may have a justifiable complaint that too many outside the pagan and polytheist community assume we’re all barefoot hippies dancing in the woods, there is precious little done to combat that self-perpetuating stereotype: Just go to pretty much any pagan Internet forum, and the header image is more likely to be some kind of wooded glen or “green and fertile valley” than it is to be some benign and unassuming symbol (though these are often-enough incorporated into the image). Go to any given pagan or polytheist blog, and you’re very likely to see something similar.

If those who most-easily fill a spiritual void in an urban place rather than in the countryside feel like there’s little to no place for them in the pagan community, then what reasoning is there to assume that this is a baseless assumption rather than an expression of one’s own lived reality? It’s not like there’s a shortage of good and excellent guides to pagan camping in favour of pages about “pagan couch-surfing” or “pagan squatting”. It’s not like the celebrated image of the pagan community is a priest at the immense library of the metropolitan ancient Alexandria, or Diogenes living on the streets of Athens rather than a kindly-eyed witch in a cottage in the woods, or a stag-horned God in repose in a shaded part of the forest. It’s not like the worldwide community of self-identified pagans has done much, if anything meaningful to broaden its image from “nature-worshipping neo-romanticists” to “all manner of pre-Christian polytheism from erudite urban spirituality to nature-sensitive rustic worshippers”.


17 thoughts on “Facts & Fallacies About Urban Spirituality

  1. Thank you for this, I do plan to link it to a few social media sites. Just this week I faced several of these, trying to explain that pagan isn’t synonymous with sitting in a field of tall grass and trees staring up at the moon with Bambi – which shows that even amongst those that believe nature is the only way to commune, it is always the forest and meadows. There are deserts and beaches and rocky lands that barely have scrub grass as well. So many landscapes and most never represented.

    Sadly, most don’t seem to want to accept there is another side to things in the pagan community, as evidenced by the reaction to urban spirituality and other nonmainstream expression that fall under the same umbrella term.

    That’s why I’m glad you also mentioned fallacy of the pagan community as being open and accepting of all. While it can be a place to find one’s niche and others of a like mind, that old saw about love and respect for all does typically fall short of the reality. An excellent piece I shall reference many to when I get that cockeyed look for not running about in the woods every full moon.


    • Oh, deserts are wonderful places! Honestly, the California desert was the *closest* I’d ever come to feeling the divine “in nature” (I’m also tempted to nit-pick that humans, being a product of nature, scientifically speaking, thus cannot do anything “unnatural” —it is within our nature to build cities the same way ants create these beautiful and oft-elaborate mounds with complex underground tunnels; but I shall spare you, cos that’s really the gist of it all). Hell, it was the southwest desert where Jim Morrison first felt the call of The Lizard King, so I really question the knowledge of any self-identified pagan who refuses to acknowledge the spiritual elements of the desert.


      • Exactly. That is where I grew up and I’ve never felt the same connection to anywhere as I have in the Mojave Desert. I’ve had more than one person tell me though that I don’t understand communing with nature, I just need to keep doing it until I’m comfortable with it. I think a person knows what they’re comfortable with without that. That said, to deny urban areas with their own spirituality is to deny the drive and intelligence we have, as if it isn’t as connected with the divine as a tree is. 


        • YES!

          See, I understand the need to push against one’s comfort zone for growth, but there’s a point where you learn whether or not that’s taking you where you need to go. Continuing to push won’t make you go anywhere —spiritual growth isn’t like tiny drops of rain whittling out a valley, you either progress with certain activities, or you don’t.

          And yes, human intelligence, ingenuity, and technology are all just as divine (or potentially so) as deer and birds and rivers and all that. As a Hellenist, I recognise Hermes (easily argued as one of the most tech-friendly of the classic Olympians) as the father of Pan —I can easily say it’s that drive to build something as comfortable and convenient as not only farm tech, but a modern metropolis is evidence of a divine spark in humanity, and it was therefore this drive of progress that opened humanity’s eyes up to the divine in nature; that “awakening” doesn’t make the city less divine, it simply means that the human race has the ability to see all that is divine, which includes the city just as much as the countryside.

          Sorry for waxing philosophical, but I had an idea and I ran with it. 🙂


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  3. Like I guessed some people said already : thank you very much for this post. Its historic acuity and ‘common sense’ (in the positive meaning) is really a relief. Despite all that I know of our modern lives, I still feel ashamed most of the time to be a shamanist practicionneer and polytheist who does not live or go in/to nature. I think this topic is clearly a burning issue.

    I will feature you on my blog at the end of Marsh, this article needs to be spread.


    •  Thanks so much for your comment!

      Believe me, I understand a reasonable push to re-rural(?) the modern world, and spirituality is often a step in that direction; a lot of people who have small homestead farms (as opposed to commercial farming, obviously), though I don’t know how high a percentage, do cite some spiritual reason behind initially getting into that, whether it’s pagan or “folk Christian”, spiritual is spiritual, and if some-one can make their lives and their communities better for it, all the better.  Homesteading is perfectly sustainable (if done right, of course), and it will offer the world some welcomed benefits.

      What I don’t get it the pagan community’s clear bias toward rustic and provincial spirituality and the implicity, and often explicit guilt-tripping of any-one who simply lacks any ability to commune spiritually with natural and / or pastoral lands.  While I understand the intent behind it, it does no-one any good to outright alienate potential allies with an idealogical One True Wayism; it’s bad enough when a specific religious community pulls that sort of thing, so when an overwhelming majority of people who practise a religion or spiritual path that tends to fall under an entire umbrella of paths does it, the fact that it’s a problem is magnified, even if many who refuse to acknowledge it’s a problem.


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  5. YES! Power to the Urban Pagans 😀 While I admit I miss my wilderness in my backyard that I had growing up, I love the “urban jungle” for it’s accessibility to different cultures and walks of life that I didn’t have in my rural upbringing. That said, I still visit parks and try to experience nature whenever I can…I just don’t live off the land. If anything, this forces me to find the deeper meanings in Sabbats so I don’t lose connection with, say, Imbolc because I don’t have sheep or Mabon because I don’t have a harvest. 


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