What is Humanistic Paganism?

Earth with Sun on Horizon

Humanistic Paganism is a way of life for the 21st century

NOTE:  This article is now outdated and no longer accurate.  For an up-to-date version, see “About > What’s this?” in the menu bar above.

– B. T. Newberg, editor

Humanistic Paganism is a naturalistic* way of life rooted in nature, myth, and wonder.  It accepts modern science as the best way to access knowledge about our world, and myth as a particularly useful means of enriching and deepening experience.  The yield is a life filled with wonder.

Humanistic Paganism is a hybridization of Humanism and Paganism.  Humanism is a life-stance which asserts the power and responsibility of humans to meet challenges without recourse to supernatural aid, while Paganism is a group of religions rooted in Pre-Christian European traditions.[1]  These two cross-fertilize to produce a powerful way of life grounded in modern science and enriched with mythic texture.

Why Humanism?

For many in the 21st century, the metaphysical claims of most major faith traditions are no longer tenable.  Modern science has revealed an orderly universe that is beautiful and complete in and of itself, requiring no divine being(s) to set it in motion or maintain it.  Yet the modern era has also shown us the darkest faces of man, with some of history’s bloodiest wars and most contemptible offenses against humankind.  What we need now is a way of being-in-the-world that fully embraces the advances of modern science while also affirming the dire need for ethics and responsibility.  Humanism is such a way.

Humanism goes beyond atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, and other similar philosophies by introducing an ethical element.  Not only must we invoke no deity to solve our problems, but also we must actively acknowledge our responsibility to solve these problems.  Responsibility is a necessity if we hope to prosper as individuals and as a species on this planet.

Hands holding earth

Humanism affirms our responsibility to ourselves and our planet.

Why Paganism?

A rich tradition lies in our past.  While the Pre-Christian religions of Europe have been largely dormant for many centuries, we are still rooted in a fertile field of Pagan culture, tradition, and symbolic imagery.  The Pagan traditions of our past, embedded in modern Western culture through myth, metaphor, art, music, and other modes of symbolic expression, still speak to many of us in the 21st century.  They form a bedrock of identity and an aquifer of emotive experience.  Pagan myths and rituals offer shared forms and structures enabling the expression of certain human experiences that cannot be fully expressed in any other way.  This expression is vital to human fulfillment, as vital as scientific understanding and ethical action.

Paganism is uniquely suited to fulfilling our human needs at this time in history.  We have learned from centuries of tragedy the danger of promulgating singular dogmas of Truth with a capital “T”, and today’s global village demands that we learn to live peaceably with differences of culture, gender, race, politics, and so forth.  The Abrahamic religions which have dominated the globe, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, focus on single Truths; meanwhile Paganism offers a vision of diversity, with multiple deities, genders, perspectives, and versions of myths.  At the same time, Paganism also grants value to the natural world, which some Abrahamic religions undervalue or even devalue.  For these reasons, the time is right for a resurgence of Pagan forms of being-in-the-world.[2]

Eros and Psyche Roman mosaic

Eros and Psyche Stolent Hearts

Pagan myths, such as that of Eros and Psyche, continue to fascinate us. Above, the same scene is shown in a mosaic from the 3rd century and a modern graphic novel.

Why these two together?

Humanism began in Pagan contexts.  In Europe, Humanism flowered especially in the budding arts and philosophies of Classical Greece.[3]  It declined throughout the Christian period but enjoyed regrowth during the Renaissance, a time which also saw a renewal of Pagan imagery.  Today, Humanism is once again growing at the same time that Paganism is putting out new shoots and buds.  There seems to be something mutually nourishing about the two.

Humanism and Paganism are complementary.  While Humanism is well-adapted to address the latest intellectual and social issues, it lacks the kind of deep symbolic texture conducive to psychological fulfillment.  Paganism is positioned to fill that void, providing a field of symbolic imagery in which the modern individual can feel rooted and nourished.  Meanwhile, Paganism by itself is prone to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism, which embraces a vision of knowledge rooted in the five senses and verified through the scientific method, offers empirical inquiry as a means to sift the wheat from the chaff, as well as to mediate the varieties of Paganism without eradicating their differences.  Together, Humanism and Paganism keep in check and mutually nourish each other.  Humanism keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism enriches Humanism with deep symbolic imagery.

Vitruvian Man with Planet Earth

Together, Humanism and Paganism make for a life grounded in science and enriched with mythic symbolism.

Where does this path lead?

A life grounded in Humanistic Paganism can take a remarkable variety of forms.  For some, Paganism may provide a meaningful backdrop for otherwise secular Humanist activities.  Others may foreground Paganism as a primary spiritual endeavor, informed by the empirical methods of Humanism.  Most will find a balance somewhere in-between.  Amidst such robust diversity, what is held in common?  Four elements unite Humanistic Pagans: exploration of the Five +1, relationship with mythology, responsible action, and a sense of wonder.

Exploration of the “Five +1”: five senses, plus an introspective sense
First of all, the life of Humanistic Paganism is grounded in the five empirical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.  These are the faculties by which we experiment with and learn about our world, and modern science is founded upon information revealed through them via empirical observation.  Yet an important source of information is missing: introspection.  Our minds are also aware of sensations of emotions, thoughts, and mental imagery.  It is expedient, for reasons to be explained shortly, to conceive of this awareness as a semi-empirical faculty of sensation.  This is not to posit a psychic, magical, revelatory, or prophetic “sixth sense”; on the contrary, the introspective sense is natural, materialistic, and thoroughly familiar to all of us.  We simply don’t usually think of it as a sense.  But something is gained by conceiving of it as such – namely, the power to stand back and observe the contents of our minds.  We spend so much time completely identified with our thoughts and emotions that it rarely occurs to us to observe them as such.  Yet doing so is a powerful means of growing in self-knowledge. It is also the method which enables exploration of traditionally theistic practices from a naturalistic point of view.  Meditation, prayer, ritual, and so forth can be approached as practices with observable effects upon the mind.  Introspection allows observation of these effects.  Thinking of it as faculty of sensation allows one to observe mental phenomena without getting lost in them.

Of course, this process is not entirely empirical.  While all perception is subject to influence by unconscious prejudices and biases, mental phenomena are particularly malleable.  Furthermore, it is difficult if not impossible to subject interior sensations to peer review, which is a key element of the scientific method.  For these reasons, the introspective sense is called “semi-empirical”, while “empirical” is reserved for the five external faculties of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

The sum total of senses available to are the “Five +1.”  This term avoids confusion with the paranormal connotations of “sixth sense.”  The Five +1 are the natural, ordinary, and familiar powers by which all human beings learn about their world and themselves.

All inferences we need make about the world and how we ought to live can be traced back to these six sources of empirical and semi-empirical data shared equally by all humans.  Those things neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by reference to the five senses are simply placed in the category “unknown.”  For example, metaphysical claims not subject to verification via the Five +1, such as the existence of divine beings or authority of revealed texts, are unknowns.  The introspective experiences of others are also appropriately labeled unknown, even if one’s own such experiences are knowable.  As a result of this method, Humanistic Paganism is equally accessible to all.  There is no dependence on individuals, texts, or initiations privileged with special authority; every Humanistic Pagan can investigate truth-claims for him or herself.  Furthermore, truths once found can be shared with others without special pleading; they can be demonstrated through simple empirical verification.  This allows the development of a common body of knowledge and experience shared by all, accessible to all, and uniting all.  Humanistic Pagans thus devote themselves to the contemplation of the Five +1 and the study of knowledge deriving from them.

Relationship with mythology
Second, the Humanistic Pagan cultivates a relationship with a mythology, a set of cultural symbols drawn from Pagan tradition.  There is no need to posit the real, independent existence of deities or the historicity of mythic events; instead, these may be treated as shared cultural forms and structures uniquely capable of expressing certain facets of human experience.[4]  In this way, the individual opens to a deeper, more comprehensive field of expression than is communicable by purely rational, scientific reasoning.[5]  Relationship with a mythology may take some active attunement.  This can be accomplished through researching a Pagan culture, meditating on its symbols, sharing its myths with others, and participating in rituals designed to inspire.  The net effect of such effort is not only familiarity with Pagan mythology but also self-development, as the psychological nature of the work can unleash new levels of self-awareness and understanding.  Humanistic Pagans thus devote themselves to mythological development.  In this way, they embrace not only the science but also the art of life.

Responsible action

Third, Humanistic Pagans accept responsibility for their actions.  Our impact on the world is more visible than ever in this age of globalization and environmental crisis.  The mere act of living has consequences for society and nature, and the way we choose to live can help or hinder.  Accepting responsibility involves two affirmations: first, that we cause many if not most of our problems, in whole or in part; and second, that we are capable of solving our problems.  We have no need of divine or supernatural aid; the power is ours.  Thus, Humanistic Pagans devote themselves to meeting the challenges of life with positive action.

A sense of wonder

Finally, the life of the Humanistic Pagan is marked by a sense of wonder.  The mysteries of the natural world, from human psychology to the farthest star, never cease to fascinate.  If any aspect of the path truly deserves to be called spiritual, this is it.  Wonder is that feeling felt in the presence of natural beauty – beauty which is all the more astounding for having been self-created, free of purpose.  Humanistic Pagans sense the sublime majesty of nature, and know that they belong to that very majesty as integral parts of the whole.  Wonder is also felt upon the realization that within that whole we are free to determine our own purpose, free of any interloping deity and free of the threat of what may come after death.  Wonder is what is felt when we understand that the present moment is all that is certain, all that we have, and all that we need.  The thing that makes life worth living is, at bedrock, wonder.  Humanistic Pagans acknowledge that, and nurture their natural sense of connection to nature through wonder.

These four characteristics unite the cornucopia of diverse lifestyles grounded in Humanistic Paganism.   Through dedication to the Five +1, mythological development, responsible action, and wonder, Humanistic Pagans embrace a powerful way of being-in-the-world.  They take a life-stance rooted in the best aspects of Humanism and Paganism, two traditions that together give birth to a hardy hybrid well-suited to the modern era.  They walk a path that is positive, fulfilling, and ultimately life-affirming.  That path celebrates human experience, diversity, and the natural world.  It makes virtues of human reason, self-development, responsibility, and curiosity.  It addresses the intellectual, social, and psychological needs of our time.  Through it, one may live a life grounded in modern science, enriched with mythic symbolism, and inspired toward responsible action and wonder.  Humanistic Paganism is a path of human fulfillment for the 21st century.

Steps at Haguro-san Jinja

The life of Humanistic Paganism follows a path of empirical science, mythic symbolism, responsible action, and wonder.

*Editor’s note: The original article read “a nontheistic way of life, but this has been changed to naturalistic.  Nontheism, indicating a path in which God or gods are not the central concern, is the correct theological term, but it caused confusion.  Many thought it meant a complete absence of gods and god-talk.  Thus, we now speak in terms of naturalism, which indicates a methodology where all causes are sought within the natural world, not the supernatural.  Gods are viewed as natural entities emerging from human psychology and culture.

[1] “Paganism” can also be used more broadly to mean virtually any non-Abrahamic religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, etc.  While the value of these traditions is acknowledged, it becomes extremely difficult to make any valid generalizations about Paganism at such a broad level.  Thus, I restrict myself to European forms.  Even within Europe, there is a wide variety of different traditions that should be carefully distinguished.  Mixing and matching generally produces superficial results, so the Humanistic Pagan would be well-advised to stick to a single culture with a single pantheon or mythology, such as Norse, Greek, Gaelic, Roman, etc., within any given ritual or meditation.

[2] Indeed, such a resurgence is already underway. For a good primer on the modern Pagan revival see Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, and for a broad account of Paganism from ancient to modern times, see Jones and Pennick’s A History of Pagan Europe.

[3] Non-European roots of Humanism are also acknowledged.  Confucianism, for example, is a particularly venerable tradition basically Humanistic in outlook.  Also, it should be noted that Classical Greek Humanism was significantly different from modern forms of Humanism, as was Renaissance Humanism.  All these should be considered historical strata contributing to the overall character of modern Humanism.

[4] While some Pagans today do assert the real, independent existence of deities, many others do not.  Both literal and metaphorical interpretations have precedents going back millennia, all the way to Classical times.  Thus, Humanistic Pagans should be aware of and sensitive to those who interpret deities literally, but know that neither interpretation has any more claim to the “real” Pagan tradition.

[5] This is not to imply that a life without mythology is necessarily incomplete, only that a life with it opens certain doors, just as an artist’s life is certainly enriched in ways not so for those with no interest or inclination to create art.  Mythology enriches the lives of those inclined to it.

ACLU – fighting to preserve freedom of thought
American Humanist Association – a national organization of Humanists
Center for Spiritual Atheism – project to unify spiritual atheists
Druidic Order of Naturalists – Celtic-inspired organization of naturalists
Naturalistic Paganism – Yahoo! Group for naturalistic pagans
Planet Humanism – blogroll of Humanist and Humanism-related blogs
Reason and Reverence, by William Murray, at UUWorld.org
Spiritual Humanism – organization promoting religion based on science and reason, with ordination available
The Humanist – a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern
Theoi Greek Mythology – comprehensive and historically accurate encyclopedia of Greek mythology
World Pantheism Movement – community of naturalistic pantheists with an active Ning.

Image Credits (in order of appearance)
Earth with Sunrise – source unknown
Hands Holding Earth
Psyche and the Sleeping Eros, Roman mosaic 3rd century AD, Antakya Museum
Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche (Campfire Graphic Novels), by Ryan Foley
“Vitruvian Man with Planet Earth” created from original and original by B. T. Newberg
“Steps at Haguro-san Jinja, Yamagata-ken” by B. T. Newberg

This article has been translated into Italian.

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