Nontheistic ritual: Is it effective?

Hollow inside tree trunk in Loring Park

The retreat yielded neither peace nor serenity, but led deep inside toward self-discovery.

photo by B. T. Newberg

– by B. T. Newberg

Two weeks ago I completed a seven-day Humanistic Pagan retreat.  In this post, I evaluate the effectiveness of the retreat, and then focus on one of its most controversial aspects: nontheistic ritual.

Was the retreat effective?

Effectiveness can only be assessed in terms of objectives.  The goals of the retreat were to:

  • put into practice the principles of Humanistic Paganism
  • relieve stress after a demanding graduate program

The first goal is self-explanatory – the daily posts of the retreat serve as record and testimony to the practical implementation of Humanistic Paganism.  The second is more complex.  The short answer is yes, the retreat helped relieve loads of stress.  The long answer is that a complicated series of practices proved effective in making a change in the subconscious mind.

Essentially, stress is an internal response to demands in the environment that seem beyond the ability to cope.  After the triggering event, the effects of stress linger as the mind continues to hold on to that anxiety.  Relieving stress is thus a matter of making a change in the mind.

The retreat served remarkably well for making that change.  It didn’t grant peace or serenity, but it completely turned me around.  Before the retreat, I felt the urge to “run away” every time I thought about my career as a teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language).  I’d put in as much as ninety-five hours per week during the grad program in order to get my teachers license.  At the end of it, I felt not only exhausted but also phobic.  The thought of what my first year of teaching would be like terrified me.  Would I be able to handle the stress?  Would I end up getting stress-induced illnesses, like I did during the grad program?  Would I have to quit half-way through the year as a result?  I could hardly bear to contemplate it.  Now, I am normally a fairly confident person with no history of psychosomatic illness.  Obviously, something big was going on deep inside me, somewhere in the subconscious.  Thanks to the retreat, I was able to confront it.  I came out feeling like I’d made a 180-degree turn, like I was no longer running away but now facing it directly.  It wasn’t that everything felt cheery and hopeful now, but rather that I’d found the courage and strength to meet challenges head on.

You wouldn’t think that a regimen of myth, ritual, and meditation would be the best way to do that.  It might seem like questioning your beliefs or giving yourself a good pep-talk would be the best route.  The problem with such rational approaches is that they tend to stay on the conscious level, whereas the root of the issue may lie deep in the subconscious.  Thus, you have to communicate with your subconscious in a language it understands: the language of symbols.  The imagery of myth, the physical postures and gestures of ritual, and the clear perception of meditation all work together to send a message the subconscious can understand.  Using symbolic images and actions, these practices activate neural networks that go beyond conscious, discursive thought and access deeper levels of the mind.  In this way, more of yourself is recruited to the effort at hand.

Overall, I’ve experienced lasting effects from the retreat, including relief of stress and a renewed sense of wonder.  The benefits of some of the practices that contributed to this are well-established: exercise, diet, spending time in nature.  Others are more controversial.  The rest of this post will be devoted to one of the most debatable aspects: nontheistic ritual.

Sprouting leaves in cave of tree trunk in Loring Park

Plunging into the recesses of the subconscious, ritual led to life renewed.

photo by B. T. Newberg

Was nontheistic ritual effective?

Nontheism can be described as practice which is not primarily concerned with the divine.  Deities may or may not be part of the picture.  Buddhism, for example, is considered a nontheistic religion since it is primarily concerned with human enlightenment, even though the Buddha talked about numerous deities.  Goals of nonthestic practice may include psychological benefit, creative inspiration, social integration, and so on.  Nontheistic ritual, then, is ritual with the primary aim of human development.

During the retreat, I made daily water libations to the goddess Isis.  This ritual proved profoundly effective, despite my belief that deities exist only in the mind.  How could that be?  The answer requires a foray into the psychology of ritual, and the relation of the conscious and subconscious mind.

Conscious thought is but the tip of the iceberg, or as cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson puts it, more like “a snowball on the tip of the iceberg.”  It is associated with the prefrontal cortex, which was the last major region of the brain to evolve.  Now, when evolution upgrades, it doesn’t re-invent, it revises.  It builds on what was previously present.  That means that the human brain is but a revision of the brains of our ancestors, going back to mammals, reptiles, and all the way back to the earliest nervous systems.  We still have those early-evolved systems operating in our own contemporary brain structures.  It’s a bit like having Windows on your computer screen, but still having DOS running in the background.  Just as computers don’t operate primarily on what we see on the screen but on hidden bits of binary code, so too do we operate on a different language.  The largest part of us does not process information in terms of conscious, rational, discursive thought, but in terms of instincts, emotions, associations, habits, and gut reactions.  If we want to make a change in our life, we need to plug into that part of our minds.  Otherwise, the change will fail to penetrate to the root, and we’ll become frustrated with the results.  One way to reach the subconscious is through spiritual practices.  By engaging the language of symbols, we can send a message that gets through to those parts of the brain that evolved before rational thought but which are still very much a part of our human operating system.

I found ritual effective in communicating with the subconscious.  The rhythm of chanting put my mind into a slightly-altered state, open to non-discursive information.  Meanwhile, the physical gesture of offering water as a libation to the goddess Isis activated neural networks surrounding the ancient practice of gift-giving (for cognitive effects of ritual bodily gesture, go here).  Feelings of generosity, gratitude, and relationship emerged in response.  Finally, speaking to the the statue of Isis, even though fully aware that no deity existed outside the mind, initiated the enormously-complex neural program of communication.  The words didn’t matter half as much as the feeling of relatedness, which I can only describe with Martin Buber as an I-Thou relationship.  A qualitative change in consciousness occurs when we address a being as a subject rather than as a mere object or instrument of use-value.  That change occurs naturally for most of us when we converse with people.  The same happens for many who talk to pets, even though they know full well the animals don’t understand their words.  For some who have established a relationship over time with a figure of myth, as I have with Isis, the relationship is similar.  There is no need to believe literally in the existence of the deity any more than there is to believe that your pet can understand English.  The brain reacts the same.  What’s more, that reaction happens on more than just a verbal level; it engages the whole mind.  Nonverbals, including gesture, posture, and vocal tone, recall modes of communication used by mammalian and reptilian ancestors that are still part of our human functioning today.  As a result, the message gets through to the subconscious.  Deeper parts of the mind understand that something out of the ordinary is happening, and suspend habitual patterns of behavior accordingly.  That’s why it becomes possible to make a change.  Old habits are disrupted, and the mind becomes open to forming new patterns.  Ritual opens the mind to change.

A further aspect of ritual may contribute to its effectiveness: interaction with extraordinary, even impossible beings.  Deities shock the mind into paying attention, because they are entirely out of the ordinary.  Pascal Boyer suggests that the mind perceives things in terms of basic ontological categories, and those that defy the typical attributes of their category, such as winds that talk or bushes that burn without being consumed, are more memorable to the mind.  Deities are non-human entities that display will and personhood, and affect the world despite having no material bodies.  These are highly-counterintuitive attributes.  As a result, they send a message to the subconscious, the same very simple message we’ve seen all along: that something out of the ordinary is happening.  It doesn’t seem to matter, in my experience, whether you believe the gods are real beings or not.  So long as you are able to temporarily suspend disbelief, in the very same way as with a story or movie, the brain reacts the same.  Before and after the experience there may be some cognitive dissonance (for examples, go here, here, and here), but that is not necessarily bad.  It can be taken as a sign that what you are doing is getting through to the subconscious, enough that it is responding with palpable discomfort.  That discomfort, in turn, can be used as a stimulus for reflection and contemplation.  And since you know the subconscious is now listening, that reflection is more likely to be effective in creating lasting change.

Ritual is a complex practice influencing the subconscious mind from multiple directions.  By accessing the symbolic language of imagery, gesture, and action, and by relating to beings that defy the attributes of their category, it disrupts habits and creates a sense of the extraordinary.  This results in what educators call a “teachable moment.”  Alert to new threats or rewards in the environment, the mind opens to a moment of learning.  Ritual is a tool to educate the mind.

Implications for further Humanistic Pagan retreats

The bottom line is that this retreat offers support for Humanistic Paganism as a viable path.  Principles have been put into practice, and effects have been measured.  Nontheistic ritual has proven powerful for stress-relief as well as self-discovery.  Further retreats may thus benefit from the model provided here.

Must every Humanistic Pagan retreat look like this?  Absolutely not. This retreat was highly contextualized to my own situation and needs.  Furthermore, it drew on some eleven years of practice in meditation and retreat within numerous spiritual traditions.  Others coming from different situations should modify the regimen to address their needs and take advantage of their own background and skills.  For example, those who relate to mythological deities better as characters in stories may choose to dramatically re-enact the myths rather than perform ritual.  It is up to the individual to decide what suits them best.  There is no one authentic way to practice Humanistic Paganism.

Of course, changes in the retreat will produce changes in results.  The watchword in all cases is empirical investigation.  Whatever practices you adopt, treat them as experiments and observe effects on the quality of your experience.  Thanks to the Five +1 (five senses, plus one introspective sense), we are empowered to see for ourselves the potential of spiritual practices.  Rather than relying on traditional religious authorities, we can take the matter into our own hands.  We can take responsibility for our own self-development.

Plants sprouting in asphalt in parking lot

At the end of the journey: renewal of life.

photo by B. T. Newberg

13 Comments on “Nontheistic ritual: Is it effective?

  1. Fascinating stuff. I really appreciate these explorations. However, I wonder if “nontheistic” is really an accurate descriptor for a ritual that involves gods, however they are conceptualized. Perhaps you are making a case for a naturalistic theism.

    • Thanks, Editor B. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts.

      Could you educate me a little about “naturalistic theism”?

    • Thanks for your comment, Editor B. From what I can tell from scouring the Internet, “naturalistic theism” involves either the rejection of God or the rejection of God’s providential activity in the world. The latter indicates a positive belief in divine existence, but without belief that God intercedes in natural events (i.e. no miracles), as is the case in Deism or Epicureanism. Such a belief might be at home in Humanistic Paganism, but it does not encompass the full range of HP beliefs or their specific thrust.

      Further, “naturalistic” may be problematic from a Pagan perspective. The natural/supernatural distinction breaks down in the Neopagan community, because Pagans, being devotees of nature, routinely claim that their gods are part of nature, hence natural (but not just allegory; their real-existing divine entitites are part of the natural order). Thus, entities that would clearly be supernatural from another perspective, are considered natural from the Pagan perspective. So, “naturalistic” doesn’t quite work in this case.

      “Nontheism” is an established technical term that conveys the precise thrust of Humanistic Paganism. Humanism means centered on human needs and interests, and nontheism means not primarily centered on divine needs and interests. So the two go together as positive and negative formulations of each other. Admittedly the word itself may be deceiving, insofar as its roots may seem to imply a “no gods” idea, but the established meaning of the term is exactly on target.

      • Thanks for doing the research for me. The “naturalistic theism” phrase was something I just threw out off the top of my head. I was just about to do a net-search when I caught your reply. So, thanks again. Also I found your explication of complications with the term “naturalistic” in the pagan context helpful.

        But it does seem like there should be a better description of a ritual that involves deity such as you describe. There’s an interesting tension here, and “nontheistic ritual” doesn’t capture that for me. It sets up an expectation of ritual devoid of any reference to the divine. I mean, singing “Happy Birthday” is a “nontheistic ritual,” right? A secular humanist wedding might be a better example. What you describe — meditating on a divine image, even if from a humanistic perspective — surely qualifies as theistic in some sense.

        Maybe “nontheistic theism”? I’m only half-joking.

        • I get your point. Regardless of the technical meaning of the term, it doesn’t sum it up for you. I can see that. Hmm… I’ll have to think about what else might work for the purpose…

        • What if “humanistic ritual” were used to describe the kind of ritual, with “nontheism” reserved for technical discussions of a theological nature?

        • I thought about that too, but while I see that term (humanistic ritual) as accurate, it doesn’t include the theistic-yet-not element which is what I find so intriguing. I personally don’t see the term ritual itself as embodying the tension on this axis. Rituals can be secular, religious, private, public, all manner of things. So really it’s not even the ritual that I’m harping on, but the perspective on deity. Maybe you should call it (drum roll) humanistic paganism. Oh — wait… And yet even that term might seem to refer to a practice with no reference to gods whatsoever. It’s a broad and inclusive term which I appreciate. I’m just fascinated by how you incorporate Isis in your practice in a non-trivial yet thoroughly nontheistic way. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe just a reflection on my own evolving notions of what deity means anyway.

  2. Interesting!

    I have to ask a question, though. Throughout your retreat write-ups, and in this particular entry as well, you’ve been pretty focused on the matter of “belief” (or lack thereof) in the existence of deities. (There’s a whole possible discussion that could be inserted here on the fact that paganism and religions of practice and experience like it have never been particularly creedal in focus, thus the entire matter of belief becomes somewhat irrelevant, but I’ll spare you that!) You’ve said that deities exist in the mind, and yet in doing so I think you’ve put a bit of a distance between your own mind and yourself as a result, because you’re still saying “They’re not real, they’re not really real, they only exist in my mind, and therefore that’s not real,” at least as I’m reading it. Whenever you talked about your practices with Isis, that matter kept coming up…

    You’ve also stated here that you undertook this retreat to (in part) relieve some stress, but in fact stress, also, in some sense “isn’t real” because it also only exists in your mind. Yet, you dealt with the stress as if it was real (and I would say that it is real even if it only exists in your mind), and never questioned that it was real and must be dealt with. What confuses me, then, is that one part of the “treatment,” as it were, for your (real) stress was something–connection to the gods–that you kept saying over and over again wasn’t real, when in fact the objective reality of both the gods and your own stress are equally unreal (or equally real, as I think the case actually is)…

    So, I’m sort of wondering not about any of your thoughts on theism or non-theism, or anything which follows from them, but instead on why there is this conflict, on the one hand, between your repeated insistence on the non-reality of one thing that exists in your mind (and yet you keep treating it as if it still isn’t real) and another thing that also only exists in your mind, and yet which you never questioned the reality of at all. And, I don’t mean this as a critique (as I don’t think anything you’ve written or done has been off-base or is in any way disagreeable) or an exercise in bubble-bursting, but instead I’m simply noting where one seems to be a major conflict for you, whereas the other is entirely unacknowledged and yet an equal matter existentially. I do agree with Alan Moore that the one undeniable place that the gods exist is in the mind, whether they have existences outside of that or not (and I go back and forth on that personally), but insofar as they do exist in the mind, they still do exist and should be treated accordingly…


    • That’s a fair analysis. And in many ways, you put your finger right on the key issues. As you say, both stress and gods are real *as mental phenomena.* And that is exactly how I choose to interact with them. That is what is directly evident, and what is relevant to my experience. Just because a phenomenon is mental doesn’t mean it is not real.

      Perhaps I come off sounding obsessed with the question of divine existence – I won’t deny that. Part of it is portraying the feeling of practicing a path that is admittedly easily misunderstood. Another part is situating the theological locale of HP, which is not just a place open to agnosticism but a home for it (among other positions). Agnostics need to have a place where their voices can be heard, not kept politely silent.

      What I remain agnostic about is not the reality of gods per se, but the literal, independent existence of deities outside the mind. Stress has no literal independent existence outside the mind either, but the difference is that nobody says it does. Many people, including many in my audience of readers, *do* believe in the literal existence of deities. Hence there is no need to stress the subjectivity of stress, but there is a reason to do so with regard to gods.

      You’re also right to point out that “paganism and religions of practice and experience like it have never been particularly creedal in focus, thus the entire matter of belief becomes somewhat irrelevant.” That’s one of the things that attracted me to paganism in the first place. However, lately my experience has been that it is not irrelevant at all. In fact, the silence on these issues is contributing to the spread of ignorance. As more and more Neopagans move toward the hard polytheist view, some are starting to assume that *only* theists belong in their groups. Just last week there was a Facebook conversation sparked by HP in which an ADF member wrote that ritual without literal belief in gods would be pointless, and “If their actions or words are empty, I’d rather they shut up and stay home frankly.” In another instance, a year or so back a Hellenic polytheist suggested to me that if I don’t literally believe in the gods I should not use their names, because there are those who *do* believe in them – as if hard polytheists now have a monopoly on Greek mythology!

      It’s these sorts of comments that I’m reacting against when I make my theological position explicit. It may sound obsessive, but it’s an important way of claiming ground, showing where I stand, and showing others that yes soft polytheism has not disappeared as a viable way to be Pagan.

      Part of the “mission” (if that word can be used appropriately) of the HP blog is to provide a concrete image of what an agnostic paganism might look like, to answer those who scratch their head at ritual without literal belief. In a way, the HP blog is there to educate the community.

      • I just wanted to say that I’m glad I found your blog! I’m of a very similar mindset, although so far I have have been calling myself a “naturalistic pagan”. After reading a bit here, it seems to me that perhaps “humanistic pagan” would be a better fit. I think both terms work, but “humanistic paganism” seems to have more precision. It’s one of those things — they’re just words, but the definition attached to them is very important, not only for discussion purposes but also for personal identity.

        I was also relieved to see that you have experienced some negative reactions as well (referencing the comment from the ADF fellow you mentioned). Now I don’t feel alone!

        I use a lot of Northern European mythology and enjoy using the runes for meditation and introspective purposes. There is just something about that particular mythos that really strikes a chord in me.

        I got into a discussion on face book (well… it wasn’t much of a discussion) where I mentioned my naturalistic view and that I didn’t believe in the gods/goddesses literally nor in the supernatural. One Asatruar called such beliefs a cheap hobby and another asked “what’s the point?” and mentioned that in my view using Tolkien would work just as well. It really hurt at first, but then I realized that they just don’t get it. Such a thing is very subjective.

        I look forward to reading over your blog more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        • Good to meet you, Ryan. Northern European myth is also a big draw for me. It was what I got into before I fell into Greek. I am quite enamored of Hollander’s Poetic Edda. And Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths, despite being a liberal retelling rather than translation, is really well done in my opinion. My favorite translation of the Havamal, for reasons of poetic flavor more than accuracy, is by Olive Bray. As for movies, the Icelandic film Beowulf and Grendel is by far my favorite re-imagining of the Beowulf legend.

          It’s great to hear you respond well to the term Humanistic Paganism. Naturalistic Pagan is very close, but “humanistic” tosses in a certain element that I and others find appealing. It rubs some people the wrong way too, but I guess that’s to be expected with any term.

          Welcome to HP!

        • I’m actually in the process of reading Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths at the moment. Been working on it for quite a while. I like just picking it up and reading a chapter here and there once in a while. He did a good job of retelling the myths.

          My personal favorite Havamal translation is by Chisholm. You can find it online pretty easily if you’re interested in looking it up. I think I’ve read the Olive Bray translation… My first exposure to the Poetic Edda was from Northvegr, the Benjamin Thorpe translation. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but I enjoy it as well since it was my first copy.

          I agree, it is to be expected to rub some people the wrong way. I hate it when it happens. I’m always very nice about such things, but I think some see it as offensive. Even so, it’s important to be true to yourself and honest with others. I did want to add, however, that I still have many pagan friends who are very accepting of it, so not everyone takes offense.

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