Here is part 2 (of 2) of my interview with Scott Douglas Jacobsen of Canadian Atheist!
(Continued from part 1)
Jacobsen: How does materials science training help with developing a clearer picture of the world rather than one clouded by mystery assuming a form of non-technical operations to the world? I separate this form of mystery from an empirical mystery point of view standard in all or most great scientists, or the epithet used against some others as in “the New Mysterians.”
Host: The most important part of my Materials Science background has been learning critical thinking and logical skills, which are universal to the sciences and needed for avoiding common errors in thinking. These include treating evidence as more reliable than tradition, testing hypotheses (and especially being able to change one’s view if unsupported), looking for logical fallacies, and so on. A good overview of these can be seen in Carl Sagan’s “Baloney detection kit”.
Being aware of the most often abused ways to deceive people is especially important. There are too many to go into here, but one that I’ve seen a lot of, especially today, is when a single case is used to make a point, often hiding the real picture. For instance, a shared video of a single mild case of Covid-19 used to say that the whole pandemic isn’t a concern, or the voice of a black Trump supporter shown to suggest that most black people support Trump, or the case of someone who prayed and then their cancer went into remission, etc. An understanding of large and small numbers allows one to see how we are fooled and make responsible choices.
Though I personally learned these guidelines of clear thinking through science, they are much more universal than that. Nearly all of us need this to be beneficial to those around us, to ourselves, to wider society, and to future generations. These aren’t “just for scientists”. All of us make choices about our own medical care, our own lifestyle, our own votes for our leaders, our environment, how we teach the kids in our lives, etc. Clear thinking is essential for all of those and so much more.
These are at least as important today as ever. With a US president who routinely lies, pseudoscience appearing online and on the TV, and a rise in evidence denials such as the anti-vaxxer and flat-earth movements, our world needs clear thinking to reduce the damage around us.
Jacobsen: How have the working relationships with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow developed into the present? Any particular fun and funny stories to share in the midst of collaboration?
Host: Sure! Once, we were recording an interview and suddenly Connie stopped Michael in mid-sentence. She said “wait, there – look! There’s a bald eagle going for fish on the lake!”. We turned and sure enough, there was an eagle who had swooped down to the lake surface and was working to regain altitude. We couldn’t tell if the eagle had a fish or not. Connie quipped “Yeah, life is tough not havin’ a home!” (they don’t have a permanent house, but rather are constantly travelling to different speaking engagements). We were recording the interview rather quickly before the rest of my family arrived, after which it would have been difficult due to my four rambunctious kids.
You can hear this interview (including the eagle part) here. It’s great for those of us interested in a naturalistic lifestyle. http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/4b_jon_cleland_host_it_s_all_really_there.
(the other interview recorded that day is also relevant for a naturalistic lifestyle) http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/4a_jon_cleland_host_inspiring_naturalism_for_families.
Jacobsen: You have 4 children. Can you clarify, please? What is “Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality”?
Host: Yes, let’s break that down.
“Universe-centered” – Focused on this real world, not on some imaginary afterlife, or any other supernatural idea. While this seems like a minor point (“why not live this life while imagining a possible heaven?”), it turns out that it’s a huge shift. If we are focused on this world, then we work to make this world better, instead of treating this world as unimportant, as one might do if they thought there were going to another world in a few short decades. If we are focused on this world, we work to make everyone’s life better, instead of trying to please this or that imaginary space ghost.
Pagan: We Pagans celebrate our Earth, its cycles, its seasons, and our universe. We do so often using the Wheel of the Year, the four directions, and Pagan metaphors, often in the Pagan community. The many practices we do have become a fulfilling part of my life, and covering all of them would be a book in itself. Here are some of them.
The Wheel of the Year: The Wheel of the Year is simply the calendar year mapped onto a circle, with 8 holidays. These are the Solstices, Equinoxes, Thermstices, and Equitherms (the peaks and midpoints of the yearly cycle of light and warmth). These are described in detail here, along with the specific celebrations we hold in our family. (https://humanisticpaganism.com/2015/03/09/starstuff-contemplating-our-powerful-sabbats-by-john-and-heather-cleland-host). We hold many of these in our stone circle – a place the has stones for the directions (the four cardinal points plus the directions halfway between them). Over time, repeatedly using this place as sacred has helped make it a special place for us all.
Ritual: We usually attend or hold a ritual for each holiday and at other times. These vary over a huge range. As humans, we feel more group energy with more people – at least more than just a single person, and over 10 is even better. Most of these are with a few other Pagan families, and are often simple enough to include the kids. Pagan rituals often start with casting a circle to designate sacred space, and then calling each direction to connect us to the Earth. Our Ancestors for millennia lived and died depending on knowing the directions, and so there is a reason they touch our hearts. To get a feel for the power and poignancy of Pagan rituals, finding one and attending it is much more effective than any words I can put down here (some rituals are much better than others). But I can give a summary of the most recent large ritual I was at (which had around 200 people, at Convocation in Detroit, February 2020). This was a ritual to honour our Ancestral mothers. In a darkened room lit by candlelight, we formed a (very large!) circle. After a basic start to the ritual, the person leading the ritual led us through a story like a description of our Ancestors, leading back through time, with a melodic, rhythmic, ritual voice. The floor had six large paintings of Ancestral mothers from our past. By this time I felt distinctly out of my day to day life, as if I was in a timeless place. A chant was raised, and with the slow chant, we formed lines, slowly walking past the images, taking time to look at each one and thank them. A mirror gave us each a chance to look at ourselves, seeing who we have become and who these mothers have given us. At the front of the darkened room was a large, dimly lit painting of the Lascaux cave bull painting. We each pressed our hand into a bowl of paint, and put our handprint on the painting, as if we were in Lascaux, 17,000 years ago. The ritual continued with more time for meditation on what we had felt, and steps to bring us back to normal time and a normal state of mind. This was a deeply centring experience – the kind of experience I would not want to be absent from my life. Similarly, even the simple rituals for the eight points of the Wheel of the Year greatly help in feeling connected to our Earth, to feel like I’m not missing watching the seasons pass.
There are a lot more Pagan practices in our family life – many are described in the links.
Family: My kids are the most important aspect of my life, and any spirituality which is completely self-centred is not healthy, so it’s not a surprise that our family is centrally important in my spirituality. As described in the link above (and here https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/12/14/starstuff-contemplating-by-heather-and-jon-cleland-host-celebrating-meaning-in-our-lives-through-family-holidays/), there are specific, fun ways that we celebrate each holiday with the kids. If you want to find out what is important to someone, asking them is not necessarily the best way to find out. Instead, look at two things: their calendar and their chequebook. Where we put our time and money will show what is important to us – and likely what our effect on future generations will be. Holidays are no different – they teach our kids (and ourselves!) what is important. If holidays are empty consumerism, or worse, “celebrate” things we don’t believe or support, then what do the kids learn from that? This is why we make sure that our holidays teach the kids that we are part of the Earth, that our Universe is awesome, and that having fun is both important and can be done in a reality-based way. For this reason, what we do with the kids is at least, if not more, important than me personally being moved by a ritual. It’s a delicate balance to make our family celebrations honest and real, while still being similar enough to the surrounding culture so that none of this becomes too hard to maintain over many years. For instance, for Yule, we do have gifts and a tree. The gifts are opened on Winter Solstice morning, and the tree is fully reality-based.
Jacobsen: Any upcoming projects to announce for us?
Host: Yes! Though everything is shut down now with the pandemic, when life returns to normal I hope to continue discussions in the Detroit area Pagan community about an outdoor sacred ritual location. One cool thing about Pagan ritual is that we like to hold them outdoors. A ritual at sunrise or under the moonlight, in a forest or clearing, taps into environments that put our brains into a different state due to millions of years of evolution.
Also, a good friend of mine in the Naturalistic Pagan community just started a nontheistic Pagan podcast, called “The Wonder: Science Based Paganism”. The plan is for a podcast every week! Here is the link. https://thewonderpodcast.podbean.com/.
Jacobsen: Any recommended, authors, organizations, or speakers?
Host: For the wonder of Naturalism, I highly recommend the original Cosmos Series by Carl Sagan. It’s on Netflix and other outlets. Even after decades, the only thing out of date is Dr. Sagan’s turtleneck sweater. The recent second Cosmos Series by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson is a very close second. These are both perfect for family viewing and discussion except for the youngest kids. For the youngest kids, start them off with the first and second seasons of Scooby Doo (where all supernatural claims turn out to be a fake money making scam), Grandmother Fish (by Jonathan tweet), and walks in the woods.
Though our Naturalistic Pagan community is still small, we are growing, and already have resources out there. I edit the Humanistic Paganism blog (https://humanisticpaganism.com/, also on Facebook), there is a rapidly growing Atheopagan community (https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/, also on Facebook) which Mark Green started, and two books have also just come out – “Atheopaganism” by Mark Green and “Godless Paganism” Edited by John Halstead. I’m available to speak, as are probably others. I’d also recommend checking out your local Pagan or CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) group. It’s hit or miss, but many of us are out there, and we are growing every day. There is a reason, after all, that myself, B. T. Newberg, Mark Green, John Halstead, and many others realized this same idea of Naturalistic Paganism independently.
Also, my wife (Heather) and I wrote a book about some of our family practices – specifically about how we celebrate birthdays by atomic number (so a 6th birthday is has a carbon theme – the 6th element, an 8th birthday has an oxygen theme, etc.). The book is “Elemental Birthdays” by Jon and Heather Cleland Host, and it has birthday party plans, science experiments for each birthday, etc. It’s available at (http://www.solstice-and-equinox.com/elementalbirthdays.html).
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Host: Sure. There is an important concept that I haven’t touched on yet. I’ve explained why naturalism is not just another belief system among all the different superstitions out there, but instead is the simple result of trying to be as least biased as possible when looking at the world. I haven’t explained why Paganism is important, at least to me.
Understanding the literal mountain of evidence from geology, biology, anatomy, cladistics, genetics, and more makes it clear that we have evolved from non-human Ancestors. The evidence shows that our brains have evolved, just as our arms, livers, feet and ears have evolved. We can better understand those organs by looking at their evolutionary history and resulting structure. People often shy away from doing the same with our brains, I think due to the cultural prevalence of philosophical dualism, itself a hangover from Christianity (which is fully dualistic). Dualism is beyond the scope of this interview, but the point is that we can look at our brains the same way we look at any other part of our bodies – in light of the reality of evolution.
Looking at our brains in the light of evolution, we see that they have evolved from the inside out, with primitive, basic functions deepest down, at the brain stem, and subsequent additions on top of that. Of course, this is a model, and is not perfect. Evolution doesn’t make anything perfect, but jury-rigs everything, making connections here and there, and some happen to survive. This gives us a roughly four-part brain, with the deepest part, the brain stem, governing basic survival. This is our Lizard brain, in control of the four “F’s” – Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Mating. The next part out is the mammal brain (the limbic system), which is where our emotions, “gut feelings” and feelings of love, connection, and bonding come from. The biggest part is the neo-cortex, our “monkey mind” or primate brain – able to figure out complex puzzles, handle language, and analyze data. Lastly, in the front, we have the Frontal Lobes – our “higher human”, which can make long term plans, think about the future or even the time long after we die.
We need to feed and satisfy all parts of that brain which we all have (notice that Maslow’s hierarchy is simply the brain structure described above). Religion taps into the needs of the limbic system – the mammal brain which needs community, needs ritual, and needs feelings of purpose and bonding (and hopefully the parts above that too). Religion activates many of our most powerful motivators and response centers, guaranteeing the person’s attention and devotion. This means that humans, with rare exceptions, need a spirituality/religion. Humans will seek one out, and even build one themselves (often only a temporary solution). If a healthy, reality-based, beneficial religion is not available, millions of people will join harmful religions, harming our future world. If we are to have any hope of building a just, healthy, sustainable world for ourselves and future generations, we need to build a spiritual approach that is both reality-based and still includes ritual, symbolism, practices, and community. Carl Sagan recognized this too, when he said:
A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
Building such a religion is not easy. Building anything like that is a lot of work, and this is even more difficult because many of the most effective survival tools of supernatural religions (thought control, supernatural threats, etc.) are harmful, and so avoiding them is needed, but makes our task harder. Our own evolved brains require the emotion, connection, and feelings of rituals and ceremonies, while at the same time, Humanist rituals and ceremonies are often stilted and uncomfortable (as I alluded to earlier), if they happen at all. That’s a huge topic, which I’ve written a 15,000-word essay on (maybe I should clean it up and publish it as a book?). I won’t be able to cover it well, but here is a summary.
Why and how are Humanist (and any new, reality-based) rituals often stilted and uncomfortable? Two of the main reasons are because they lack emotion, and because they are unfamiliar.
Humanist rituals often lack emotion because we Humanists are often very rational, evidence-based, people who care what is really, literally true. We know that to keep from being fooled (especially by ourselves!), we need to control our emotions and instead use evidence and logic to determine what is most likely real. In addition to this, we see the immense harm of emotional thinking around us every day – from nationalism, racism, devotion to lying leaders, religious wars, quack health “cures”, and so much more – usually preying on the most vulnerable. Emotion is like fire – it’s very useful, and essential to our lives – yet it can be intentionally abused or accidentally released out of control, and in either case, real people suffer. This can make us uncomfortable when we try to harness it in even healthy ways when those are in a context (ritual or ceremony) so similar to the ways it is usually abused. Effective ritual and ceremony draw on the power of our emotions which requires that we mute the rational, analytical parts of our brains. We Humanists don’t easily mute that part of our brain (for good reason).
The other reason might be harder to see. A major part of the power of a ritual or ceremony is the feeling of familiarity and comfort it brings (do you remember the warmth from rituals of your childhood?). It feels safe and familiar because you’ve been doing it over and over for years. But hold on. Humanists don’t have rituals we’ve been doing for years! The familiarity isn’t there, and so you feel “unnatural” and self-conscious instead of comforted and secure. Worse, we can’t do the Christian rituals many of us are familiar with, because they are based on a false and harmful worldview which we don’t want to promote. It’s a catch-22: it takes repetition for the rituals to fully work, but it’s hard to repeat them when they aren’t fully working. With repetition, the rituals eventually begin to fully work, but it’s a big enough barrier (like an activation energy in chemistry) that prevents most people from getting to the other side. This is doubly true for a small group seeking new people, because everything we do will be new to a new person, and hence will not feel as natural as rituals done around longtime friends or family.
Both of these reasons are why rites of passage rituals are so much easier for us Humanists than seasonal or other rituals. With a baby blessing (previously called a baptism), wedding or funeral, the powerful emotions make easy for us to let the emotion take over – so that essential step is accomplished. Similarly, the situation gives us a clear and unquestioned focus (a baby, couple, or deceased loved one), and also provides a lot of familiarities – both from the many dear friends and family often present as well as with known parts to the ritual (such as vows, rings, etc.). It seems that a good path forward for any reality-based religion, whether Humanism or Naturalistic Paganism, is to first hone our ritual skills by celebrating these rites of passage rituals, while slowly adding the repetition and practice needed to get similar power from other rituals. Other components and methods of effective ritual are too big a topic for this interview, but my earlier description of a ritual contains many of them, and you can also learn them both by reading on this topic, and even better – by attending rituals, which is part of why I attend Pagan rituals.
I can’t know if Naturalistic Paganism will be the religion that succeeds in both rituals and overall. However, attempts at Naturalistic Islam or Christianity are chained to the anchor of their vicious, flat-earth “holy” books, as are many other religions. Any religion that rejects naturalism sets us up for the wars of “whose supernatural revelation is right” that have already killed literally dozens of millions of people. I’m sure there are other ways too. We’ll have to see how things go, but I know that for me, Naturalistic Paganism gives me hope for the future, and joy, meaning and purpose for today.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Host: Thank you!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Original post here.
See Starstuff, Contemplating posts.