Naturalistic Paganism

Who are our allies?

Thing on Thursday #8

Last time we identified our goals, now who can help us attain them?  All good movements work in concert with others, mutually enriching each other.  What other movements might be closely aligned enough to make exceptional allies?

When I say allies, I do not mean people from whom to rip off traditions or otherwise appropriate culture.  I do mean people with whom to work, engage in interfaith dialogue where appropriate, cross-fertilize ideas, and from whom to draw inspiration.

The following shortlist of choices doubles as a nice resource list, since every movement here has something valuable to say.  If there are any you’re unfamiliar with, they might be worth checking out.  Examples and links follow after the poll.

Please choose your top three.


Spiritual Naturalists – e.g. Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Jerome Stone, Chet Raymo, DT Strain

Secular Humanists – e.g. Greg Epstein, Chris Steadman, Paul Kurtz

Stoics – e.g. Keith Seddon, Michel Daw, New Stoa

Pantheists – e.g. Paul Harrison, World Pantheist Movement, Universal Pantheist Society

Epic of Evolution advocates – e.g. Michael Dowd & Connie Barlow, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Glenys Livingstone

New Atheists – e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett

“Liberal” or “Humanistic” religionists – e.g. Bishop Spong, Paul Tillich, Sherwin Wine, Mordecai Kaplan, Stephen Batchelor

Contemporary Pagans and Polytheists – e.g. Starhawk, Janet Ferrar, Chas Clifton, Michael Harner, Isaac Bonewits, Galina Krasskova

Deep Ecologists and Gaians – e.g. Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, John Seed, James Lovelock,

Skeptics – e.g. Michael Shermer, James Randi

Jungians – e.g. Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, John Ryan Haule

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Real religion?

Woman lighting candle

How do you know what you’re doing is not a shallow parody of religion?

– by B. T. Newberg

What makes for “real” religion?  How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t just playing dress-up, a shallow parody of religion?

Well, maybe you “just know.”  But aren’t there times when you doubt whether all your beliefs and practices mean anything?  Don’t you ever say to yourself, with Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, “Aw, what am I doing here?”

This question may be especially pertinent for those walking a naturalistic path.  Who are we to strike off the well-trodden trail of traditional theism?  How do we know we’re not headed toward a muddy dead-end?

I struggled with this question.  For a long time I was seeking something, I wasn’t sure what.  Something that would make this alien and hostile world feel like a home.  So I passed through Christianity to Agnosticism to Buddhism to Paganism.  Each gave me something special, but was I really practicing religion?  Or was I just play-acting, trying on different costumes?

“Religion” may not be the best term for what I mean here, so replace it with “spirituality” if it makes more sense to you.  But I don’t want to debate semantics.  I want to get to where the rubber meets the road.

How do you know whether your religious practice is genuine?

A litmus test

One test I’ve found is whether you turn to your religion in times of trouble.  When beset by hardship, does it give you strength, comfort, or solace?

Malinowski was the first to suggest that religion functions to manage anxiety.  Burkert and Armstrong agree.  But let’s leave scholarship aside today and just look at personal experience.

If you find yourself riddled with stress, anxiety, or depression, and the farthest thing from your mind is your religion, it may not have really taken root yet.

On the other hand, if you find yourself going back to your rituals, meditations, walks in nature, or whatever it is that you do, and feeling buoyed up by them, there may be something deeper going on.  When your ego is drowning, and then here comes the lifeguard to keep you afloat, that’s real religion.

My journey

As a young Christian, I never found myself praying to God when under stress, except when I was too little to know what I was doing.  After high school, when I became agnostic, there was a certain confidence in myself that was of benefit, but ultimately agnosticism alone was too vague to provide real support.  Eventually I found Buddhist meditation, and that got me through my college and post-college years.  The ability to calmly and mindfully observe a situation was powerful.  Yet Buddhism, with its notions of karma, rebirth, and enlightenment, just didn’t work for me.  It still felt alien.  Not till I discovered Paganism did I find something that was truly my culture, something that felt like home.

Encountering the gods of myth through ritual and prayer proved surprisingly therapeutic.  Something about reaching out to them, with words on your lips and a gift in your hands, activated something deep inside me.  It may be what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship.  Or, it may be the human instinct for communication responding to the gods as supernormal stimuli, larger-than-life parental figures.  In any case, it worked.  I could talk to them, especially to the one with whom I’d become close, Isis.  In times of stress, kneeling before her altar, I would pour my heart out.  And then some insight would flash through my mind, or a feeling of release would come over me, and with it would be the strength to carry on.

Yet there was still something missing.

Real naturalism, real religion

As much as Paganism relieved stress, it also produced it.  The idea that there were gods “out there” with whom I could communicate went against everything I felt to be true about the universe.  So, why was it working for me?

It wasn’t until I realized where the power was coming from that I felt truly supported.  The gods weren’t “out there”, they were in here.  The therapy I was experiencing was coming from the mind’s ability to project its inner reaches onto the images of the gods. In this way, I was able to make contact with that part of me that possessed the strength to carry on, the “big self.”  Meanwhile, the conscious ego, or “small self”, the one that frets and worries, felt a part of something larger.

I still regularly kneel before my statue of Isis, ring the bell and offer her a cup of life-giving water.  I chant a traditional hymn, then tell her what’s bothering me.  All the while I know I’m talking to myself, but it doesn’t matter because, well, it works.  By the end I feel release and a sense of strength.

That’s how I know what I’m doing is real religion.

So that’s me, but now I’d like to hear from others.  What about you?  Is there something that convinces you that your spirituality is genuine?

Upcoming work

This Sunday

B. T. Newberg

How do you know what you’re doing is not some shallow parody of religion?  B. T. Newberg responds to the moments of self-doubt we all experience.

Real religion? by B. T. Newberg

Appearing Sunday, November 13th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

Last week we debated the goals of our website.  Now it’s time to decide who can help us accomplish them.  What organizations or movements are our close allies?

Join us for the next council on matters vital to the future of Humanistic Paganism.

The conversation continues this Thursday, November 17th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Eli Effinger-Weintraub

How can naturalists relate to deities?  Eli shares how she makes sense of them while still taking part in her mainstream Pagan community.

Deities as role models, by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Appearing Sunday, November 20th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake

Encounters with the Goddess? by Thomas Schenk

What are our goals?

Thing on Thursday #7

The topic this week is goals for the website.  I’ve long wanted to craft a mission statement, something that sums up our aspirations and sense of direction.

I do not mean a mission for the HP way of life.  The goals of individuals are their own.  These are goals for the website.

What are we trying to accomplish by maintaining a public presence on the Internet, publishing writing, and debating the topics we do?

Please choose your top three.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

YSEE ritual

Rituals make sense for those who believe, but if you don’t take it literally, why bother?

This week we have something new: a “challenge” piece.  Jake airs many concerns common among those who question naturalistic ritual.  He says: “While it may reflect a dissenting opinion on HP, I feel it could be valuable as a point of discussion and a way for people to examine their beliefs.”

So, this is an opportunity to listen, question oneself, and develop thoughtful responses.

Remember, this is offered in the spirit of dialogue, so let’s make the most of this chance for a meaningful exchange of opinions!

– B. T. Newberg, editor

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.

I’m not a Humanist. I’m not a Pagan. I’m certainly not a synthesis of the two. I’m an atheist of no particular stripe or affiliation. I suppose you can consider this an outsider’s perspective.

There’s some mention about the role of ritual in Humanistic Paganism. I suppose that with the word Paganism in the title you’ve set yourselves up to invoke some ancient tales and mystical rites. The question to ask is this: what’s the point?

How to justify it?

Since HP isn’t meant to be a literalist movement, I’m assuming a lot of people reading and contributing don’t believe that gods or spirits actually exist. The word ‘metaphorically’ comes up a lot, but all that really means is ‘I find this to be a useful and/or clever philosophical/literary construct to get my point across, so there’. I set my hand to writing fiction occasionally, so I can appreciate a good metaphor as well as the next person. I just don’t find them particularly relevant to real life.

For those of you who believe the gods actually exist, ritual makes sense. It’s a way of bribing, blackmailing or pleading with an entity vastly more powerful than yourself, who’s just as likely to accidentally squish you as give you the time of day. You probably need all the help you can get.

However, for those of you who don’t believe the gods are actually real, how can you justify ritual? If you do a sunrise ceremony to welcome the sun, while acknowledging that the sun 1) Cannot hear you across the vacuum of interplanetary space, and 2) Is not capable of caring even if it could hear you, then what are you really doing? Well, to be frank, you’re performing a religious or spiritual rite that you don’t believe has any impact or effect on the world around you: that makes you a religious hypocrite, of one form or another. When Christians do this, we sneer and call them “Sunday Christians.”

Just because it makes you happy…

So why do the ritual, if it doesn’t have any real impact? Most people will say they feel a sense of fulfilment, wonder, comfort or satisfaction, and use this to justify the performance. So essentially, you’re doing repetitive, physically meaningless motions, while repeating certain phrases, in order to provide a sense of comfort to yourself. This sounds suspiciously like obsessive compulsive disorder, or some related medical condition, which is generally considered unhealthy. What I’m saying is, just because it makes you happy doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

The problem with ritual is that it takes up time, which has value, while producing nothing of value other than a sense of ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’. I’m not against time-wasting in general (I quite enjoyed wasting days away playing video games in my youth) but I think we have to call a spade a spade. We can’t pretend that ritual is inherently more valuable than, say, watching a movie, or going for a jog, or sitting down and reading hours and hours of webcomics (my own personal vice, alas).

A thought experiment

Here’s an example. Two people lock themselves in separate rooms for the rest of their lives. One sits down and begins a lifelong meditation ritual. The other boots up the computer for a lifetime of World of Warcraft. Eventually, as humans do, they die, leaving the inevitable stinky corpses. Out of the two, which life had more meaning? One person sat in a room thinking all day, the other spent all day pwning n00bs. Neither of them had experiences that they might otherwise have had. Neither of them accomplished anything real, since the meditator and the gamer lived and died in isolation. Neither have  spirits, so there’s no way for the one who meditated to achieve some kind of nirvana or spiritual reward, and I think that we can all agree that the gamer didn’t do anything spectacular with their life either.

In fact, one could argue that, in the absence of a soul, the gamer accomplished more, since they at least were interacting with other people through the game. For better or worse, they, however briefly, touched the life of another. The world did not even notice the death of the meditator, while perhaps the gamer’s guild still tells tales of them in some digital tavern somewhere.

Contributing to humanity

The point, then, is this: ritual may give a sense of fulfilment and happiness to people, but it’s empty. It produces nothing, and you learn next to nothing from it. It’s no better than a potent drug.

The danger in ritual is that it has a way of supplanting actual experience, because people believe it has intrinsic meaning. It’s dehumanizing, when you think about it. It creates nothing, encourages conformity and mindlessness, and makes individuality irrelevant.

If you want to spend your time doing something meaningful, go out and climb a mountain, or read a book, or chat with a friend. Go out and make something, write something or fix something. Learn! Do! Create! These are all human experiences, through which we can contribute, even in small ways, to the species as a whole.

If that’s not fulfilment, I don’t know what is.

A few ground rules for comments

Since this is the first time we’ve had a challenge piece, let’s set it up right.

  • Use “I” language, not “you” language.  Talk about what you think or feel, rather than making accusations against others.
  • Keep it civil.  Comments that stray toward rants or flames will be deleted.
  • Speak your truth.

The Author

Jake Diebolt

Jake Diebolt

Jake Diebolt works as a GIS Technician (translation: map guy) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. By night he reads, writes, and cooks (he does the best he can). He also enjoys archery, hunting and getting pushed face-first into snow banks (see photo).

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