The HPedia

Welcome to the HPedia, an encyclopedia of common concepts in Naturalistic Paganism.

This project began as a glossary of key terms, but blossomed into something much more comprehensive.

Each entry, listed in alphabetical order, attempts to give a description of concepts as well as a sense of their context within Naturalistic Paganism.

Every effort has been made to make entries accurate, though errors and inconsistencies no doubt remain.  That’s why we need your constructive criticism to make this the best possible resource.  Please leave your suggestions in the comments at the bottom of the page.  Thank you.

– B. T. Newberg, editor


Agency is a characteristic distinguishing most naturalistic views of deity from other views.  Generally speaking, naturalistic views do not attribute independent causal agency to deities; other views may.

Pascal Boyer writes:

Agency is that set of characteristics by which we infer the existence and action of an agent; that is, a living (or lifelike) entity whose behavior indicates that it has intentions and can act upon them. Agents are purposeful, and purposeful (i.e., teleological) action is the hallmark of agency.

Note the emphasis on intention and purpose.  There are plenty of causes in nature, but not all causes are cases of purposeful intention.

So, in other words, naturalistic deities generally do not act with purposeful intention.  Within the narrative of a myth, they might be portrayed as such, but this is typically understood as metaphor, poetry, etc., crafted by human intention.

A significant exception may be cases where living creatures such as animals or humans are deified, as in naturalistic pantheism which views nature and all entities within it as divine.

Robert McCauley observes that the general direction of science throughout history has been toward decreasing attribution of agency to phenomena, though we still refer to agents in psychology, economics, sociology, and a few other fields.

A common postulate in the Cognitive Science of Religion is that our brains are equipped with hyperactive agency detection devices (HADD), the evolutionary fitness value of which is evident: it is better to err in assuming a predator in each movement of grass than to assume no predator when there is one.  Errors of the former type matter little, but even a single mistake of the latter type is deadly.  Thus, evolution would select for hyperactive detection of agents.  The consequence for religion is, of course, that we are predisposed to perceive agents everywhere, in every storm or dry spell, whether or not they are really present.

See also “Deity” and “HADD.”


Allegory is one of several ways that naturalistic traditions have historically interpreted myth.

Mirriam-Webster defines allegory as:

the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence

The Stoics, for example, read Greek myths as referring to natural phenomena: Zeus to sky, Hera to air, Poseidon to water, etc.

Jungians distinguish between allegory and symbol (see “Symbol”, below), as elucidated in the following chapter by David and Sharn Waldron:

Jung clearly differentiates between symbols and archetypes embedded in culture and consciously constructed forms […]  According to Jung, consciously constructed images are allegories and signs that give reference to psychological archetypes deeply buried in the unconscious mind.  They do not represent the archetypes themselves and are thus not symbolic as such.  Allegories and signs have a conscious and known meaning whereas a symbol must  always and necessarily be an unknown quantity.  If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized within the confines of the conscious mind, then it ceases exercise the power of a symbol and becomes an allegoric reference.  From Jung’s perspective, symbols represent those unquantifiable aspects of the unconscious that have a numinous quality, creating meaning for the individual or the collective.  They play an illuminating role, revealing the hidden aspects of the psyche.  However, when a symbol becomes a consciously apprehended and constructed image, it ceases to be a symbol and, although it may masquerade as a symbol, it becomes a representation of the personal.  Therefore it ceases to be a union of opposites and becomes a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow. (Waldron and Waldron, 2008).

See also “Metaphor” and “Symbol.”

“All paths are valid”

This common Neopagan saying affirms the validity and value of a vast variety of spiritual approaches.  It suggests a pluralism with no One True Way.

Naturalism would seem to be in perfect agreement.  Without any kind of supernatural agency to grant privileged authority to this or that tradition, virtually all approaches become capable of value.

However, some seem to interpret the phrase to mean all paths are equally truthful, which is a different concept from validity.  A statement is valid if and only if its conclusion is logically entailed by its premises, but its premises may still be false.  Thus, the assertion that all paths are valid cannot justify ideas without reference to evidence.

See also “Naturalism.”


This specialized term comes from Tanya Luhrmann’s anthropological study of “magicians” (more or less equates to Contemporary Pagans), Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft.  It refers to a peculiar style of language in which both literal and metaphorical meanings may be implied, without commitment to either.  “The Goddess”, for example, may operate metaphorically as a personification of the Earth, but may also refer literally to a personality capable of communication, caring, and causal agency.  Which meaning is meant at any given time is ambiguous.  Magicians are free to believe either way, and may flip back and forth depending on the situation.  This is not felt as uncomfortable, since emphasis is placed on practice more than on belief (see “Orthopraxy”).

Lurhmann suspects this ambiguity allows new practitioners of magic a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences are built up before committing to literal claims of magic’s efficacy.  Many then gradually move away from mainstream Western beliefs (which deny magic’s efficacy) and toward the majority beliefs of the magical community (which affirm it).  This process is called interpretive drift.

One popular ambiguous phrase, attributed to Dion Fortune, is the definition of magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will.”  One may easily read that naturalistically as consistent with modern scientific research on altered states.  At the same time, it is equally possible to interpret it as opening consciousness to spiritual or astral planes considerably beyond current accepted science.  Such a definition allows an easy entry point into magic through naturalistic and metaphorical interpretations, while opening the door to less mainstream theories.

Another popular ambiguous phrase is “whatever works”, a maxim enjoining the use of whatever ritual means produces successful results.  On the face of it, this sounds empirical, even scientific.  Indeed it would be, if systematic care were taken to sort out precisely what would count as evidence that a given ritual has “worked.”  However, it is rare (in my experience, at least) to find any detailed attention paid to this prior to the performance of a ritual.  It is left ambiguous in many if not most cases, with the result that nearly any positive-seeming events following the ritual may be interpreted as evidence of success.  This ambiguity allows rituals to seem successful without proving anything decisively, creating further conditions for interpretive drift.

One might easily see how such an atmosphere of ambiguity may allow both hard polytheists and naturalists to emerge in the Pagan community.  Rather than drifting in one unilateral direction, practitioners may gradually congregate around different poles of belief.

See also “Naturalistic Paganism” and “Deity.”


From Mirriam-Webster:

an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics

Most deities in European and Mediterranean myth are anthropomorphic in form, with the notable exception of Egyptian half-human/half-animal deities (an example of theriomorphism).

From a naturalistic perspective, anthropomorphizing the divine is controversial, since it seems to impart personality and agency.  However, some defend it, insisting the human-like traits need not be taken literally.  Anthropomorphism might also be charged with introducing anthropocentrism (a human-centric view).

Stewart Guthrie has treated anthropomorphism in religion from a cognitive science perspective in his book Faces In the Clouds.  Another cognitive scientist, Robert McCauley, considers the transfer of agency from the human to the non-human category a key ingredient in popular religion.

See also “Agency.”


The archetype is perhaps the most common naturalistic interpretation employed by Neopagans.  Halstead finds the concept notable in the work of such Neopagan figures as Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, Dion Fortune, Starhawk, and Janet and Stewart Farrar.

Although the term predated C. G. Jung (going as far back as Plato), it has become inseparably bound up with him, as well as with Joseph Campbell who was deeply influenced by him.  Unlike most psychologists of his day, Jung did not conceive of the mind as a tabula rasa, but as an organ structured toward specific tendencies as the result of evolutionary pressures.  Jung did not settle on one single definition of the archetype, as noted in John Ryan Haule’s Jung In the 21st Century, though it is “always some sort of structuring principle that lies outside of everyday consciousness and, when it emerges suddenly, exceeds all subjective expectations.”  Jung conceived of archetypes as “typical modes of apprehension”, closely related to instincts, which he called “typical modes of action” (Collected Works 8, quoted in John Ryan Haule).

Haule notes that for Jung, an archetype is separate from an archetypal image.  The former is an innate biological pattern empty of form, the latter a cultural image that gives the pattern form.  Thus, the archetype of the anima may appear as Athena without implying that the two are one and the same.  Both are necessary for an archetype to appear, but the two are distinct.  Neopagans have often been guilty of blurring the lines between archetype and archetypal image, leading to some confusion.

John Ryan Haule has attempted to align Jung’s archetype with modern evolutionary understandings, linking it with notions of mental modularity, and describing it thus:

An archetype is a species-specific behavior pattern that recognizes and imagines the settings in which the behavior is an appropriate response.  Inherited with our genes as an empty program, it becomes activated automatically when it encounters appropriate stimuli.  The details of the inherited pattern are developed and refined through a socialization process that begins in earliest infancy, building neural connections through active engagement with caretakers and the world at large.  When an archetype is constellated, our whole body is engaged and its emotional arousal focuses and motivates us with a force that is very difficult to resist.

The identification with mental modularity might seem problematic, however, and possibly inconsistent with Jung’s descriptions of archetypes (see “Modularity of Mind”).  Haule responds to this criticism in his interview.

Halstead notes:

Jungian theorists may take issue with Neopagan usage of the term “Archetype”, which is ineffable, to refer to consciously constructed symbols.  When Neopagans use the term Archetype, they mean that their experience of a symbol (or “sign” in Jungian parlance) is profound and one that they relate to the universal human experience of discovering meaning in life.  (See Goldenberg, 1979.)

Waldron and Waldron have treated the history of Neopaganism and Jungian archetypes, which Halstead has incorporated into a three-part series on the history of American Neopaganism’s search for legitimacy.  In another essay, Halstead laments how Neopagans have turned their back on Jungian interpretations after coming to perceive deities as “just” archetypes; instead, he urges we rediscover the archetypes as gods in their own right.


Atheism generally refers to the lack of positive belief in deity.

Some distinguish between agnosticism and atheism, with the former referring to uncertainty regarding the existence of deity, and the latter connoting a positive disbelief in deity.  However, this would make many staunch atheists, up to and including Richard Dawkins, technically agnostic.  Such atheists recognize the impossibility of disproving the existence of something, and correspondingly define their atheism as a lack of belief in deity, based on a corresponding lack of evidence to support such a belief.

The evolutionary origins of atheism are beginning to be explored by scholars.  See, for example, D. D. P. Johnson’s What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion.

Many Naturalistic Pagans are agnostics or atheists, though not all accept or warrant this label.  Those who believe in deities of a purely psychological or metaphorical nature may be atheists according to some, yet still consider themselves theists on account of their belief in deity.

Although some naturalistic folks proudly call themselves “Atheist” Pagans, not all do, and a reasonable argument can be made against the label.  When that term is used, the first thing other Pagans tend to think is “no gods” and the next thing is “not Pagan”, which leads into the whole question of who’s “Pagan enough.”  But it’s all much ado about nothing: most Naturalistic Pagans do in fact work with deities; we simply differ from theists in what we believe about them.  In the end, one may still disagree about whether we are “Pagan” enough, but please at least take the time to learn what we believe and why we do ritual before making your decision.


Bias is a key concept not only in popular discourse but also in scientific, since the latter takes measures to reduce bias as much as humanly possible.

From Merriam-Webster:

  • an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
  • deviation of the expected value of a statistical estimate from the quantity it estimates: systematic error introduced into sampling or testing by selecting or encouraging one outcome or answer over others

Research in cognitive psychology has yielded a vast list of cognitive biases.  Many of these appear to be inherent to the way the human mind often intuitively thinks about things using heuristics, or practical shortcuts.  These get the job done quickly and efficiently for most practical purposes, but are not always the most accurate.  Evolution favors whatever styles of thought produce the most practical results for fitness, even if they don’t necessarily yield the most factually accurate representations of the world (see “Practical reality vs. factual reality”).

Biases can generally be overcome by training and reflection.  However, people often revert back to heuristics when asked to think “on the fly.”  Considerable research has shown that religious people’s statements tend to accurately reflect their tradition’s theology when given time to think, but contradict it when pressed for time, resulting in a phenomenon called theological incorrectness (see Slone).

The phenomenon is not limited to religion.  The same proves true for college physics students asked to solve physics problems under differential time constraints, and the tendency persists even among experts working in their field of expertise (see McCauley).

These findings highlight the importance of scientific method.  While individual scientists are no less prone to bias than the average person, methods such as double-blind trials, replication of results, and peer critique systematically seek out and reduce bias as much as humanly possible.

This also illuminates a key difference between scientific and magico-religious thinking.  Believers in the latter cannot be discounted due to a supposed lack of intelligence, expertise, or rationality.  On the contrary, many such folk are highly intelligent, educated, and thoughtful.  The difference, it seems, is method.  Scientific method systematically endeavors to reduce or eliminate bias, while magico-religious methods are frequently less systematic about it.  Some even embrace an ambiguity where bias may thrive (see Luhrmann).

A bias particularly relevant to spirituality is false consensus bias.  Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon magazine:

The very fact that ceremonial actions are not intelligible in practical terms means that we can endow them with many possible functions and meanings. Furthermore, if we don’t know very much about what others are thinking, we tend to believe that what is personally meaningful about the experience of joining in is shared by everyone else. This is the ‘false consensus bias’, well-documented in social psychology.

See also “Ambiguity.”

Big Self vs. small self

These terms, current in various alternative spirituality communities, distinguish between what we typically take to be ourselves in daily, mundane discourse (small self) and some more expanded view of self (Big Self).

While the Big Self may have supernatural connotations in some circles, it need not be so.  In naturalistic contexts, the small self of normal, ego-directed consciousness may be contrasted with the larger contexts in which it participates, such as nature, community, or mind.  In such cases, there is a sense that the small self, while not exactly illusory, does not do justice to the web of interconnected relationships in which one is always embedded.  Beholding a more expanded vision of one’s place in this order, of one’s participation in Big Self, can even be expressed as a form of naturalistic transcendence.

See also “Community, “Mind, “Nature”, and “Transcendence.”

Casting a circle

This ritual technique is one of the most common Neopagan methods of creating sacred space.  The circle consists of a physical space ritually consecrated, within which the ritual participants stand.  The directions may be associated with the four Empedoclean elements (air, earth, fire, water), or other symbolic correspondences.

To cast a circle, one faces each of the four cardinal directions in turn (east, south, west, and north), speaking an invocation or otherwise recognizing forces held sacred.  One usually proceeds deosil, or sun-wise (clockwise), around the compass.  When complete, the circle is said to be cast.  One common phrase to affirm completion is:

The circle is cast

And we are between the worlds

And what is between the worlds

Can change the worlds

To dissolve the sacred space, one addresses each of the directions again, this time widdershins, or counter-clockwise.

The practice descends from 19th-century high magic ritual traditions, where the circle acted as a barrier to keep out malevolent forces.  However, today it is more common for Neopagans to interpret the circle to keep in energies raised.

The appropriateness of casting a circle for naturalists is open to debate.  On the one hand, neither malevolent forces nor energies raised are likely to concern naturalists.  On the other hand, the concept of sacred space is open to naturalistic interpretations and may draw on innate tendencies in the human brain (see “Sacred”).  If it makes sense to an individual and produces desirable psychological effects, there seems little reason to exclude it a priori.

See also “Ritual”, “Sacred”, and “Energy.”


Community refers to social groups of living beings, including humans.  It may mean simply society at large, or more specifically a group of bonded individuals sharing common goals, interests, and/or identity.

Community can be an object of naturalistic transcendence, insofar as the social group is greater than the individual in both degree and kind, even as the individual participates in it.  Community is one the “Three Transcendents”, along with mind and nature.

Martin Buber distinguished between community and collective.  The former promotes the group for the individual, while the latter promotes the group at the expense of the individual.  There is always a tension between these two in any group.  Community is of course the ideal, which requires vigilance against collective.

See also “Three Transcendents”, and “Transcendence.”


Neopagans commonly school themselves in associations or correspondences: this deity corresponds with that astrological sign, that planet, that color, that incense, and so on.

The basic magical principle behind it seems to be “like attracts like”, or the principle of contagion identified by Sir James Frazer.  Corresponding items are said to be in sympathy with each other, and may exert some force or draw on one another.

While one way to interpret correspondence would envision literal energies swirling about in ways unknown to current science, there are other ways.  A naturalistic interpretation could point to psychological associations.  Various corresponding items may be employed to constellate a specific desired mindstate.

For example, a red robe, a rose, the planet Venus, the sign Virgo, and an image of Aphrodite could all be used to evoke a state of love, amorousness, or confidence in beauty.  No more than Pavlovian mechanisms are necessary to explain such associations, though a great deal more may also be involved.

See also “Energy.”


A key concept in the Cognitive Science of Religion is counterintuitiveness.  It refers to ideas that run contrary to the human brain’s innate or intuitive ways of thinking, based on models of mental modularity.

Pascal Boyer‘s research shows that counterintuitive ideas are memorable, so they are more likely to be passed on.  For example, a burning bush that speaks is counterintuitive (trees don’t speak, people do; things on fire burn up).  Such an idea is more likely to be remarked upon, making it a highly adaptive meme.

The degree of counterintuitiveness is important, however.  Modestly counterintuitive ideas are more memorable, but radically counterintuitive ideas are extremely difficult to remember.  The cognitive optimum, balancing counterintuitiveness and memorability, generally involves only one or at most two violations of intuitive categories.

Robert McCauley suggests that popular religion relies on modestly counterintuitive ideas, while theology and science are radically counterintuitive.  This explains why it takes arduous effort and training to grasp the latter two, while the former is grasped easily by all cultures and even by small children.

Violations of natural categories can be breaches or transfers.  A breach involves an object that does what it shouldn’t be able to do, such as a person who can see through walls.  A transfer consists of an object that absorbs the attributes of another category, such as a volcano that can think, desire, and become angry like a person.  Popular religious ideas frequently involve such transfers of agency to objects or aspects of the natural environment.

See also “Modularity of Mind” and “Agency.”


Cosmos refers to the whole of all that is, the entire unity of the naturalistic universe or universes.  The term specifically implies an orderly universe, as opposed to a chaotic one.  It may evoke astronomical images, but note that the terrestrial, including the human, is no less a part of the whole.

From Wikipedia:

In the general sense, a cosmos is an orderly or harmonious system. It originates from the Greek term κόσμος (kosmos), meaning “order” or “ornament” and is antithetical to the concept of chaos. Today, the word is generally used as a synonym of the Latin loanword “Universe” (considered in its orderly aspect).

See “Nature.”

Cultural Appropriation

The inappropriate use of another cultural tradition’s rituals, symbols, or motifs has been a significant issue in modern Neopaganism.  The concept is well-described by Lupa:

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.

Lupa especially notes the power differential involved, and refers in the last line to what is often called white privilege.

Cases of cultural appropriation are rarely clear-cut.  Motives may or may not be relevant.  Reactions from members of the culture in question need not be univocal; just because one says its cool doesn’t mean others must agree.  The factors involved in judging cases may be complex, to say the least, but they are not for that matter dismissible.

Some controversial issues in Contemporary Paganism have included the use of sweat lodges and the invocation of Hindu deities, among many others.  A volume edited by Lupa called Talking About the Elephant, including essays by various leaders, explores these issues.

HP attempts to curb cultural appropriation by emphasizing responsibility as one of four fundamental tenets (see “Fourfold Path”), and by limiting inspiration for myth and ritual to a rough Euro-Mediterranean zone (see “Euro-Mediterranean”).  This grants no immunity, however; individuals must also confront the issues on their own.

It might be charged that any use of ancient mythological traditions in naturalism is appropriation, under the assumption that ancient peoples in question were originally hard polytheists, not naturalists (as claimed here).  However, that assumption would be counterfactual in many if not most instances.  For example, among the Greeks there is considerable evidence of naturalistic attitudes co-existing side-by-side with those more closely resembling hard polytheism, not only among philosphers but also among lay folk (see Robert Parker’s On Greek Religion).

The best strategy to avoid cultural appropriation is probably two-pronged: a) educate yourself as much as possible on the cultures and communities in question as well as on appropriation issues in general, and b) work from a place of compassion.  The latter won’t necessarily justify anything, but it will at least be a nudge in the right direction.  Also, dialoguing with actual members of the cultures in question is always a good idea.

Day/Night Language

Michael Dowd distinguishes between the objective day language of everyday reality and the subjective night language of myth, metaphor, and meaning:

Human experience is necessarily mediated in symbolic language: words really do create worlds. It is thus vital to remind ourselves from time to time of two complementary sides of the one coin of our reality. On one side there is the realm of what’s so: the facts; what is objectively real; what is publicly, measurably true. Let’s call this side of reality our “day experience.” We communicate about it using “day language,” or normal, everyday discourse. The other side of our experiential coin — what I call “night experience,” communicated through “night language” — is the realm of symbols, interpretation, and meaning: What does it mean? How shall we interpret the facts? This side of our experience is subjectively real, like a dream, but not objectively real.

DT Strain articulates a similar concept he calls Sacred Tongue.


Since naturalists avoid supernatural concepts, there is little room for an immortal “soul” that somehow survives death.  In the wake of this, there seem to be three principle ways of coming to terms with death.

  1. death makes life meaningful
  2. we live on through our effects on the world: memories, descendents, and influences we leave behind
  3. we live on through that part of us which is immortal: the physical constituents of our bodies that disassemble and reassemble into myriad new forms

The first principle may underlie the Epicurean view of death, which sees the death event as a non-experience (something we anticipate but never actually experience, since we no longer have living bodies with which to experience it), and focuses instead on leading a worthwhile existence while yet alive.

In a different take on the first principle, Brendan Myers writes:

Not death, but immortality, confers absurdity and meaningless.  There is nothing an immortal could do , or build, or achieve, that would outlast him.

Myers places still more emphasis on the second principle, advocating living a life whose story is worthy of being told (whether or not it is actually told).  He calls this goal apotheosis:

…you can be responsible for living in such a way that others ought to uphold your life as a model of excellence which future generations can learn from, and perhaps emulate.

The third principle was involved in the teachings of some Stoics that upon death our bodies dissolve into the elements and thus rejoin the cosmic logos.  A similar, if updated, view is exalted in Oscar Wilde’s poem Panthea:

So when men bury us beneath the yew
Thy crimson-stained mouth a rose will be,
And thy soft eyes lush bluebells dimmed with dew,
And when the white narcissus wantonly
Kisses the wind its playmate some faint joy
Will thrill our dust, and we will be again fond maid and boy.

The same principle would also seem to underlie the meaning of death as part of the circle of life, as expressed in Disney’s The Lion King:

Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Young Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

Notably, all three principles cease to dwell exclusively upon one’s continuation in linear time, and reach toward something that transcends the individual personality.


Deity has been conceived in myriad ways.  Naturalistic concepts are admittedly less common than other kinds, but they have been known throughout history.

In myth, a deity is typically portrayed as a figure of supernormal power and importance with some deep connection to the natural, cultural, or moral order.

A classic depiction of the variety of views of deity in Contemporary Paganism can be found in Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest’s Pagan Deism: Three Views.  The essay presents views according to the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, more or less resembling hard polytheism, soft polytheism, and naturalism, respectively.  Cast as the three points of a triangle, the merging of colors between them illustrates the dynamic spectrum of beliefs available in Paganism.  In Bridger and Hergest’s model, Naturalistic Paganism would cluster near the yellow tip.

M. Jay Lee, in a post in the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism, provides a different breakdown of different views of deity in Paganism:

Here is how I would categorize the major positions on theism:

1) non-theism – No gods period, symbolic or otherwise

2) symbolic theism – uses gods as symbols, metaphors, allegories for natural phenomena/forces, abstract concepts, unconscious drives etc

3) soft theism – views gods as a manifestation of a real (external) but somewhat nebulous higher power which is usually seen as leading us into some higher state of being (the particular gods/goddesses may be human-created metaphors but behind them is a real immortal power)

4) hard theism – the view that the gods (and other such beings like faeries and angels) really exist as literal, conscious, immortal super-beings.

Category 2 is the most typical mode for HP.  Categories 1 and 2 are generally compatible with Religious Naturalism.

Seemingly absent from this category scheme is a view of deity as a directly-experienced mental phenomenon, similar to a dream image.  The dream image is not necessarily “symbolic” of anything, but is a real, direct mental experience.  In the same fashion, deities appearing in the mind’s eye would not be symbolic either, but real as such (though without implying any kind of objective reality external to the individual mind).

Entry updated after discussion.

See also “Day/Night Language.”


Mirriam-Webster defines a devotional simply as:

a short worship service

In Paganism, a devotional is usually a personal act of worship or reverence, ritual in nature and performed on a regular basis.  For example, a devotee of Inanna may offer a bit of incense and say a prayer at a home altar, or a Pythagorean may greet the sun outdoors at dawn.


Divination is a way of discovering meaning through special ritual methods.  Such methods include tarot cards, runes, ogham sticks, omens read in natural events, and so on.

Mirriam-Webster‘s definition doesn’t quite capture the significance in Contemporary Paganism:

the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers

In contrast to fortune-telling, most Contemporary Pagans seem to lay the emphasis not on seeing the future but on seeing potentialities, paths one may take toward the future.  Many also emphasize learning something about the will of deities or spirits via such methods.

From a naturalistic standpoint, any kind of literal fortune-telling or communication with deities seems unlikely, but divination remains a powerful tool for lateral thinking.  Divination, which often involves rich symbolism and associative thinking, can be an effective way to stimulate the creative imagination.

An exploration of naturalistic omenry can be found in the article Symbols in the sky.


Some of the most important meanings of earth, for the sake of HP purposes, are:

  1. the astronomical body on which we live, third from the sun; i.e. our planet
  2. the planet used not just as a technical astronomical reference, but also with connotations of value and wholeness, as our collective home and the source of life
  3. the terrestrial realm below the sky, used in the mythic or quasi-mythic dichotomy Earth and Sky; in this sense Earth may be given a feminine quality, as in Earth Mother and Sky Father.
  4. one of the four Empedoclean elements (Earth, Air, Water, Fire), often associated with materiality, groundedness, practicality, and sensuality

Brendan Myers, in The Other Side of Virtue, describes the Earth as an Immensity (see “Immensity” below):

By “the Earth”, then, I mean the planet on which we live, with its lands, seas, and skies.  But I also mean the place where we find our home, where we live and dwell, where all of our possibilities find expression, which is both the soil of your home town and also the stars of outer space.  The Earth is not an immaterial world, known only to the mind, or to the disembodied spirit described by visionaries.  The Earth is the field and stage of life, where the work and the play of life is performed.  It is the platform from which any great journey of spiritual transcendence is launched.


See “Big Self vs. small self.”


Embodiment is a key term in Embodied Situation Cognition (ESC). Ritual might be seen as a form of embodied cognition:

Dr. Adrian Harris defines embodiment:

Embodiment‘ – of or related to the human body. Humans are always located somewhere and at sometime, and our awareness is profoundly influenced by the fact that we have a body. Ideas about embodiment are relevant to many fields, including religion, science, and philosophy.

She further references the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy:

Embodiment – The bodily aspects of human subjectivity. Embodiment is the central theme in European phenomenology, with its most extensive treatment in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment distinguishes between the objective body,which is the body regarded as a physiological entity, and the phenomenal body, which is not just some body, some particular physiological entity, but my (or your) body as I (or you) experience it. Of course, it is possible to experience one’s own body as a physiological entity. But this is not typically the case. Typically, I experience my body (tacitly) as a unified potential or capacity for doing this and that-typing this sentence, scratching that itch, etc. Moreover, this sense that I have of my own motor capacities (expressed, say, as a kind of bodily confidence) does not depend on an understanding of the physiological processes involved in performing the action in question.

The distinction between the objective and phenomenal body is central to understanding the phenomenological treatment of embodiment. Embodiment is not a concept that pertains to the body grasped as a physiological entity. Rather it pertains to the phenomenal body and to the role it plays in our object-directed experiences.”

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition General Editor: Robert Audi. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

See also “Ritual.”


From Mirriam-Webster:

originating in or based on observation or experience

An essential component of scientific method is an emphasis on empirical data and experimentation.  Empirical observation was once thought capable of serving as a neutral arbiter between competing theories, but philosophers of science since Thomas Kuhn have pointed to the role beliefs play in perceptions.  Research in evolutionary and cognitive psychology is also revealing ways in which the mind is predisposed to perceive phenomena in certain specified ways.  Thus, truly neutral observation may be a myth.  Nevertheless, empirical observation plays a substantial role in scientific method, and comprises a major factor distinguishing from systems of rational thought that start not with sensory observation but with assumed first principles.

Empirical observation is an essential part of HP’s Fourfold Path, under the rubric of the Five +1 (see “Five +1”, below).


In Contemporary Paganism, “energy” typically refers to a vaguely-defined metaphysical or pseudo-metaphysical force connecting various objects in the cosmos.  It often plays a role in describing ritual experiences or explaining how magic is thought to work.

This notion of “energy” has little, if anything, to do with the concept in physics, other than a very loose analogy.  It probably is more worth comparing and contrasting with concepts of subtle forces in other cultures such as mana, prana, chi, and so on.

From a naturalistic standpoint, there seems to be little evidence supporting such subtle forces, yet “energy” might still be used in a loose, colloquial way to describe a “powerful” or “moving” empirical sensation.

Epic of Evolution

From Wikipedia:

The phrase Epic of Evolution represents an attempt to create a mythic narrative aimed at reconciling religious and scientific views of cosmic evolution, biological evolution, and sociocultural evolution. According to Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, it is…

the 14 billion year narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution—told in sacred ways. Not only does it bridge mainstream science and a diversity of religious traditions; if skillfully told, it makes the science story memorable and deeply meaningful, while enriching one’s religious faith or secular outlook.

Note that the quote above uses “myth” to refer to a grand narrative, not a traditional set of stories as typical in HP (see “Myth” below).

Major proponents of the Epic of Evolution include Brian Swimme as well as Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, among others.  Loyal Rue expounds his version in Everybody’s Story.


Prior to 2013, HP maintained a focus on “Euro-Mediterranean” cultures with regard to the mythologies from which it drew inspiration.  This focus was relaxed due to popular opinion deeming it unnecessarily restrictive.  The term is explained here for historical and informative purposes only.

The Euro-Mediterranean zone was an arbitrary selection intended to a) maintain integrity of the term “Pagan” by restricting it to a limited number of ancient traditions in contact with one other, and b) guard against cultural appropriation issues.

The exact boundaries of the zone were intentionally fuzzy and debatable.  No comment was made on the relative value of cultures falling inside or outside this zone, only on their appropriateness in HP.  Furthermore, appropriateness only regarded mythic, ritual, and symbolic purposes.  Beyond this, all cultural traditions were worthy of consideration for gaining insight through culturally-sensitive comparison and study.

The rough-and-ready criteria for appropriate cultures were:

  • west of the Urals, north of the Sahara
  • tradition of polytheistic mythology
  • long-lasting contact and trade with multiple other cultures in the zone during the pre-Medieval period

Examples included:

  • Germanic and Scandinavian peoples
  • Celtic peoples
  • Slavic peoples
  • Romans and Romanized peoples
  • Greeks and Hellenistic peoples
  • Egyptian peoples
  • Sumerian peoples
  • Babylonians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, and other polytheistic Semitic peoples

Since 2013, the Euro-Mediterranean focus is no longer applicable in HP, though issues of integrity and cultural appropriation remain important concerns.

See also “Cultural appropriation.”

Felt sense

This is a key concept of philosopher Eugene Gendlin, often used in the practice of Focusing.  Anyone involved in mindful introspection will quickly recognize the concept:

Felt sense is the name Gendlin gave to the unclear, pre-verbal sense of ‘something’, as that something is experienced in the body. It is not the same as an emotion. This bodily felt ‘something’ may be an awareness of a situation or an old hurt, or of something that is ‘coming’ — perhaps an idea, or the next line of a poem, or the right line to draw next in completing a drawing. Crucial to the concept, as defined by Gendlin, is that it is unclear and vague; and it is always more than any attempt to express it verbally.  (Wikipedia)

Dr. Adrian Harris defines a felt sense as “a feeling in the body that has a meaning for us.”  He writes:

A felt sense is more than just an emotion – though it certainly has an emotional aspect. It’s those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to. But when you do, the felt sense can begin to get a shape, a colour, a smell or even a taste.

Let me give you some examples: Imagine you’re sitting here and you suddenly spot someone across the room that you have a bit of a history with. How does that feel? Mmmm. Maybe some butterflies. Maybe some vague memories. A mixture of things – That’s a ‘felt sense’. Or let’s say you’re taking a walk on a beautiful fresh morning, just after a rain storm, and you come over a hill, and there, hanging in the air in front of you is a perfect rainbow. As you stand there and gaze at it you feel your chest welling up with an expansive, flowing, warm feeling. That’s a felt sense.

Five +1

The Five +1 is an original HP term coined to describe the five human empirical senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), plus a sixth introspective “sense” which “perceives” mental phenomena including thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, imaginative imagery, attention, etc.  This sixth sense is not postulated as an actual physical organ of perception, but is rather a practical, heuristic way to conceptualize “looking” at interior, subjective experiences.

The Five +1 framework corresponds closely to the Buddhist ayatana, or sense doors.

The term was de-emphasized in 2013 following a poll that found it did not resonate well with people.

See also “Fourfold Path.”

Fourfold Path

Prior to 2013, the Fourfold Path was a broad rubric attempting to define paths consistent with HP.  In 2013, this was de-emphasized after polls revealed it did not resonate all that well with people.

It’s four aspects were:

  1. exploration of the Five + 1
  2. a relationship with mythology
  3. responsible action
  4. a sense of wonder

The Fourfold Path was described in detail here, and analyzed by C Luke Mula here.

See also “Five +1”, “Myth”, “Responsibility”, and “Wonder.”


See “Deity”


HADD is an acronym for “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” or “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device.”  It is a common term in cognitive pscyhology, and points to a postulated preference of the human brain to see agents in the environment, even where there are none.  Barrett proposes the brain has a module with such a preference, and it is calibrated to be over-active.

This would be evolutionarily advantageous, so the argument goes, because of the differential consequences of error in attributing agency.  Inferring a tiger in the grass when it is in fact just a rush of wind carries few consequences, even if the error is repeated many times.  On the other hand, the consequences of inferring no tiger when there is one, even once, can be deadly. Therefore, the brain would evolve a “hypersensitivity” to agents in the environment.

This concept is often deployed to make sense of the human tendency to infer invisible persons (such as ghosts, spirits, or gods) in natural events (for example, see this Psychology Today article).

If it is true that the brain has a HADD module, it would seem to go a long way toward explaining one of the most common reasons hard polytheists give for believing literally in the existence of deities: many say they feel their “presence.”  This is not an air-tight argument, of course: just because the brain is prone to error doesn’t necessarily mean any given instance is in error.  An exploration of the positive or negative implications of HADD for particular theologies is here.

See also “Agency”, and “Deity.”

High Day

See “Wheel of the Year.”


This easily-overlooked term is worth a few notes:

From Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue:

As observed by philosopher Karsten Harries, what separates a human home from an animal’s shelter is that the human home addresses spiritual needs.  Foremost among them, he says, is our need to belong somewhere.

A bit earlier, Myers observes:

But with mythology, they [ancient peoples] transformed their view of the world.  It became not just the place where ancient people collected their food and other material needs.  It became their home.


Abbreviation for HumanisticPaganism.

In 2013, HumanisticPaganism came to refer solely to the website, allowing Naturalistic Paganism to refer to the path, in line with growing popular consensus.  To emphasize this wholly-digital meaning, the space between the two words was removed.


The term hubris indicates over-reaching.  Modern usage points to overweaning pride or arrogance, often with a corresponding blindness to one’s own limitations:

excessive pride or self-confidence (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

The word comes from the ancient Greek term for irreverent, outrageous treatment:

In ancient Greek, hubris (Ancient Greek ὕβρις) referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. … The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist’s fall.  (Wikipedia)

Note that ancient usage does not specify pride or arrogance, but refers rather to humiliating another for one’s own pleasure.

In a modern scientific context, hubris might take the form of drawing conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence, or taking provisional conclusions as true in an absolute sense.  This kind of hubris aligns with what is often called scientism (see “Scientism”).  Another form might be ignorance or dismissal of one’s own biases in perception.  Yet another form might be treating those with whom we disagree with disrespect or contempt.

No less a scientist than James Lovelock, who recently admitted some of his more dire climate change predictions were “alarmist”, exemplifies the kind of scientific integrity that avoids hubris.  He tells The Guardian:

One thing being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope you get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don’t know it.

In contrast to hubris, we can adopt what DT Strain calls a “humble approach to knowledge.”  He considers this among the top ten signs of good spirituality:

A good spirituality will engender humility in the practitioner when it comes to beliefs. It will produce a practitioner that is careful about making claims that cannot be substantiated. The practitioner will appreciate their limitations as a human being, not assuming they have more ability to ‘know’ things than they do. They would learn to be comfortable with a state of ‘not knowing’ all things. Such an approach will guide the practitioner in their own assumptions, as well as in accepting the claims of others without good reason. A good spiritual path will encourage doubt, asking questions, etc. It will not encourage the practitioner to accept claims on the basis of authority, or tradition, or faith, or any other means than good sense and self experience. But at the same time, this principle will not be one that encourages the practitioner to spend their time telling others what they should or shouldn’t believe. Rather, its focus will be on helping the practitioner in their own walk.

Another way to approach the matter would be mindfulness not only of science’s power to explain things, but also to unexplain them, i.e. to reveal how much we do not (yet) know.

M. Jay Lee describes hubris:

Hubris is committed when one fails to remember the limitations of being human. We humans will never have perfect knowledge, nor can we ever be completely sure that our judgments are not clouded by our own, often unconscious, desires and needs. Hubris is often associated with violent and extreme actions. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that when humans become arrogant and start acting as if they were gods that things will end badly. In the poetic convention of mythology, it is often one god or another who is portrayed as punishing hubris, but in my opinion it is really just the way of life itself, in the end life catches up. No one can be lucky all the time. To set oneself up too highly, is to set oneself up for a great fall.

See also “Scientism.”


Humanism has had a myriad of meanings over the millennia, including Greco-Roman humanism; certain varieties of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist human-centered thought; certain strains of medieval Islamic thought; Renaissance humanism; and modern Religious Humanism and Secular Humanism.  Although the most common meaning of “Humanism” today is Secular Humanism, Religious Humanism (also called Spiritual Humanism) is also prevalent.  HP can be considered a form of Religious Humanism.

James Croft, in an article from The New Humanist, identifies two aspects of Humanism:

Humanism, in my view, rests on two propositions. First, the back foot, planted firmly in the soil: a rejection of the supernatural as an explanation for any of the phenomena we observe or experience. Second, the front foot, striding confidently forward: the embrace of a positive ethical stance derived from human experience and the natural world.

In HP, then, Humanism contributes two crucial elements:

  1. naturalism
  2. a sense of responsibility, insofar as we humans cause many if not most of our own problems and are capable of meeting challenges without recourse to supernatural aid.

Note that nothing in this understanding privileges the human over the non-human (animal, plant, mineral, etc.), and in fact modern forms of Humanism tend to be highly eco-conscious (see Paul Kurtz’ Humanist Manifesto 2000 for an example of this).

See also “Naturalism” and “Responsibility.”

Identity fusion

Identity fusion is a psychological phenomenon of relevance to understanding ritual.

Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon magazine of Libyan rebel Mr. Joha’s stories:

His stories – some too grisly to recount –  were typical for revolutionaries in Libya. Almost all of them faced sustained attack while tending the wounded and dying. Many were trapped in holes, in nightmarish conditions, with little chance of escape. Many died. Those who survived found they shared a special bond. Social psychologists refer to this kind of bond as ‘identity fusion’, and William Swann, professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Texas, has developed some ingenious survey techniques to measure it.

Swann and his colleagues have shown that being fused with a group is different from simply identifying with it. We all have both personal identities and social ones. When you connect with a group (such as the Conservative Party, for example), the activation of your identity as a Tory seems to lessen your identity as an individual. You ‘lose’ yourself in the group. But if you are fused with your party, the boundary between your personal and social selves becomes porous. It’s hard to know where you end and the group begins. Consequently, if somebody belittles the Tories, you experience it as a personal insult. And if a member of your party is physically attacked, your actions to protect them feel like self-defence. McQuinn’s work with Libyan revolutionaries suggests that their experience reflected this: the more horrible the experiences they shared with otheres, the stronger the resulting fusion of identities.

How does any of this relate to rituals? Well, we think dysphoric rituals are a bit like coming under fire in a warzone, except that they are more powerfully bonding, partly because they cannot be explained in any simple causal way. The range of interpretations that one can place on a painful or unpleasant ritual is inexhaustible: it sucks you into an interpretive vortex. In fact, our lab experiments suggest that one’s sense of a ritual’s significance actually increases over time, rather than decaying. In communal ceremonies it is usual to witness others undergoing the same experience, and to imagine them sharing the same rich interpretive process. The forces shaping one’s own sense of self are recognised in a special cohort of others, causing members to ‘fuse’.

Constructive criticism of the concept, posing questions for greater clarity, has been offered by Ingram and Prochownik.


The imagination plays an important role in Contemporary Pagan discourse and practices, including visualization.

From Merriam-Webster:

Imagination: an act or process of forming a conscious idea or mental image of something never before wholly perceived in reality by the one forming the images (as through a synthesis of remembered elements of previous sensory experiences or ideas as modified by unconscious defense mechanisms); also : the ability or gift of forming such conscious ideas or mental images especially for the purposes of artistic or intellectual creation

The ontological status of imagined content may be a key area of contention between naturalistic and hard polytheistic interpretations.  Sensations of divine presence or communications often happen in the “mind’s eye”, which may or may not be identical with the imagination.

Naturalists and hard polytheists are likely to differ on whether imagined content is “real”, as well as on what constitutes “reality” in the first place.  The following provides one possible naturalistic interpretation.

From a naturalistic point of view, things that are imaginary are real as such.  It is only when the imagined content is reified into an objective reality beyond imagination that unreality begins.

Compare the difference between dreaming and lucid dreaming.  Both are real as such, but non-lucid dreaming also involves an unreal aspect introduced by tacitly mistaking the dream content for objective world content.  Becoming lucid, i.e. realizing it is a dream while still in the dream, rectifies the situation by recognizing the content for what it really is.

Similarly, interacting with figures of myth via the imagination can only involve unreality if those figures are taken as objective realities.  Interaction that is consciously aware of its imaginative character, on the other hand, is a pure experience of reality.

Brian Swimme envisions human imagination as that of the earth, which is pulled in a certain direction by an attractor state yet to emerge.  See Earth’s Imagination.

Some interesting research by French scholars distinguishes the imagination from the imaginaire and the imaginal (see Braga).


The divine as manifest within the natural world, contrasted in theological terms with transcendence.  Wholly immanent views, such as pantheism, would seem compatible with naturalism, while the view of panentheism, where the divine is both immanent and transcendent, would not.

See also “Transcendence.”


The Immensity, as articulated by Brendan Myers in The Other Side of Virtue, is a confrontation with a universal fact of breathtaking proportion that calls into question one’s identity and demands a response:

We begin to question ourselves, and produce answers to guide our lives, when confronted with a presence or a situation that seems, at least at first, to break our regular expectations of the way things are.  I shall call this kind of situation The Immensity.

…the Immensity is a feature of the embodied world.  It is not a transcendent presence, to be seen only through intellectual contemplation, or through trance-ecstasy, or with the use of psychic senses, or drugs, or by the soul after the body has died.  If it is a divinity, then it is an immanent divinity. …

When familiar things do not conform to our expectations, suddenly they become conspicuous: they stand out, they call attention to themselves.  The Immensity is like that.  But it asserts itself on a larger scale, and with a deeper significance.  The Immensity confronts us with the possibility that the world itself may be changing, in some great or small way.  It therefore invites difficult questions about who we are, what we are doing with the whole of our lives, or what we think our purpose or place is.  It may appear to be enormous, awe-inspiring, and powerful, it may also appear to be dangerous, life-threatening, even terrifying.  An Immensity fixes our gaze upon itself: it has this power to compel our attention.  It may seem to subordinate us, and make us feel insignificant, frail, transient, and small.  The Immensity is the unexpected, the mysterious, the strange: so it is often a bringer of tension, doubt, and uncertainty.  It is an experience or event in response to which it is not immediately clear what to do, or even how to decide what to do.  It therefore surprises us, and so pushes us out of the ordinary and familiar world.  It forces us to confront things about ourselves that sometimes we may not wish to confront.

The Immensity has three fundamental features, at least one of which (usually the third) is always present in the experience of an Immensity:

  1. an altered relation to time, which ceases to be the ordinary measured ticking of seconds and becomes a “sacred time… measured in breaths and heartbeats”
  2. greatness, in that it appears to “surpass the reach of human power”, “casts all acts of monumental egotism… into radical doubt”, and “directs the seeker’s attention beyond appearances”
  3. authority, in that it is in some sense inevitable, and in that it demands a particular kind of response.  The Immensity may also seem ineffable, though Myers prefers to think of it as “infinitely speakable” though it “can never be described completely.”

The Immensity is the beginning of virtue, as it “offers an opportunity for doing something that will change who and what we are, possibly for the rest of our lives.”  It is “the great initiator standing at the threshold between who you are now and who you could become.”

Myers provides three examples of universal human Immensities: the earth, other people, and death.  In Loneliness and Revelation, he offers a fourth: solitude.  Beyond these, there would seem to be many.  In the Other Side of Virtue, Myers speaks of “the Immensity of time”, and refers to the Oracle at Delphi as an Immensity as well (at least within the culture of its time and place).


Innateness is a concept central to cognitive science.  It refers to the predisposition of the brain toward certain cognitive tendencies.  It does not mean “hard-wired” so much as “pre-wired.”

Jonathan Haidt quotes Gary Marcus on innateness:

The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience…  Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises…  ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.

The concept is relevant to naturalistic spirituality in that myth and ritual may well take advantage of innate mental tendencies, such as a susceptibility to supernormal stimuli.

See also “HADD”, “Modularity of Mind”, and “Supernormal stimuli.”

Law of Return

Also called the Threefold Law or Law of Three, this is a notion common in Contemporary Paganism, states “whatever you send out, you will reap threefold.”  It may encourage one to reflect deeply before cursing anyone, as that curse will bound back threefold.

In a naturalistic context, the Law of Return is not taken literally, but the spirit of it might still be observed as a general moral principle similar to “what goes around, comes around.”


Magic is common in Contemporary Paganism, especially Wicca and Witchcraft.  It may include mystical effects, such as drawing closer to a deity or spirit, as well as practical effects, such as attracting wealth or love.  Correspondingly, a distinction is often made between these as “high” and “low” magic, respectively.

The effects claimed for magic often fall well outside what can be justified in a naturalistic context, due to a severe lack of reliable evidence.  However, some definitions seem to leave more room for naturalistic interpretations.  Take, for example, Dion Fortune’s famous definition:

Magick is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the Will.

If “consciousness” and “Will” can be understood without any supernatural or paranormal connotations (which may or may not have been Fortune’s intent), then it easy for a naturalist to see magic as including such consciousness-altering intentional activities as meditation, ritual, visualization, and so on.

This is not the only definition of magic, of course.  There are many others.

Key to the magical process, in most cases, is intention.  Spellcasting typically involves intense concentration on the magical result intended, often aided by elaborate visualization as well as dramatic props and tools.  If the setting of intention and the intended result cannot be causally linked by any physical means, such as a spell to affect the weather, naturalistic interpretations are difficult to find.  On the other hand, if the setting of intention is able to be linked so, as in the case a spell for success in an upcoming job interview, the casting of which may increase confidence and ultimately affect personal performance at the interview, then naturalistic magic begins to sound more plausible.

The relation between magic and science is complicated in Contemporary Pagan discourse.  On the one hand, some try to invoke quantum mechanics are other fields to justify magic, with exact relationship between the two always remaining suspiciously vague.  Others disclaim such attempts, and recommend letting magic stand on its own spiritual terms without trying to buttress it with poorly-understood science.  For example, Lupa has offered a critique of poor attention paid to research methodology in “proving” magic.  Still others maintain an agnostic attitude toward magic, remaining open to its efficacy without claiming to know whether it actually works or not.  Finally, still others posit only psychological effects of magic, consistent with what’s conceivable within current naturalistic science.

It’s worth noting that most Contemporary Pagans find themselves in societies that do not value magic, which makes embracing magic a powerful boundary marker of Pagan identity.

The word is often spelled “magick” to distinguish it from common stage magic, following a trend started by Aleister Crowley.

Spells are sometimes called “workings.”

Entry updated thanks to critical discussion.


Meditation can mean many things, no doubt due largely to the vast array of different practices that fall under this label.  Some of the most common forms relevant to HP include:

  1. Mindfulness meditations, in which mindful awareness is brought to one or more aspects of immediate experience.  This would include varieties of breath meditation common to Buddhist, Yogic, Pagan, and other traditions, as well as Thomas Schenk’s bicycle meditation and Seton Sitting.
  2. Visualization meditations, in which one visualizes in the mind’s eye an image or series of images (involving any of the five senses, not just vision).  These would include many of the guided visualizations common in Pagan circles, some forms of Buddhism, and other traditions.  A particularly common Pagan visualization is “grounding” by visualizing a root extending from the the spine down into the earth.
  3. Ecstatic meditations, in which one is in some sense taken “out of oneself” (from ex- “out” and -histanai “to cause to stand” – Merriam-Webster).  These would include the “journey” of Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism, astral traveling, and other forms where one is in some sense taken “out of oneself” (ecstasis = ).  Channeling and possession might be related practices, though in these cases one is not taken out of oneself so much as something is taken in.
  4. Contemplative meditations, in which active reflection and cogitation play important roles.  Books which collect short ponderings as “meditations” (such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) may fall into this category.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices is a graphic organizing a variety of practices, most of which could be called meditations of different sorts.

Mental illness argument

The “mental illness argument” is a proposed label for a dismissive strategy often employed against the religious.  The technique is simple: one finds some point of similarity between a religious behavior and a known mental illness, and proceeds to dismiss the religious behavior in its entirety.  This is a plain logical fallacy involving an over-generalization of similarity.  It seems structurally similar to the reductio ad Hitlerum: “comparing an opponent or their argument to Hitler or Nazism in an attempt to associate a position with one that is universally reviled.”

A response based on neuroscience is put forward by Whittle:

His [Patrick McNamara’s] book, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, contains an exhaustive survey of the neurological research done in the field. In it, he describes three areas of investigation that have illuminated our understanding of the particular role that religious experience plays in the development of self: Neurological disorders and brain injuries; the operation of chemical agents on the brain; the neurology of religious experiences in healthy persons.

There is a remarkable consistency in all three areas of research. Persons suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), schizophrenia, schizotypy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) among other disorders experience a pronounced heightening of religiousness. Successful treatment for these disorders corresponds to a reduction in religiosity. The areas of the brain involved in these disorders represents a circuit of interacting nodes:

I believe that when taken together the clinical data suggest that the limbic system (particularly the amygdala), portions of the basal ganglia, the right temporal lobe (particularly the anterior portion of the medial and superior temporal lobe), and the dorsomedial, orbitofrontal, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are the crucial nodes in a brain circuit that mediates religiosity. [The] circuit, in turn, is regulated by the mesocortical dopamine (DA) and various serotoninergic systems.

When this circuit is stimulated in the right way, you get religious ecstasy. When the circuit is overactivated, you get various forms of religiously tinged aberrations. When cortical sites (right temporal and frontal) play the leading role, you get ideational changes in belief systems and outright delusional states. When limbic and basal ganglia sites play the leading role, you get changes in ritual behaviors as well as increased interest in religious practices such as prayer and other rituals.

And what about healthy persons performing religious acts — prayer and glossolalia, meditation, reading the Psalms? Quite remarkably, the very same circuit of nodes are at play among the wide spectrum of religious activity and people. Rather than an indicator of mental disease, the data suggest that religious experiences represent something quite the opposite: they are part and parcel an aspect of ordinary human brain function. Neurological disorders experiencing extreme or dysfunctional religiosity appear to be malfunctioning nodes and/or interactions within the otherwise normal human circuit for religion.


Metaphor is a key term in many naturalistic spiritual traditions.  Since myth in most cases is not taken literally by naturalists, it must then be figurative or metaphorical in some sense.  There are many ways to understand this relationship.

  1. One sense is as a straightforward literary device, as in poetry: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” (Merriam-Webster)
  2. Another sense is as a means of imperfectly grasping what is otherwise incapable of being grasped by human minds.  In this sense, an ineffable reality is depicted by means of a symbol, such as a specific cultural deity, but without implying that this deity describes said reality perfectly or in its fullness.  Thus, many different deities may represent different aspects of one (or more) ineffable divine realities.  This sense plays a role in Jungian psychology, which distinguishes between allegories, the former consciously created and the latter emerging from the unconscious (see “Allegory” and “Symbol”).
  3. A further sense is as a key concept underlying and giving form to a grand narrative or worldview.  For this meaning, see “Root metaphor.”

A dead metaphor is “one in which the sense of the transferred image is absent” (Wikipedia).  For example, mythology is present in our days of the week (Wednesday = “Woden’s Day”, Thursday = “Thor’s Day”, etc.), but for most people these are no longer experienced as mythological or sacred references.  Even our word Earth may have had a sacred dimension at one point, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eorthe, related to the Norse Jord (see Online Etymology Dictionary; A Heathen Thing).

Such dead mythological metaphors, as commonly experienced, are not what is meant in HP by “a relationship with mythology” (see Fourfold Path).  Yet, it is possible that even dead metaphors may yet be brought back to life, as it were, through intentionally developing a relationship with mythology.  That is to say, personally attuning to mythology such that it becomes meaningful in one’s life may recover the enchantment and sacredness that may once have haunted such words.

Further nuance on metaphor is provided by Lakoff and Johnson, quoted in Wikipedia:

Some theorists have suggested that metaphors are not merely stylistic, but that they are cognitively important as well. In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. A common definition of a metaphor can be described as a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way. They explain how a metaphor is simply understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. The authors call this concept a ‘conduit metaphor.’ By this they meant that a speaker can put ideas or objects into words or containers, and then send them along a channel, or conduit, to a listener who takes that idea or object out of the container and makes meaning of it. In other words, communication is something that ideas go into. The container is separate from the ideas themselves. Lakoff and Johnson give several examples of daily metaphors we use, such as “argument is war” and “time is money.” Metaphors are widely used in context to describe personal meaning. The authors also suggest that communication can be viewed as a machine: “Communication is not what one does with the machine, but is the machine itself.” (Johnson, Lakoff, 1980)

See also “Root Metaphor”, “Symbol”, and “Allegory.”


Mirriam-Webster defines mind as:

  1. the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons
  2.  the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism
  3.  the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism

In the view of mind and brain as two aspects of the same thing, common in contemporary science and naturalism, mind might be described as the first-person experience of mental functioning, as opposed to brain, the third-person description of the same essential process.

Importantly, mind has both conscious and unconscious aspects.  Discovery of the unconscious mind is often attributed to Sigmund Freud, though similar notions were current at the time of his writing.  Carl Jung developed the concept of the collective unconscious, describing how the structure of the psyche organizes experiences, and comprising the locus from which archetypes emerge.  Since Freud and Jung, various fields of psychology have advanced the notion of the unconscious considerably.  Cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson gives a good introduction in Strangers to Ourselves, where he estimates that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously.  The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious.

Mind can be an object of naturalistic transcendence, insofar as mind as a whole is greater than the conscious ego in both degree and kind, even as the ego participates in it.  Mind is one the “Three Transcendents”, along with community and nature.

See also “Big Self vs. small self”, “Three Transcendents”, and “Transcendence.”

Modularity of Mind

Theories of mental modularity propose that the human brain is composed of multiple organs or modules, each evolved to perform a specific cognitive task.  There may be limited interaction between modules.  The modularity idea stands in direct contrast to the idea of the brain as a tabula rasa, or blank slate.

The first modern proposal of modularity came from Jerry Fodor, who limited modules to the senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) and language (following Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition device), while the rest of human cognition is accomplished by a more fluid general intelligence.  Other researchers have since extended the modularity concept to varying degrees.  The most liberal version comes from Evolutionary Psychology, which posits “massive modularity”, including dozens or even hundreds of modules in a brain likened to a Swiss army knife (for example, see Tooby and Cosmides).  Most versions find a middle ground with a limited number of modules complemented by general intelligence or g.

Steven Mithen has put forward a model of modularity in which an increasing fluidity between modules characterized human evolution.  Mithen noticed little variation in tool manufacture prior to about 40,000 years ago, followed by an explosion of innovation by Cro-Magnons in the Upper Paleolithic.  He explains this by proposing isolation of the tool-making module from other modules in earlier hominids:

Tools were made (physical science module) pretty much as they had “always” been made.  No thought was given to the possibility that different prey (natural science module) might be better hunted with tools of a different design.  (Haule)

An evolutionary adaptation which increased integration or cognitive fluidity between modules then ushered in the innovation of the Cro-Magnons.

Jungian psychologist John Ryan Haule has attempted to interpret Jung’s archetypes as mental modules.  While the two concepts are similar insofar as both claim to be innate to human biology rather than learned, they differ upon closer inspection.  Haule holds up language as a “model archetype”, along with sociality, but neither of these fit Jung’s descriptions of the archetype’s behavior:

when an archetype “becomes conscious, it is felt as strange, uncanny, and at the same time fascinating.  At all events the conscious mind falls under its spell… [it] always produces a state of alienation.” (Haule, quoting Jung’s CW8: 590)

Such a description may seem difficult to align with language or sociality, but Haule defends it in his interview.  It seems possible that Jungian archetypes, if they exist, might be modules, but not all modules are archetypes – certainly not language or sociality.  Nevertheless, there are enough parallels between the two concepts that Jung might inspire an insight or two into mental modularity, especially in spiritual contexts.

See also “Archetype.”


Mystery derives from the ancient Greek mysterion, referencing mystery religions such as the Eleusinian Mysteries (Oxford Dictionaries).  The secrets into which participants were initiated could be aporrheton, meaning “forbidden”, and/or arrheton, meaning “unutterable, unspeakable, ineffable” (see Burkert).

From a naturalistic and scientific perspective, the aporrheton aspect no longer seems appropriate, but there would still seem to be a powerful place for the arrheton.  For example, Ursula Goodenough describes an experience of mystery before the awesome cosmos in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, excerpted here.

Many fear that introducing scientific explanation into traditionally religious or spiritual realms of experience will destroy the mystery.  However, upon consideration, that does not seem to be the case.  For all we discover about how the universe works, it still remains a breathtaking marvel that the universe is as it is.  This is expressed, for example, in Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality.  To the extent that reality remains ineffable in its fullness no matter how much we say or attempt to say about it, arrheton endures.

This view is affirmed in Tom Clark’s essay Spirituality Without Faith:

When we confront the startling fact that existence isn’t subsumable under any overarching interpretation, but simply is, we are left with an irreducible mystery about why we are here, or exist at all; and mystery serves at least as well as purpose to inspire spiritual experience. Unable not to ask questions about ultimate purpose and meaning, but rebuffed by the logic which shows such questions unanswerable, we are caught in a cosmic perplexity, a state of profound existential astonishment. The realization that existence inevitably outruns our attempts to assign meaning and purpose can have the impact of a true revelation, stunning the discursive mind in the manner of a Zen koan. Like a koan or other practices in which thinking confronts its own limitations, such a cognitive impasse can serve as the gateway to the direct, non-discursive experience that the present is sufficient unto itself. After all, there is no place to get to, no goal toward which Being is moving.

A different use of “mystery” is invoked by Noam Chomsky when he distinguishes between puzzles, which are solvable in principle, and mysteries, which are by their very nature unsolvable.  Whether mysteries exist in this sense is controversial at present.  New mysterianism is one current approach to the hard problem of consciousness.

An idea similar to Chomsky’s is put forward by economist Kaplan, who distinguishes between problems, which may be overcome, and predicaments, which cannot be overcome but only confronted.  The latter seems very close to Brendan Myers’ notion of an Immensity, though Myers himself does not use Kaplan’s terms.  Death and the passage of time, for example, are existential realities with which one may only come to terms (barring future development of fantastic technologies, at least), and in coming to terms one’s identity and moral character are called into question (see “Immensity” below).

The relationships between these three concepts – Chomsky’s mystery, Kaplan’s predicament, and Myers’ Immensity – suggest there may be a moral quality to the sense of mystery before the cosmos: it demands a response that questions who you are and how you will live your life.  As in the ancient mysteries, there is a sense in which one is changed, initiated if you will, by the experience.  Thereafter, one lives in a different and expanded universe.

See also “Mystical” and “Immensity.”


Mystical derives from the ancient Greek mystikos, for an initiate in a mystery religion, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries (Oxford Dictionaries).  It has since come to refer to an experience of oneness or communion with some transcendent entity or reality.

From Wikipedia:

The present meaning of the term mysticism arose via Platonism and Neoplatonism—which referred to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the “initiation” to spiritual truths and experiences—and is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.

Loyal Rue speaks of mystical experiences as one of three kinds of religious experiences (along with numinous and visionary experiences):

Mystical experiences are characterized by the annihilation of conscious distinction between subject and object, self and world.  The mystic enters an altered state of pure unified consciousness wherein all reality, the self included, is immediately and blissfully apprehended as essential oneness.

From a naturalistic perspective, this sort of experience may arise in response to realizing how such vast entities as nature, society, and the psyche transcend the individual ego or “small self”, yet the small self is nonetheless of a piece with them.  This kind of experience would seem to be implied in the ritual language of PaGaian’s Glenys Livingstone, and at work in many responses to the Epic of Evolution.

Atheist Sam Harris, in a conversation with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, affirms non-supernatural usages of “mystical.”

See also “Numinous”, “Visionary”, “Big Self vs. small self”, and “Epic of Evolution.”


In HP, myth generally refers to historical traditions of stories that have come down to us from specific cultures, and which involve pantheons of gods and sometimes other fabulous creatures and beings. For example: Greek myths of Dionysos and Persephone, Norse myths of Freya and Odin, Irish myths of the Dagda and Cerridwen, etc.

Myth is often inseparable from ritual; the two tend to go hand in hand whenever talking about a living mythical tradition that plays a large part in one’s life, rather than a handful of quaint stories handed down to us.  When HP refers to “developing a relationship with myth”, it is in the former sense rather than the latter.

To develop a relationship with myth is to live with myth.  It begins with reading or hearing the stories, but moves beyond that.  Incorporating it into ritual or meditative practices, associating it with seasonal changes or other natural phenomena, and relating its themes to one’s own life, the individual attunes to the myth on a deep level.  Through such attunement, a myth becomes cognitively, emotionally, and morally significant to the individual.  Cognitively, the myth may inspire one to see new patterns in nature, society, or oneself, especially patterns that make meaningful sense of one’s place in the world.  Emotionally, the myth may inspire feelings of connection and integration with, as well as aesthetic appreciation for, the world as seen through the lens of the myth.  Morally, it may inspire a sense of responsibility within the world in which one is now thought and felt to be integrated.

It must be noted that the role of myth in this process is to inspire, not to dictate.  Patterns perceived may be stimulated by the myth, but are rarely inherent to it.  A key characteristic of myths, in fact, may be their eternal openness to interpretation.  This openness allows them to inspire a range of different meanings in different peoples, at different times and in different places.  Down through the ages, myths remain precisely because new meanings are able to be read into them, according to the needs of the era.

It is sometimes thought that modern people may be better off creating their own myths rather than renewing ancient ones, or that science fiction and other genres are our modern myths.  This view seems to underestimate the evolutionary process ancient myths have undergone.  Centuries and centuries of selection pressures have evolved myths to play on the deepest levels of the human psyche, to appeal to a broad variety of different people, and to embody new meanings according to the needs of the current age.  Newly invented “myths” may be valuable, but they have not proven themselves, as it were, by this long-term process.  There is no reason not to experiment with creating new myths, but trashing the ancient for the new seems a hasty measure.

Myth is sometimes used by philosophers and theologians to mean a grand narrative or metanarrative, without necessarily involving stories of a pantheon of deities or other supernormal beings.  For example, Loyal Rue uses myth as synonymous with narrative core (see “Narrative Core”), and the Epic of Evolution is sometimes called a myth (see “Epic of Evolution” above).  While the validity of this usage is acknowledged, HP generally sticks to the meaning outlined in the first paragraph above in order to avoid confusion.

See also “Fourfold Path”, “Epic of Evolution”, “Narrative Core”, and “Fourfold Path.”

Narrative Core

This is Loyal Rue’s term for an overarching story telling us how things are and which things matter.  He seems to use it synonymously with “myth.”  Examples include not only the theologies of world religions, but also the myth of consumerism.  He writes:

At the core of every cultural tradition there is a story, a myth, a narrative integration of ideas about reality and value.  The narrative core provides memers of a culture with vital information that gives them a general orientation in nature and in history.  The narrative core is the most fundamental expression of wisdom in a cultural tradition – it tells us about the kind of world we live in, what sorts of things are real and unreal, where we came from, what our true nature is, and how we fit into the larger scheme of things.  These are all cosmological ideas, informing us about how things ultimately are in the cosmos.  But the narrative core also contains ideas about morality, about which things ultimately matter.  It tells us what is good for us and how we are to fulfill our purpose.  In the narrative core of a cultural tradition ultimate facts and ultimate values are interwoven in a seamless series of connected events, in precisely the way that cognitive and affective neural images are integrated in the mental lives of individuals.  (Rue, Religion Is Not About God)

Embedded within a narrative core is its root metaphor (see “Root Metaphor” below).

The concept of the narrative core would seem to bear much resemblance to notions of grand narrative or metanarrative.

Natural and unnatural

While “natural” is the adjectival form of “nature” and is used as such in naturalism, the dichotomy of natural and unnatural is problematic.  The primary issue is that these terms so often carry a positive and negative valuation respectively, and historical usage as such has rarely proven to have any basis in actual fact.  Denigration of what is labeled “unnatural” has more often had destructive consequences.  This has often led philosophers, starting with Hume, to posit no relation between facts and values: “you cannot derive ought from is” (this is called the fact-value distinction or is-ought problem, and is closely related to the naturalistic fallacy).

Robert McCauley, whose field is the Cognitive Science of Religion, employs a version of the dichotomy without value connotations.  In his parlance, “maturational naturalness” refers to what comes naturally and universally through normal human development, even if culture is involved, such as walking and talking.  This is contrasted with what takes arduous training to develop, such as proficiency in writing or the sciences, which he calls “unnatural.”  He also acknowledges “practiced naturalness”, or what comes naturally after much practice, but affirms its separateness from maturational naturalness.  Notably, McCauley considers many aspects of popular religion to draw on maturationally natural systems, whereas science and theology are both largely unnatural in this respect.

Despite the legitimacy of McCauley’s dichotomy, it is most likely to easy too misunderstand, taken out of context, for HP to get much mileage out of it.  Thus, HP’s editorial policy is generally to avoid these terms.

See also “Nature” and “Naturalism.”


The definitions of naturalism are multiple, and not always very clear.  Jerome Stone gives a nuanced, in-depth discussion of naturalism.  For a more digestible starting point, however, we can begin with two common forms:

  • Methodological naturalism, naturalism that holds that science is to be done without reference to supernatural causes; also refers to a methodological assumption in the philosophy of religion that observable events are fully explainable by natural causes without reference to the supernatural
  • Metaphysical naturalism, a form of naturalism that holds that the cosmos consists only of objects studied by the natural sciences, and does not include any immaterial or intentional realities  (Wikipedia)

These two are clarified by William E. Kaufman, starting with methodological naturalism:

Naturalism may be defined as “the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation” (CRN 21). This does not mean that everything that happens in the universe is at present explainable. Rather, naturalism represents a methodological recommendation concerning the theory of knowledge. What it suggests is that the only instruments of knowledge we possess are reason and critically analyzed experience. Claims to knowledge based on a special faculty, such as mystical intuition, must therefore be recognized as assertions of faith which cannot be verified and can only be evaluated in terms of their consequences for human conduct. The reliance on reason and critically analyzed experience is thus the method of naturalism, its logic of inquiry.

Kaufman goes on to speak of metaphysical naturalism:

Naturalism as a theory of reality, however, can be problematic because of the ambiguity of the term “nature.” For most naturalists, nevertheless, it is safe to say that “nature” signifies the totality of reality — its substance, functioning and principles of operation, since what distinguishes naturalism from other metaphysical standpoints is its claim that there is nothing beyond nature.

When the definition of metaphysical naturalism above says “there are no immaterial or intentional realities”, it generally means they cannot exist by themselves. The words you write may not be reducible to the medium, but they still need a medium of some kind, whether it is in language or in brain synapses. There are no immaterial or intentional realities that exist independent of physical substrate.

However, Thomas Schenk observes:

I would agree with the line “There are no immaterial or intentional realities that exist independent of physical substrate.” But I find that many who believe in naturalism or materialism interpret that as simply meaning there are no immaterial or intentional realities. The fact that ideas and indeed information of any kind always exists as part of a physical substrate does not mean that they ARE the physical substrate, or that they can be reduced to the physical substrate. And if the interactions of ideas cannot be reduced to the interactions of the physical substrate, then at the level of physics we simply do not know anything about the interactions of ideas. I find the implications of that rather mind boggling.

HP adopts only methodological naturalism as an essential tenet; metaphysical naturalism is left up to the individual to accept or reject.  This is simply and purely a statement of what HP is, not a dogmatic proclamation of what is right or wrong for all people in the universe to believe.  Those who practice HP do not invoke supernatural causes; others are free to do as they see fit.  Invoking supernatural causes is neither condoned nor condemned; it just isn’t HP.

Metaphysical naturalism (also called philosophical or onotological naturalism) is left up to the individual to accept or reject.  Some may find it questionable to believe in the existence of the supernatural while denying it any causal influence, but that is for individuals to judge for themselves (those interested may see Barbara Forrest’s treatment of the methodological-philosophical naturalism debate).  The only naturalism required for a path to be considered HP is methodological naturalism.

In HP, naturalism refers to methodological naturalism, unless otherwise specified.

Note that the definitions above rely on definitions of nature and science, which are not uncontested.

See also “Nature”, “Supernatural”, and “Science.”

Naturalistic Paganism

This term refers to a kind of Paganism characterized by a worldview of naturalism (see “Naturalism”).

The Yahoo! Group Naturalistic Paganism defines it thus:

Naturalistic paganism allows us to celebrate and renew our connection with nature and ourselves as well as family and friends, create sensual experiences to enjoy and even inspire meaning and change in our lives. As naturalistic pagans we doubt the reality of things like magic or literal gods and prefer to see science as a window to our spirituality rather than a barrier. This is a group for people who hold a naturalistic/scientific perspective (pantheists/atheists) but enjoy rituals (planned or spontaneous), pagan metaphors and non-escapist “spiritual” life.

As of 2013, the path promoted by HP is described as Naturalistic Paganism, while “HumanisticPaganism” refers solely to the website.


This often taken-for-granted term is by no means easy to define.  Yet, since it fills a crucial role in naturalism by designating the realm of the natural, over and against the ream of the supernatural, it demands articulation.

Generally speaking, the myriad popular definitions of nature can be broken down into three broad categories:

  1. that which is (perceived to be) beyond human influence; i.e. the non-artificial
  2. that which is other than the realm of God or gods; i.e. the non-supernatural
  3. all that is; i.e. the cosmos in its entirety

This poor and unsatisfactory formulation provides at least a starting point for making sense of the uses of “nature.”

Mainstream science, as well as naturalism, generally follows the third definition, but with an explicit exclusion of supernatural causes related to the second definition.  Western religions (mainly Abrahamic) generally follow the second definition.

However, this split doesn’t do justice to common Pagan conceptions of nature (of which there are many, but for the moment we’ll focus on a highly typical view).  Pagans commonly consider deities entirely natural, even if outsiders might call them supernatural.  For example, see the position of Star Foster (who no longer identifies with the “Pagan” label, but did at the time of her writing).  An exploration of the complications of this position on nature is available here. Parallel with the question of deities is that of magic, which Pagans may also consider natural, though not yet discovered by science (for example, see Bonewits).

The disagreement may result from the legacy of traditional Abrahamic mythologies, in which a transcendent God creates nature and remains distinct from it (supernatural).  Mainstream Western science and naturalism historically emerged from within an Abrahamic paradigm and still bears that mark, even though it no longer invokes supernatural causes such as a transcendent Creator.  Pagan mythologies, by contrast, generally portray nature as self-existing, with the gods emerging from it.  Thus, the gods, coming from nature, would seem to be natural.  Magic, too, is portrayed as within nature.  Yet the result is a nature populated by beings and energies which a) appear in many respects similar to those commonly considered supernatural through an Abrahamic lens as well as through a mainstream scientific one; b) have not been verified or falsified by scientific investigation; and c) may in principle be incapable of verification or falsification by science.

This suggests the key difference between common Pagan and mainstream scientific concepts of nature may be a question of method: must a thing be open, in principle, to scientific investigation for it to be considered natural?  If evidence for it comes instead from some kind of mystical or magical intuition, or from claimed direct experience which is not verifiable by a third party, is it therefore supernatural?  The question is all the more complicated since it may pose difficulties for some phenomena which most philosophers of science would probably like to be included in nature, such as consciousness, that have not yet acquired a scientific explanation which satisfies a consensus (see hard problem of consciousness).

Despite these complications, this cannot be considered a case of equally-likely competing theories.  The mainstream scientific view can base its claims in systematic investigation among a wide array of experts with multiple avenues of evidence mutually converging on a picture of the world that tends toward consilience across disciplines; and though scientists are as fallible as any humans, a system of rigorous peer critique endeavors to reduce human bias as much as humanly possible.  The common Pagan view of deities and magic, by contrast, is generally supported by claims of direct experience and anecdotal evidence, with (to my knowledge) no systematic means of verification or falsification as of yet, and no systematic means of reducing bias as far as possible (while there is no dogma against rigorously critiquing another’s beliefs or magical claims, neither is it necessarily welcomed).  Thus, it would appear the probable truth-content deriving from the mainstream scientific view and the common Pagan view is unlikely to be the same.

In any case, naturalistic Pagans tend toward a position consistent with mainstream science rather than the common Pagan position outlined above.  Indeed, this is one of the defining features that set naturalistic Pagans apart from many other kinds of Pagans.

The ancient Greeks conceived of nature as physis, from which we derive our words “physics” and “physical.”  For the Greeks, physis referred to a thing’s origin and development over time.

Nature can be an object of naturalistic transcendence, insofar as it is greater than the individual in both degree and kind, even as the individual participates in it.  In this case, the reference is not to transcendence of nature, but rather to transcendence as nature, i.e. the individual’s realization of his or her full participation in the natural world.  Nature is one of the “Three Transcendents”, along with community and mind.

See also “Deity”, “Supernatural”, “Three Transcendents”, and “Transcendence.”


See “Pagan.”


One way to define the numinous might be a feeling or sense of the presence of a transcendent Other, often accompanied by awe and fascination.

From Wikipedia:

an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige (1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy, and/or the transcendent.

The word derives from the Latin numen, plural numina:

a Latin term for a potential, guiding the course of events in a particular place or in the whole world, used in Roman philosophical and religious thought. The many names for Italic gods may obscure this sense of a numinous presence in all the seemingly mundane actions of the natural world.  (Wikipedia)

The numen is described by Georges Dumezil:

The literal meaning is simply “a nod,” or more accurately, for it is a passive formation, “that which is produced by nodding”, just as flamen is “that which is produced by blowing,” i.e., a gust of wind. It came to mean “the product or expression of power”–not, be it noted, power itself

John Ryan Haule quotes Jung, for whom the term the term numinous was also important:

“The archetypes are… patterns of behavior… which express themselves as affects.  The affect produces a partial abaissement du niveau mental” (CW8: 841); this “partial lowering of the mental level” means a loss of conscious energy so that the field of awareness is narrowed down to the archetypal theme.  An archetype speaks with the authority of a god because it fascinates us so powerfully that we no longer have the interest or will power to consider everyday matters that concerned us just a moment ago.

Loyal Rue uses numinous to describe one of three types of religious experience (along with mystical and visionary experiences):

In numinous experiences the subject-object distinction is preserved, even amplified, as the subject is filled with intense love and peace that comes with a sense of the presence of a holy and awesome transcendent power.

From a naturalistic perspective, experiences of this sort may arise in response to such transcendent sources as nature, society, or the depths of the psyche.  In awe of these entities which exist within nature but transcend the individual ego, an experience of Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans may ensue.  Ursula Goodenough, for example, describes such experiences in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, excerpted here.

See also “Mystical” and “Visionary.”


See “Divination.”


Orthopraxy means shared practice, as opposed to orthodoxy, or shared belief.

Paganism is often noted for its orthopraxic quality.  For example, the Pagan Federation observes:

Modern Paganism tends to approach theology through a synergy of multiple understandings of the divine or Divinity in the abstract, and modern Pagans tend to regard the honouring of the Gods, of the divine as it is manifest within this living world, as of greater importance than theological speculation as to its or their precise nature.

The roots of Pagan orthopraxy reach back to ancient times.  Piety in Classical Greece and Rome was demonstrated by outward practice, rather than by policing of inward belief.  Conceptions about deity and ritual were varied, more the province of philosophy than religion, and philosophers almost always continued to engage in public ritual even when their beliefs differed from those of their neighbors.

Modern Paganism, as a consequence of orthopraxy, has generally welcomed a variety of views as well.  This is what allows naturalists, hard polytheists, and everything in-between to partake in the same rituals and traditions.

Rev. Michael J Dangler, of ADF Druidry, has compared Pagan orthodoxy to the system of democracy: ultimately what is most important is that you vote, not who you vote for.

It remains to be seen whether Pagan orthopraxy can survive the current trend toward hard polytheism, as well as the rise of an increasingly vocal minority of naturalists.

See “Naturalism” and “Deity.”


The word “Pagan” derives originally from a derogatory term used in the late Greco-Roman era to denote the beliefs of rural folk.  In recent decades, it has been reclaimed and adopted as an identity for various religious and spiritual groups rooted in or inspired by ancient pre-Abrahamic religions.

There are generally four different uses of “Pagan” floating about, in order from most restricted to most broad:

  1. Someone belonging to a range of contemporary religions/spiritual paths inspired by pre-Christian Indo-European or Mediterranean traditions, though not necessarily attempting to recreate them exactly as they were. This meaning can be more precisely denoted by “Contemporary Pagan” or “Neopagan”, but Pagan rolls off the tongue better and serves as a nice shorthand.
  2. Someone belonging to such a contemporary religion or a historical person belonging to said pre-Christian Indo-European/Mediterranean traditions from those times, e.g. Roman polytheists of Classical times, Norse, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, etc. This usage is somewhat anachronistic as the ancient peoples did not call themselves Pagan but were called that derogatorily by Christians in the late Roman era. Nevertheless, the term has been reclaimed by moderns and now serves to emphasize the link between those moderns and their spiritual ancestors.
  3. Someone belonging to a contemporary religion or path which shares certain things in common with Neopagans, such as an earth-centered nature-based path or an interest in the Occult. E.g. Gaians might be covered under this meaning.
  4. Anyone belonging to a non-Abrahamic religion.

HP used to use “Pagan” to refer primarily to the first two, and sometimes a little more inclusively to include the third, with the fourth being considered too broad to be of much use.  However, in 2013 popular opinion found this usage unnecessarily restrictive, so “Pagan” has now opened up to include the fourth meaning.

Halstead has analyzed Contemporary Paganism in terms of three partially-overlapping centers of interest, resulting in some tension and conflict in the community:

The 3 Centers of Paganism

The Three Centers of Paganism (adapted from Halstead)

As a matter of editorial policy, HP opts to capitalize the “P” of Pagan in most cases.  Rule of thumb: When in doubt, capitalize.

Recently, controversy has raged over the definition of “Pagan”, mainly as a matter of identity in the community.  Essential characteristics, as well as who/what to include or exclude have been central issues.  There have been notable debates over the appropriateness of Atheist Pagans and “Christo-Pagans” under the Pagan umbrella.


A pantheon is a more or less coherent, organized set of deities from a given culture or religion.  Examples include the Greek pantheon, with the likes of Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc.; the Norse pantheon featured Odin, Thor, Frigga, etc.; or the Gaelic pantheon with the Morrigan, the Dagda, Lugh, etc.

Some Pagans, such as the Druids of ADF, consider it bad form to include deities from more than one pantheon in the same ritual.  Others mix readily.


See “Anthropomorphism.”

Polytheism, hard and soft

In the Contemporary Pagan community, there is a general distinction between soft and hard polytheism.

Soft polytheism encompasses views of the gods as figurative to some extent, whether that means they are metaphors for aspects of nature, or metaphors for some greater transcendent divine power (which may or may not go beyond what a naturalist usually considers “nature”) that is difficult to grasp except through human-created imagery.  To that extent, different deities may be seen as aspects of one another.

In contrast, hard polytheism asserts deities are distinct entities, usually as causal agents with their own independent wills and personalities.  The fullest account of this view is probably John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods.  The view is described in brief by Celtic Reconstructionist Seren:

I believe that the gods, spirits and ancestors are as distinct as much as they can be closely intertwined: Sometimes the gods might be seen as spirits, or as ancestors, or both, or neither of these things. They are timeless, and they are Otherworldly. They are in this world and outside of it.

It’s also described by Star Foster:

As a hard polytheist I believe in distinct, sentient Gods that move within nature’s laws.

The claim that deities “move within nature’s laws” is worth remark.  Janet and Stewart Farrar agree with regard to magic: “magic does not break the laws of nature”, as does Starhawk: “No magic spell will work unless channels are open in the material world.”  These claims point to the complicated issue of what constitutes “nature” within Pagan discourse.  An article on that complicated issue is available here.

It is also worth noting that Star capitalizes her “G”, whereas many others do not.  HP adopts the editorial policy of not capitalizing the g, with the intention of distinguishing against the classical monotheist “God”, which is traditionally capitalized because it is a name.  No disrespect is intended.

Naturalism, wherever it includes multiple deities that do not transcend nature as defined by reliable scientific evidence, might overlap with soft polytheism or be considered a subset of it.  Otherwise, it may be considered a third alternative.

See also “Deity.”

Practical Reality vs. Factual Reality

David Sloan Wilson usefully distinguishes between practical and factual reality.  The latter refers to perceptions of reality consistent with how it presumably really is (assuming there is an objective reality to speak of), while the former refers to perceptions of reality that are useful, even if counter-factual.  The significance is that some counter-factual perceptions may convey social or evolutionary advantages.  This may be relevant for some notions common in religions.

From a post at the Conference Report:

In Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson makes a case for the persistence of religious behaviour in post-enlightenment cultures. Framed within a larger theoretical framework which argues for the existence and power of group selection, Sloan Wilson makes the claim that, in evolutionarily adaptive terms, the ability of humans to construct rational, evidence-based models of reality does not necessarily confer any survival advantage. He makes the distinction between two types of ‘realism’, factual realism which is a product of rational (scientific) enquiry, and practical realism which is a ‘good enough’ interpretation of experience, providing heuristics for behaviour and belief without recourse to evidence or analysis. Citing this distinction in relation to the likely relative survival of groups of organisms, particularly humans, he claims that:

“If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.” (Wilson 2003, p.228)

This is evidenced in relation to religious belief which, he says, provides examples of just such practical realities. In terms of the survival of a group it may be beneficial if most or all members of that group have, for example, a belief in an afterlife. Such a belief would allow individuals to martyr themselves, confident that their life would not simply end on the battlefield. An army of soldiers imbued with this belief, if faced with an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence, are far more likely to fight to the death, and therefore to enhance the survival potential of their group. Over the eons of human evolution, such selective processes would tend to favour the maintenance of belief in practical reality even when such a reality is found to have no basis in fact.


From Merriam-Webster:

  1. a (1) : an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought <said a prayer for the success of the voyage> (2) : a set order of words used in praying

b : an earnest request or wish

The dictionary definitions above do little to capture the range and experience of prayer, especially in naturalistic contexts.

Prayer may be characterized as a spiritual practice which employs modes of activity normally reserved for communication, and which expresses relationship with some transcendent other.  In a naturalistic context, examples of transcendent others may include nature, society, or the psyche.

The relationship may be couched in a metaphor, such as a deity representing some aspect of nature.  Such an anthropomorphic metaphor enables expression in a form that comes most natural to us as a species with a highly developed social intelligence.

Prayers may take diverse forms.  Some are more verbal in nature.  Classical Greek and Roman prayer always involved words, usually accompanied by a material offering of some kind (see Sallustius).  Other traditions have less verbal forms of prayer, though communication still seems involved.  For example, some Native Americans utilize dance as a form of prayer.  Sufis whirl.  Quakers keep silent in “expectant waiting… in order to create an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit” (see here).  All three of these cases seem to express some form of devotion to or attendance upon the other.

Petitionary prayer, where some blessing or favor is requested of the other, may be limited for naturalists.  For example, it seems reasonable to request courage from a deity conceived as part of one’s own unconscious psyche, but not courage for another person.  In other words, asking for something the other could, in principle, grant does not seem objectionable a priori in a naturalistic context.

Prayer seems to exploit innate biological processes to effect.  Since prayer utilizes modes of communication (even when actual two-way communication is not presupposed), it likely activates the human brain’s sociality module (see “Modularity of Mind”).  Various bodily gestures, such as kneeling, bowing, averting eyes, and so on, may activate other intuitive mental processes.  These may help to explain why praying to an “other”, even if that “other” is believed to be inanimate and insensible, often seems to constellate a qualitatively different subjective experience than talking about the “other” in the third-person.  Martin Buber’s distinction between the I-Thou and I-It may touch on the same idea.

Meta-studies on intercessory prayer studies have found no effect or very little effect, with the latter usually accounted for by questionable methodologies.  Activation of the placebo effect seems at least implied, and this is not insignificant.  In that case, clearly the patient would have to either know they are being prayed for or be themselves the person praying.  The common Pagan practice of asking for prayers by Internet might be supported, but it would suggest that the effective means would be promising the patient to pray for them, and not the actual act of praying.

See also “Modularity of mind.”

Promiscuous teleology

This concept from Deborah Kelemen refers to the attribution of intentions and goals to things which have none.  Robert McCauley describes it:

Deborah Kelemen has documented preschool-age children’s “promiscuous teleology”, children’s penchant for overattributing functions to things as a result of their new ability and growing experience with purposeful agents pursuing goal-directed actions.  Unlike most adults, most children this age are willing to attribute functions to biological wholes (for instance, tigers) and to parts of natural objects (for instance, a mountain protuberance) as well as to the natural objects themselves (for instance, icebergs).

Although Kelemen’s research concentrates on children, adults may make these mistakes as well.  A New Scientist article reports the phenomenon among college students, and quotes psychologist Paul Bloom’s proposal that even those such as Dawkins or Einstein might make the same mistakes, suggesting it has something to do with the brain’s innate predispositions of thought.

The similarity to Creationist ideas has been noted by KelemenDaniel Dennett refers to the same or similar behavior as animism, though it seems wise in HP to reserve that term for belief systems attributing souls, spirits, or personhood to inanimate objects in the environment (for example, see Bioregional Animism).

See also “Agency.”

Rede, the

The Rede, also called the Wiccan Rede, is an ethical counsel of non-harm common in Contemporary Paganism.  It is usually phrased something like “Harm none, do as you will.”


The definition of religion is highly contested.  One of the most widely recognized, but by no means the only, definition is that of symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz:

Religion is defined as (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic

Nothing in Geertz’ definition necessitates a supernatural force or agency.  There are many, however, who propose that supernaturalism is the defining characteristic of religion, and those that lack it are not true religions.  There are at least three problems with this view.  First, “supernatural” is a Western concept developed in late Roman and early Medieval Europe (see Saler), and as such it may be inappropriate to apply it uncritically to other traditions.  Second, not all traditions conventionally considered religions are supernaturalistic: witness monastic Theravada Buddhism, philosophical Daoism, Neo-Confucianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, many forms of liberal Christianity, and more.  Finally, the temptation to discount these traditions as “not true religions” may be circular reasoning that falls prey to the “no true Scotsman” fallacyWhittle summarizes the “not true religion” reaction:

It seems a natural response from conventionally bright people encountering an idea they don’t easily comprehend; especially when it’s an uncomfortable one. It’s rather like reading an e. e. cummings poem and wondering why it doesn’t rhyme.

The difficulty in defining religions, of finding some common denominator, is understandably frustrating.  Yet it should not surprise us, if we recall that religions are not rationally designed inventions but the products of biological and cultural evolution.  Patrick McNamara, in his book The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, writes:

Established religions and their attendant rituals and dogmatic traditions are the result of centuries of work by nature and flawed human beings. They are a collaboration between nature and humanity. They are often not pretty, but they are always, like nature itself, protean, wild, elaborate, and functional.

In response to those who question the appropriateness of the term “religion” for a naturalistic way of life, Paul Harrison, of the World Pantheism Movement, offers a defense both philosophical and practical:

Why call this [Pantheism] a religion rather than a philosophy?

Like Buddhism or Taoism, it is both. It is clearly a philosophy. However, it deals with areas of life – especially our feelings of awe and wonder at the universe and love for nature – which are emotional and aesthetic and go beyond philosophy. These are the proper realm of religion. Unlike straight philosophical systems, pantheism also has its own characteristic approach to meditation and religious ceremony.

Being a religion brings legal benefits. Religions are allowed to perform legal marriage and funeral ceremonies. Philosophies are not.

Religions enjoy special tax advantages – they do not pay tax on their income, and in some countries contributions can be tax-deductible. Philosophies do not enjoy these benefits. These tax benefits will increase the income available to achieve the three aims above.

Finally, Albert Einstein affirms a naturalistic religiosity:

“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” Albert Einstein

Religious Naturalism

Religious Naturalism, also called Spiritual Naturalism, is a “big umbrella” term covering all varieties of religiousness or spirituality which bear a naturalistic worldview.  Naturalistic Paganism can be considered a form of Religious Naturalism.

A decent definition appears at Swimming the Sacred River, in a quote that appears to be from Cavanaugh’s article in issue 35 of Zygon:

Michael Cavanaugh offers this excellent definition: “Religious naturalism is a belief in the natural order as understood by ongoing scientific investigation, supported by a strong and positive emotional feeling about the wonder and efficacy of that natural order. Religious naturalism is philosophically materialistic but affirms the sense of mystery that accompanies our contemplation of the emergence of matter (and especially of life) from the Big Bang forward. Though largely informed by science for its cognitive understanding, it draws on traditional religious feeling for its artistic and emotional inspiration.”

Numerous organizations of this nature are emerging, such as IRAS and DT Strain’s Spiritual Naturalist Society.


Resonance is a term found in common Pagan expressions of myths or deities which “call to” or “resonate” with one.  In such Pagan discourse, “it doesn’t resonate with me” is a perfectly acceptable reason to refrain from engaging with a certain myth or deity, without implying anything a priori negative or unsatisfactory about said myth or deity.  Such lack of implied criticism is one of the virtues of the Pagan concept of resonance, and no doubt plays a role in enabling a community of such diversity to thrive together.

On one level, one might describe a certain attraction to an idea, image, or myth by saying “It resonates with me.”  On another level, one might describe an experience of oneness or communion with a transcendent other as an experience of resonance.

From a naturalistic perspective, such a feeling might arise in relation to such ego-transcending entities as nature, society, or the psyche.  Often it does arise following a mystical, numinous, or visionary experience (see “Numinous”, “Mystical”, and “Visionary”).  A sense of resonance with one’s world may even be a goal for naturalists.

It is of crucial note that the experience of resonance does not seem to be at the beck and call of the conscious will, nor is it a product of rational, cognitive deliberation (though such can play a role in its arising).  That is to say, we cannot simply will ourselves to experience it.  Resonance seems rather to emerge from the unconscious as a response of the total psyche to a situation.  To that extent, activities that plumb the unconscious, such as myth, meditation, and ritual, may be required to encourage its emergence.

See also “Numinous”, “Mystical”, “Transcendence”, and “Visionary.”


Responsibility is an important aspect of Naturalistic Paganism, including intellectual and moral responsibility.

The naturalistic and humanistic roots of Naturalistic Paganism suggest that humans are able to respond to life’s challenges without recourse to supernatural aid or explanations.  Those who follow an HP path accept 1) that we cause many if not most of our problems, in whole or in part; and 2) that we are capable of solving our problems.  We have no need of divine or supernatural aid; the power is ours.  And, as the old saying goes, with power comes responsibility.  The types of problems we may respond to are many and varied, but involve at least environmental, social, and psychological problems.

The Pagan side also contributes significant ethical inspiration.  Ancient Pagan ethics were often couched in terms of virtues, as developed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  Contemporary Pagan traditions have developed similar models, such as the Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru or Nine Virtues of ADF.  The most widespread Neopagan ethical maxims are probably the Wiccan Rede (“Harm none, do as you will”) and the Law of Return (“Whatever you send out will return to you threefold”).  Both emphasize the consequences of actions.  This is perhaps encapsulated even more simply and eloquently in a line from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”

Ethics is, of course, a huge and tangled topic, and it is up to the individual to decide what virtues and principles seem best.  Whatever ethics are adopted, they ought at least to be consistent with other key aspects of Naturalistic Paganism.  For example, to be consistent with naturalism, one ought to strive to meet life’s challenges without recourse to supernatural causes and explanations (note that this does not necessarily entail that contrary acts are unethical, only that a path involving such acts cannot be called naturalistic).

David Suzuki, in The Sacred Balance, writes:

We have to know we’re immersed in nature. This doesn’t conflict with science! For most of human existence we knew we were part of nature and dependent on it. That’s what many of our prayers, our dances and rituals were all about and we knew we had responsibilities to act properly to keep it all going. But now our world is shattered, and we no longer see the connections. If we don’t see that everything is interconnected, then any action has no consequences or responsibility. So the challenge is to reconnect ourselves to the world.

See also “Fourfold Path.”


Reverence refers to respect or honor shown to some other deemed worthy of high esteem.

Mirriam-Webster offers four definitions:

  1. honor or respect felt or shown : deference; especially : profound adoring awed respect
  2. a gesture of respect (as a bow)
  3. the state of being revered
  4. one held in reverence —used as a title for a clergyman

Notably, all four definitions are fully compatible with naturalism.

Paul Woodruff, in his book entitled Reverence, defines it as a virtue, a capacity to feel awe, respect, and shame at the right times in the right situations.


James Croft of the Humanist Community Project gives a simple but workable definition of ritual:

By “ritual” I mean any reasonably regular practice that an individual or community engages in which has a primary or significantly symbolic purpose.

Halstead summarizes four levels on which Neopagan ritual may be experienced:

1.  Exoteric: Celebrates the changing of the seasons and connecting with the Earth.

2. Symbolic: Employs the changing of the seasons as an outward metaphor of inward personal changes, including the changes of the human life-cycle or the ebb and flow of enthusiasm that we experience psychologically.

3. Spiritual: Facilitates the process of individuation, by incarnating, consecrating, and integrating the daemonic/shadow elements of our psyche.

4. Mystical: Instead of the integration of the psyche, a (controlled) dis-integration of the psyche or sublimation of the ego.

Ritual might be seen as a form of embodied cognition.  Dr. Adrian Harris writes:

Bell claims that ritual is a “bodily strategy that produces an incarnate means of knowing” (Bell, 1992: 163), while Grimes (Grimes, 1995) makes the provocative suggestion that ritual is a bodily way of knowing designed to move consciousness from the head to the body. Though Grimes doesn’t elucidate, Asad applies Mauss’s notion of the habitus to problematize the distinction between religious ritual and more general bodily practices. Asad concludes that the role of ritual is not to express a symbolic meaning but to influence habitus, thereby helping to create district subjectivities (Asad, 1993: 131). Crossley makes a similar argument that rituals “are a form of embodied practical reason” (Crossley, 2004: 31). Drawing primarily on the work Mauss, Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, he concludes that rituals are “body techniques”, that is to say “forms of practical and pre-reflective knowledge and understanding” (Crossley, 2004: 37). As such they can “effect social transformations” through transforming our “subjective and intersubjective states” (Crossley, 2004: 40).

Cognitive scientists have also worked out technical theories of ritual.  For example, see Alcorta and Sosis’ 2006 paper Why Ritual Works.

See also “Embodiment.”

Root Metaphor

Loyal Rue uses this term to refer to an organizing metaphor within a narrative core that fuses facts and values (see “Narrative Core” above).  For example, Abrahamic religions use the metaphor of God-as-person to anchor explain both how the world is (God created and sustains it according to his will) and how we ought to live (according to God’s will).  Rue writes:

When the root metaphor of a mythic tradition is ingested, one apprehends that ultimate facts and ultimate values have the same source.  …  The root metaphor renders the real sacred and the sacred real.  The force of the naturalistic fallacy – the separation of facts and values – is dissolved by the metaphors that generate myth.  (Rue, Religion Is Not About God)

Other examples of root metaphors include logos in ancient Greek tradition, tao in Chinese religion, and dharma in Hinduism and Buddhism.


See “Wheel of the Year.”


From Merriam-Webster:

  1. a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods> b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacred music>
  4. archaic : accursed
  5. a : unassailable, inviolable b : highly valued and important <a sacred responsibility>

Brendan Myers’ describes it in The Other Side of Virtue:

“Sacredness” can be understood broadly here, as that hard-to-define quality which renders something important, significant, out of the ordinary.  It might be attached to special customs or traditions, or even apparently irrational taboos.  It will certainly be attached to various special responses like a reverent manner, a serious tone, a requirement to give thanks.

The definitions above all seem to have in common the designation of special status or value, as apart from other things.  To be sacred is thus to be set apart.

The sacredness of things is often made palpable by taboos, restricted access, and special means of approach.  Cognitive psychologist Robert McCauley thinks it relies on our brain’s intuitive module for dealing with contaminants.  The instinctive message is “hands off” or “approach with care, or risk contagion.”  However, a reversal takes place: rather than the divine contaminating the individual, the individual risks contaminating the divine.  This necessitates ritual purification measures.

Some of the definitions above readily invite naturalistic readings.  It is not hard to imagine things naturalists might consider worthy of veneration, entitled to reverence and respect, set apart from the mundane, or highly valued and important.

At the same time, the concept of the sacred presents an important challenge to Religious Naturalism.  For example, nature is an obvious candidate for sacredness, but at the same time it cannot be sacred in the sense of being unquestionable or unavailable to investigation – else there could be no science.  Religious Naturalism must develop a concept of the sacred that does not place ideas about nature beyond the scope of critique or revision.

One possibility may be to develop sacredness as a special quality of mystery.  The mystery cult secrets into which ancient Greeks were initiated could be aporrheton (“forbidden”) and/or arrheton (“unutterable, unspeakable, ineffable”).  The kind of sacredness described above includes the aporrheton, but the kind of sacredness that may energize Religious Naturalism may be better off as pure arrheton.  No matter how much we learn about nature, there is always so much more we don’t know – it remains infinitely beyond us.  Mystery in this sense is no longer “hands off” so much as it is “impossible to lay hands on.”  When we perceive that quality in nature, we tend to fall silent and move with measured care, much as we instinctively do when we enter a temple.

A common Neopagan notion asserts that “all things are sacred.”  For example, Gus diZerega says:

…everything in the world has a spiritual dimension if approached appropriately.

If the mark of sacredness is being set apart and treated in a special way, then obviously not everything can be sacred.  However, the key point may be that everything is at least potentially sacred, i.e. highly valued and worthy of veneration, such that we may perceive its sacredness in special moments if not at all times.  As diZerega suggests, it may take a special approach to achieve such perception.

See also “Modularity of mind” and “Mystery.”


Science, from the Latin scientia, Ancient Greek epistemē, can be described as the systematic pursuit of knowledge of the natural world by the most reliable methods of the day.

Note that “natural world” includes humanity insofar as it too is part of nature.

Mirriam-Webster provides two definitions useful here:

  1. a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study
  2. knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

The first definition is broad, encompassing virtually any subject of systematic study, which is more or less what Aristotle meant by “science.”  The second is more restricted, associated with a specific method, and more in keeping with what modern scientists mean by “science.”

Many distinguish between science, or the investigation of the natural world, and technology, or the application of knowledge of the natural world.

Historians of science vary on when science began.  All cultures of course pursue technology, but it is debated how many pursue science per se.  Some scholars consider science to have begun no earlier than the Enlightenment.  Others, such as Karl Popper, locate its origins in the Ionian philosophers like Thales and Anaximander.  Still others, such as David C. Lindberg, are willing to extend the term “science” to whatever historical period, letting context define the “science” of the day.  Thomas Kuhn argues that ancient, discarded beliefs are not therefore unscientific; rather, we must look at the integrity of science in that age.

In Naturalistic Paganism, individuals vary in exactly how they view past periods.  As for the current era, “science” almost always connotes the pursuits and findings of the mainstream scientific community, employing scientific method, drawing tentative conclusions based on the current most compelling evidence, and critiqued by a community of peer experts.

On the basic assumptions of science, Wikipedia observes:

Working scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; (3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.

It seems quite probable that most Naturalistic Pagans would subscribe to these assumptions as well.

Naturalism is often considered fundamental to science, at least as a methodological assumption.

Another fundamental principle of science is that all conclusions are inherently fallible.  Every “fact” is liable to being overturned by new discoveries.  This is not a weakness, but rather a strength, as it is what leads to progress.

Scholars vary also in the precise details of scientific method.  Some demand rigorous adherence to a detailed list of methods, while others are more loose. D. Jason Slone provides a simple, approachable version in four points:

  1. Research
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experiment
  4. Peer Review

Some consider the goal of scientific method to be determining the most probable conclusion, while others such as Karl Popper argue one can only hope to falsify some hypotheses.  Still others such as Thomas Kuhn take the radical position that progress in science only comes about through shifts in paradigm.

Modern scientific method may be contrasted with ancient Stoic methodology, as presented by Maxwell Stanisforth: 1. impression (sensation in response to stimulus), 2. assent (to whether the impression is a truthful presentation of objective reality), 3. conviction (only upon surviving the scrutiny of reason), 4. knowledge (only upon verification by comparison to past ages and sages).  Missing in this Stoic method is empirical experimentation in order to adjudicate assent.

It is probably true that not all questions can be decisively addressed by scientific method, or at least not currently.  Many issues discussed in Naturalistic Paganism may fall into this category.  In these cases, the paucity of scientific evidence is no justification for this or that preferred belief.  All one can do is place the question in the category “unknown” and suspend judgment.

Lupa has published an excellent critique of poor attention paid to research methodology in “proving” magic.

See also “Naturalism” and “Scientism.”


One simple definition of scientism may be extending the authority of science beyond what the facts logically justify in a given case.

Another way of defining it is provided by Julian Baggini:

Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all.

A further dimension of scientism may be overestimating the reliability of scientific claims, taking as absolute truth what is actually only a high probability.  As Dan Kahan puts it, “Science is a scale that never stops weighing.”  Scientific claims, by their very nature, are always open to being disproved by future evidence, and so there is always some degree of uncertainty.  This is what Willem B. Drees calls the “wildness of experience” – facts are ultimately not knowable with absolute certainty.  Yet while reality always remains to some degree “wild”, Drees notes, nevertheless science can understand the wildness of reality.  In other words, it can take into account the margin for error, and approach reality from that more humble perspective.  This is not a weakness of science, but rather a strength.

A similar perspective is put forward by DT Strain in his “Top Ten Signs of Good Spirituality” under the heading “A humble approach to knowledge.”

Given HP’s general endorsement of and trust in scientific method as the best means we have so far developed for knowing our world, it seems justified to be on alert for scientism.  At the same time, elements of the Fourfold Path may build in counteracting tendencies.  The embrace of subjective enrichment of experience through myth balances the objective and subjective, so that neither may dominate.  In addition, responsible action calls for an effective means of rooting out scientism, which in this case might take the form of peer critique: it ought always be deemed permissible in HP for a person who makes claims to be asked for evidence, and then to have that evidence subjected to critique.

Equally vulnerable to the charge of scientism may be those who play loose and fast with science to justify favored theories.  An example might be those who would invoke quantum physics to justify magic, since the facts of quantum physics as we know them at present are not nearly enough to justify feats of human mental telepathy, telekinesis, weather control, influencing of probabilities, or other such extreme magical effects (note this may not necessarily apply to definitions of magic more modest in scope of possible effects).

Drees acknowledges that scientism is always a potential danger, and must be investigated on a case by case basis.  At the same time, he notes that the charge can be used irresponsibly as an “easy excuse” to dismiss a given scientific claim, without making a well-focused argument.  It can also be invoked “at the expense of limiting science to the instrumental or empirical domain, robbing it of its theoretical dimension, which is where science reaches beyond what has been measured and observed so far.”

See also “Hubris”, “Fourfold Path”, “Myth”, and “Responsibility.”

Scientism fallacy

This is a proposed name for a common confusion which often effectively insulates metaphysical, magical, or theological claims against criticism in the context of science.  It exploits the real danger of scientism, i.e. extending the authority of science beyond the evidence, to advance an extraordinary claim.

Its form is simple: first, (1) establish that some things are beyond the scientific method by pointing out that science cannot measure in a laboratory such things as truth or love, then (2) introduce your favored theory (be it a claim of magic, divinity, mystical energy, or what have you) as if all things not measurable by science are now equally believable.  Cry “scientism” against any attempt to critique the latter, on the grounds that science cannot critique the former.

This is a classic fallacy that attracts the listener with a proposition most anyone would agree with (truth and love are real, though not measurable by science), then switches to a proposition much fewer would agree with (magic, divinity, etc., are real, though not measurable by science).

What is particularly pernicious about this fallacy is that the extraordinary claim tends to carry with it objective aspects open to scientific investigation (does magical healing have an effect above placebo or not?), but these drop out of sight due to misdirection of attention toward the subjective aspects analogous to love or truth (science can’t measure whether the magical healer perceives the disease in the patient or not!).

One effective strategy to counter this fallacy may be to call attention back to the objective aspects of the extraordinary claims.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the majority of those who end up using this fallacy probably do it without realizing, i.e. innocently rather than maliciously.  Sensitivity may be called for.

Selfishness argument

This is a proposed label for a common objection leveled against naturalistic ritual by some hard theists.  It criticizes naturalists for being “only in it for themselves”, “only concerned with what they get out of it”, etc.

To understand the argument, one must see it from a hard theistic point of view: deities being real, ritual is primarily for deities.  Focusing only on the benefits for oneself neglects the other.

The force of the argument relies on shaming the target for what is implied as selfish behavior.

Outside a hard theistic point of view, the argument quickly falls apart: if deities are not real (in the sense that hard theists mean them to be real), then there is no other to neglect.

However, even from a hard theistic point of view, the argument does not hold up: just because the divine is (supposedly) neglected does not mean ritual can only be for the selfish interests of the individual.  Ritual often effects social benefits by bonding groups together and orienting individuals toward enhanced social cooperation.  Further, it often motivates the individual to action toward environmental, humanitarian, or community goals.  Finally, it often develops the moral character of the individual toward increased empathy, compassion, humility, love, and other prosocial traits.  None of these effects can rightly be characterized as selfish, as they all extend benefit well beyond a person’s narrow self interest.

For more on this issue, see the article Why do ritual as a Naturalistic Pagan?


Spirituality is fast becoming a common and accepted term for the pursuit of inspiration, meaning, and purpose, even among the non-religious.

Where many seem to get tripped up is in the root of the word, “spirit”, which seems to indicate some kind of supernatural entity.  However, the etymology of the word can be taken in quite naturalistic directions:

spirit (n.)mid-13c., “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” from Old French espirit, from Latin spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” related to spirare “to breathe,” from PIE *(s)peis- “to blow” (cf. Old Church Slavonic pisto “to play on the flute”).  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The root meanings of courage, vigor, breath, to breathe, and to blow all have naturalistic overtones.  Moreover, concepts ancestral to the English notion also have naturalistic roots: Greek pneuma or “breath”, and Hebrew ruach or “breath, wind.”  Finally, the usage of the word to refer to a supernatural being is relatively late:

Meaning “supernatural being” is attested from c.1300 (see ghost); that of “essential principle of something” (in a non-theological sense, e.g. Spirit of St. Louis) is attested from 1690, common after 1800. Plural form spirits “volatile substance” is an alchemical idea, first attested 1610; sense narrowed to “strong alcoholic liquor” by 1670s. This also is the sense in spirit level (1768).  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

In addition to these ancient naturalistic meanings referring to air-based phenomena, a new meaning has developed in the modern era:

In modern times “spirituality” has acquired a new meaning. It still denotes a process of transformation, but is often seen as separate from religious institutions, as “spiritual-but-not-religious.”  Spirituality has come to mean the inner experience, the individual aspect. Religion represents the organized aspect, the institutions which press people into a mold. This modern spirituality blends (humanistic) psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.

Social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. Spirituality can be sought not only through traditional organized religions, but also through movements such as the feminist theology and ecological spirituality. Spirituality is associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping. It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.  (Wikipedia)

To illustrate the shift in meaning in modern times, it may be helpful to display a number of uses of the word by notable figures today.

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and strident atheist, exclaims:

I get upset when people say that science isn’t spiritual.  I get spiritual wonder looking at every Hubble space telescope picture.  And science, in fact, is a better kind of spirituality because it’s real.

In a Huffington Post article, evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd explains:

New Theists practice what might be called a “practical spirituality.” Spirituality for us means the mindset, heart-space and tools that assist one in growing in integrity (i.e., in right relationship to reality) and supporting others and our species in doing the same. It also means an interpretive stance that can be counted on to deliver hope in times of confusion, solace in times of sorrow and support for handling life’s inevitable challenges.

Pantheist Annika Garratt adds:

Some people regard the word ‘spirituality’ as pertaining strictly to the ‘supernatural’. In my opinion, spirituality can be wholly naturalistic. Is ‘spirit’ something supernatural? This word is Latin in origin and means “breath”. To breathe is not a feat of the supernatural. Breathing is a characteristic of something that is alive, and to be ‘spirited’ or ‘in high spirits’ is to be lively. So then, spirituality is something to do with breathing and feeling lively, understanding what life is, and valuing this experience of being alive. Your personal spirituality is your understanding of what life is and how to make the most of this life. A spiritual experience is something that inspires you to go on living. Sometimes, gazing up at the sky is my only reason for living.

Philosopher Brendan Myers comments in The Other Side of Virtue:

Spirituality is very simple.  The values that configure a meaningful life need only transcend the individual self to be spiritual.  They need not transcend the whole world.

Further, Spiritual Naturalist DT Strain writes on The Humanist Contemplative:

But most people think of ‘spirituality’ as inherently about the supernatural – God, the afterlife, souls, and so on. How can there be spirituality without spirits? The group’s literature points out that the root Latin word, spiritus, meant wind or breath – the essence of life. “When we say ‘the spirit of the law’ we mean the essence of the law. In the same way, a true spirituality would be a practice that focuses on the essence or the ‘essential in life’. To those with supernatural views,” says Rev. Strain, “…that might be salvation in the afterlife. To us naturalists, the ‘spirit of life’ is about living a good, meaningful, and flourishing life in the here and now. This is an older and broader understanding of spirituality.”

Politician Al Gore is quoted in Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion:

Gore contended that Western civilization had become dysfunctional and destructive and that the roots of the environmental crisis were “spiritual.”  When making such statements, Gore knew he was going out on a limb: “As a politician, I know full well the special hazards of using ‘spiritual’ to describe a problem like this one. . . .  But what other word describes the collection of values and assumptions that determine our basic understanding of how we fit into the universe?”

Finally, neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris defends the use of the word, and mentions that so did the late Christopher Hitchens.  Harris is, in fact, in the process of writing a book on the subject.

These comments vividly demonstrate the shift in meaning described in the Wikipedia article.

See also “Deity.”

Spiritual Naturalism

See “Religious Naturalism.”


A simple way to describe the supernatural is all that which is outside or beyond nature.  The Abrahamic God, for example, is conceived as a Creator prior to and distinct from Creation, i.e. nature.  This distinction first became explicit in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, as described in Benson Saler’s historical essay, “The Supernatural as a Western Concept.”

Of course, the description above begs two very important questions: 1) what then do we mean by “nature”?; and 2) what could the supernatural mean in an ancient Pagan context, prior to the development of the concept?  For these points, see the discussion in the entry “Nature.”

See also “Nature.”

Supernormal stimuli

From Wikipedia:

A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.  For example, when it comes to eggs, a bird can be made to prefer the artificial versions to their own,[1] and humans can be similarly exploited by junk food.[2] The idea is that the elicited behaviours evolved for the ‘normal’ stimuli of the ancestor’s natural environment, but the behaviours are now hijacked by the supernormal stimulus.

The relevance here is speculation that the imagery of deities and other figures of myth may involve supernormal stimuli, such as larger-than-life father figures and mother figures, that tap our response tendencies to produce desired feelings or mental states in devotees.

John Ryan Haule raises brings supernormal stimuli to bear on the issue of Jungian archetypes.


In Naturalistic Paganism, deities and magic are often interpreted symbolically in some sense.  Mirriam-Webster defines a symbol as:

something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially : a visible sign of something invisible

In common parlance, symbol might be used more or less synonymously with allegory or metaphor.  For example, Athena may be symbolic of wisdom, or Thor of thunder.  However, in Jungian psychology, symbols are distinguished against metaphors.  John Halstead explains:

The meaning of a metaphor is known.  But a symbol carries with it a surplus of meaning which cannot be conveyed through explanation.  A metaphor is a known quantity, but a symbol is practically inexhaustible.  Ritual uses symbolic words and actions to evoke this surplus of meaning.

I have heard the complaint by some atheists that we should just say what we mean and then symbolic language would be unnecessary.  But I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of symbol.  Symbolic language is not representational language; it is evocative language.  If we can embrace this understanding of symbol, I think our rituals will become less wordy, more evocative, and potentially more likely to be transformative.

See also “Allegory” and “Metaphor.”


This notion, originated by Carl Jung, indicates an underlying pattern of meaning between events acausally related.

Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described in this terminology by Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist, in the 1920s.[1]

The concept does not question, or compete with, the notion of causality. Instead it maintains that, just as events may be grouped by cause, they may also be grouped by meaning. A grouping of events by meaning need not have an explanation in terms of cause and effect.  (Wikipedia)

Lurhmann, in her anthropological study of modern magicians (i.e. Contemporary Pagans), describes the concept:

‘Synchronicities’, as the term is used in modern magic, are two events that happen more or less at the same time, which have no direct causal connection, but arise because of some common underlying cause.  If a magician chose an arbitrary date for a conference on, say menstruation and the moon, and the date turned out to be astrologically significant, this would be called a ‘synchronicity’.  The one event did not cause the other, but they were interconnected in some larger plan.

Synchronicity is sometimes cited by Pagans as proof or support for the existence of deities or magic.  Elani Temperance gives some common examples:

  • “I’ve been thinking about honoring Athena for a while and I have started seeing owls everywhere–I think Athena would like me to worship Her.”

  • “I needed money so did a spell to attract it and suddenly I get a raise in salary. The spell must have worked.”

  • “I’ve been having such bad luck since I did that offering to Artemis, perhaps I did it wrong and she’s mad?”

For Temperance, such events constitute “proof”, though she admits they “will never convince a sceptic.”

Jung proposed a “psychoid” field complementing causality to account for the phenomenon (as described by John Ryan Haule).  Applying Occam’s razor, however, it would make sense to first hypothesize synchronicity as an effect – perhaps a faulty effect – of the brain’s pattern-detection capacities.  Cognitive research has yielded numerous ways in which confirmation bias and other tendencies can lead to such hyper-perceptions of pattern.  One might also point to Littlewood’s Law, which states that an individual can expect to experience “miracles” at a rate of about once per month (if we experience events at a rate of one per second of waking and alert consciousness, and spend about eight hours per day alert, then we will experience a million events per 35 days, resulting in a one-in-a-million event about every month).

Regardless of the mechanism behind it, perceptions of synchronicity can be significant to an individual’s life.  Even if a perceived meaning is entirely subjective, i.e. projected onto external events, there remains the useful question of why one perceives that particular meaning at that particular time in those particular circumstances, which may yield insights into one’s psychological state.  In essence, it can help bring to consciousness current emotional or cognitive patterns, the awareness of which may influence decision-making.  The process can be compared to projective tests such as the Rorschach Test.  One naturalistic account of a synchronicity experience is available here.

See also “Bias” and “Divination.”

Three Transcendents

This is a term proposed to describe three of the most common objects of naturalistic transcendence: nature, community, and mind.

See also “Community”, “Mind”, “Nature”, and “Transcendence.”


The notion of transcendence can be viewed in both supernatural and natural ways.

In the supernatural sense, it may refer to transcendence of material reality and its limitations.  Representatives of such transcendent phenomena include a soul separate from the body that controls it and survives its death, an afterlife or other world separate from the physical universe, and a divine creator or other creative principle that is in whole or in part separate from and outside its creation.  This sense is inconsistent with naturalism as well as with HP, as described here.  In theological terms, this kind of transcendence is contrasted with immanence, or the divine manifest in the natural world (see “Immanence”).

In the naturalistic sense, transcendence may refer to 1) surpassing or growing beyond one’s previous limitations, as in Drew Jacob’s heroic life; or 2) that which is vastly greater than the individual, conscious, rational ego (or “small self”) in both degree and kind, yet in which one participates.  Potential objects of naturalistic transcendence may include nature, community, and mind.

In the latter sense, the natural world or aspects of it may confront one as an Immensity, to use Brendan Myers’ term (see “Immensity”).  Such a confrontation may lead to a numinous experience of the transcendent Other, a mystical experience of oneness or communion with that which transcends, or a visionary vision of cosmic order (see “Numinous” and “Mystical”).  Finally, following Myers, the confrontation may call into question who you are and how you ought to live, and thereby lead to a change in character that transcends one’s previous self.

Criticism of the term notwithstanding, the naturalistic varieties of transcendence are thoroughly compatible with Naturalistic Paganism.

See also “Immensity”, “Mystical”, “Numinous.”


UPG is a term often heard in Contemporary Paganism, especially in Reconstructionist circles, which stands for Unverified Personal Gnosis.

Wikipedia explains:

Unverified personal gnosis (often abbreviated UPG) is the phenomenological concept that an individual’s spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being generalizable to the experience of others. It is primarily a neologism used in polytheistic reconstructionism, to differentiate it from ancient sources of spiritual practices.


The term appears to have originally appeared in print in Kaatryn MacMorgan‘s book Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief, published in March 2003, but seems to have originated in Germano-Scandinavian Reconstructionist groups in the 1970s or 1980s. The same phenomenon has also been referred to as “personal revelation”, or “unverifiable personal gnosis” (in a somewhat derogatory sense).


As attempts at recreating or restarting ancient religions continue, the difficulty in telling the difference between historically attested sources and modern, personal interpretations grows. All myths and legends started at some point in the human past with one person or group’s experience; thus it would be inappropriate to dismiss out-of-hand a new experience. UPG grew out of the need for a shorthand in differentiating the two.


Ideally the term is used to label one’s own experience as a new and untested hypothesis, although further verification from the spiritual interactions of others may lead to a certain degree of verifiability. At other times, the term is used in either a value-neutral or disparaging sense, about someone else’s experience.

UPG is sometimes also said to stand for Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis.

Related terms

  • SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis) – indicating a mystical vision shared by a number of unrelated people, preferably, one arrived at independently of one another.

  • CG (Confirmed Gnosis) – indicating that substantiating evidence for an incidence of UPG or SPG has later been found in the lore. This is also sometimes referred to as CPG (Confirmed Personal Gnosis).

This term has been useful in navigating a course toward historical accuracy in the Pagan community, by separating historical attestation from personal revelation.  From a naturalistic perspective, one may well wonder if a similar feat can be accomplished in navigating a course toward scientific accuracy, by separating evidential support from personal conviction.


Loyal Rue describes visionary experience as one of three types of religious experiences (along with mystical and numinous experiences):

Visionary, or prophetic, experiences are often characterized by a trance-like state in which the seer receives a concrete message or vision communicated directly from an irresistible transcendent source.

From a naturalistic perspective, an experience of this sort might arise in response to such transcendent sources as nature, society, or the depths of the human psyche.  This would seem no longer to be a communication from that source but rather a response to it (except perhaps for messages from the unconscious psyche), yet the phenomenological sensation of it coming from without is often so compelling as to justify posing it in terms of a “vision.”  Poets and artists often describe their work as inspired by a “muse”, and Socrates had a “daemon” that warned him against mistakes.  The sensations involved in the “journey” of Harner’s Core Shamanism, as well as astral traveling, might also be interpreted as naturalistic “visions” coming from within though often experienced as if from without.  Finally, a sense of “presence” often described by hard polytheists, but also felt by some naturalists, may also be considered a kind of vision.

“Whatever works”

This common Neopagan maxim affirms a pragmatic approach to spirituality.  Whatever produces the desired result is worth consideration.

In a sense, science operates by the same dictum.  There is no arguing with empirical results, only with the explanations that attempt to account for those results.

Where science and Neopagan ritual may diverge is in the specificity of what it means for an approach to “work.”  Scientific experiments are painstakingly devised to produce a clear delineation between the success or failure of a hypothesis, which is itself carefully formulated to be falsifiable.  On the whole, Neopagan rituals tend to be far more ambiguous.  They nearly always involve ritual intentions or goals, sometimes quite specific, but rarely is attention paid to falsifiability (though not without exception), and the range of events which may indicate success is often extraordinarily wide.  This may give the impression that magico-religious ideas are being “tested” in ritual, but it is important to bear in mind the difference between this and scientific testing.

See also “All paths are valid.”


From Mirriam-Webster:

rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience

A sense of wonder is one of the four aspects of HP’s Fourfold Path.  It is difficult to talk directly of wonder.  Often the best one can do is talk around 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.

Brendan Myers describes wonder in response to the Earth in The Other Side of Virtue:

The virtuous response to the Earth… is to awaken and sharpen your sense of wonder.  This is a complex quality.  It implies amazement, and makes one feel as if in the presence of something magical.  But it also implies curiousity.  An object of wonder may be strange, unexpected, and unfamiliar.  But it is also interesting.  We might be stopped in our tracks by the beauty of what we see, but we also find ourselves wanting to know more.  It makes us ask questions, and speculate on possible answers.  Thus it has nothing to do with superstitious awe, nor is it the same as humility.  Humility subordinates he who feels it; wonder elevates him.  Humility makes you feel you must be silent and pensive.  Wonder makes you want to sing.  And most importantly, humility can be imposed on you: but Wonder, by contrast, is a quality you have to deliberately cultivate.  The unconquerable Immensity of the Earth, no less a part of its Immensity, is something you have to train yourself to see.

See also “Fourfold Path.”

Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of festivals commonly celebrated by Neopagans.  It observes the sun’s cycle through the year, marking the solstices, equinoxes, and points in-between (called cross-quarters).  These eight holidays are commonly referred to as sabbats, or sometimes high days.

Jon Cleland Host calls the cross-quarters thermistices and equitherms, recognizing the peaks and balances of climatic temperature.

For a detailed description of each sabbat, see Mike Nichols.


See “Magic.”

47 Comments on “The HPedia

  1. Pingback: Upcoming work | Humanistic Paganism

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  15. A great resource, but it’s a bit intimidating to take it all in at once. Would it be possible to turn this HPedia into an actual wiki?

    • That’s not a bad idea, except that it would take people off the site. WordPress doesn’t have a wiki feature, unfortunately (at least not in the free version).

      • True, but after checking out some of the free wikis I’ve found that you can add a prominent link back to the main site, so going back and forth would become easier. Example:

        I’ll delete it later, since I know it’s not really my place to be making this, but I wanted to show how it could be done. The only problem I see is how we’d organize all of these definitions/entries.

    • I agree, a wiki would be a better place for this and would allow it to get chopped up and expanded on over time. Articles of course can be featured but the interlinking between articles with commonly used words would be helpful since a number of words seem to take on slightly different meanings under a humanist context.

      Appreciate its current state and I think that such comments are good evidence that people want to take this to the next step which should be encouraging.

      • Thanks, Chris. I thought it was a good idea when it was first suggested, and I still do. We just need someone with the enthusiasm to turn it into a wiki. Do you know of a good free platform that could do it?

  16. Pingback: The HPedia: Polytheism, hard and soft | Humanistic Paganism

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  33. Pingback: Looking back, Looking forward | Humanistic Paganism

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