Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Review of the SNS Academy Intro to Atheist Spirituality

Photo by Caleb Roenigk

Several months ago I wrote about helping test a new course on spirituality for atheists. By “spirituality for atheists” I mean a path of personal growth using tools from spirituality (like meditation) with no supernatural elements. The course could also be used by people who are agnostic or humanistic and simply want a spirituality based on evidence.

The course is produced by the Spiritual Naturalist Society, a humanist organization. They took feedback from myself and other testers, improved the course, and have now officially opened it to the public. This is my review of the course.

(Disclosure: I know one of the course designers personally. I do not receive compensation for this review nor for readers enrolling in the course.)

Course Overview

The course is a 4-week, online, mostly self-guided experience. I say “mostly” because you’re expected to complete certain modules each week. Within the week, you can go at your own pace and on your own schedule.

The face of the course is humanist author BT Newberg. While I know BT in real life, I’ve never seen him teach before and he does so with a gentle, confident delivery that makes him easy to absorb. It’s clear he’s someone who meditates extensively in his own life, and when he talks about the practices he’s speaking from experience.

The format has three parts:

  • Videos. Each module begins with a video. Most videos are about 10 minutes long (there are transcripts if you prefer to read). The videos introduce core concepts and the practices that you’ll be asked to do. Most feature the voice of BT Newberg, with plenty of images and illustrations to break up the visuals. Several modules use audio guidance by Dr. Helen Weng, a meditation researcher, instead of videos. I thought the videos were well done, insightful and to the point.
  • Self-guided Q&A. After each module is a short Q&A or quiz. There is no grade on this—the course is quite gentle if you get an answer wrong, showing you the correct one and an explanation of why. The questions are about concepts from the video and help make sure you’re following the reasoning of how to do a practice or how it will help. I personally did not get a lot out of doing the Q&A, but I understand it helps with learning retention and some people like it.
  • Forums. There is a private online forum for course students. This is a great touch, as it allows you to speak to other like-minded individuals. Small talk is optional, but each week has a prompt for discussion in the forums that led to, in my opinion, very high quality conversations.

Altogether, the total time commitment is about 3 hours/week.

What You Learn

This course is officially Spiritual Naturalism 101, an intro to naturalistic spirituality. The curriculum is ambitious—they really set out to give you a complete, hands on spiritual path. The course covers everything from understanding emotion to finding peace and fulfillment to facing death without an afterlife. It would have been easy for the course to go off the rails, but they kept it practical by anchoring each module in a specific practice.

If I had to name a main theme of the course, I would say “self mastery.” Several sections are dedicated to emotions, how they arise, and how to manage them. Clearly, awareness meditation is a major part of this, but so are lots of other, less well known practices. BT comes back often to the idea of “broadening,” or simply taking a moment to look at the larger context of a situation, in order to defuse stress, anxiety or negative emotions. That’s a shortcut a Buddhist wouldn’t take, which underscores that this course is all about what works and not just sticking to an age-old practice.

Not everything is about emotion. The course delves into what it means to live in a naturalistic universe. One module addresses suffering as a natural part of our world, and strategies for accepting that. Another deals with the anguish of knowing that death is final, and how to create meaning in a meaningless world. If you’re seeing a broad range of influences here, both Eastern and Western, you’re exactly right.

The most fascinating section dealt with myths, religion and mysticism. Maybe surprisingly, it didn’t disparage them. The SNS is very clear that it believes in none of this stuff—but it believes it can be useful anyway. BT describes his experience making offerings at the shrine of a deity he is 100% sure does not exist, and why that practice was valuable. He suggests that myth and mysticism fill a certain need in the human psyche, and can do their job even when taken as purely symbolic. “Dive deep” into the ocean of myth, he says, “And let naturalism be your lifeguard.”

Of course, this won’t appeal equally to every student. No section will—I found some highly valuable and others less so. But no section gets pushy. The course only asks you to understand the concepts and try each practice once; which ones you end up using on your own is an entirely your decision.

Criticism

So far my comments have been mostly positive. I think it’s a good course. But are there downsides? Potentially:

  • I would have liked to see a female face in the course. Make no mistake, BT is very approachable and SNS has a lot to offer all genders. But in a world of male gurus it would be nice to see a woman leading a spiritual class, especially a highly intellectual one. Perhaps a future version of the course could trade off videos between BT and a female instructor.
  • What you get out of the course will depend a lot on your existing view toward religion. It might be too “let’s use stuff from religion” for strong atheists and too “but not believe in it” for others. Whether that’s a pro or a con will depend on your point of view.

All in all, I was very happy with the course. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to explore their personal development and “spiritual” worldview without going down a faith-based path.

The first SNS 101 course begins Sunday, September 6th. Cost is $100, or $50 for SNS supporting members (you do not have to be a member to join). Space is limited to the first 10 students to sign up. Get more details or enroll here.

Next time I’ll get back to stories from Valladolid. If you’re hungry for stories now, check out my book.

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Atheism, Philosophy, Religion, Spotlight

Mystery of Certainty

Atheist Witch.

This is an excerpt from an essay from Atheist Witch blog.

Some deny the reality of any experience or belief that cannot explained (but not disproved) through existing scientific frameworks, and assume anyone claiming otherwise to be either delusional, ignorant or lying. They would justify this by claiming that many people have been proven to be just that while highlighting the dangers of sacrificing “rationality” for the emotional comfort of religion.

What is ironic about this stance is that it actually shows a lot of emotionality and subjectivity.  With… pending mysteries in areas which are so fundamental, it seems silly to not even be open to the possibility of even very fundamental ideas that we have about the universe being completely turned on their head in the future.  It is also seems risky to attempt to usurp “rationality” or “objectivity.”

I personally am in the science camp. I suspect everything in our universe not presently explained by science can, at least theoretically, be explained by science one day. That’s because anything that happens in our universe, however arcane it may seem, can be observed or has effects that can be observed. With time and study we can understand any phenomena.

I believe there is nothing supernatural, period; even the mysteries of consciousness, divinity, and magic have some natural underpinning. We can understand them.

But that is an unproven philosophic position on my part. It’s a popular position today, but not the only reasonable position you can hold.

I highlighted Atheist Witch’s essay because it nicely showcases the very rational basis for maintaining an openness to the supernatural, even from a scientific worldview. There is no scientific basis for believing in the supernatural, but there is a reasonable basis for it.

This is why I can sit side-by-side with strong supernatural believers in the Hounfo, in the Neimheadh, or in any spiritual setting; I see them as intellectual equals. I consider that their belief has merit.

The full essay is titled “Embracing Mystery to Have Certainty.” I hope you will read it on Atheist Witch’s blog and let him know what you think.

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Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Effective and Compassionate Atheism

This is an excerpt from an essay by Marcus Mann.

“To put it another way, atheists care very much about being correct and that when dealing with the most daunting problems in our collective life, it is of paramount importance that we are correct about the nature of the challenges we face. Atheists exhibit this value by revering the processes (rituals?) and institutions devoted solely to this value: the scientific method, education, and debate. It’s why atheists, including myself, are obsessed with “evidence.” I care deeply about this kind of empirical correctness and accord it a lofty position among the many other values I hold dear.

“But… I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind. A helpful exercise then is to ask what intellectual role, on the level of belief and theology, does salvation play for the fundamentalist Christian screaming insults at a gay couple? What intellectual role does submission play for a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber? The answer, I propose, is that they are central ones. So too, atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.”

This essay was published on the blog “The Friendly Atheist” (which I don’t always find friendly). I was happy to read it, both because it highlights the work of my friend Chris Stedman and because I admire the compassionate view of the author. Yet I also find it terrible. No special soul searching should be needed to admit that kindness is as important as being right. Nor should it be radical to suggest respecting people despite their differences.

Yet interreligious respect is still in its infancy for atheism as a movement, and essays like this—or Chris’ book—are controversial among atheists.

When a movement does not support religious tolerance, I construe it as fundamentally against human rights. And that brings me great pain, because I likely have more beliefs in common with atheists than I do with most religious folks.

I hope you will read the rest and share your thoughts.

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Atheism

Are Your Gods So Easily Offended?

I was warned.

“Spiritual entities take a dim view of non-believers,” he told me. “Faith comes first.”

Perhaps the gods will punish me, perhaps they will simply withdraw their favor. Surely they will be offended. To question the gods is hubris.

How striking. Who really believes gods punish doubt?

The history of the last 1900 years is the story of one religion after another falling before Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. The gods have never stepped forward to stop non-believers. The gods are Switzerland.

Druids wept as the sanctuaries were violated; so did Aztec priests. I see Christians and atheists in the UK, visiting the old megaliths with their camera phones. It’s the same sight at Templo Mejor.

Where are the lightning bolts?

Devils and Titans

This fear is more than bad history, though; it’s bad religion. A question: why would you worship selfish pricks?

The gods I worship are ancient, calm, wise in their years. They are sages. They will speak to you if you approach, but if you do not? It isn’t their concern.

But some imagine the gods hungry, needy, jealous, impetuous, lost without humanity. They want bribes and they will make threats to get them. Their finger is on the button.

That is an abusive relationship. That is titans and devils.

An Experiment

But I did say I keep an open mind.

So I went straight to the source. I asked my patron deity.

Lugh is a no-nonsense god. If the gods are in our psyche, some very rigorous part of me invented Lugh; if the gods are real, this is one who will tell me if I have offended him.

I’ll admit I was nervous. I don’t commune with him often. It’s usually very special. To use such an opportunity to tell him I question his existence, to discover I’ve offended him…

I lit the candles.

I reminded myself that the experience matters either way. Even if I’m speaking to myself, if prayer is a sort of deceptively inward-focused meditation, it has always given useful results before. Whatever I was about to discover would be meaningful, whether I liked the answer or not.

Lugh’s Words

Do you think I care what you believe?

You have a mission. When you inspire people, I am there. When you sacrifice yourself, I am there.

If you would make your name, go out and make it. The battle is yours. Let your own arm decide the outcome.

My Interpretation

This answer was emotional for me. It’s extremely reassuring that Lugh is there with me even as I doubt his nature. And it was an important reminder that faith in the gods does not win special favor.

The battle for a better world is ours.

One step toward it is to put “stop pissing off the gods” safely to rest. For those who are absolutely, positively sure that atheism offends the gods: I asked a god, and he told me it does not.

You can question the validity of that revelation, but then you’re admitting that the experiences of the divine are at least partly in our heads. After 12 years of meditation, I can quiet my own inner voice as well as anybody can—this was communion, if there is such a thing.

Do the gods exist? I don’t know.

I don’t call that hubris. I call it honesty.

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Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Why Did You Give Up the Soul?

One July afternoon I stopped believing in the soul.

Why? That’s a question I’ve been dodging.

But not anymore. State of Formation, a project of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, just published my first guest essay, Giving Up the Soul. If it goes well, I may become one of their contributing scholars.

Why did I wait so long to explain myself? I wanted to do it right. This is a big change in my beliefs, and I wanted to make sure I could explain it. I feel that this essay, at that website, is the right place.

So what made up my mind? Find out for yourself and share your thoughts.

(Hint: it was not my grandmother’s death—that came four days later)

I’d like your ideas. Is my reasoning solid? Am I overlooking something? And what does religion-without-souls look like? Please leave a comment—preferably at State of Formation, if you want to make me look good to my new editor—and tell me what you think.

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Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

The Parable of an Atheist at a Temple

This is a guest post by atheist philosopher Rae Williams.

I just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastery nested in the mountains outside Gyeongju, South Korea. I woke at 4 a.m., chanted, and spent several hours a day in meditation. The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, but it was not heavily emphasized.  I’ve been a meditator for several years and looked forward to advancing my exploration of the mind.

Instead of attending the obvious tourist fluff I meditated my own. I snuck up to the temple on one occasion and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.

I think setting is important. At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m. It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found.  So these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful. That’s part of what I learned; the time may come when I need to deepen my practice with a retreat, but for now sitting in my apartment is working just fine. The most powerful meditative experience I’ve ever had was in my living room.

You may be asking yourself what use an atheist has for meditation.

Quite a bit. I think much of what we call “religion” needs to be rejected, but religion is complex and sometimes beautiful. To reject a god is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions. There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like how to live, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.

Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in religion and are worth salvaging. I’m drawn to it in part by two things: one, it can be pursued in a secular context and requires no faith. Two, even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.

Watch your own thoughts unfolding for a few minutes and you’ll see that your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like an avalanche perpetually bearing down on him. That sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate. First, the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche.  Then I returned to focusing on my breath. I smiled because the metaphor seemed clever. Back to breathing. Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrasings. Back to breathing.

Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years. Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.

What I’ve studied of philosophy suggests that Buddhism and Hinduism begin from a different point of departure than Western science. Buddhism takes introspection as the empirical exploration of the mind. In the millennia since this project began, numerous mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much religious baggage.

In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized and there are thinkers who believe that the introspection itself is incoherent.  I can sympathize.  Psychology has revealed that introspection is profoundly susceptible to error, and of course we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward.  But that doesn’t mean meditation is useless.  On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion. It appears that meditation, stripped of religion, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.

What’s more, it may indeed turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness. If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way we have of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.

Regardless, meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience. It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment. Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness to be found in the landscape of the human mind.

Or so I’ve learned while sitting.

Rae writes about issues of consciousness, belief, and spiritual practice sans faith.

Is Rae right that most of religion can’t be “salvaged” for use in a scientific worldview? And how do his claims stack up against nature-based, immanent religions? 

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Atheism, Favorites, Religion, Spotlight

Better Atheism

Yesterday was a troll-caliber kerfuffle. I stated that Pagans, as a movement, do a better job of championing cultural pluralism and religious tolerance than atheists as a movement do. That shouldn’t be surprising since Pagans have a multi-decade head start on fighting for acceptance and have a direct interest in both of those issues.

But, insisting I was wrong, one commenter offered:

The core of the new atheist ‘movement’ …is that there should be no privileged respect for religion, any more than there is for a political viewpoint or a scientific hypothesis. Religion can and should be criticised as robustly as possible… religion should be treated with boxing gloves, not kid gloves.

The use of extremely disrespectful language by new atheists is in this vein often a consciousness-raising exercise, to contrast with the unwarranted reverence with which religious attitudes and authorities are often treated. It’s the same disrespectful language with which (on a blog, at least) you might treat someone who held any other kind of laughable belief—for example, Rupert Sheldrake or Glenn Beck. [Drew’s note: not on this blog. I’d call such language puerile regardless of target.]

…If you see this as so wrong that you can declare it to be so by assertion, then you are not hoping that the ‘new’ atheism will reform—you are hoping it will go away.

This atheist proves my point. They basically make the case that atheists have a really good reason to be intolerant; that’s the opposite of being a tolerant movement.

Luckily there are also reasonable and conscientious atheists who believe quite the opposite.

Atheist activist and Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy fellow Chris Stedman writes:

I am an atheist who wishes to promote critical thinking, compassion, and pluralism… I am far more concerned about whether someone is pluralistic in their worldview—if they oppose totalitarianism and believe people of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values—than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.

To be sure, seeing an end to anti-atheist attitudes is a priority of mine. But it is a goal that is facilitated by relationship-building between atheists and the religious and by supporting meaningful communities for the nonreligious…

So let’s call it like it is. If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist—you are an anti-religious activist.

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

(You can also dive into Chris’ blog NonProphet Status and look forward to his book Faitheist coming out in mid 2012.)

This is where I wish I could say, “So, it turns out most atheists are like Chris, and I’m sorry for misrepresenting you guys.” But I can’t, because Chris’ position is far from a majority view in the tapestry of contemporary atheism. If intolerance were rare among atheists, Chris wouldn’t have to explain why it’s wrong, and my affronted atheist commenter wouldn’t excuse “extremely disrespectful language” as a legitimate tactic at the core of the movement.

I write this knowing that there’s a huge demographic of very respectful, tolerant, ethical atheists and non-believers. Some of you are reading this right now. If you dislike what I said—if you think the atheist movement should be depicted as championing tolerance as strongly as any other movement—good. There are things you can do.

Confront intolerant atheists about their views. Tell anti-religious activists to get their hate language out of your peanut butter, and when you read atheist blogs or attend atheist conferences, speak out against crude or belittling language.

If you stand up against intolerance among atheists, you’ll make a better atheist movement. And you’ll make my criticism obsolete.

Comments are closed to avoid a repeat of yesterday.

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