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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Religion, Spotlight

Beta Testing a Course on Spiritual Naturalism

BT Newberg

What does the future of religion look like? I’m convinced it’s not going to look anything like what we know as religion today—that in the course of this century we will see a decline of faith-based communities as we know them, and a rise of something else. That doesn’t mean religion will be banished, or that secularism will completely replace it. It means that we’re poised to create a better kind of religious structure. A structure focused not on doctrine, but on creating tangible positive outcomes for individuals.

That’s why I was pleased to receive an invitation from BT Newberg, the Education Director for the fledgling Spiritual Naturalist Society. You may know BT from his work as the founder and editor of Humanistic Paganism, but his current project is aimed at a much broader audience. He’s assembled the first formal training course for Spiritual Naturalism, a sort of self-guided catechism for those who are spiritual and skeptical at the same time. BT needed beta students to try out the course before it’s opened to the public, and I was happy to volunteer.

Spiritual Naturalism, as the Society defines it, is a philosophy for those who believe spiritual practice is valuable but refuse to accept any supernatural or irrational claims. These are people who may meditate, conduct ritual or pray but do not believe there are spirits or objectively real deities of any kind.

Longtime readers can see why this would appeal to me. I’m different from most people involved in Spiritual Naturalism: unlike them, I’m not firmly convinced that gods and spirits don’t exist. I question their existence, but remain undecided. But I continue my work as a priest despite this indecision, carrying on a long tradition of skeptic priests reaching back to ancient polytheism. In other words I find religion valuable whether there are gods or not, and I feel very comfortable with the way BT talks about spirituality.

I’ve only just dived into the course, but I have some initial impressions. The focus appears to be working with emotions and reason to make the two work together, and to achieve a sense of compassion and the ability to be happier in one’s own life. If that sounds like well-trodden territory for spiritual self-help paths, it is; but the signposts along the way are quite different. Rather than appealing to concepts of karma, energy, or transcendence the course draws firmly on psychological research. The idea is to use practices that have been shown to produce positive changes in one’s attitude and life. It’s presented largely without mythic imagery, which makes it surprisingly easy to follow (and buy into). This early in the course I can’t say for sure, but I’m hoping it will end up being the personal happiness equivalent of “eat more greens, have a healthier heart.”

Obviously, the lack of mythopoetic language and transcendent concepts will put off some people. A path of spiritual self-perfection has a lot less hooks when it’s just simple, practical advice with no grand narrative. But I believe that’s by design. The Spiritual Naturalist Society isn’t in the business of trying to convert hardcore believers, but provides a much-needed resource for those who want the best of both worlds (and are willing to give up the not-always-best of the world of myth). And the course doesn’t deride unprovable religious beliefs, it simply puts them aside. To quote BT, “We just say ‘we don’t know,’ and we’re fine with that.”

This course, Spiritual Naturalism 101, is just the first of what BT hopes will be more classes teaching an effective reason-based spirituality. It lasts one month and is conducted entirely online. I’m told to expect about 3 hours of time commitment per week, although it may be more since I’m also helping test the course. Assuming all goes as planned, BT intends to make it available to the public later in 2015.

You can learn more about the Spiritual Naturalist Society here.

Let me know if you have any specific questions about the Spiritual Naturalism course or the ideas behind it. I can’t answer on behalf of BT or the SNS but I’m happy to provide my own take or relay questions to him. Once I’ve finished the course I’ll do a more complete writeup. Meanwhile, what do you think? What kind of appeal will a course like this have? Is it something you’d want to take?

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Ask Me Anything, Religion

What do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

Leah asked:

Simply curious: what do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

This is where I’m supposed to say that even though I don’t believe he’s the son of a god, I do think he was highly enlightened and was one of the great spiritual teachers of history.

But that’s not exactly what I think.

First off, I should disclose my bias. For a long time I felt that Christianity as a whole was fundamentally flawed, and that Jesus’ teachings did more harm than good. I no longer believe that, and I’ve tried to distance myself from that former hostility toward Christianity.

However, for many people the damage that’s been done by Christianity as an institution outweighs the good that Jesus did. Obviously, there’s a difference between Jesus Christ the individual and Christianity the religion, and he didn’t directly found any of the churches. Even so, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to be gun shy. When a person creates a movement that goes on to do awful things they have to bear at least part of the responsibility. And if you’ve been on the receiving end of a church’s bile and rhetoric, it’s not much consolation to know that their founding father was a swell guy.

So, to anyone out there who has a very bad taste in their mouth about Christianity: I understand.

I personally however have warmed up on Jesus. I’m intrigued by alternative readings of his teachings. For example, in this amazing podcast theologian Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was a radical humanist. He bases his argument entirely on Jesus’ actual sayings in the Gospels rather than any of the rest of the Bible. If that’s accurate then Jesus and I agree on a lot of things.

Rarely, I’ve also seen people truly live by his example and it really is a marvelous thing to behold.

(For a delightful, irreverent book that combines both of these things—Jesus as radical humanist and people daring to actually follow his example—I highly recommend A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost.)

A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost

Anyway, on to my thoughts.

I’m a polytheist. That means I believe the divine appears with many faces, and that there’s value in relating to them as a plurality. Likewise, as a polytheist I believe we need a plurality of beliefs and doctrines as well. We need them because no one religious structure will reach everybody. So I’m in favor of embracing multiple gods, multiple doctrines and multiple religious organizations—as all polytheists should be.

In my view then there’s no reason to exclude Jesus. I realize that many polytheists will hiss to hear me say that—monotheism! forced conversion! universalism! But as a committed polytheist, if the teachings of Jesus speak to people, I don’t see why they aren’t just as good an addition to the pantheon as the teachings of Apollo or Dionysus.

And his teachings are valuable. As far as I can tell, Jesus’ main message promotes a sort of deep and committed selflessness, not just love and forgiveness but a commitment to love and forgiveness so deep that they can stop the cycle of violence and revenge. Jesus, like Socrates, challenged an eye-for-eye moral system and taught people to put each other first, to be the first ones to put down their swords.

That teaching was, I think, fairly novel in ancient Europe. (Socrates taught something similar, and was also killed for it.) I admit I get rankled when people pretend that Classical religion was all brutish and awful before Christianity. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a concept of charity, they valued generosity and kindness, and they had a beautiful moral system based on striving for virtue. But did they have a sense of selfless mercy, or forgiveness for the sake of peace? If they did, it wasn’t prominent.

Other polytheist systems, like Hinduism, already have a concept of this kind of compassion; no outside messiah is needed. (Jesus is neatly folded into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu, the god who incarnates as a mortal to guide and help humankind.) But I don’t see that kind of selfless compassion in Classical ethics—nor Celtic or Germanic ethics. Compassion and kindness were reserved for one’s friends or countrymen, never for one’s enemies.

A lot of other ideas got mixed into early Christianity—Heaven and Hell, meekness, the resurrection—that are terrible whether they came from Jesus or not. But to the extent that we can separate Jesus’ teaching of compassion from all the rest of it, I believe he made a much needed addition to Western religion.

Happy Christmas, all of you who celebrate it. I hope it’s a wonderful, magical day and a time for reflection on how to be the people we imagine we are.

Tomorrow, if you can pull yourself away from the festivities, I’ll be unveiling a major new development in my quest for the heroic life. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and offer critique.

Happy holidays!

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Religion, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

Last time I labored over a mountain pass and crossed a desert, setting a new record for the most miles traveled in one day. This time begins my second rest stop in the town of Cedral, SLP.

Sunday, November 16 – Tuesday, November 18, 2014—Rest and Work

Although I had come a long way and arrived early (by the official itinerary), I couldn’t slack off. I had plenty of client work to do and started my time in Cedral by diving right into it.

That doesn’t mean I got no rest. My first morning, I slept till almost 9—my compensation for the early mornings preceding. But as I stirred, wearing only my briefs, I was surprised to see a face at my window: Doña Blanca was there, bringing me breakfast in bed!

She had originally invited me to dine downstairs, but since I was a late riser she brought my breakfast up to the apartment. I threw on my pants and opened the door, accepting the breakfast with my limited Spanish. It was no paltry meal:

Doña Blanca's breakfast. Photo by André.

Doña Blanca’s breakfast. Photo by André.

I spent most of the next two days working. There were occasional forays to the Centro for food (Blanca provided only one meal a day), and I made it a point to explore despite all the looks I got biking around town.

One thing I wanted to learn was where I could catch a bus to Real de Catorce, the nearby tourist destination/near ghost town/gateway to Huichol sacred land. When I asked about this in Abarrotes Conche, the corner store attached to the house, the woman behind the counter asked a 13 year old boy if he would show me the way. Thus began the first serious challenge to my Spanish speaking skills.

Juan, as my friend was called, was very friendly. We made chit chat as we walked toward the bus stop, as best we could with my limited Spanish. I tried to convey concepts much too complicated for my language proficiency, as I’m wont to do, but unlike adults he would question and question and question until we had a moment of communication. At one point, laughing, he told me, “Your Spanish is really bad.”

Later: “You need to learn more words.”

With that sage advice in mind we reached the bus stop, more an unmarked area where buses pause in their journeys than an official station. Juan rustled up Jorge Luis, Cedral’s bus fixer, who told me that I could catch a ride to Real every half hour for just $60 pesos. That was all I really needed to know; with the mission accomplished, I planned to return to working.

Juan had other ideas. “Where are we going now?” he asked.

Deciding to make the most of our time together, I thought about the other chores on my back burner. Blanca had been vague about what I should do for water: over the coming days, I would sometimes get free liters from her, sometimes need to pay for them, and sometimes simply go to other stores where I could get water cheaper.

“I need to get a galón,” I said, referring to a jug that actually holds several gallons. “At the Super. Want to come?”

Juan was game, but he wanted to show me his bike—and see mine. I agreed to wait a few moments while he ran home for the bici, and we saddled up.

As we cruised toward the Super, I pointed at his back rack. “I like your….. thing,” I said in Spanish.

“The grill?” (Helpful bike term: a rack is a parilla.)

“Yeah.”

“I use it when I work for my grandpa,” he said. “He grows onions and cilantro and I take them to market. But he lives 3 kilometers outside of town. It’s very far.”

I cracked up laughing. After Juan rode me all morning about my Spanish, here was something where I finally dominated.

“Very far!” I taunted. “Two days ago I rode 175 km in one day.”

Once Juan confirmed the numbers, I had finally won his respect. We entered the supermarket and left our bikes unlocked outside. I had seen many locals do this, but had always locked mine up regardless; now I left it up to Fortuna, as if my association with this 13-year-old don would protect my property.

Inside, we found galónes. I already wondered how I was supposed to tip my friend—he had helped me, and by Mexican logic I should tip him in some way. But I didn’t know how much, or when, or if it could be perceived as an insult (what if he was just being friendly?). Thankfully he made it easy for me: as we walked toward the checkout he asked, “Can I get some juice?” There was no doubt who was paying for it, and I agreed: at 6 pesos, it seemed like a low price. He’ll learn eventually.

On the way home Juan tried to convince me that I should try a nieve (snow cone), which I couldn’t explain to him pales in comparison to the snowballs of New Orleans. I perceived this as an attempt at another free treat and, since I really did have work to do, I passed on the offer.

Being a writer, not a photographer, I failed to snap Juan’s picture. We parted on friendly terms, but I wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of my stay.

Also during these two days I did some laundry with the help of some niños. It turned out pretty well.

But the real excitement of these days was what would come next. One of my traveler friends who happened to be in Mexico heard that my cycling companions had evaporated, and offered to come up to Cedral for a few days so we could go to Real de Catorce together. (That was actually a big part of why I headed to Cedral rather than Matehuala: my friend had spotted Doña Blanca’s place on AirBnB.)

Monday night I watched as a hired car rolled up the street to Abarrotes Concha, my friend sitting inside. After dropping off bags we headed to the only late night taquería in town. Getting some English-language conversation was divine, and not being the only guero in town didn’t hurt either. I was finally part of a small group again, rather than a lone oddity.

On Tuesday we both finished work for our respective clients and finalized our plans for Real.

Wednesday, November 19 (Day 866 of the Great Adventure)—Real de Catorce

Wednesday morning found us huddled in the cold desert wind just after breakfast under Jorge Luis’ watchful gaze. His full parilla of gold teeth gleamed as he reassured us we would love Real. Soon enough we were ushered aboard a (thankfully) warm bus and took our seats.

My friend opted to catch a final nap despite the blaring Will Smith action movie that suddenly lit up screens all around the bus. I preferred to gaze out the window, taking in a surreal cloud-covered landscape that got higher and steeper as we made our way to progressively less paved roads. Goat herders and an abandoned pueblo drifted out of the mist, the only sign of civilization until we reached the final approach: a cobblestone road curving up a mountain to a height of about 9,000 feet.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

That was only the first course, however. At the top of the road we stopped and the few other passengers on board simply got up and left. With no explanation in either Spanish or English, we shrugged followed. All of us huddled around a faux colonial plaza, deserted except for a lone candy seller. We knew what came next—the Tunnel, which loomed at the edge of the plaza—but not exactly what the procedure was.

We didn’t have to wait long. A smaller bus rattled out of the mist and opened its door. Hopping aboard, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same driver wearing a different hat. The tiny group of travelers spread out on hard plastic seats and we rumbled toward the hole in the mountain.

There’s only one road in or out of Real de Catorce, and instead of going over one of the tallest mountains in Mexico it opts to go through it. The Ogarrio Tunnel is one part mine shaft, one part public works project, and one part tourist attraction. It’s also so narrow that it barely has just one lane; traffic takes turns coming in and going out. (“Taking turns” may be an overstatement, however, since at least on weekdays there was no real traffic waiting at either side.)

I was eager to see the Tunnel, because at one point I had considered bicycling through it. By that plan I would have biked up the mountain and through the Ogarrio to get into Real, then depart by a sort of goat trail to continue the Adventure. I nixed the idea because the first road is paved with tire-busting cobbles. I had also heard rumors that vehicle exhaust inside the Tunnel makes it virtually impossible to cross unless sealed inside a car or bus.

The rumors weren’t exaggerated. In the black of the tunnel I spotted a carved stone doorway, a branching mine shaft and, within a minute or two, clouds of haze choking out the yellow lamps overhead. With over a mile to go, the bus itself began to smell of exhaust.

Yes, we rode a bus through this. Photo via Mexico Desconocido

At length we spilled out into daylight and a mostly empty plaza. The other travelers seemed to know where they were going, and we vaguely followed. Soon we found ourselves mostly alone except for occasional hustlers hoping to sell us everything from breakfast or guidebooks to hallucinogenic cacti.

Our first mission was to find a hotel. We looked at several and settled on Hotel Corral de Conde, a mid-level choice with beautiful interiors but no heaters and wi-fi only in the lobby. Along the way we got the story on the “Catorce” (fourteen) the town is named after, from an old man outside the tourist office:

“There’re different versions. It can be fourteen anything. Fourteen bandits, fourteen Spanish soldiers, fourteen miners, fourteen Huicholes. It depends on who’s telling it.”

With our things deposited at the Corral we set out for the first objective of our stay: an ancient cemetery and chapel outside of town. Travel websites make it sound like it’s miles away, so that you’ll hire a horse (or a bike or a jeep) to get there, but it’s really about an 8 minute walk—at least once you get directions. The few locals on the street wore tourist blinders and had little interest in telling us the way, but we found a sun-faded and vine-covered map on a placard by the centro that gave us the right general bearing.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

The walk may have been short, but it wasn’t easy. At 9,000 feet every breath of air is a lucha match. Add in a steep hill or three on every street in town and we understood why horse rides are so popular.

The view was worth it, however. At the edge of town we caught our first glimpse of what I’ll call the Cloud Desert, the Huichol sacred land straddled by the mountains that surround Real. It was one solid expanse of white below us, a fog-covered lowland where you can die of thirst while soaked with dew.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

The cemetery before the chapel was crowded with old graves, many bearing fresh offerings. The chapel was built 300 years ago by a small mining community, and yet it’s more impressive than most cathedrals in the US. Even so, centuries of wear left the murals inside peeled and faded, looking more like Pollock paintings than pictures of angels.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

Inside the Chapel. That's Guadalupe on  the  left.

Inside the Chapel. That’s Guadalupe on the left.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Flanking the chapel entrance are two holy images, Guadalupe on the left and St. Francis on the right. I had brought candles for both. I approached Guadalupe first. Lighting her candle was a struggle in the drafty mountain temple. Eventually, candle lit, I knelt before her and prayed. Guadalupe is a miraculous virgin who has been sainted by the Church, but whom many believe corresponds to an earlier Aztec goddess. Kneeling there, I understood that she was the female presence that had appeared to me on top of the mountain pass.

I also offered to St. Francis, although the town’s main image of him is actually kept in the parish church, not out here in the roadside chapel.

Afterward we sought out a late lunch. We settled on the restaurant at the high end Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, as much because it was warm inside as because of what was on the menu. The food was incredible, however, and this became our eatery for the next 24 hours.

While my friend checked in on client work, I ran some errands (like buying us water) and stopped by the parish church. It has the most unique floor I’ve ever seen. It seems to be made out of old mining pallets rather than planks, arranged like giant hardwood tiles. Each board of each pallet is rounded smooth from centuries of feet. They sounded hollow under my footsteps.

The parish church  with the great floors. Photo by André.

The parish church with the great floors. Photo by André.

I was there mainly to see the other image of St. Francis, however:

St. Francis. Photo by André.

St. Francis. Photo by André.

This one is reputed to be miraculous and is the object of a long annual pilgrimage. The people of Real apparently are quite attached to St. Francis and have various local nicknames for him. I made offerings to him for my mother, who has always held him especially close to her heart, and then took a small pilgrim pin from a jar of them beside the statue. (I’m actually not clear whether you’re supposed to pick one up when you pray there, or wear one on your pilgrimage and deposit it in the jar at the end; in any case St. Francis said to go ahead and take one if I wanted.)

By this time it was nearly dark and the chill intensified. I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel. We both caught up on work and grabbed an evening snack at the Meson before heading to bed.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Thursday, November 20 (Day 867 of the Great Adventure)—El Pueblo Phantasmo

Our alarm went off long before dawn. There was something else we had to see before leaving Real, and the hike there and back would take all morning.

Real de Catorce itself is often called a ghost town, but the truth is it was only mostly deserted after the silver industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By now it’s made a resurgence and has plenty of year-round residents. Other communities in the area, however, were truly abandoned; whole villages sit around forgotten mineshafts in the hills. I had spent a good part of the previous afternoon rustling up exact directions to one. “Exact” might be an overstatement, but I was confident I could at least find the trail head.

The morning started with a cold breakfast in the dark. We had pestered the hotel clerk the day before with a million variants of the same question: is there a free breakfast? A paid breakfast? Coffee at least? Is there somewhere else we can go for breakfast?

No, she explained between sighs. There is nothing.

So we had pastries I’d bought from a local vendor the night before, and washed them down with cold water. Then we put on every layer of clothing we had and opened the door to the freezing mountain wind.

We made our way through the abandoned cobble streets. At the edge of town we were surprised to see one tiny kitchen that was actually open, run by the world’s grumpiest doña. She offered us go cups of Nescafé at Starbucks prices. We used them alternately as beverages and hand warmers as we continued on our way.

To the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance we found a gravel road up out of town. Soon we were in the mountains, the sky barely grey and the town shrinking in the darkened valley.

The sun rose somewhere between the mountaintops above us. The endless white of the Cloud Desert flared into being below, and then the rooftops of Real. The tolling of the church bell came to us on the wind.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This was no beginner’s hike. The trail was steep and the wind wasn’t just cold, it was also low on oxygen. We gulped for breath and sniffled, walking along the mountainsides.

This is what we found:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

It’s a bro on a burro. Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

The first set of ruins clustered around the opening to a vertical mineshaft, a pit in the earth twenty feet across. It was half-heartedly covered with wire mesh to discourage accidental skydiving. Dropping a rock through the mesh, we listened in silence. We never heard it hit bottom.

There were other, more diagonal mine shafts as well. I would have gladly explored the underground palace if we’d had more time and a bit of chalk. Responsible adventurer that I am, I contented myself with entering the foyer for now.

Wandering the ruins left us with many questions. Were any of these big stone buildings bunkhouses, or did the men sleep in tents? Did the men have wives and families out here, or just prostitutes? Did they leave their camp town and its chapel to go on leave in Real, or did they live up in the hills all the time? What happened to a man who took sick and couldn’t work?

Supposedly, the miners were paid a share of the monthly silver yield, which made it a lucrative job. I don’t imagine it was a safe one. I wonder how many of those men planned to do it only a little while, save up, and quit; and how many succeeded.

By the time we came down the mountain the sun was high in the sky. We collected our empty coffee cups from the branches where we’d stuck them on the way up. Unlike the miners, we left no sign that we’d ever been there.

Now everything in town was open. We had a late breakfast at the Meson, then rounded up our things at the Corral. We caught the noon bus just as it pulled into the tunnel, and began the trip back down. We’d had very little time in Real, but I’d already decided I needed to come back. It’s somewhere I’d like to rent a room for a few weeks and do a proper writing retreat. I’d also like to put on a backpack and hike the desert.

The tunnel and mountain road were less mystical now. We’d learned at least a few of their secrets, and the mist had begun to thin. In just an hour we were back in the ordinary world. We spent the rest of the day working, hanging out or looking for better food options around Cedral. We didn’t find many.

Friday, November 21 – Saturday, Novvember 22—Work and Planning

The next morning we once again rose before dawn. My friend had an early bus to catch, and we walked together to Jorge Luis’ bus stop. Afterward, alone again, I made my way home for one of Doña Blanca’s breakfasts and more work. I spent my last two days in Cedral writing, with afternoon and late evening forays to get food. There wasn’t much else to do in this sleepy little town, except plan my route onward.

Next time, I take off across the desert… which is the worst place to break down. Until then, here are the rest of the road logs.

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Religion, Spotlight

Polytheism Ebook Fail

Michel Hill's Hill Evidencism Polytheism Book

So, I recently received an (unsolicited) free copy of an ebook on polytheism. The email was signed by author Michael Hill, but the email address looked a lot like spam. So instead of clicking the attachment I decided to do some googling.

I found out that there really is a polytheism treatise by Michael Hill, and it looks like a real hoot. According to the abstract:

“Numerous and unrelated pieces of physical evidence currently exist that proves the existence of the Gods.”

Unlikely.

“A few examples of physical evidence, historical events like the Black Death, and some thoroughly-explained logic were combined to tell a complete story that reveals the answers to most religious questions.”

In case I was still on the fence, this pretty much confirmed that the book is not worth reading. Helpfully, the rest of the abstract brags that it’s a short, easy read. In fact, it says that of the 44 pages in the book (so… paper?), more than half is bibliography. In other words, Michael Hill believes he has polished off 6,000 years of theological debate in a handy 20 pages.

The best part is that Hill seems to be trying to found a whole new religion, “Hill Evidencism.” I finally gave in to curiosity and downloaded the complimentary pdf. Here’s a an actual quote:

“The main reason why lightning is physical divine evidence is because lightning frequently introduces humans to fire… After being introduced to fire, humans learned how to use fire.”

It’s hard to argue with reasoning like that… but not for the reasons Hill would like to think.

All of this reminds me that, although polytheism is a beautiful concept, there’s not a whole lot of respectable work being written about it these days.

I wonder if I should take the time to write a polytheism book of my own?

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Religion

Doing My Job as a Priest

Image by Justin Ornellas

A friend of mine has been facing repeated heartbreak as he tries to get a fledgling relationship off the ground. We talked recently and he asked me, “Why do I have to keep paying in tears and pain for the sin of desiring romantic human companionship? Sometimes I feel cursed.”

This led to a conversation:

Me: Do you ever talk to your spirits?

Friend: Other than an aimless “why?” screamed towards the Heavens, no.

Me: Might not be a bad idea.

Friend: Why? You think I’m cursed?

Me: No, I don’t. If I’d felt that I would have done a ceremony for you already.

Friend: I don’t think I’m cursed either.
Just unhinged.

Me: The spirit world has a way of unblocking things that are blocked and pointing out things that aren’t easy to see. That’s the reason I suggest it. Gently, of course, with with total respect for your own freedom to do as you see fit spiritually :)

Friend: How should I begin? I need answers with this thing. I’m losing it.

Me: I would begin by just going to a quiet place and talking to them. Bring a gift, even if it’s just water or a few coins. Ask them for their guidance and listen with an open heart.

They may ask you to make changes or to do something. If you feel comfortable with what they say then do it. If you make the changes they tell you to make you will see the ripples of it across your life.

That is my experience.

Friend: Did you sense something? Hear something? Like how did you recognize the guidance?

Me: I think it’s different for every person. I wouldn’t expect a voice to whisper in your ear (might be a bad sign if it does). I feel it in my heart.

Friend: LOL
I’m going to the Beach this afternoon. What kind of offering do you think I should take? Pennies to throw into the water? I’m honestly clueless about these things.

Me: I think pennies are a great idea.

I may no longer run a temple, lead many public ceremonies, or even have a clear sense of whether the gods exist outside our heads… but I’d like to think I’m still doing my job as a priest for those who need it.

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Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.

Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.

3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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