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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Magic to the People

Discovering Magic to the People

At this moment Magic to the People is only $95 away from its funding goal. That means that if you contribute today there’s a very good chance you’ll be the one to put us over. And we want to blow that benchmark out of the water—the more we raise, the more we’ll be able to do for our community and for our backers.

Help launch Magic to the People.

We’ve also gotten quite a bit of coverage. Humanistic Paganism ran an article of mine Sunday talking about Magic to the People, and how it directly addresses the objection that many skeptics have to magical practice. See Taking Money Out of the Equation and join the discussion we’re having.

Other recent coverage:

  • Greg Berg hosted me on Radio Enso to discuss the next stage of my journey, Magic to the People, and what it’s like to use travel as a spiritual practice.
  • Pagan blogger Niki Whiting featured Magic to the People on My Own Ashram
  • Kemetic artist Ty Barbary featured us on Unorthodox Creativity

It’s possible to make changes in our lives and our world. Magic to the People uses magic to do that, and makes it accessible to everyone. If you want to see Magic to the People succeed, the two best ways are:

  1. Make a contribution yourself, or
  2. Share Magic to the People on Facebook and any other network you use

Thank you!

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Religion, Spotlight

An Open Letter to John Halstead

Yesterday I highlighted an essay by Allergic Pagan John Halstead. There are parallels between John´s spirituality and my own developing path. This letter is for him, and for so many others.

Picture by Kiel Bryant

Dear John,

I share many of your beliefs. I embrace the gods even if they live only in our hearts. I love ceremony for what it does and not what it could do, and I find spirituality in the virtues and struggles of human hands.

Our style of religion will grow. It’s the religion of our century, it is nourishment for a questioning generation that wanders with a sense of meaning. A generation that feels the Infinite in quiet churches and bustling temples, yet does not submit to the teachings of those places. A people who wonder.

What path is this? Is there something to found, create, or nurture here?

I don´t think it’s fair to call it Paganism. That is the path that brought both of us to where we are, as well as luminaries like B.T. Newberg and Brendan Myers; but is that still the path we follow today?

There’s something precious in the word “pagan,” something guttural and full of meaning. There’s no historic reason we the faithless should be excluded from paganism. It was never a religion of faith—it birthed Western philosophy and the first known doubters. But today, Paganism has been thoroughly reclaimed by faithful theosophists and mediums. The word has changed. It irreversibly communicates certain beliefs: a soul, some gods, invisible powers.

I divorced “Pagan” because that word made communication harder, not easier.

Is there some other word we both should use?

We have many beliefs in common. Above all, we revel in the world as-is. The world is majestic and beautiful yet uncaring and destructive. It is at once the source of every joy and every misery we will ever experience. To love the joys and suffer the miseries is one thing, but to savor the joy and race the misery, loving the whole in honor of its perfectness, that is sacred awe. I believe we share this sacred awe.

We also share a certain deism. I hear you talk about gods; I do the same. It’s human to call out to these gods. They wear faces for us. But we don’t expect deities to change the face of the world. They are our silent tutors, we carry them in our blood. “Revere the gods but do not count on their help.”

We also have differences. I adore the practice of magic. Within limits I believe it works, and I suspect it works primarily by psychological means. I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a ceremony that gives out protection charms, because people act differently if they possess and believe in such charms.

And I maintain some hope that the gods are external, real. I remain on the line between theism and atheism.

So I wonder, is there enough common ground here that we are effectively practicing the same spiritual path?

Can formalizing it help others? Is this a path that can even be organized, or is it too individualistic? Are there practices that can help people reach and make peace with their doubt, and does it require crisis?

Our guiding light is a certain inner honesty. We are honest about what we know and what we don’t. If this is the future of religion, what can we do to be on the leading edge?

And dammit John—what is it called?

Who else has thoughts on these questions? What do you think? I hope John will have a response of his own and I´m happy to share it here.

Note: John responded here and I have a followup post here

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