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?

Standard
Religion

How the Numinous Creates a Sense of Purpose

Photo by Neil Banas

Many religions take their answer for granted, then try to re-explain your problems in a way that matches up.

I prefer a religion that takes the essential problem as its starting point: who are we, and how do we live a meaningful life? An honest investigation of that question never leads to doctrine. It’s the starting point of philosophy, and the foundation of good religion.

Belief

I may not have a name for such religion, but thanks to a reader I do have a very eloquent explanation of how it works. This comes from Dave:

My religion is one which seeks meaning by recognizing one’s place in the proverbial grand scheme of things. For me that is… best realized on a deep, internal level in an experience which can only be described as numinous.

My definition for numinous might be “in the presence of something greater, provoking one to awe, wonder, and sometimes terror.”

By realizing this experience in the natural world I think that necessitates a relationship between the individual and nature, realized as being both an individual within and in harmony with nature and in relationship to nature as wholly other and transcendent (in the sense of greater than self).

My religion seeks to address what comprises a good and worthwhile life. For me I need not just to understand, articulate, and act on my values to achieve this. I also need to be in good relationship with others… and cultivate a sense of purpose.

(It’s worth reading his whole comment.)

The Numinous

In the context of our other discussions, I’m reading Dave’s beliefs wholly without supernatural elements. When he says “the presence of something greater” I read that as the stars, the ocean, or the beat of a drum.

This to me is the oldest religion, the experience that predates doctrine and myth. It is also the future of religion.

People are losing interest in religions that use faerie tales to explain the world. But these same folks will find they have profound experiences in the presence of the numinous. Such experiences are moving and haunting. To seek them out is natural, to contemplate them is helpful.

I use adventure as a tool for finding and implementing experiences of the numinous, in the self. And as a tool for finding one’s purpose, for deciding your own Fate in the world.

How do you experiences the numinous? Does religion need anything more than this?

Standard
Religion, Spotlight

The Pagan Shoe That Never Fits

Photo by Spencer Finnley

Photo by Spencer Finnley

I’m equal parts humanist and priest. This puts me on a lonely fence where both atheists and believers get to throw stones at me.

I wouldn’t mind some company.

Recently I invited blogger John Halstead to depart Paganism and join me in leaving that label behind. John’s spirituality, like mine, delights in the world as-is: a world both good and bad, with quiet gods who do not rush to help.

When John said he was “embarrassed” by mainline Paganism, I wasn’t the only blogger to jump up (though I was the only one tempting him away from it). John addressed a number of us in a single response post. The verdict? He’s sticking with the Pagan umbrella, even though it doesn’t represent his beliefs.

What remained unclear to me was why.

As I write in a comment to him:

[That] affirmation, which you say “defines what Paganism is all about,” is indeed beautiful. But how is it Pagan? I share those beliefs, and I’m not Pagan; Thoreau shared them, and he wasn’t Pagan either. [Your affirmation] even says that those beautiful beliefs are “human” rather than belonging to any religion — such as Paganism.

And Paganism today adds many beliefs beyond what that affirmation offers, some of which you’ve specifically said you’re uncomfortable with. Why the continued loyalty?

(The affirmation really is beautiful, though. It comes from a reader of mine, Dave, and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing.)

In comments however, John offers his personal reasoning:

I love the term [‘pagan’], precisely because it has been used by monotheists to distinguish themselves from those who found divinity in nature in all its diverse forms. I embrace the term… precisely because it is a challenging term.

“For me, the word [‘pagan’] cannot be understood outside the context of monotheism. Whatever was meant by the early Christians when they coined the term ‘pagan’, the word came, at least by the 18th century Romantic revival, to have the meaning described by Henry Hatfield… a “this-worldly” view of life, as opposed to Christian dualism.

As Ronald Hutton demonstrates, the NeoPagan revival was inspired by the German and English Romantics, as much as it was by the Western Hermetic Tradition. It was in this sense that Tim Zell used the word when he started calling the the religious movement that coalesced around the Green Egg newsletter ‘NeoPagan’. And it’s in that sense that I use the term now. For me, it calls up thoughts of people like Stephan George, Thomas Taylor, Charles Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Harry Byngham more than Enheduanna, Homer, or Julian.

I adore this usage of “pagan,” though I’m not sure the word implies that anymore. For good or bad, the word has been “reclaimed.”

It matters what John and I call our beliefs, because the number of people who share them is growing. Somewhere between humanism and animism lies the future of religion.

And today, it’s fragile.

Spiritual humanists are among the most disunified groups in existence. Most of us sit under umbrellas that don’t really embrace us—Pagan, atheist, secular humanist, Unitarian—and which don’t represent our interests. By calling ourselves these things we make our own lives harder. More seriously, we prevent actual fellowship or organization under a common flag. We keep our beliefs in the margin.

I also wonder what you think. Do any of you find yourselves in this non-faithful, yet spiritual position? What do you call it? Do you still use some larger umbrella term, and how does it help?

I believe these questions matter. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Standard
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

Standard
Religion, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life

Strive for Beauty and Humanity

What if I don’t make it?

I asked this 14 minutes into my Adventure. And 2 hours in. Again that night and first thing in the morning. What if I fail?

Writing this I sit in a sunlit library in historic Natchez, Mississippi.

Talvin Singh floats in my ears (soundtrack!). My bicycle stands ready to eat up the road. My host, a seventy year old antique dealer, promises a send-off breakfast.

And gods willing, in a few days I’ll bike into bustling New Orleans. I’ll unite with missing friends and lwas and put down roots for the winter.

Save Point

I have a hard time believing I came this far. But I always believed. I get a break now, a time to rest and write my words, but I will go on, ever on, till I meet the gods. Till I find my fate and affix my mark to the world.

Before I return to that maelstrom, that uncertainty of the road, I must record what I’ve seen. If my journey leads me to peril, at least this much is preserved. So here is what I found:

Humanity is essentially Good.

To be human is to desire friends, love, kin. You cannot get that unless you offer it. So our most private desire demands that we act morally.

This is probabilistic. Like Wikipedia, it’s correct overall but not in every case. You can find an article full of bullshit; you can find a human being with criminal intent. But if you gamble on it, taken on the whole, you’ll come out ahead: the information is right, and the people you meet are Good.

A stranger is someone just like you, who wants to be liked and cares about your wellbeing.

This crosses all lines. Race, political faction, age will change what a person sees when you meet. But it does not change that core desire, or the behavior it demands. It does not undermine the beauty of the human heart.

It’s how our ancestors survived. Alone, separated from the tribe, if you saw a fire and smelt cooked meat, you hoped and prayed these strange people would share; and if you sat by your fire and roasted your meat, you would feel sad and alone to hoard it.

Abandon any scripture, any faith that starts with sin.

We are not born with sin; we do not harbor sin deep within our being. We are seeds that love the sun, growing ever upward toward it. We can be bent and twisted by an unfair wind, but most will reach forever toward that light.

I have crossed 1,600 miles by myself: a short distance. I have knocked on doors, visited churches, leaned against trees and slept in the rain. I have been hungry, tired, injured, and fevered. I have gone places where I felt alone, and strange. The only pale-skinned person in a camp of dark-skinned people; the northern voice in a drawling Southern town.

And the only priest of the old gods.

These are not accomplishments. They’re challenges. One does not seek these situations, one only accepts them as necessary hurdles along a greater Journey.

But during those moments, those unwanted moments of fear, I have been taught every time and without fail: people are Good.

Do you disagree? Then travel further than me. Go to stranger places. Be more alone, be more different, be needier than I was. Place yourself in that position of ultimate vulnerability, alone and helpless among strangers, and find out for yourself. If humanity lets you down, I consider your point proven. But every day I have tested it, and never found my fellows lacking.

In his garden, the antique dealer stenciled words from Isaac Stern:

“Strive for Beauty and Humanity.”

Like a ship seeking safe landing, it is a search you can never give up. You have no choice, you must push on. Turn from the cold winds of cynicism and cast your eyes upon the distant shore.

Strive always for Beauty and Humanity.

Standard
Favorites, Religion, The Great Adventure

Purpose: Meet the Gods

Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones,
for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to go by, say the wise.

Katha Upanishad 1.3.14

As June 21 draws near I confront my motivations for the journey ahead. This is Part II of a three part series on why I’m going on the Adventure. See Part I here.

Why the Gods?

Here’s the world I live in. We are on our own; we make our own Fate; the world is good or bad as we create it.

But it’s a haunted world.

Around us are the sources of wonder. Things so grand and vast that we remember how small we are. We remember that the quest for dominion is a doomed sortie, a fight against a superior force, Eternity. In quiet moments we reflect on this, and voices whisper to us the greatness of the living universe where we struggle.

Myth tells us these voices are the sound of the gods.

The gods did not make this world, and not one of them rules it. They are its executors, its functionaries, more to the point its soul and its face.

I am not convinced that’s wrong.

Can awareness be transferred, recycled, disembodied, left in the rain? If so, it can dwell in world around us.

The Value

The language of religion is one of humanity’s best technologies.

Classical philosophers saw fit to retain and use the language of myth + religion. They encouraged people to treat it as metaphor. This is because the language of myth, even when explicitly stated to be nonliteral, speaks to the core of the human spirit. It’s exactly why I just used “spirit” and not “the core of the human mentality.”

Meeting the gods isn’t about proving whether they’re real, though the quest may give me some insight into that.

The reason I want to meet the gods is because they represent what’s highest and best in us. To pursue them necessarily spurs the pursuit of our own divine nature.

I want to meet them because they inspire.

And most of all, I want to meet the gods because that’s the stuff of myth, and wherever the journey takes me that’s how I want to live.

The Form

Is prayer the right way to do this? Possibly. But prayer seems a lot like talking to yourself in the dark.

The object of the Great Adventure is to meet them in person. Knock-on-Mount-Olympus-style meet them. Oh Zeus isn’t here? No worry, I’ll grab a seat meet them.

Impossible?

Whatever sounds impossible is fertile ground for adventure. I’m putting the ideal over the acceptable. When Gilgamesh set out to find a cure for death, he failed—but what he achieved is epic.

If there are gods to meet then the mere act of living mythically, of following the quest to its final end, is the way to attract their attention.

If there are gods to hear us, I wish to be heard.

More: I wish to listen.

If you enjoy reading Rogue Priest, believe in my journey, or just love seeing a spirited adventurer on the road, please consider making a donation to the cause. Your gift will help fund professional-quality equipment for the Great Adventure. It’ll keep me safe and help every step of the way.

Standard
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.

My writing is how I support myself as I travel. If you appreciate Rogue Priest, believe in my philosophy, or just love seeing a spirited adventurer on the road, please consider making a donation to the cause. Your gift will help fund professional-quality equipment for the Great Adventure. It’ll keep me safe and help every step of the way.

Standard