Principles of Good Religion

Photo by NYC Andre

Since 2006 I’ve participated actively in interfaith work, first on behalf of my polytheist temple, then as an organizer on a larger scale, and now as an author. Much of my travels are aimed at meeting and learning from leaders of other religious traditions—especially small, culturally rooted traditions like Vodou.

I’ve learned to respect and embrace traditions very unlike my own.

But I don’t believe that all religions are good. Like any broad group of human institutions, some are better executed than others, meaning they’re more effective at using their values to shape the world. And they don’t all have the same values.

That led me to adopt a set of Principles of Good Religion that I used in guiding my own temple. Eventually, a colleague asked me to share these at a large interfaith event. I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to insult anyone. But these principles don’t judge a religion by its beliefs—they judge it on the effect it has both on its followers and on society as a whole.

Here are the Principles as originally presented by my temple.

Principles of Good Religion

We do not believe our religion is the only right way, nor that religion should be fought over. We recognize certain principles that mark out helpful, compassionate religions. We endeavor to uphold the Principles of Good Religion which include:


There are many paths to spiritual perfection, and no one path has the right to overturn others. We hold public events so that people can learn about us, meet us, and participate if they like—but we never try to convert people to our religion. Those who wish to join us are welcome, and those who don’t are treated with equal respect.

Freedom of Belief

Even within a religion, people always have their own unique views on spiritual issues. Belief is a personal matter, something the individual decides based on their own experiences. Religion exists to bring the community together for celebration, not to enforce a unanimous belief.

Love of Diversity

We believe that people define themselves by their actions and their choices. People around the world have spoken with the divine for thousands of years, and all of their experiences are of value. We do not discriminate based on gender, sexual preference, race, or any other basis.

Supporting Spirituality

Religion is an institution administered by human beings. It involves buildings, jobs, financing and all the other things that make human society run. Yet the goal of religion must always be to support and encourage the private spirituality of each member. Spirituality must come before any institutional concern.

Respect for Science

Religious beliefs should be based on experience and observation, arising from the natural world. This is the same as the basis of science, and there is no reason the two must conflict. Religion should adapt as our scientific understanding of the world grows. No source of knowledge should be ignored.

(I would appreciate comment on any or all of these principles. How well do they actually work at differentiating positive “compassionate, helpful religions”?)

Adventure, The Heroic Life

To adventure is more than a quest for love

Picture by Javier Eduardo Piragauta Mora

This is the story of why love isn’t always enough.

It’s no secret that I’ve found a happy relationship. She’s a fellow traveler and very independent. She revealed her adventuresome nature on an 80 mile bike expedition and since then we’ve run away like bandits.

For me, this is very special: a woman who roams like I do. When we’re knee-deep in mud, or packed with 18 people in a 12-person van, I look over at her, waiting for the flare—the anger, the what-are-we-doing? Instead, there’s my fellow adventurer, chin set, hair up and no sign of anything but determination to beat this challenge.

I’m honored that she’s with me. My time with Jessica gives me a new faith in love.

Yet the reaction I get from others expects more than that: that love itself is the journey. That falling in love is, somehow, everything I set out to search for.

I don’t believe that.

I believe in a life of seeking challenge and attempting impossible tasks. Adventure is not just a pastime until I find love. Adventure is an end in itself, a vehicle to reshape a life.

I guess I can understand why people view love as the greatest adventure. It’s frightening and thrilling, and if you don’t go out trekking through unknown lands then love is much easier to relate to. But for someone who does both, love and adventure look very different.

And different types of adventure are not interchangeable. You can find true love and still fail to overcome your drinking problem; you can lose a marathon and still help change children’s lives. The purpose of one quest is not the purpose of them all.

My purpose is most certainly to explore. To explore myth, to explore the globe, and to dig deep wherever I go. It is to pursue the heroic life.

The heroic life is the choice to use travel as a practice to change lives, starting with your own.

For some, love will be the ultimate treasure found in that journey. But to many others, love will be the temptation holding them back.

That’s because adventure, in the sense of physical, out-in-the-world adventure, is the most transformative practice I know—but it is not the most alluring. It’s much easier to sell comfort and safety, or even mere thrill-seeking, than it is to sell real adventure.

Love, on the other hand, sells itself. We are built to seek love, and told it is pure—but love is just one treasure, one of many wondrous treasures.

So the adventurer has to choose sometimes: do you want to adventure, or do you want love? And if you choose love, what will you give up?

I believe one can have both, but that’s because I believe in true love—love that abides. If you have a quest, true love will not require you to give it up, not to delay it, not to reduce your dream in size or in scope. Your true love will bless you, and send you to finish your great quest. You will both understand that you will be together again.

It is right to take risks for love. But it is also right to risk love itself. True love will not give you up.

One day there will be bands of people pursuing the heroic life together: private journeys on a shared quest. Each of them is on a journey to find (to choose) their purpose in life. And some will find, and choose, Love.

Their fellows will sit down and celebrate with them, will let them go, will let them settle down without objection. And their fellows will go away, still wandering, still in search.

Because there is more to find than love.

Lift yourself up, oh adventurer, and look to the sky: is there not something higher than the heart beside you?

To many, the answer is no: even just finding one heart, one kindred heart, is so much more than many people ever achieve.

But the heroic life dreams bigger, dreams too big, dangerously big. To live the heroic life is to attempt inconceivable things. The moment the journeyman contemplates a normal goal, an admirable goal, his hopes are set too low.

Atheism, Philosophy, Religion, Spotlight

Mystery of Certainty

Atheist Witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight, The Heroic Life, Travel

I told a friend I would never be happy

Used without permission from Jodi Ettenberg.

This is an excerpt from an essay by Jodi Ettenberg.

A long time ago, I told a friend that I would never be happy in life. That my brain was too whirry and too busy thinking of all the things I could/should/will be doing and never able to focus on the present. How can someone be happy if they’re thinking of something else all the time? In the last few years, however, I came to accept the fact that this overarching, fuzzy idea of happiness couldn’t be my goal. It was unrealistic, and I felt that I was failing  – people were writing to say “oh, you’re living the dream!” — but internally I was struggling with what I was doing and why I was doing it.

What I was feeling made sense given that I got here by accident (as in, I didn’t quit my job to be a travel writer or seek happiness), but I still needed to parse through my thoughts and also take stock of who I had become after many years of travel.

* * *

I use the term “building a life” a lot lately. It’s become my preferred expression to discuss my choices because there is such weighted agency in it – I, Jodi Ettenberg, chose this path. It has been a fallback to say I got here by accident — factually accurate, no less — but relying on kismet or coincidence also lets me off the hook for the hard and very damaging decisions I made in leaving New York. I left a place and people I loved, and a career that was going well for me.  It’s true that I didn’t do this to “be” happy or because I was burned out. But regardless, I did it because I wanted to see the world, and the pull of that otherness – not just to see it on a short vacation, but to live it and get my hands dirty – it drew me in. It became bigger than me, a restlessness that corroded. It grew and it grew until I had to act on it; ignoring it was just hurting people around me and myself.

When I left for what I thought would be a year, I found that the restlessness dissipated. I wasn’t looking to travel around the world indefinitely. That’s never been an aim. However, the restlessness was replaced by an extraordinary curiosity for just about everything I saw. I wanted to build a life around that curiosity. All of the work I do – the consulting, the food writing, the blog – is to facilitate that, and to enable me to see and experience more of the little things in life. In acknowledging this shift away from restlessness and toward learning, I came a long way to accepting more of where I am today. I’m making choices only for me, which is not something everyone has available to them.

Jodi is different than other travel bloggers. She speaks about her own experience and doesn’t try to sell you on anything. Here, she really inspires me by showing that travel really does work as a practice—one that helps you find your purpose and live by your values. And that means it also works as a lifestyle. 

This is one of my favorite articles about travel. I hope you will read the rest and share your thoughts. 

In the last year you have helped me launch an adventure, complete a novella (currently in editing) and fund a community atelier of magic. You are the best readers in the world. Thank you. 

Philosophy, Religion, Spotlight

He did not fear death

Photo credit: Twitter

This is an excerpt from an article by the late Roger Ebert, on the topic of his own death.

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

…Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”

Many people shared a touching cartoon of Ebert’s old friend Gene Siskel welcoming him to a movie theater in the afterlife. (I shared it too.) But, like me, Ebert didn’t believe in the soul or the afterlife. He neither expected, nor wanted, an eternity of movies and seeing old friends. 

Many people ask me how I can face death—or life—with no belief in a soul. “Easily,” is the answer, but it’s hard to say. These words, from a man who has now been annihilated, express it better than I ever have. 

I hope you will read the rest of the article here.

In the last year you have helped me launch an adventure, complete a novella (currently in editing) and fund a community atelier of magic. You are the best readers in the world. Thank you. 

Adventure, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life, Travel

To Wander Is the Purpose

Photo by Matso

I’m in a house. One place for six months, but I’m not settled down. My house feels strange, alien, sometimes uncomfortable. Why have I signed a contract that says I must be in one place? Why have I stopped for six months, when the windy road in the morning is all that calls to me?

Renunciation. I never loved that word, not as such, but I gave up my home, my belongings, and my job. I even gave up my temple. A higher path called to me, and these things are no ladder to reach it. As any backpacker knows, the first thing you do is chuck stuff. You packed too much, the bag’s too heavy. A journey of the spirit begins the same way.

But I saw this chucking as pragmatic. It’s not that I didn’t want a house; I just couldn’t afford to keep one and travel. The road says otherwise. It turns out, New Orleans teaches me, I don’t want a house at all.

Religion, too, I’ve renounced. Not denied—I will always abide my vows. But the path of the repeat customer, the path of the teacher-and-student, the path of community celebration, these are not going to take me up the river. I adore them; they are fine tools. I do not, will not mock religion. But when I see the man who still uses these tools, I see a man with a different face, on a different road with unsimilar hopes.

Some days I don’t seek the divine at all, but I won’t pretend I found it.

In the morning my creed catches in my throat. I make sacrifice, I sit before my god—what do I say? What is the oath, the mission I will swear today?

I am on a mission, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t know the purpose of my journey, or why I move on. So I’m a wanderer. A dirty, aimless wanderer.

On Esplanade there are kids in brown pants and dirty coats. They’re travelers. Not one of them states a purpose. They tell jokes and ask for money. People spit on them.

So spit on me.

I wear a nice shirt, I wear a designer wool jacket. These kids ask me for money. I’m not their colleague. But I am the outsider just like them. My feet need sand, just like them.

Is it wrong to wander without purpose? Of course: it means you do nothing for Society, and that makes society frown. If you’re not trying to get somewhere, you might not work too hard to get there. A wanderer is next to a freeloader. That’s a sin.

No one loves a sinner except rock songs and reverends. So when I declared my journey I declared a purpose. Purpose is poetry, purpose is soul. I said: meet the gods. 

I hope to. But this is not something you plan. There are no steps to take toward it. When you get up in the morning and make a little list, what do you write: meet the gods? Go the gods’ house? Set up a god call?

There is no bridge to where I’m going. I can’t have faith in any path. So my faith is in the journey.

The most selfish journey leads to enlightenment.

To wander is to see the invisible. It is to place yourself instantly out of the social order, out of normal life. The tourist, at least, fills a recognizable role; but the perpetual traveler departs the prescription of security and stability that society preaches.

From this vantage, the pain and the joy of human life come into tremendous focus. We value kindness more, and become kinder ourselves; we lose more, and learn to live with loss. If I had to design a seminary, I would say it’s this: travel. If I had to design an art school, I would say it’s this: travel.

How do you find the gods? You find yourself.

How do you find yourself? Run.

Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Why Did You Give Up the Soul?

One July afternoon I stopped believing in the soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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