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.


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.

ExPostModern, Spotlight

Review: Does the Ananda “Brain Wave” App Really Work?

Ananada app by Manu Loigeret

Notice: This is not an affiliate review. I do not receive any pay or profit for sales of this app nor was I compensated for reviewing it. I was offered a free download of the app, but I paid for it anyway. 

You know when you’re hard at work at your breakfast table, but instead of doing paid client work you’re writing unpaid fiction, but you’re not making much progress at it because you keep pausing to refresh gaming forums?

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly like most peoples’ workdays. But I think most of us have times when we’re supposed to be focused and concentrating, and instead we’re scattered and unmotivated. That’s why I love Ananada.

Ananda is officially a “meditation app.” Designed by my friend Manu Loigeret, at a glance it looks like a relaxation noise machine: listen to some ambient sounds and get your bliss on. But it’s really much more than that. Hidden in Ananda’s peaceful broadcasts are binaural tones designed to alter your brain waves. These tones purport to help influence you toward concentration, relaxation, or other mood changes—take your pick.

Here’s how Ananda explains it:

“Binaural tones are produced by the frequency offset between two sounds, one aired in one ear, the other in the other ear.

“For example, if a 200Hz sine wave is produced in the left ear and a 210Hz sine wave is produced in the right ear, the resulting binaural tone is 10Hz… a 10Hz beat will induce 10Hz brainwaves.”

Those particular brainwaves are associated with mood elevation.

Does the app work? Well, I’m always a little hesitant with claims like these. I have no doubt that Manu paid good attention to the science behind it, but without testing I can’t say whether he successfully creates binaural tones that help induce specific brain activity. What I can report on is my own anecdotal experience, and it is positive.

I almost always listen to relaxing music while I work. In rare cases the right trip hop track will put me in a trance-like state of focus, even seemingly alter my mood, and then Pandora goes on to the next song and the spell is broken.

For me, Ananda produces that trance-like concentration with much greater reliability.

When you activate Ananda you have a simple menu that lets you choose what kind of brain waves you’re looking for (with options like deep meditationfocus & concentration, and restorative sleep). You can set how long the sounds will go for, and each setting has a recommended minimum (power nap is a lot shorter than restorative sleep).

Once you press play you hear an ever-changing soundscape of chanting, nature sounds, droning and even snippets of distant street life or electronic music. The result is a basic ambient track that would be pretty relaxing on its own, with or without the brain hacking. Every few minutes the sound elements change, and you can manually choose how often this happens if you want.

So how well does it work?

I’ve used the focus & concentration setting several times while working, and I plan to use it regularly from now on. I work better with Ananda. I get lost in the sound and my work and sometimes I get an actual chill down my back. It’s uncanny.

I’ve also tried the power nap mode. In my case, I’m not used to having sound while I sleep—even relaxing sound—so I had a hard time drifting off. I turned the volume way down (something the Ananda instructions says has no effect on the binaural tones) and ended up having a good, if brief, nap. I’d like to play with this more.


Ananda stands out from most apps with its beautiful design and easy interface, but where it really shines is in the options. There’s a trend in apps to make all settings minimal, which basically caters to stupid people and/or insults the rest of us. Ananda rises above that. Instead of just “meditate—work—sleep” Ananda offers 14 different binaural settings, all of which have clear utility. There’s also a simple settings menu with fine-grain volume control and an elegant, helpful Information section.


It would be nice if there was an option to block/silence alerts and calls while Ananda is in play. (As it is, to prevent interruptions I have to either activate Airplane Mode (less than ideal) or manually turn off alerts.) I also think it would be nice if the different sounds would transition in and out more gradually—currently they create the effect of changing out tracks, which draws my attention to the sound instead of relaxing/working.

If nothing else, Ananda provides endless non-repeating ambience to help you with your work day, stress relief or getting to sleep (without commercials *cough Pandora cough* or DJ’s *hack cough Stillstream*). I can’t say whether it physically affects my brain waves, but I like the mental state it gives me.

You can purchase Ananda for $2.99. Check the App Store or get Ananda here.


Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

I’m launching a group bicycle ride across Mexico with some of the most fascinating adventurers in the world—including beginners and experts, 20 year olds and 60 year olds, women and men. You can help out & join us from home every step of the way: The Fellowship of the Wheel


An Unexpected Review

I’ve long been a fan of Niall Doherty. Niall writes the blog Disrupting the Rabblement. He defines rabble as:

  • Watching TV regularly
  • Eating lots of processed food
  • Not reading actual books
  • Working an unfulfilling job
  • Buying lots of useless crap
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Obsessing about celebrities
  • Lack of focus
  • Not offending anybody

And he makes a damn good case for a different way of life, one he’s out living himself. I consider him one of the leading lifestyle design bloggers.

You can imagine my titillation, then, when he decided to review my book Walk Like a God.

(Actually, the titillation first began when I saw that he’d purchased it—I had no idea that he’d be reviewing it, and I never asked him to.)

Niall managed to pull out some of my favorite lines from the book. He compared it to his own religious upbringing and his current beliefs. Seeing how someone applies the ideas of adventure-as-spiritual-practice to their own life is eye opening. As an author it’s rare to see how people actually take my words.

You can see Niall’s review here, along with the rest of his blog and his great free how-to Manifesto. His goal: to piss off zombies. It’s really worth a look.