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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