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“Unitarian Universalism and Paganism” by CrafterYearly

August 27, 2014

I first learned about Unitarian Universalism and Paganism at roughly the same time in my life. I was 16. And I knew, at that point, exactly two Pagan families: one, the family of the woman who mentored me in the Goddess religion; the other, the family of a girl I danced with in a ballet company. The women in both families encouraged me and supported me in my interest in Paganism. They were both strong women with big personalities and full, earthy bodies. And they were both convinced that their religion—our religion—was dangerous and must be kept secret. Or, rather, that bigots and fundamentalists were dangerous, and so we must keep our religion secret in order to stay safe.

One of the women, J., explained to me that in order to keep her family’s religion secret and to protect her children she joined the local Unitarian Universalist church. She said that the UU people welcomed the Pagans into their congregation. And this way, if anyone asked, her kids could say that they were UU church members, rather than Pagans.

And so I got it in my head that Paganism and Unitarian Universalism went together. But that was all I knew about Unitarian Universalism for a long time. It wasn’t until my husband and I were getting married that I even thought about Unitarian Universalism again. We both come from very different spiritual backgrounds. His mother raised him in a fundamentalist Christian church. My first spiritual experiences were with my mentor, B., practicing Paganism in her home, or under the moon outside, or in a stone circle in a large field. Our backgrounds were so different that we had a difficult time finding someone we would both be comfortable with marrying us.

And so we started attending the UU society in Santa Barbara to see if it could work for both of us. I loved it almost instantly. I suppose that I was predisposed to love it, since it was so closely associated with Paganism in my mind. And at the time, I was just beginning to sense that Pagan part of myself reawakening and reemerging. Whatever the reason, I felt like I had found my home in Santa Barbara. I read books about UUism. I attended the services. I joined the congregation and worked as a volunteer mentor for the Religious Education program for teens.

What I love about Unitarian Universalism is its progressiveness, its emphasis on social justice, its religious pluralism, and its strong humanist and Pagan tradition. I love that it’s a religion with no dogma, where people care more about what you do in the world than your source of truth. I love that the sermons are diverse in their topics. I love that the laity also have the opportunity to give sermons. I love its democratic and radical egalitarian spirit.

But it’s not enough for me.

Unitarian Universalism appeals to the intellectual parts of me. As an academic who completed a dissertation in political philosophy, I have a deep-seated need for logical argument and defensible principles. The rational quality of UUism therefore appeals to me. UUism’s progressive activism also appeals to me as a political theorist. So, Unitarian Universalism fits well into my spiritual life because of its compatibility with my professional life.

But I often worry that my philosophical training causes me to unduly privilege the rational over other ways of knowing. To privilege the universal over particular, local knowledges. And UU alone doesn’t discourage those tendencies in me. The humanist tradition is strong in Unitarian Universalism. And for the most part, that’s what appeals to me about the tradition.

And yet…

I feel like I need more than just rationalism and logically, morally defensible principles. I need wonder. I need mysticism. I need to experience my interconnection and oneness with all things in a deep and personal way. And UUism just can’t give me that. It’s simply not built into the experience of attending a UU society. The UU society can give me intelligent lectures and opportunities for social justice work in my community. But it cannot give me the feeling of transcendence. Or, at least is hasn’t yet.

And that’s fine…

Created by 40 members, adults and youth, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greely, CO, over a period of four years under the leadership of artist Judy Meyers. Presented at the Easter service in 1978.

Because I can experience those things through Pagan worship. Paganism expresses my deepest values and commitments in a different way. Through ritual, meditation, and symbols, Paganism allows me to connect to the Earth, the Universe, and life in a deep and meaningful way. It links me to other people, to plants and animals, to all of creation. It opens up the space for me for creative, emotional, intuitive thinking. It’s a balance for all the rational analysis I engage in daily. It is the tradition through which I can have profoundly moving experiences of the interconnectedness of all things (instead of intellectual agreement with the interconnectedness of all things).

Paganism grounds me in the natural world. Unitarian Universalism grounds me in the human, social world. And I am deeply grateful for these two expansive and inclusive traditions.

Both the Pagan community and the UU community are pluralistic communities in which people come together because of overlapping values and common concerns. In neither tradition is there one right way. In neither tradition is there one authoritative book that presumed to answer every moral question that could arise. In both traditions, people in community come together as seekers, listening to each others’ questions and tentative answers without requiring agreement about either the questions to be asked in spiritual seeking, or the answers one must find. Just as there are Goddess worshippers, Wiccans, Druids, Reconstructionists, and Naturalists, and still others in the Pagan community, there are Humanists, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, and still others in the UU community. Each community recognizes multiple potential sources of meaning in human life. And membership in each community has allowed me to honor the plurality I experience in my own life.

The Author

Crafter Yearly earned a PhD in political philosophy and now works as a professor at a teaching institution in the midwest. Her research is in the areas of antiracism, feminism, and social constructivism. She was introduced to Paganism by Wiccans, but has come over time to adopt a purely naturalistic reverence for the Earth and the Universe. She lives her Paganism by celebrating the movements of the sun and the moon, connecting to the cycles of the earth through crafting handmade goods, and connecting to her body through yoga and dance. Crafter Yearly maintains a blog at: https://craftingthewheeloftheyear.wordpress.com.

The Centrality of Emotion, Part 2: An Ancient Approach to Modern Science

August 24, 2014

“The Thinker in The Gates of Hell” at the Musée Rodin

How can we bring our emotions into right relationship with reality?

This is a key question today, not only for Naturalistic Pagans, but also Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, and other naturalists. Since we hold science in high esteem, a natural place to begin is academia. However, ask this question to nearly any modern scientist or philosopher, and you won’t get a very coherent response.

Emotion is largely peripheral to modern higher learning. As we saw in Part 1, however, it was central to ancient philosophy. At the same time, ancient philosophy suffers from one major flaw: its theories are rooted in outdated models of the mind and world.

It seems the ancient and modern worlds each hold different parts of the puzzle. So the question becomes: how can we discover a path that makes emotion genuinely central, but which is also rooted in today’s best scientific evidence?

Reviving an Ancient Approach

One way to do this is to bring the two pieces of the puzzle together: apply the ancient approach to emotion to a modern scientific model.

To review quickly from Part 1 of this series, the ancient method can be summarized in three steps:

  1. analyze how emotion arises,
  2. diagnose the point(s) at which influence is possible, and
  3. train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully

I see no reason why this method cannot be applied to today’s best models. This post will attempt to do precisely that, taking an ancient approach to modern appraisal theory.

A Modern Model of Emotion: Appraisal Theory

Recent decades have seen significant progress in understanding how emotions arise. Theories are hotly debated, but one of the top contenders is something called appraisal theory. Central to it is the insight that mind and heart are not separate or opposed: rather, they produce emotion together.

1. How Emotion Arises

Here is the theory in its most basic form. When some stimulus is perceived, for example a car that cuts you off in traffic, the mind begins a fast and largely unconscious process of cognitive appraisal. In other words, it determines whether and how the stimulus is relevant to your goals: for example, is the car compromising your goal of safety, or your desire for fair and just sharing of the road?* The result of this appraisal process then initiates a physiological response. For example, you may feel your hands tighten around the steering wheel as your body prepares for fight-or-flight. The sum total of this cognitive and physiological process is felt subjectively as emotion. In this case, it may appear as anger, or more specifically road rage.

Here is a graphic representation of the model:**

Appraisal Theory Model

This model of emotion provides the first step of the ancient approach: 1) analyze how emotion arises. The next step asks us to diagnose the point or points at which influence is possible.

2. How to Influence an Emotion As It Is Arising

The cognitive appraisal described thus far is extremely fast and largely unconscious, which would seem to offer dim prospects for intervening in the process. However, a further insight provides what we are looking for: as the initial process is unfolding, it can trigger secondary appraisals.

Many theorists posit multiple appraisals happening simultaneously through parallel processing. For example, the tightening of your grip on the wheel is itself a stimulus that can catalyze a second appraisal, even before the first is completely finished. In this way, the process feeds back on itself in a rich, multidimensional way that allows us to realize – consciously or unconsciously – what is happening inside us and influence the process in a more fruitful direction. We can, for example, recognize road rage in the making and calm ourselves.

Of course, the problem is we rarely seem to recognize emotions arising that quickly. Often we have to be told by others before we see it: a friend says “why are you raising your voice?” and you shout back “I’m not raising my voice!” If we lack the skills to effectively implement secondary appraisals, we lose the opportunity to take responsibility for our emotions. That’s where the third step of the ancient approach comes in: 3) train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully.

3. How to Train for Effective Influencing of Emotions

This last step is perhaps the most neglected by modern science and philosophy. Only very recently, with the slow acceptance of practices like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is academia even beginning to tackle it. In contrast, ancient philosophies offered students a complete toolbox of practices designed precisely for this purpose.

For example, the Stoics practiced oikeiosis, or “appropriation”, in which one broadens one’s circle of concern beyond oneself to include family, community, and eventually all people (these days, we might go further to include the whole ecosystem). Such a broadened perspective modifies appraisals to be relevant beyond one’s own narrow personal goal set, thus influencing the direction in which emotion unfolds. Likewise, Confucian ceremonialism heightens attention to ritual forms and the relationships between participants, so that one’s goals are again broadened beyond narrow personal interests. Incidentally, Pagan ritual can be understood in much the same way as widening one’s goals to integrate nature, community, and mind. In fact, a great many of the practices engaged in by Naturalistic Pagans, Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, and other naturalists, become comprehensible once their relevance to the unfolding of emotion is understood. By broadening one’s perspective, practices like these influence the appraisal process in directions fruitful for a rich and happy emotional life in closer sync with reality.

Before one can apply such broadening practices in actual situations, though, one must first recognize the need to do so. This takes mindfulness, which is perhaps the most foundational and crucial skill of them all. Most ancient philosophies had some form of mindfulness practice, at least implicitly, while some trained explicitly in it, such as Buddhists practicing mindfulness of the breath or Stoics practicing prosoche. Mindfulness is what enables deeper perspective-broadening practices to be implemented in real-life situations. In light of this, academia’s recent recognition of MBSR as a legitimate practice appears a crucial step in the right direction.

Equipped with practices training mindfulness and perspective-broadening, a person can begin to develop the skills necessary to take responsibility for his or her emotional life.

The Ancient and Modern Together

How can we bring our emotions into right relationship with reality? This article has proposed one way to do so, by putting together the two halves of the puzzle. We can integrate the ancient approach to emotion with modern scientific understandings of reality.

Of course, this series has only provided the most schematic of presentations. In the online educational course I am currently developing for the Spiritual Naturalist Society, students will explore these ideas in greater depth and begin implementing them in their daily lives. When the course is ready, it will be publicly available to all. Naturalistic Pagans are invited to look for it soon, hopefully within the next year.

Naturalists of all kinds, Pagan or otherwise, can take full advantage of this powerful approach. Even as we embrace modern science, we need not content ourselves with a solely objective relationship to reality. Nor must we accept philosophical models of mind and world long-since outdated. Instead, we can apply the ancient approach to modern models. In this way, we can discover a path that makes emotion genuinely and appropriately central, while also being rooted in today’s best current scientific evidence.

In short, we can live in right relationship to both objective and subjective reality.

*This process is theorized in terms of appraisal variables. The variable of goal relevance determines the intensity of emotion based on how relevant it is to personal goals. The variable of goal congruence determines whether the resulting emotion will be pleasant or unpleasant based on whether the stimulus helps or hinders goals. Finally, a number of other goals, such as coping potential, agency/blame, and degree of certainty, combine to specify the particular emotion that manifests.
**The model actually gets far more complicated than this, but the finer details can be left to theorists. For our purposes, this representation captures the most essential elements. It is simplified somewhat from that presented by Agnes Moors’ article “Theories of Emotion Causation: A Review”, in the 2010 volume Cognition and Emotion, edited by De Houwer and Hermans.

About B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.  Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Spiritual Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.

Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

B. T. currently serves as advising editor for HP.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

“The Centrality of Emotion, Part 1: What Ancient Philosophy Offers Modern Naturalists” by B. T. Newberg

August 23, 2014

“The Scream of Nature” by Edvard Munch

Emotion is central. As much as we naturalists embrace objective science, the reason we do so is for the sake of the subjective. If it were not for the emotional response to nature, community, and the depths of our own minds – in short, the re-enchantment of our world – there would be little point to Naturalistic Paganism at all.

This is something I’ve realized as I’ve been working to create an online educational course for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. In order to make it applicable to all paths of Spiritual Naturalism, not just Pagan ones, I’ve had to drill down into the core of what we do. What I’ve discovered is that emotion is central, but a principled approach to cultivating it is hardly to be found in the science we so cherish. Rather, we must return to ancient philosophy for a model. Part 1 of this article explores this issue, while Part 2 attempts to integrate ancient philosophy and modern science.

A Path of Head and Heart

Whether you are a Naturalistic Pagan or a Secular Buddhist or a Humanistic Jew, at the center of it all is emotion. This has been recognized by leaders in the modern naturalist movement, for example DT Strain and Tom Clark, and no doubt numerous others. What these modern thinkers affirm is that the spiritual response to life involves not only intellectual assent to a set of principles, but also a fully-embodied life practice motivated by emotion. In other words, it is a path of head and heart.

However, despite the obvious importance of emotion to our daily lives and its recognition among spiritual leaders, there is relatively little in modern science or philosophy that has anything to do with it. With few exceptions*, science and philosophy have let the question of a subjectively happy life slide to the periphery. To judge by modern higher learning, emotion is not central at all.

It wasn’t always that way. Ancient philosophy, as scholar Martha Nussbaum observes, was primarily a “therapy of desire.” The central question was how best to live. Happiness, in the sense of a meaningful and worthwhile life, was the goal, and the question was what emotional desires led most directly to that blessed state.

So, if the ancient world had what the modern is missing, perhaps we would do well to take a deeper look at why and how they made emotion central.

Why Emotion Is Central

Philosophers in the ancient world placed emotion at the center. The reason is aptly summarized by the 8th cen. Buddhist Shantideva, who said (to paraphrase): “To keep your foot from being hurt on a stone, you need not cover the world in leather; all you have to do is cover your own two feet.” In other words, if the world is emotionally painful, don’t expect it to change for you; just change yourself.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the ancient world. For example, the Stoics of ancient Greece – far from being emotionless, as the common misconception would have it – believed only those emotions which were in accord with reality were conducive to happiness. You cannot help but suffer if you yearn for what can never be; happiness comes from deep acceptance of how the world actually is. Meanwhile, far away in ancient China, Confucius and Lao-tzu were in complete agreement: we must flow with the Dao, not against it. All these philosophers taught the central insight that happiness comes only from emotional reconciliation to the universe, not as we wish it to be but as it truly is.

So, in short, ancient philosophy’s approach to happiness is to cultivate an emotional life that is in right relationship to reality. Thus, the rationale for the centrality of emotion is clear. As Shantideva reminds us, if the world is painful, you need not wait for the world to change; all you need to do is change yourself.

How Emotion Is Central

Philosophers didn’t just bloviate on emotion; they got their hands dirty. Each school analyzed exactly how it arises in order to discover how best to work with it.

McEvilley details the theories of the various schools, but the general method can be summed up in three simple steps:

  1. analyze how emotions arise
  2. diagnose the point(s) at which influence is possible, and
  3. train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully

For example, the Buddha put forth the twelve links of paticca-samuppada, or co-dependent arising, showing how attachment leads to suffering and where the process can be interrupted. Something similar was advanced by the Stoics, detailing how the mind processes an emotional impulse until it reaches a point where one may withhold assent if it is not in accord with reality. Such understandings of the emotional process allowed the philosopher leverage on her own emotions: by understanding how the process occurs, she learned how to influence it in more fruitful directions, thereby taking responsibility for her own emotional life.

From the Ancient World to the Modern

In short, the ancient world had what the modern world is largely missing, namely a workable method for making emotion genuinely central to one’s life path. There is one major problem, however: all of these philosophies are products of their times, drawing on long-outdated models of the mind and world. The Buddha’s paticca-samuppada, for example, includes not only emotion but also karma and rebirth, both of which stick out like a sore thumb to modern naturalists.** Today’s scientific models are far more accurate.

So, it seems the ancient and modern worlds each hold one half of the puzzle: the former has the right approach to the subjective, the latter to the objective.

Is there any way we can bring these two together? Can we apply the ancient approach to the most accurate, up-to-date, evidence-based models of emotion? Part 2 of this series takes up this challenge.

Meanwhile, what’s your take on this idea? Do you think it’s possible to bring the ancient approach to modern scientific models of emotion? Or do you foresee problems?

*The few exceptions include Positive Psychology, which grew out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which in turn was inspired by ancient Stoic philosophy. Another important exception, which we’ll meet in Part 2, is appraisal theory, one of several modern theories of how emotion arises.
**Of course, this is not always interpreted in a supernatural way. Secular Buddhists tend to interpret these as metaphors, with karma as the straight-forward cause-and-effect consequences of action, and rebirth as the moment-to-moment re-arising of consciousness. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what a modern paticca samuppada might look like if it started with scientific evidence, rather than being accommodated to it (which is the aim of Part 2 of this article).

About B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.  Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Spiritual Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.

Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

B. T. currently serves as advising editor for HP.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

Exploring Spiritual Naturalism, Year 1: An Anthology of Articles from the Spiritual Naturalist Society is available for sale!

August 22, 2014

From SNS’s press release:

Spirituality Without the Supernatural? New Book Offers Bold Vision

Exploring Spiritual Naturalism, Year 1: An Anthology of Articles from the Spiritual Naturalist Society

Exploring Spiritual Naturalism, Year 1: An Anthology of Articles from the Spiritual Naturalist Society

“We are talking about a full and rich spiritual practice inspired by the wisdom from a variety of traditions, philosophies, and religions, as well as a respect for the natural universe as revealed by science.”

For most, the term ‘spirituality’ evokes the supernatural, such as the afterlife, God, prayer, and so on. But some who aren’t believers in those things are, nonetheless, taking spiritual practices head on. A new book gives a sweeping panorama of what practitioners call Spiritual Naturalism. “Exploring Spiritual Naturalism, Year 1 is an anthology of articles from the first year of the Spiritual Naturalist Society (http://www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.org) and is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble online.

While many might call them atheists, the organization’s executive director, Daniel Strain, says, “I think you’ll find that most Spiritual Naturalists aren’t like the atheists commonly found in the media and encountered in online forums. Our aim is to be compassionate, mindful, and humble. Our practice involves cultivating these qualities in ourselves.”

But how can there be a spirituality without, well… spirits? Strain explains, “The root of spirituality comes from the Latin ‘spiritus’ which meant wind or breath – the essence of something, so it’s actually a much broader term. It’s like calling all tissue Kleenex or referring to all soft drinks as Coke. The supernatural religions are simply the dominant brand.”

There are still leftover artifacts of that broader meaning in our language today, Strain points out. For example, we still talk about ‘school spirit’ or ‘the spirit of the law’ without meaning anything supernatural. “Therefore, the spirit of a thing is the essence of a thing. For us, spirituality is about the essential things in life, as opposed to the mundane or profane.”

If you believe in God and salvation, then those will be what you find to be ‘the essential’ things. But what about these Spiritual Naturalists? The organization, now in its second year, wanted to make clear they are talking about something much deeper than merely atheists meditating.” Strain says, “We are talking about a full and rich spiritual practice inspired by the wisdom from a variety of traditions, philosophies, and religions, as well as a respect for the natural universe as revealed by science. Naturalistic practices like these have existed in the past, such as with the Stoics who were materialists, and even some schools of Buddhism, as the Buddha specifically discouraged speculation about the supernatural and things beyond our experience, in favor of a more practical approach that sought to address suffering here and now. We want to reunite the natural universe and that sense of the sacred.”

There have been seminal works in religious and spiritual naturalism before, but the Society’s book takes the next steps in applied naturalistic spirituality. Arranged by theme, its articles address how science fits in, advice on practice and ritual, handling tough times, applied issues, and their take on a variety of religions and philosophies. Rather than talk about what not to believe in, Exploring Spiritual Naturalism describes comprehensive life paths for flourishing. As Strain puts it, “These practices are nothing less than a path to freedom from fear and the bonds of circumstance as a condition for happiness.”

Readers can get the book at these links:
Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Spiritual-Naturalism-Year-Naturalist/dp/1304435164
Barnesandnoble.com
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/exploring-spiritual-naturalism-year-1-dt-strain/1119998359

Call for Papers: “Life and Death”

August 22, 2014

“Death and the Maiden” by PJ Lynch

Our new semi-seasonal theme begins with the fall equinox, September 23.  Our early fall theme will be “Life and Death”.  What does “life” mean to Naturalistic Pagans?  And what role does an awareness of death play in our spirituality as Naturalistic Pagans?  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com by September 23.

 

Starstuff, Contemplating: “Letters of Love in our DNA” by Jon Cleland Host

August 20, 2014

We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.

Emotions are a powerful and important part of being human.  Arising from deeper, older parts of the brain, they are often overwhelming.   Though emotions can lead to both very good and very vicious actions, I would not wish a life bereft of emotion upon anyone.  Similarly, emotions are, for me, an essential part of my Naturalistic Paganism.  Just as emotions are part of a full life, it seems to me that they are part of a full spirituality.  While my Naturalistic Paganism can stir many emotions, perhaps the most moving and prevalent emotions are gratitude for the past, and love for the future.  We know more details about the past than the future, so let’s look there today.

Though there are many ways to bring the past to life, I’ve been involved with several DNA-related projects this summer.  DNA provides a window into our past, and for me, all the gratitude that those times engender.  For instance, my grandfather loved his family.  He worked hard, day after day, week after week on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company – car after car, rivet after rivet – to support his wife, son and daughter, waiting at home.  He never knew about his daughter’s son, because my grandfather died two years before I was born.  But, can you imagine if he could stand here today?  If he could meet me, what would he say?  Yet, in a real way, I have a letter of love from him, in trillions of cells of my body – in my DNA.  My mom and I can tell, from family history and DNA ancestry testing at 23andme, that many identifiable sections of DNA in my sisters and I, are from him.  I see this DNA as a reminder of his love for her, her kids, and future generations.

Of course, he got that DNA from his Ancestors.  And just how many Ancestors do we have?  Well, we each have four grandparents, 8 great-grandparents … 16, 32, 64, 128 … to thousands a couple centuries ago.  The numbers quickly climb to include most of those alive on Earth just a few thousand years back.  To find out that I’m a child of the whole world fills me with awe!

For all of our Ancestors, if their lives hadn’t happened, none of us would be here (and by “Ancestor” I include both biological parents as well as anyone who significantly contributed to your world).  This makes my every minute a priceless miracle! With our modern lives, you and I live better than kings and queens did when our grandparents were born.  Think back to the last time you needed significant medical or dental care.  Now imagine that same situation just a short century or two ago.  Ouch!!

My Y chromosome DNA results place my other grandfather’s great-grandfather in the large R1b1b2 haplogroup, which is common in Germany.  We have data to show that he served in the Kaiser’s German army in the very early 1800’s, before coming to America.

For many of us here in America, sometime in the last few centuries your Ancestors may have risked their lives to come to a new land.  Picture your 6th or 10th great grandparents leaving their homeland, perhaps driven out by starvation or war, bravely looking toward an unknown future in a foreign land, America!  For those of us with DNA Ancestry results from a company like Ancestry.com, 23andme, or FTDNA, we see what regions some of these Ancestors came from.  For me, it’s mostly Northern Europe, with a touch of other areas as well.

Before that, going back to the Neolithic, our Ancestors invented agriculture, and lived on farms.  A reminder appears on chromosome #2 in our DNA, with the MCM6 gene for lactase production.  With domesticated animals, milk became available.  And when the famines came, as they always did, any food could mean the difference between life and death.  Back then a mutation happened, a G to an A, allowing one adult to digest milk – that person, of course, now had an edge, and survived and had kids.  Soon that mutation spread, and so many of us here are now lactose tolerant.  So we get ice cream!  Wow!

Further still, I look back 2 million years, before modern Homo sapiens.  Among the many genetic changes needed for our lager brains, two mutations critical to our growing larger brains than other apes can be found on chromosomes #1 and #8, the genes ASPM & MCPH1.

Before that, our tails were lost due to mutations in the CDX1 and WNT3A genes on chromosomes #5 and #6, and our monkey Ancestors lost the ability to make vitamin C, when their fruit based diet allowed a mutation in the GULOP gene (on chromosome #8) to stick around.

We skip over billions of Ancestors, to the time when our Ancestor fish clambered onto land.  Arms and legs are made partially using mutations on chromosome 20, and gills are repurposed into throat structures with mutations now found on our chromosome #22.

Even before life, I’m reminded that the atoms, other than hydrogen, that formed that life were all made in the cosmic furnace of stars, billions of years before the earth formed.  Our DNA is made out of stars!  Our Ancestors include those stars, giving us the phosphorus, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen needed to make DNA itself.  Hydrogen bonding is essential for DNA to work, due to the fact that the bases bond using hydrogen bonds.  Too strong a bond would prevent DNA from “unzipping”, and hence from duplicating, while too weak a bond would prevent DNA from forming at all.  That hydrogen, of course comes from the Great Radiance, or Big Bang.

These, and the many more, letters of love from our Ancestors in our DNA fill me with many emotions – gratitude, joy, wonder.  I’ll come back to the Ancestors when Samhain approaches, but both DNA and a focus on emotion make them unavoidable here in August as well.

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

See other Starstuff, Contemplating posts.

See Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s other posts.

Mid-Month Meditation: A poem by Yona

August 17, 2014

Editor’s note: This was originally published as a comment to André Solo’s (formerly Drew Jacob “An Open Letter to John Halstead” at RoguePriest.

I salute the moon whenever I see him, like a lover being recognized with an airy kiss. He shines down brightly, like hope from heaven.

I lie out beneath a vast blanket of stars and feel grateful to have ever been born. Being alive feels so good it hurts.

I pour libations – effervescent, sanguine, and enthusiastic. I set apart who and what I love and remember them forever.

I greet the dead throughout the day and hold close the living always. I revel in the bonds of camaraderie.

The gods and spirits watch me, some curious, others playful, all loving in their own ways. All stupefyingly beautiful.

I run and sing, laugh and dance, make music and art, and fuck like my life depends on it – it does. Love makes the heart sing.

I don’t have a church, or an dogma, or a stately forbearance or respectability. I’m just one man who loves to be alive.

I don’t want to be dead, but I wouldn’t mind it – I don’t want to live forever. I just want to live right now, for as long as that lasts.

I guess that makes me human. So if people ask what religion is he, tell them that my religion is life well lived – through love and ecstatic joy.

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