While the thoughts about my Ancestors are always present to some degree in my life, the Ancestors are increasingly present for me now as we near Samhain night. There are so many reminders – so many things that are connected in one way or many to our Ancestors! One of the most potent reminders for me is our DNA — crafted over billions of years by the struggles of literally trillions of Ancestors.
For Samhain, my son and I just finished this video, in which I explain a few of the many ways in which DNA reminds me of this connection to our Ancestors, and thus touches me deeply. I hope you enjoy it.
Blessed be – Jon Cleland Host
Dr. Eric Steinhart draws on his philosophical background to create a naturalistic foundation for the Pagan Wheel of the Year. To better understand axiarchism, the philosophy on which Dr. Steinhart draws to create a Naturalistic Pagan theology, see Part 1 and Part 2 of his essay “Axiarchism and Paganism”.
Samhain marks the final harvest, the cosmic harvest, when all the complexity of our universe has been reduced to noise. All structures have been consumed by the axiarchic* fire which brought them into being. The stars have burned out; the protons have fallen apart into their quarks; the quarks have dissolved back into their quantum fields; and the fields themselves have evaporated. At Samhain, our universe lies in ashes.
At Samhain all the things in our universe have finished their prayers. All these prayers are answered by other possible universes, so that our universe surrounds itself with cosmic utopias, like a conflagration surrounds itself with sparks. These utopias represent all the remedies for the axiological failures of our universe. They depict all the ways that the defects in our universe can be repaired. For any way that any thing in our universe has ever suffered, there exists some cosmic utopia in which it has some improved counterpart which does not suffer in that way. These cosmic utopias are divine seeds, which contain the genotypes for new universes, universes in which previously unmet axiological demands are satisfied. But these seeds are sparks thrown off by the combustion of our universe. At Samhain, these hot utopian sparks glow without burning, the incendiary feathers of an old phoenix, lifted by the winds, waiting to burst into flame.
At Samhain, the veil between worlds is indeed thinnest; however, for Pagan naturalists, this is not the veil between our universe and some ghostly realm populated by immaterial spirits. Pagan naturalists reject mind-body dualism. The veil between worlds is the division between our universe and its utopias. The axiarchic principle* asserts that all axiological demands will be satisfied; all prayers of all things will be answered; every prophecy will be fulfilled; everything that ought to be will be. But it will not be in our universe, which has failed in all these ways, and which at Samhain is dead. For every way our universe ought to have been, there will be some universe which will be that way. But this requires the existence of some deeper wheel whose rotations bring universes into being.
If the axiarchic principle* is true, then the Wheel of the Year, thought of cosmologically, is cyclical algorithm which progressively generates universes. The Wheel of the Year is also an axiarchic wheel. For any universe, for every one of the utopian shadows generated by that universe, the axiarchic wheel brings that shadow into light. It actualizes that cosmic potentiality. For every way our universe can be improved, the turning of the axiarchic wheel ensures that there will be some universe which is improved in that way. Our universe will be followed by every better version of itself. Samhain, which is death, is also the promise of rebirth. As the wheel turns toward Yule, the utopian shadows surrounding our universe gather heat; they become cosmic embryos, gestating in the axiarchic womb. Every spark thrown off by the suffering in our universe lands on flammable soil; the fire-seed takes root on the heights of the sacred mountain; the new phoenix gathers strength.
By the end of Samhain, on the eve of Yule, every better offspring of our universe waits to be born; our universe itself waits to be reborn in every one of these superior versions of itself. The form of every past thing, once incarnated, is ready to be reincarnated in every one of its superior counterparts. For every way your life can be improved, there is some utopian offspring of our universe in which your life is improved in that way, by one of your future better counterparts. By the end of Samhain, each utopian version of our universe is a seed at the end of some topmost branch on the World Tree. But each seed, as the wheel turns back around, is merely the ground for the emergence of a new sprout. Each seed carries within itself the essential soil, in which the Source lies dormant as the root of all things. And as the sun rises at dawn after the longest night, the Source, which is just the axiarchic principle*, quickens with these forms as an immanent power. The meaning of the Source manifests itself more explicitly; draws its further conclusions; causes these forms to become concretely instantiated. By the eruption of this first light, this gift of actuality, they burst into flame, they become physical, so the Wheel turns round once more.
*Axiarchism is a philosophical theory which states that reality is ultimately defined by some kind of value. The demands made by value are axiological demands. An axiological demand is a proposition whose truth follows from the nature of the thing which makes it.
Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve felt like a freak, a weirdo, an outsider — despite being born to an array of privileges which would seem to assure my status as an insider. Especially as a young adult I wanted to reject that status and embrace some other identity, even if I had to invent it.
What better holiday, for one such as I, than Hallowe’en? It’s a time for wearing masks and celebrating the freakish and the weird.
Yet I did not love Hallowe’en. In fact I came to revile it. I came to despise the mass-manufactured, commercialized aspects of the day, which overwhelmed me every time I went to the local supermarket. The sheer volume of cheap plastic novelty items, manufactured on the other side of the planet and shipped here, seemed the very emblem of all that was wrong with our global-capitalist society — to say nothing of the candy peddlers. I was so disgusted I became a sort of Hallowe’en Scrooge.
Even more than the wanton waste of petrochemical resources, I was dismayed by another loss. This modern American celebration of faux-spookiness effectively erased any real spookiness that might be left in the world. I didn’t know much about the history of the holiday. All I knew was that I’d inherited a fraud. The day-glo ghosts and electric skeletons were obviously echoes of some vague past, a time when spirits had real force in the human mind. I had no wish to return what Carl Sagan called the “demon-haunted world,” but I did have a longing for something authentic, something real. I had an instinctive revulsion for this contemporary trivialization of something that might have been important, this travesty of something that might have been sacred, once upon a time. For reasons I could barely articulate, this disturbed me even more than the commercial aspects of that other holiday, the Big One in late December.
As in so many matters, I’ve mellowed over the years. I don’t festoon my home with PVC vampires and battery-powered zombies, but my office is fairly overrun by such accoutrements, thanks to a co-worker whose enthusiasm borders on mania. I take it all in stride, because I’ve found my own way to celebrate.
Becoming a father taught me to see the holiday through a child’s eyes again. Fatherhood has motivated me to seek the deepest meaning and value I can in such customs, for the sake of my child, to say nothing of my own sanity. Most of all, being a parent reminds me that generations come and go. We pass like the seasons. My progeny reinforces awareness of my mortality. I’m mindful of those who’ve come before, and I wonder how my generation will be remembered when we’re gone.
Thus I discovered what what I’d always known, or felt, and returned to an understanding of this festive season that many have shared. It feels like a deeper and more authentic historical truth, but I’ll leave that determination to the academics. This period between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, as the light dies and the shadows grow long, seems particularly suited for looking back. For me, and I hope for my family as well, this has become a time to specially honor our ancestors and the dead. We do this in a variety of ways, in a pattern that shifts and changes from year to year as we learn and grow.
The Day of the Dead
I feel fortunate to enjoy cultural support for the idea of remembering those who have come before. Last year I was praised by a man in his 30s for bringing my daughter (then five) to a cemetery on the first of November. He said he was cheered to see one person there younger than himself.
Here in New Orleans, All Saints’ Day is still celebrated by a number or people. (A few even remember All Souls’ Day on the second of November.) The local cemeteries are still busy at this time, with people visiting their family crypts, but by all accounts it ain’t what it used to be. Once the crowds were thick enough to support food vendors outside the cemetery gates; now it’s a thin trickle. Even in my years here I’ve witnessed the decline, as All Saints’ used to be an official holiday at my place of employment; now it’s just another work day.
We don’t have any close relatives interred in local graves, but we still visit. We live near no fewer than thirteen cemeteries, all of which are picturesque and peaceful and worth a visit. Around this time of year, I look on FindAGrave.com to find requests from people doing genealogical research, people who can’t make it to our city but want a photograph of an inscription. We pack a picnic lunch and make an expedition. Even if we can’t find the requested site, it’s fun, and if our quest is successful then we’re able to help a stranger honor their ancestors.
When surrounded by the dead I always reflect upon the fact that all humans are related, however distantly. We are all one family, regardless of how violently we attempt to separate ourselves through class and race and lineage. Thus, every cemetery is full of my relatives, and yours too. If only we could remember this crucial fact, the world would be a better place.
In our city, and around the country as well, Día de Muertos seems to be gaining ground. This year, we will be learning about how to make a Day of the Dead altar at my daughter’s elementary school. We always pay a visit to the triple shrine for Santísima Muerte which a neighbor has constructed in his back yard, and we usually leave an offering of satsumas or peppermints or the like. We don’t ask anything in return; for us, such rituals are simply opportunities to remember and honor the dead, who vastly outnumber the living.
At home, we’ve celebrated Ancestor’s Night by preparing dishes that a departed grandparent was particularly known to enjoy. While eating the meal we discuss our memories.
I also make sure to do some genealogical work of my own. Our family tree has over 1700 people in it. Many of these are highly speculative, but even the most credible entries are shrouded in some degree of mystery. For example, right now I’m trying to find out more about my father’s father’s father. Even though he is separated from me by only three generations, just about every so-called fact of his life is questionable. I’m talking about basic things like his name, his date and place of birth, and so forth. Of course, these facts are only part of the picture. Each October, I make a point of collecting anecdotes from living relatives about those no longer with us. By piecing disparate information together, a portrait of each ancestor begins to emerge.
“Spookiness” and the Unknown
A common theme that runs through all of these observances has been an elusive sensibility that I can only call spookiness. What does that mean, anyhow? Macmillan supplies an interesting definition: “frightening in a way that makes you nervous because it involves things that do not seem natural and cannot be explained by science.” That looks negative on the face of it. Who would want to be made frightened or nervous? Yet apparently many people do, as witnesses the popularity in our culture of horror movies and haunted houses. There is something delectable about the spooky.
The notion of spookiness is of special interest to the religious naturalist. As a rule, we don’t believe in ghosts, and we tend to trust the scientific method as a way of learning about the world. At the same time, we value mystery, wonder, awe and gratitude. Mystery resides at the limits of our knowledge. Science keeps pushing those limits back, but mystery never vanishes from the world. It only moves to a new address. No matter how much we learn, it seems there will always be new questions to ask. “Ah, so that’s how it works. Okay. Now, I wonder why?” We may not believe in ghosts, and we may not react with fear, but we will always have the unknown.
Death, of course, is the ultimate unknown. We may feel that we have a pretty good idea what death is, but we can never really know for sure, as we haven’t experienced it. Most of our ancestors have, but they’re not talking.
Thus I’d offer a new definition of spooky: “evoking a sense of mystery at the edge of the known.” Such encounters may be fearful but they don’t have to be. After all, every experience of fear is an opportunity for bravery. If we can muster the courage to live fully, our curiosity about the universe will always drive us to the edge of knowledge. We’ll constantly be surfing the new spooky.
So I will leave the flimsy plastic goblins on the shelves of the Dollar General. They have nothing to offer me. In love and charity, I invite you to join me in honoring our ancestors and remembering the dead. However you celebrate, it’s my wish that you may enjoy a most delicious and exquisitely spooky holiday.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
They are here!
It is time!
They come in every rustle of the leaves,
in the tempered “whoosh” of a match lighting,
In the rising of the sun,
and the falling of twilight’s silent curtain.
They gather, feast, delight in what’s been set for
They speak quietly but surely to our hearts.
I want to know what they know,
but they tell me they have forgotten,
forgotten the hardship that is earthly life,
they are busy remembering all that is good,
food, drink, the company of loved ones,
the coolness of water, and the warmth of fire.
It’s sensual, this life.
Enjoy every good thing,
When you die, you will forget the hardships,
but it is the earthy things you will long for,
The scents, tastes, sounds of life,
everything solid that holds us fast to it.
I see their shapes forming in the smoke of the copal,
then in a breath they dissipate again.
As Samhain approaches, the lives of my Ancestors are increasingly on my mind. Of the many ways their lives were so radically different from ours (such as the overall level of difficulty), their way of viewing spirituality/religion was very different as well.
Today, for many of us, religion/spirituality seems to be tacked onto an otherwise “normal” life. One can see this by noticing that for millions of Americans, watching them or talking to them, even for days or weeks (especially if you don’t see them Sunday mornings) will not tell you their religion. This is the case for most of the people I work with – I see them for hours every day, work with them, talk with them, and often have no clue as to their religion. Religion is not part of most decision making discussions, and most aspects of our daily lives are not seen as directed by this or that supernatural entity. Nearly all of us agree on nearly all aspects of what we think is real, despite the fact that we have very different religions.
I think that a lot of this is due to our scientific discoveries over the past 300 years, which explained and exposed the naturalistic ways our world works. We no longer needed to use demons to explain physical (or mental) illness, a divine impetus to explain the motion of the planets, nor angels to explain a good harvest. That’s a radical change from a time when one’s religion literally was one’s understanding of the real world. Any real religion tries to tell us what’s real. In the past 300 years, as more and more of reality was found to actually be very different from the way traditional religions such as Christianity literally described it, our culture has responded by separating “religion” from “what’s objectively real to everyone” – when the two used to be synonymous.
This is undoubtedly much of the reason for the plummeting of religion’s role in our society and lives. On a societal level, because a religion was simply a description of what was real, it was silly to talk of “Separation of Church and State”. After all, you want your government based on reality, right? Of course you do. So of course the government and the church were the same thing, and that’s how it’s been for nearly all of human existence. With agreement (even if often enforced through power) on what was real, large projects based on religion were an expected result. Imagine the work needed from thousands of people to build Stonehenge, the pyramids, or literally hundreds of other similar projects from our past. For Stonehenge (only one of hundreds of similar monuments, some of which are/were larger), those huge stones had to be moved up and down hills and valleys for dozens of miles, shaped, and perfectly aligned. Imagine the marshaling of a huge percentage of a society’s resources that was needed for these to succeed, at a time when there were no power sources beyond muscles, no electronics of any kind, and populations of only a tiny fraction of what they are today. Our Ancestors must have put a good chunk of their resources into their religion – maybe 20% or more. Now, compare what they built for religious reasons to even our grandest religious constructions, in our age of trillion dollar GDPs. Wow, we can’t even match them.
Back then, religion was one’s reality, and it’s been around 300 years or more since those two began to separate for so many people in the west. However, because you and I have a naturalistic worldview, the agreed upon empirical reality once again fully agrees with our religion! I don’t know about you, but I find this to bring a life-changing honesty – an ability to greatly reduce the amount of mental compartmentalization, denial, and dissonance in my mind. It also means that my effort to make a better world for our children, out of gratitude to my Ancestors, is my Sacred Work – something that gives my life purpose and meaning. It’s why I take the time to write these blog posts – indeed, it directs every action I take, every day.
In fact, it’s not just the approach of Samhain that spurred the thought process above. It was partly spurred by seeing the HP campaign for $538 to get a spot on the Wild Hunt page. Having been involved with religion for much of my life (first as a Catholic and then, for the past ~15 years, as a Unitarian Universalist), I’m familiar with the resources put toward religion today. Even with the massive withering of traditional religion and the de-coupling of Church and State, which cut the percentage of one’s resources given by 90% or more, it’s still a lot of money. The American part of the Catholic Church brings in billions (with a b!) every year. Looking at that at an individual level, it averages in the hundreds of dollars a year per Catholic family. Similar numbers are seen for Protestants and UUs as well (See the Appendix below).
So I compare that to our total goal of $538.
Come. On. That’s nothing.
That’s smaller by at least 4 whole orders of magnitude than the budgets of entire dying denominations, and smaller by a full three orders of magnitude compared to many individual congregations. Is it really the case that we, as one of the most prominent sources of Naturalistic Pagan thought, even need to think about how to come up with an amount that is less than what a few average American families donate every year to a religion that no longer matches reality?
I know, we are just starting. I know, we are not the only naturalistic religious outlet in existence (for instance, I’ve been very happy to see the unbridled success of the Sunday Assemblies). I know, that we are all living real lives, with real expenses.
However, I have hope that in the future, even we Atheists will realize that if we want to make the spiritual landscape more life-giving for future generations, we need to put our work, our money, and our time, where our mouth is, and start building something real. At least, let us start with this, which is really practically nothing by comparison. Have you pitched in yet?
Blessed be –
Jon Cleland Host
Appendix: A few estimates of religious giving
While estimates of religious giving in the distant past are hard to quantify, the many huge monuments make it clear that many cultures spent large fractions of their GDP on religion – 20%? 40%? Even in the bronze age, writings in the Torah explicitly require 10% of individual income. Today, while that is followed by some fundamentalist churches, most people in practice give much less. For Catholics in the United States, a 2012 Economist1 estimate put just the budget for US RCC parishes at 11 billion, which works out to ~$150 per family2, roughly in line with ~$350 per Catholic family based on weekly donations. For Protestants, the PCUSA budget was $80 million in 2014, working out to ~$100 per family3, and for a non-Christian data point, the UUA budget & membership gives ~$500 yearly donation from the average UU family4. Regardless of the exact amount, these are all suggesting an average contribution in the range of hundreds of dollars a year, or, for a family making just $50,000, around 0.5%, clearly a lot less than the 10% required in some Christian churches, and less than the 1-4% suggested by the UUA5. Nonetheless, if most of the Naturalistic/Humanistic Pagans reading this blog donated less than half that (0.2% of their income), then the $538 would be paid many times over.
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.
On the afternoon of this Thursday, October 23rd, two weeks after the Moon passed through Earth’s shadow, the Moon will cast some of its own shadow onto Earth. For more information, check out the NASA eclipse site. Remember to take appropriate safety precautions when viewing the eclipse. America’s next total eclipse of the Sun is three years away, on August 21, 2017.
Our Goal: To place an add for HP on the main page of The Wild Hunt.
What we need: $538
What you can do: Go to HP’s Indiegogo campaign.
You can help HumanisticPaganism place an add at The Wild Hunt, the primary online destination for news relating to and of interest to contemporary Pagans. The Wild Hunt is our third largest referrer of traffic to HumanisticPaganism.com, after Facebook and search engines. HumanisticPaganism is piggybacking on The Wild Hunt’s Fall Funding Drive.
The Wild Hunt is offering to place a graphical underwriting ad on the main page of wildhunt.org for the first 20 people to contribute $500. An ad at The Wild Hunt would greatly increase the visibility of HumanisticPaganism and draw more people to our community.
If we reach our $538 goal ($500 + $38 Indiegogo fees), we will contribute $500 to The Wild Hunt and receive a graphical underwriting ad on the main page of wildhunt.org. If we don’t reach our goal, $150 will be contributed to The Wild Hunt (making us an affiliate) and the balance will be retained for next year’s campaign.
Any contribution over $10 will get you a shout out at HumanisticPaganism (unless you prefer to remain anonymous). Contribute $25 or more and we will link to the website or blog of your choice on the front page of HP. To contribute, go to HumanisticPaganism’s Indiegogo campaign.