Today we conclude our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Henry Lauer’s discovery of humanistic values in an ancient heathen text. This post originally appeared at Spirit Cuts Life: Rooted Heathen Living.
Better alive (than lifeless be):
to the quick fall aye the cattle;
the hearth burned for the happy heir –
outdoors a dead man lay.
May the halt ride a horse, and the handless be herdsman,
the deaf man may doughtily fight,
a blind man is better than a burned one, ay:
of what gain is a good man dead?
– Havamal, 70 & 71
These words warrant our reflection. They articulate, baldy and unambiguously, the high worth placed on human life among the Norse Heathens – for these sentiments are attributed to Odin himself. We might say that they provide strong evidence for a kind of Heathen humanism. At the very least, they suggest that in premodern times folk were hesitant to dismiss any individual’s worth out of hand. This is not surprising, of course. Premodern life does not permit the poisonous luxury of radical isolationism that we find in (post)modernity. The illusion of personal separation, that I can get along just fine without anyone else, is almost non-existent prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This is particularly true in harsh climates such as that of Northern Europe, where communal co-operation often meant the difference between survival and death. Of course, it has been fashionable in modern times to cast the Viking as a rugged individualist, disdainful of weakness, contemptuous of all but his own narrow interests. Naturally such individuals existed, but they paid a high price for their lack of imagination. To be outlawed was no easy thing to bear, precisely because survival without the warmth of the social fabric was so difficult.
The rugged individualist, though as appealing as any Wild West anti-hero, is nonetheless unable to find himself validated by Havamal’s advice on the good life. He is an artifact of the mounting abstractions of modernity; where he was an error, a marginal figure, among the old Heathens, he has now become an almost idealized form. This goes not just materially but also emotionally. The courage to have an open emotional life is not easily cultivated; for men in particular, occluded emotional expression is often a difficulty. The isolationist mentality that modernity allows us to project onto historical Heathenry, however, provides a perfect pretext for hiding away from growing or cultivating depth. It is a shame that ancestral stories should be put to such a dishonest, self-destructive purpose. But let us return to the sentiments quoted above.
“Better alive (than lifeless be).” What an optimistic statement! So different from the sneering nihilism that scars modern consciousness! It hints at an exuberant embrace of life on its own terms, an ability to appreciate what is. It puts aside the urge to judge life by some set of (no doubt arbitrary) pre-determined categories. It chooses instead to “save the phenomena,” to take things as they present themselves, to honor the world for what it already comprises.
“The hearth burned for the happy heir – outdoors a dead man lay.” Yet this tremendous optimism is not blind or untempered. For every stroke of fortune there could just as easily be a stroke of misfortune. The implicit suggestion is that we should not be too attached to the external circumstances of our lives. By implication, then, it is our inner attitudes – our optimistic outlook, not our material possessions or lofty status – that determine the quality of our lives. Simple enough though it sounds, this is as penetrating an insight as any in the tradition of philosophical or psychological thought – from Cicero through to Jung. Then we have a catalog of how various persons with permanent injuries or other seeming limitations (deaf, blind, handless, lame) can nonetheless contribute to the well-being of their community. The underlying point is that we tend to get what we look for. If we look for how an individual can apply themselves fruitfully then we are likely to find just such a means. But if we look on an individual as worthless because of their limitations we are likely to shut off our capacity for helping them imagine their way into a constructively lived life.
Psychiatrist Milton Erickson often explored these themes in his work. He was a tremendously observant person, and used his attentiveness to great therapeutic advantage, sensing subtle cues and reading the many layers of his clients’ psychological processing. This acute sensitivity was especially useful for him as a practitioner of hypnosis – and Erickson was so skilled that he could hypnotize a client with a word, even just a meaningful glance. There was no magic here – just a man who really attended to his own senses. Erickson was tone deaf, color blind, and lamed by childhood polio, and he attributed his tremendous capacity for intuiting the inner experience of others to these very shortcomings. Paralyzed as a child, his only amusement was to study the rich texture of interaction among his family. Hard of hearing and limited in his visual perception, he did not take his senses for granted but sought to grasp every last drop of information afforded by them. His “disabilities” gave him strengths that seem quite supernatural to those of us who are supposedly “normal.”
“A blind man is better than a burned one, ay: of what gain is a good man dead?” Here the “burned one” refers to a corpse on a funeral pyre. When we go past the ideal of the rugged individualist, we come to see how community can help each individual to reach his or her potential, regardless of seeming barriers along the way. Such a sentiment is progressive by today’s standards, controversial even. Yet it was evident enough to the Heathen Norse that the author of Havamal saw fit to attribute it to Odin. We might like to question whether we really have “progressed” beyond the ethical achievements of the so-called “Dark Ages” after all. Of course, I am sure that the old Heathens often failed to live up to the lofty ideals that they placed before themselves. But this is no different to the present day (“We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men [sic] are created equal”). Regardless, we might find some inspiration from the humanistic sentiments of the Old Norse Heathen tradition in seeking to live more creative, community-oriented, and optimistic lives in the present. Personally – I’ll gladly take all the help I can get.
Henry Lauer: I have always been drawn to things mysterious. I am some kind of Heathen, fascinated by the cultures and mythologies of my ancestors (and beyond, too). Deeply in love with the process of healing and its facilitation. A pretender to all manner of thrones, be they runic, music, chaotic, or philosophical. An Antipodean expatriate. I have a few strings to my well-worn bow. I offer rune readings online via findrune.com. I co-edit Hex Magazine. I play music, sometimes folky, sometimes heavy, often times both. I write and dream. I live for traditional cuisine and food-made-from-scratch. I have two goals in life: to think lightly and to do the next right thing. Sometimes I feel the heavy hand of Woden tapping on my shoulder.
Henry blogs at Spirit Cuts Life: Rooted Heathen Living.
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with MortalCrow’s story of the influence of an archetypal dream spirit on her life.
I have never believed in “God” in the traditional sense. This is because the traditional definition was wrong for me. God, all powerful, all knowing, external male entity that dictated what you can and can’t do.
I grew up with an atheist dad and a non-traditional Catholic mom. My parents agreed not to have me baptised so that I could make my own decisions regarding religion. That said, as soon as my parent’s left me in the care of my grandmother, she had me baptised Catholic. She meant well, saving my mortal soul and all.
Once I was old enough to understand religion, sometime in middle school I would assume, I started asking too many questions. It may have started in history class, who knows now? But at that point, I knew that I was not a Christan. I managed to get through Genesis in the Bible once. I felt like everything in it was wrong. Being a girl, I was just as good as any boy. Flesh and blood. A mind. Why would my different parts make me less than a boy? Why wouldn’t my dad teach me to fix a car? Why are animals treated as less than humans? Why would we want to rule the natural world instead of protect it?
I didn’t know. So I became an atheist. I figured I had to be either on the Judeo-Christian bandwagon or an atheist’s. But while I identified with atheism, I also kept my mom’s words to heart: She always said that one did not have to go inside a church to find God. God was in everything, all around us.
At the time I had some interesting dreams. I’ve always had interesting dreams. So did my mom. We didn’t really talk about the meanings of these dreams. It was like an unspoken secret. Mom always just knew things. I didn’t think too much about it until much later in life.
I remember one dream in particular. It helped me get through a difficult time in my life. I had no friends in middle school because I was a little different. I was made fun of and threatened with getting beaten up on a daily basis. I had one punk punch me in the face because I glanced at him as I walked down the hall. I had a group of girls pretend to send me notes from a boy who supposedly liked me just to laugh at me. I felt very alone. Like I was the only one in the world like me. That I was flawed somehow. An outcast. A lot of kids are faced with this and there are really two paths to choose from. Path 1: Give in and change oneself to fit in. Path 2: Stay true to who you are. I’ve never been one to conform. It was just not my way. So I decided that I had to embrace being different. Even if that meant being alone. Thankfully it did not last forever. I did find friends who didn’t quite fit in either. It also helped enrolling in martial arts. I was pretty great at it and the boost to my self-esteem sure didn’t hurt.
Anyway, around this time I had a dream one night that was so vivid I wasn’t quite sure I was dreaming. Have you ever had one of those? A dream spirit called my name, not my birth name, but a new name. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to go outside to check to make sure there wasn’t anyone calling my name from the driveway. I’m sure I laughed at myself for being crazy but I could never shake the feeling that there was really someone there. Later on in high school when I learned about the Native American spirit Crow, I identified my dream spirit as Crow. Why? It felt right. And somehow the archetype of the trickster helped me get my footing in life and set my moral compass. (You can read more about the trickster archetype at my blog here.)
Typing this out for the world to see is a little daunting. I promise I am quite sane. I have always both believed and disbelieved in spiritual matters. 99.9% of the time I do not believe spirits or gods exist, except as parts of our own souls. Archetypes or divinities are what we call specific bits of our souls that we want to focus on. A simplistic example would be if I want to approach a problem with peace and serenity, I could focus on the Goddess Quan Yin, Chinese goddess of peace and kindness and unconditional love. For me, Crow symbolized a creator spirit, one who helped me to laugh at myself and all those stupid human things that we are so serious about, when, in the grand scheme of things, they really aren’t that serious. I need this reminder more often than I care to admit. For those that know me, I think I pretty much always have a smile on my face despite all the crazy and hectic things going on in my life. I do not see the harm in honoring a spirit that helps me cope and keeps me laughing.
Some might wonder why I call myself a Pagan since I sound so much like an atheist. Well, that’s a good question. I approach things with a scientific mind, but I understand that our soul/spirit has not (yet) been measured by science. I think I’m what you would call a Naturalistic Pagan. I believe in divinity, and therefore I am not an atheist. Just because my gods/goddesses live inside me is no reason to kick me out from the Pagan umbrella. (For any Christian readers, don’t worry, I found Jesus in here too. He’s shaking hands with Osirus and Baldur.)
So this brings me to the present day. I write and assist with rituals for the MoonPath Chapter of CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) and the Sisterhood of the Temple of Ahel Adom. I celebrate the quarters of the year, especially my two favorites: Samhain and Beltain. I keep three altars: a Goddess altar for Ishtar and Lillith, a ‘working’ altar currently dedicated to Hades and Persephone, and a third altar dedicated to a few Viking gods (Hail Odin!). I honor the spirits of my family and my ancestors that have gone before me.
And most importantly, I help support my community and take care of my family. All my family, literal and spiritual. I have a wonderful full house I share with my hubby, 2.5 kids, 3 dogs, 4 cats, a gerbil, a boa and 26 chickens. (Not all in the house, I swear!) I also work full time putting my math skills and people skills into use daily. I sew things and write stories. And did I mention my vegetable garden? I do keep busy. In my “spare” time, I also research Hun history, and I am currently reading the Elder Eddas and the The Looking Glass Wars.
MortalCrow: I am a mom of 2 small kiddos, 1 step-kiddo, 1 big kiddo (also known as husband), 3 dogs, 4 cats, 24 chickens, including 3 roosters (George the Bastard, Bill and Ted) and 4 goats (Pan, Mu, Loka and Flora). I am an archer, a writer, a crafter, a blackbelt, and a knitter. I am a spiritual equalitarian, a feminist, a heathen and a Pagan. For me divinity comes from within and it is both and neither, male and female, God and Goddess. I also like to think I’m funny. I am a member of the Moonpath Circle and local chapter of CUUPS and a Priestess of the Sisterhood of Ahel Adom. MortalCrow blogs at As The Crow Flies.
Special Announcement: Neil deGrasse Tyson revives Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
One of America’s best known scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is reviving the late Carl Sagan’s popular television series Cosmos, which aired on PBS in 1980. Tyson will host Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiering Sunday, March 9, on Fox and airing the following night, March 10, on the National Geographic Channel. Find out more here.
This Month at HP
Mar 2 “My Beliefs” by MortalCrow
Mar 5 “Heathen Humanism” by Henry Lauer
Mar 9 Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology: “Why I’m Not Pagan” by Glen Gordon
Mar 12 Starstuff, Contemplating: “Naturalistic Credo” by Jon Cleland Host
Mar 15 Mid-Month Meditation
Mar 16 Musings of a Pagan Mythicist: “Circle around: individuality, community and creating religion” by Maggie Jay Lee
Mar 19 A Pedagogy of Gaia: “Spring in the Subtropics — Spring in the Self” by Bart Everson
Mar 20 Vernal Equinox / New Theme Begins at HP: “Inspiration”
Mar 23 “Song of the Self” by Jennifer Adele
Mar 26 ”One Cell” by Cathy Podd
Mar 30 “The Ordeal” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Humanistic Paganism Calendar for March
Mar 4 Church of All Worlds charted as first Neo-Pagan church in U.S.
Mar 9 Daylight Savings Time begins in the U.S.
Mar 14 Einstein’s birthday / Pi Day
Mar 15 Hypatia Day
Mar 17 St. Patrick’s Day
Mar 21 International Day of Nowruz
Mar 21 International Day of the Forests
Mar 22 World Water Day
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Nick Ace Westward. This originally appeared at skeptophile.com.
It’s only after reading a post at skepchick.org that I really felt like I’ve got my own personal beliefs straight in my own head; in it, Judaism is discussed as being both a religion and a culture. It seems clear that people are able to be part of the latter without accepting even the most core tenets of the former, thus making it possible to have a secular Jew, or Jewish atheist, without contradiction. It’s all about heritage.
So it is with me. I define myself as pagan (or sometimes as heathen because I like the word), but don’t believe there are supreme supernatural entities interfering with life on earth. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or reincarnation, or precognition. I don’t attend any sort of temple, and don’t recognise the authority of any high priests or priestesses. I don’t indulge in arcane rites, dance around a fire skyclad, or trust a deity to cure my ills.
So what is paganism to me? Well, as I alluded to above, I immerse myself in the culture of paganism – the history of the pagan people, the mythology, the values. In particular, those of the Scandinavian cultures; something that goes sadly unnoticed by most of my fellow Britons is just how much of a role the “North-men” have played in our island’s history. Most will not, for instance, know that the Norman invasion of 1066 (as in the Battle of Hastings) was carried out not by the French but by Scandinavian people who had settled in what is now northern France.
I wear a Mjollnir (Thor’s Hammer) pendant at all times, I read the ancient Icelandic sagas (e.g. Njalssaga, Volsungasaga), and I’m educating myself wherever possible about all aspects of the culture. I find their values to be the closest to my own, and one of the most important things in the world to me is a sense of honour – something largely seen as an anachronism in today’s society. It’s one of those subjects on which I’m liable to talk for hours.
I became pagan as an anti-conformist teenager thing, I’ll admit. I was educated to the age of 11 in what was (though not explicitly advertised as such) a Church of England primary school, with hymns in assemblies and subtle indoctrination. I never believed a word of it, probably because the questioning and sceptical mindset of my parents informed my own; it’s hardly surprising that I went looking for alternatives as soon as I was able. I ate up every scrap of information I could on Britain’s and Europe’s pre-Christian culture, and even today I never miss an opportunity to remind people what our Christian holidays are based on and why. It probably annoys those closest to me, but they put up with it bless them.
So this is me. The pagan atheist, the atheistic pagan, the secular pagan, the pagan humanist – whatever you want to call it. It’s a cultural thing.
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Trent Fowler’s exploration of spirituality, mysticism, and religion for atheists. This essay was originally published on Rogue Priest. Trent blogs at Rulers To the Sky.
For me atheism is not really an assertion of anything, it is not a confident proclamation that there is no God, no gods, and nothing supernatural. It is a refusal to accept any proposition without good evidence. It’s a refusal to take things on Faith. And one fact that atheists acknowledge which believers do not: there simply are no good reasons to posit the existence of any sort of God.
I’m not going to outline or defend the many reasons I don’t believe in any God or gods today. I would rather discuss what being an atheist forces one to commit to. First, I’m going to offer my own definitions of four sticky terms that are important to this debate.
Spirituality: the search for self-transcendence. It is losing yourself in the vastness of time and space, the raw beauty of nature, and communion with your fellow humans. Related emotions include things like rapture, awe, and love.
Mysticism: the first-person exploration of consciousness. Meditation and introspection are two well-known ways of going about this, with drug use, ecstatic dancing, various rituals, and fasting also falling into this category.
Religion: the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around set of beliefs.
Faith: is believing things for which you do not have enough evidence.
These definitions are far from perfect. I am aware that for most people, most of the time, “religion” actually refers to churches, traditions, and belief in the supernatural. Even I lapse into this usage in my debates with believers. But if you grant me these definitions, the most important question for an atheist is now:
Can I find things associated with the world’s religious traditions that are useful but do not require me to believe things without evidence?
The answer is almost certainly yes. Let’s consider each term for its compatibility with atheism.
Atheists are often accused of (and sometimes guilty of) denying the possibilities of spiritual experiences. Part of this likely stems from the fact that the word “spiritual” implies “nonmaterial.” But there is nothing within my definition that forces one to embrace the supernatural in search of spirituality, and there is nothing within atheism that forces one to deny spirituality. Notice that I speak of “time and space” and reverence for the “raw beauty of nature” when I talk about spirituality; nothing supernatural there. Atheists can be open to seeking the most profound of spiritual experiences.
What an atheist cannot do is use those experiences, often attained in the context of some sort of religion, as an endorsement of religious doctrines. As a former born-again Christian, I can attest to the positive emotions that accompany church attendance. But facts about my subjective experiences are not a valid basis for asserting the truth of Christianity.
Humans have had religion for about as long as we have been humans. That’s a lot of field testing, and strong evidence that there is something about ritual that is attractive to the human mind. I find it likely that aeons of organizing our lives around natural cycles and rhythms has played a strong part in shaping the beings that we are today. Ritually tracking things like tides and harvest seasons would have been matters of life and death to our ancestors, who were embedded in nature every day of their lives. We have erected technological buffers which separate us from the lives that our ancestors knew. This isn’t exclusively a bad thing; I very much like having enough to eat, having internet access, books, iPods, and hot showers. But in periodically tuning our lives to a great, cosmic heartbeat, we are tapping into a timeless heritage that is inextricably bound up in our humanity.
It isn’t hard for me, an atheist, to imagine that celebrating the summer solstice by camping out in the woods might be restful and beneficial from a subjective point of view. Other kinds of rituals, divorced from dogma, could also be useful in achieving desirable states of mind. Here is an open question to my readers: Do you think the benefits of ritual are content-independent? In other words, do you think that I would get similar benefits from engaging in Hindu rituals vs. Gaelic rituals vs. Christian rituals (again, not assuming that any of the gods of these religions actually exist)? If not, then why do different rituals yield different results? Would I lose something if I mixed and matched between them, or practiced them all in parallel?
Meditating, like other mystical practices, requires no element of faith. You simply sit and observe the workings of your mind. Hopefully, as you gain a better understanding of this process, you can actively cultivate more positive emotions like compassion. There is debate about whether or not such a practice is useful in studying consciousness, given the fallibility of first-person reports. While we humans can certainly be wrong about our subjective experiences, I see no reason why it would be foolish to attempt such an exploration with the aid of things like introspection. Again, what would be unreasonable is taking insights into the mind to be insights about reality or worse, as proof of the truth of one religion.
The only thing you can’t have and still be an atheist is “faith.” If you don’t have evidence that a given book was written by the creator of the universe, or that there is an afterlife or a soul, you can’t believe those things and be an atheist. Keep an open mind, and be on the lookout for new evidence, but don’t fervently believe something that you don’t have good reason to think is true. This turns out to be much harder than it first appears.
In conclusion, atheism does not require you to throw away everything that usually falls within the purview of religion. Atheists can be spiritual, mystics, or even religious, at least as I’ve defined these terms. Spirituality comes from appreciating the awesomeness of the natural world and our interconnectedness with it; mysticism comes from having a more than casual interest in your own consciousness, and finding ways of exploring it; religion comes from embracing rituals, including things like “Walking Like a God” in order to cultivate spirituality and mysticism.
None of these things requires making bad assumptions or taking anything on “faith.” They resonate with the commitment to rationality and evidence which is the hallmark of both science and atheism.
Trent Fowler is an English teacher in South Korea. He graduated with a degree in Psychology from Hendrix college, where he also studied philosophy and neuroscience, among other things. Though he considers himself a staunch atheist, he is still very much interested in ritual, meditation, and various religious practices which can serve as a means for exploring and changing consciousness. As a writer, he has worked for numerous websites, blogs, and small businesses. He also enjoys hiking, playing guitar, dabbling in electronics with mixed results, and learning everything he can about anything he can.
Our early spring theme for 2014 begins March 20.
The theme is “Inspiration”.
“The poetic imagination flows from the depths of the universe itself.” — Drew Dellinger. We Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans know how to reason critically. But what role do intuition, inspiration, poetry, and art play in our Naturalistic Paganism? Submit your essays and articles to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot com]. We are also looking for examples of art by Naturalistic Pagans and likeminded Pagans, as well as essays about inspiration, intuition, and art. (We especially need visual and audio art.)