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A review of Loyal Rue’s “Religion Is Not About God”

April 8, 2012
Religion Is Not About God, by Loyal Rue

“The measure of a religious orientation is not whether it gives an accurate account of divine reality, but whether it effectively manages human nature.”

- by B. T. Newberg

“If religion is not about God, then what on earth is it about (for heaven’s sake)?” asks Loyal Rue at the beginning of his groundbreaking book, Religion Is Not About God. His answer:

“It is about us.”

Specifically, religion is about adaptation:

“It is about manipulating our brains so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively.  Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.”

This is a naturalistic view that embeds religions within the larger natural systems of the cosmos, conceiving of them as cultural entities that play a part in our cultural evolution.

Group selection

The part they play has to do with a current hot topic in the study of religions called group selection: groups that are able to organize around common goals outcompete groups that cannot, leading to enhanced reproductive fitness for its members (Wilson, 2002).

It was once thought that group selection was rare or even non-existent.  It seemed so easy for individuals to “game the system” to their own ends that the necessary level of group harmony could hardly be achieved.  It now appears, however, that human culture is a prime example of group selection, and religions may well be the key.  By creating “overlaps of self-interest” (Rue’s term) between individuals and groups, religions galvanize societies, bringing about sufficient harmony for group selection to flourish.

Religions aren’t always beneficial, however.  Those once adaptive can become maladaptive.  For example, if a religion leads a people to outstrip the limits of their environment, they will ultimately suffer.  Rue fears this may be the case in our current era.  The world’s religions must create the conditions for sustainable living, else they will go extinct (and we along with them).

The epic of evolution

Rue is serious about his naturalism.  The first hundred-and-sixty pages of the book are given over to a detailed history of the evolution of human nature, starting with the big bang.  This story firmly embeds religion within the natural systems of which we are a part, and grounds the argument in human cognitive and emotional systems.  It also paints a wondrous picture of humans as natural entities emerging seamlessly from the cosmos: “We are geological formations… star-born and earth-formed.”

Particular emphasis is given to the evolution of behavior.  Humans appear to have basic default settings for behavior, which Rue calls “intuitive morality”, but this can be (and nearly always is) augmented by cultural influences.  Whenever culture fails to motivate behavior, we may resort to the default.  Religion functions to organize our behavior beyond intuitive morality toward prosocial values, so that we can achieve group-level harmony.

Self-esteem and goal hierarchies

Of crucial relevance is the function of self-esteem in this process.  Religions play on the strings of human nature in part by influencing which things matter to our self-esteem.  This in turn influences our “goal hierarchies”, or lists of priorities.  Ultimately, it is the function of religion to influence our goal hierarchies toward prosocial, cooperative values.  When religions fail, we may experience an “outbreak” of intuitive morality; and when they succeed, we achieve an alignment of personal and collective fulfillment.

The twin teloi: Personal wholeness and social coherence

According to Rue, at the highest level of generality, human goals can be broken down into two basic aims:

“The general strategy of our species is to achieve personal wholeness and social coherence – that is, to develop healthy and robust personalities while at the same time constructing harmonious and cooperative social groups.  To the extent that we succeed in these vital projects, we enhance our prospects for reproductive fitness.”

These are the “twin teloi” (after Greek telos, or goal).

They do not easily work together.  As mentioned earlier, it is often advantageous for individuals to “game the system”, seeking short-term gain by taking more than their fair share of resources from the group while giving back less.  To guard against this constant threat, a society must use either external force (i.e. police action), or internal motivation (Wilson, 2002).  The latter is far more efficient.

Religions create internal motivation by influencing the goal hierarchies of individuals, attaching self-esteem penalties to gaming the system and self-esteem boosts to cooperating with it.

Myth: Integrating the twin teloi through a root metaphor

So, how do religions accomplish this?  They do so, according to Rue, by combining into a single compelling narrative ideas about how things are (cosmology) and which things matter (morality).  When these merge together, the latter acquires the force of the former.  This process “renders the real sacred, and the sacred real.”

This single compelling narrative comprises the core of a mythic tradition, and within this core is root metaphor.  Abrahamic religions use the root metaphor of God-as-person, ancient Greek tradition used logos, Hinduism and Buddhism use dharma, Chinese religion uses Tao, and so on.  The root metaphor provides the organizing dynamo.

“When the root metaphor of a mythic tradition is ingested, one apprehends that ultimate facts and values have the same source.  In mythic insight, the ultimate explanation is also the ultimate validation.”

For example, in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic myths, which use the root metaphor of God-as-person, all ideas about how the world came to be and how we ought to live are grounded in the creative will of God.  This produces a strong motivation to behave as God wills (i.e. as the religion says to behave).

Ancillary strategies

So mythic narratives do the heavy lifting, but why do people care about a religion’s myth?  How do they come to eat and breathe it?  This is the role of all the other trappings associated with religions, which Rue breaks down into five ancillary strategies.  The five are: intellectual, aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional strategies.  Through these, religions drench their communities in their myths.  They bias the working memories of followers by the sheer frequency of encounters with the myth, as well as by the memorability of religious experiences.  A myth that is all around you is on your mind on a lot; so is one with which you’ve had a profound experience.  A working memory thus biased toward a myth ensures its influence as you go through decision-making processes, thereby encouraging the prosocial behavior promoted by the myth (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007).

Only religions do this?

Religions play the part of prosocial facilitator, but Rue does not necessarily claim that only religions can do so.  There is evidence that large-scale secular and atheist societies may also flourish if they develop adequate corresponding social structures (Zuckerman, 2008).  Nevertheless, religion has played a dominant role in history in facilitating societies that function on a large scale.

Religions manipulating me?  No thanks!

With all this talk of religious traditions biasing working memory and influencing goal hierarchies, it can easily sound like we are but puppets on strings.  Is that the case?

The larger scientific field is instructive here.  According to gene-culture co-evolution (also called dual inheritance theory), human behavior is a product of the interaction of two evolutionary processes: biology and culture (Gintis, 2011).  Whatever the “self” is, it is made up of genes and cultural memes interacting much like a violin and a violin piece.  You can’t have music without both elements coming together into a seamless whole.  In just the same way, we are a seamless whole of genes and culture.  We are their “music.”

It makes no sense to speak of the violin piece manipulating music.  Music simply emerges by the coming together of violin and piece.  By the same token, it is incoherent to speak of cultural memes manipulating “us.”  The memes that comprise us may be religious or not, but either way they are an essential part of us, not some outside force pulling our strings like a puppet master.  We are our genes and memes.

Rue himself likes to use a similar metaphor:

“Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.”

Failing religions: Intellectual plausibility and moral relevance

It was said earlier that religions can fail in their function.  How so?

There are two chief crises that may get a faith in trouble: plausibility and relevance.

Intellectual plausibility becomes a crisis when a people no longer take seriously a religion’s chief claims about how reality works.  For example, a literal reading of Genesis, where God creates the world in six days, is no longer plausible for many today.

Moral relevance reaches a crisis when a religion’s claims about how we ought to live no longer function, or lead a people off a cliff.  Rue fears today’s world religions may be doing the latter.  Without adequately encouraging sustainable living, they are leading us dangerously close to an ecological cliff.  What must evolve in days to come are religions that bias our goal hierarchies toward ecological integrity.

A call for eco-centric religion

The book culminates in the possibility of religious naturalism, a meta-myth encompassing various specific traditions that are both religious and naturalistic.  This would combine the evolutionary cosmology of contemporary science with an eco-centric value system:

“An eco-centric morality… treats the integrity of natural systems as an absolute value, implied by the principle that any vision of the good life presupposes life, and that life presupposes the integrity of natural systems.”

What root metaphor might serve to power such a meta-myth?  None currently serves.  Our culture has not yet developed “some device to warrant the assertion of natural values without introducing extra-natural realities.”

Yet Rue is optimistic.  He believes that eventually we’ll come to see nature itself as our object of ultimate concern.

At this moment today, there is a growing movement of religious naturalism.  However, it is “not yet a robust mythic tradition because the ancillary strategies are not in place to exert a full-court press on behavior mediation systems.”  Intellectual strategies are mostly in place, but others lag.

The book is therefore, in a way, a call for specific traditions to fill this gap.  Should Humanistic Paganism aspire to be one such tradition?  If so, we must evolve the necessary aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional strategies.

Rue lays out the challenge:

“…naturalists universally accept that the real is natural and the natural is real, but religious naturalists will be known by their personal responses to Nature.  It will be the work of ancillary strategies to instill a pattern of eco-centric piety by shaping attitudes and educating the emotions.  Religious naturalists will then be known by their reverence and awe before Nature, their love for Nature and natural forms, their sympathy for all living things, their guilt for enlarging ecological footprints, their pride in reducing them, their sense of gratitude directed toward the matrix of life, their contempt for those who abstract themselves from natural values, and their solidarity with those who link their self-esteem to sustainable living.”

Criticism and conclusions

There are many controversial claims in Rue’s book.  It is a visionary synthesis, and that inevitably means some ideas will bear fruit while others wither.

One point worth a quibble is that Rue often invents his own terms, even when describing subjects outside his own field.  This makes one wonder whether experts on the subject would agree or disagree with his typologies.

Another questionable issue is the religions under its purview: detailed analysis is given only to certain major, organized world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism).  This begs the question of whether the book’s claims apply equally to ancient polytheistic religions and indigenous religions.

On the whole, however, the book is a masterpiece.  Religion Is Not About God packs into one single volume more of the latest research on biology and religion than almost any other out there.  The prose is not always the most engaging, but the content is worth the effort.  The lay reader discovers a detailed yet elegant vision of religion as a natural phenomenon.

Will beholding such a naturalistic vision ultimately undermine religion?  Rue responds:

“All I can promise from my own experience is that any existential losses incurred by naturalizing religious meanings may be fully compensated by an acquired sense for the mystery and sanctity of nature itself.”

Religion Is Not About God, by Loyal Rue
ISBN: 978-0-8135-3955-3
Copyright 2005
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 393
Price: $17.08 (softcover at Amazon)

References

Gintis, H.  (2011).  “Gene-culture Coevolution and the Nature of Human Sociality.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B(366), pp. 878-888.

Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A.  (2007). “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game.”  Psychologial Science, 18(9), pp. 803-809.

Wilson, D. S.  (2002).  Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zuckerman, P.  (2008).  Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment.  New York: New York University Press.

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42 Comments leave one →
  1. Trent Fowler permalink
    April 8, 2012 8:42 am

    Sounds like an outstanding book, and your review was really good. I like the metaphor of the violin and the bow, and I like the discussion of how religions bias working memory towards myth; it suggests strategies by which the burgeoning mystic could make contact with ‘gods’ more likely.

    I take it Rue is an atheist?

    • April 8, 2012 6:06 pm

      >I take it Rue is an atheist?

      I get the impression he is a Religious Naturalist. Other than that, I can’t say with certainty.

  2. April 8, 2012 11:15 am

    I’m wondering if/how Rue’s ancillary strategies (intellectual, aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional) correspond with HP’s fourfold path: 5+1, mythology, responsible action, sense of wonder.

    • April 8, 2012 6:21 pm

      >I’m wondering if/how Rue’s ancillary strategies (intellectual, aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional) correspond with HP’s fourfold path: 5+1, mythology, responsible action, sense of wonder.

      Good question. I’ve been contemplating the same thing. I think each of the four contributes something to each of the ancillary strategies.

      One conclusion I’ve come to so far is that HP probably differs from other forms of Religious Naturalism/Spiritual Naturalism not in root metaphor, but in ancillary strategies. We have a particular way of educating the emotions and shaping attitudes which involves Pagan mythology, whereas others may go about it differently.

      The root metaphor of both HP and other kinds of RN, I think, would have to be nature itself. In HP, gods are explained in terms of nature (i.e. as natural entities). So, it seems nature must be the metaphor. Would others agree?

      I also think this may be they key difference between naturalistic and literalistic Pagans. Literalists believe the gods exist as external, independent, willing entities, and may also believe in the literal efficacy of magic, regardless of what study of the natural world via scientific observation may tell them. Based on these beliefs, they interpret their experiences of the natural world. The world is explained in terms of gods and magic, so gods/magic is the metaphor for literalists. But for naturalists, the metaphor is nature, and gods/magic are what are explained by it.

      From Rue’s earlier book Amythia:
      explanans = the explained
      explanandum = the explainer (i.e. metaphor)

      • April 9, 2012 1:49 pm

        The root metaphor concept is interesting. If we buy into the concept as outlined in this review — and I do — what sort of metaphor informs our worldview? Can we speak of meta-metaphor?

        I guess I’d have to agree with your idea that nature itself is our metaphor. Prior to reading this, I would have said that Gaia was a metaphor representing Earth. But now I realize that if I understand Gaia metaphorically, then the root metaphor must be something deeper. Earth. Cosmos. Reality.

        Also, the term “ecocentric” has been bouncing around in my mind the last week or so. It’s a pleasure to see it here. I’m not sure if everything in the HP umbrella would necessarily be ecocentric but that’s definitely where my interests lie.

        • April 9, 2012 6:04 pm

          >I’m not sure if everything in the HP umbrella would necessarily be ecocentric but that’s definitely where my interests lie.

          You might be right. Since HP started, it’s been a journey of increasing clarity, and gradually I hope we are stumbling toward the central energizing concepts that may power everything else we do. This root metaphor of nature might be a big step forward.

          I want to avoid the error that “eco” has to always mean non-human wild nature, because we are natural beings too, and our own unconscious is as much wild nature, beyond our control, as the depths of space.

          Neverthelss, with that caveat, environmental sustainability nevertheless deserves an enormous place under the rubric of “responsibility” on the fourfold path. It is already there, but it can be given more explicit attention.

          By raising our awareness of ourselves as natural beings embedded within an interdependent environment, and cultivating a sense of wonder at that fact through all the meditation, ritual, and responsible action we do, I hope we can begin to motivate more of the ecocentric behavior Rue talks about.

          • April 9, 2012 7:37 pm

            Funny, while you were typing that I was having the following conversation with my four-year-old daughter.

            Me: “Are we a part of Mother Earth?”

            She: “Yes but we’re a funny part.”

            Me: “A funny part?”

            She: “Yes because we can forget that we’re a part of Mother Earth.”

            I was about to fall out of my chair until I realized she was repeating back something I’d said myself a couple weeks ago. Still I hope she can hold on to the idea.

            • April 10, 2012 3:04 am

              Replace “me” and “she” with Zen master and student, and you’d have a nice little Zen story there!

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 10, 2012 8:25 pm

              Awesome ^_^

      • M. Jay Lee permalink
        April 9, 2012 7:34 pm

        B.T., I really like what you say here. I think you have it right when you say, “The world [for the pagan literalist] is explained in terms of gods and magic, so gods/magic is the metaphor for literalists. But for naturalists, the metaphor is nature, and gods/magic are what are explained by it.”

  3. April 9, 2012 1:42 pm

    This book has been on my to-read list for a while. So, thanks for the review. I may have to move this up in the stack.

  4. M. Jay Lee permalink
    April 9, 2012 7:29 pm

    Sounds like a really good book. I have been listening to a very similar book with a very similar thesis, “Faith Instinct: Why Religion Evolved and How it Endures” by Nicholas Wade. Wade like Rue is promoting the view that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors and continues to help us survive and flourish as individual and communities. I am totally in agreement with this thesis, but I had some issues with Wade’s book. Wade definitely got some things wrong as far as ancient polytheism goes, like citing mythological stories as evidence for real religious practices –as in saying women in ancient Greece would go up into the mountains and rip live animals apart. This kind of stuff made me question a lot of other things he said. Wade is a science journalist, and I came away feeling that he just doesn’t have the background to write about ancient and primitive religions, even though I agree with his big picture. I hope Rue does a better job.

    Has anyone read Robert Wright’s book “The Evolution of God”? Wright’s book “The Moral Animal” is one of my very favorites, but I fear his book on God will suffer from the same problems as Wade’s.

    • April 10, 2012 3:11 am

      >Wade definitely got some things wrong as far as ancient polytheism goes, like citing mythological stories as evidence for real religious practices –as in saying women in ancient Greece would go up into the mountains and rip live animals apart.

      That certainly is annoying when it happens. I haven’t read anything from Wright, so can’t comment there.

      As far as Rue is concerned, I expected similar mistakes to Wade’s, so I scoured the section on the religion I knew best – Buddhism – yet couldn’t find hardly anything to nitpick. He even recognizes and incorporates the difference between monastic and lay Buddhism. Throughout his chapters on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, I was hardpressed to find a slip up.

      The only thing I might say is that his theory might be skewed because the religions he chose to study all have theologies, but those without systematic theologies might be much more complicated. What, for example, was the root metaphor of ancient Greek polytheism? Gods-as-persons, nature-as-gods, or a little of both depending on which Greek you ask?

      • M. Jay Lee permalink
        April 11, 2012 8:05 am

        Your question “What, for example, was the root metaphor of ancient Greek polytheism? Gods-as-persons, nature-as-gods, or a little of both depending on which Greek you ask?” is very interesting. I am going to have to give that some thought. I am not at all convinced that Theo means the same thing as God, and I also think what Theo means changed from the archaic to the late Hellenistic period.

        Clearly the Greeks did portray their gods in human forms, but I wouldn’t say that personhood was the root metaphor. According to scholars like Jon Milalson and Robert Parker, outside of myth and cult practices most of the surviving evidence speaks of gods in a general way as in a/the god or gods not as in Athena this or Zeus that. And of course within poetry and art almost anything could be characterized as a god. And the gods were definitely associated with nature, yet somehow to characterizetheir beliefs as nature = gods doesn’t seem right. When we say “nature-as-gods” it often sounds like we are reducing the gods to a personification of nature (I know you don’t mean it in a reducive way) and clearly the gods were much more than that to the ancients.

        If you take the idea seriously that the gods were created in and inherited from a primary oral culture and that in oral cultures stories (especially as poetry) are the primary way to convey values and preserve hard to remember information, then almost by necessity you end up personifying the world. It also seems that cult was given to those aspects of the world (or the world story) that were judged essential for the survival and flourishing of the family and community (gods connected with fertility of the land and people, protection of family and community at home and abroad, war, divination etc.). Does this mean nature-as-god was the metaphor? I think the gods were more like the immortal, vitalism within nature, but not so much the body of nature. The problem is that when you talk like this in our culture, this is literalize to mean that you think the ancients were dualistic, “spiritist” that the gods were the ghost in the machine and I don’t think that is right at all. It is really hard to pin down just what the ancients believed about their gods, and I guess that is one reason studying ancient religions is so interesting.

        • April 11, 2012 6:10 pm

          >When we say “nature-as-gods” it often sounds like we are reducing the gods to a personification of nature (I know you don’t mean it in a reducive way) and clearly the gods were much more than that to the ancients.

          Right. I meant only the idea of gods explained as natural phenomena, not that gods are a synonym for nature.

          Personally, I am growing toward the conclusion that the idea of allegory alone, where gods are seen as just poetic synonyms for natural phenomena (e.g. Zeus = sky, Hestia = fire, etc.), is unsatisfying. Instead, I’m starting to think of the gods as “real” mental phenomena in and of themselves, irreducible to any other thing, yet associated with all kinds of other natural phenomena. Just as a dream image is real *as a dream image*, without necessarily referring to anything in the waking world, the gods are real *as mental phenomena.* That’s how I’m starting to think about it.

          Part of this comes out of a comment in Rue’s book that religionists who no longer believe in the realism of their myth are not long for that religion. The necessary emotion needed to motivate behavior just can’t be consistently summoned for something not considered real. We, as naturalists, may need to identify what we consider real, and focus on that. I would say that my experiences of Isis, Persephone, Zeus, and others are most definitely real; I just don’t pretend they are anything else than what they are – subjective mental experiences.

          >According to scholars like Jon Milalson and Robert Parker, outside of myth and cult practices most of the surviving evidence speaks of gods in a general way as in a/the god or gods not as in Athena this or Zeus that.

          I’d really like to check out those sources, as that’s new to me. Are there specific titles you’re thinking of?

          What would be “outside of myth and cult practices”?

          • Rua Lupa permalink
            April 11, 2012 7:12 pm

            “I would say that my experiences of Isis, Persephone, Zeus, and others are most definitely real; I just don’t pretend they are anything else than what they are – subjective mental experiences.”

            To what end?

            “that religionists who no longer believe in the realism of their myth are not long for that religion. The necessary emotion needed to motivate behavior just can’t be consistently summoned for something not considered real. We, as naturalists, may need to identify what we consider real, and focus on that.”

            Why not focus on what is confirmed as real and create myth around that? There are already “myths” of our 21st century about how the world functions, why not take that and run with it by making customs and traditions revolving around that story and in the process create more stories of our time. The Christians did so very successfully i.e. Saint Patrick ‘explaining the reason for why there are no snakes’ for example. We can do our own stories for explaining things in a way that is for our times, not relying on ancient explanations as the realism of their myths can no longer be believed as literal.

            • April 12, 2012 6:52 pm

              >To what end?

              I’m not sure what you mean… To what end do what?

              >Why not focus on what is confirmed as real and create myth around that?

              I think such would be worth the effort, but it’s much, much, MUCH harder than it sounds. There is a gigantic difference between newly invented stories on the one hand, and myths that have been around for millennia on the other. That difference is time. Time allows cultural evolution to do the heavy lifting of mythmaking. The myths that move a broad variety of people across different ages, classes, genders, and epochs are gradually culled and shaped by cultural selection. We can make new myths, but we must keep in mind that just as in genetic evolution, 99% of new species are not going to make the cut. That’s why I applaud new attempts at mythmaking, such as Eli’s restorying efforts at No Unsacred Place, or your Ehoah project, but I insist that ancient myths are still relevant and valuable. It’s just a matter of learning to see them with new eyes.

              There’s so much we don’t understand yet about the evolution of myths. Making new ones is a bit like genetically engineering new species. We don’t know yet the rammifications of what we do, or what we lose if we toss the old myths to the wind. New mythmaking can certainly succeed, but it will likely take as much careful research, coordinated effort, and long periods of failure as genetic engineering. It would really be its own project. Meanwhile, the HP project experiments by modifying how we perceive and use ancient myths, rather than attempting to invent new ones.

              In addition to the 99% junk mutation/1% viable species argument, there is another argument. Myths require “attunement”, a kind of development of relationship with them, in order to develop the affective bond that makes them effective. It helps a lot if you have grown up with them or they are constantly present in your culture. European myths, especially Greek myths, are omnipresent in Western culture, even if it’s subtle. That kind of exposure gets down deep into your subconscious, where we are trying to access. If you start making new myths, you lose all that exposure and conditioning, and start over from square one. Even once you start developing a personal relationship with new myths, you will have precious few who can share that relationship. You can’t talk to anyone else about your new myths on a level of shared bonding and commonality, because they’ve never heard them before. They also have to start over from square one.

              So, you can make new myths. In fact, new myths are being made all the time, just as new species are constantly emerging. But to reject ancient myths outright and focus wholly on new myths is by no means a simple matter. There is a tradeoff. A big, big tradeoff.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 13, 2012 8:03 pm

              I don’t mean to be saying ‘ditch the old for the new’ the old has a place to be sure. The point I am trying to emphasize is what was already pointed out “myths, are omnipresent… even if it’s subtle. That kind of exposure gets down deep into your subconscious” Its already here, we already do things subconsciously because of the story we’ve been told about how things are – our modern cosmological myth. Have you read Ishmael? It goes into it really well. I am suggesting to tweak that current tale, play with it, as it has played with us. To step outside it and learn from it. I am talking about myth of the 21st century. Things that we consider unimportant or mundane now, a few hundred to a thousand years from now would be viewed quite different I assure. What we consider normal would be strange or ‘outdated’ with new knowledge of how the world works. Like saying sunrise and set – it doesn’t rise or set, the earth turns toward or away from the sun. Stuff like that.

              One question I think is worth exploring is how are any myths whether they are relatively new like paul bunyon, or ancient like zeus, made and spread? They all started sometime and some spread faster than others. The making of myths and not only how but why they spread would aid in learning how to work with myths new or old.

              And for the “to what end” question – why have experiences of Isis, Persephone, Zeus, and others as real? What purpose does that serve? Isn’t intentionaly making them relevent to today the same as making new myths since the currently accepted explaination of the cosmos isn’t dependent on gods? Its seems like grasping at the “good ol’ days”

              What happened with “science married with myth for the 21st century”? Isn’t that the focus?

            • April 15, 2012 2:29 am

              >And for the “to what end” question – why have experiences of Isis, Persephone, Zeus, and others as real? What purpose does that serve?

              I just don’t know what to say anymore, Rua. Haven’t I already answered that so many times? Not to mention others’ testimony in both articles and comments of how it functions in their lives and how meaningful it is to them. Clicking “mythology” in the categories cloud should bring up most of the relevant articles on that topic. Also, in the Year One ebook, try going to the critical questions table of contents and research under “Why do it?”.

              >Isn’t intentionaly making them relevent to today the same as making new myths since the currently accepted explaination of the cosmos isn’t dependent on gods?

              No, it is not the same. Again, I’ve already said as much as I can at this point about that.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 15, 2012 12:40 pm

              I think we’re talking past each other. All this was focused on

              “I would say that my experiences of Isis, Persephone, Zeus, and others are most definitely real; I just don’t pretend they are anything else than what they are – subjective mental experiences.”

              The “most definitely real” part. As in no longer metaphor. I get the using metaphor to get connections that feel more meaningful by harnessing our biological triggers. That makes sense. The “real” part is what I am wondering about. What do you mean by real then, and why the emphasis on real? I had thought we talking about metaphor and I am a bit confused. That is all.

              On the intentionaly making them relevent to today part. I’ll try to explain what I am trying to sey better, as it is not something I’ve talked on before. I’ll use an example of druids. The ancient druids had the same gods as many modern druids, the difference is that more than likely modern druids are relating to these gods differently for the geography and times, let alone all the likely rituals they did were lost so they’re definitely not being done the same today. Just like the gods being referred to here at HP. Rituals and associations are being made that are likely different from what was done in ancient times. Since this is naturalisitic that is even more likely as the ancients had viewed them as real beings that can do physical things outside themselves. So, all I am saying is that what is being done here is quite new – isn’t that the point?

            • April 16, 2012 6:42 am

              >The “real” part is what I am wondering about. What do you mean by real then, and why the emphasis on real?

              Oh, I thought I made that clear. As I said, Rue made the comment that those who no longer believe in their myth as “real” are not long for that religion, since an unreal myth may not evoke enough emotion to motivate behavior. So, moving from an understanding of metaphor to an understanding of an interaction with a real thing here and now in my subjective field of experience may be what’s needed to motivate behavior.

              To be more clear, Rue finds the conflation of how things are (cosmology) and how we ought to live (morality) essential. It’s what lends morality it’s oomph, because it’s derived from reality itself. For Abrahamic religions for example, the highest reality is God’s will, so behaving according to God’s will is behaving according to reality. For them, it’s “no duh” cause God’s the one calling the shots, so it makes sense to obey him.

              Likewise, when those of us who believe climate change is caused by man act to reduce our carbon footprint, it’s because we recognize that our actions have consequences, based on our conception of reality. For us, it’s a “no duh.”

              In the same vein, if we understand that interaction with these mental phenomena I’m calling deities is real, then it becomes a “no duh” that any interaction with them will have consequences. Behavior that yields beneficial consequences becomes more understandable. On the other hand, speaking of them as metaphors just doesn’t seem to convey the same concreteness of the cause-effect sequence, and perhaps makes behavior seem like mere aesthetic preference.

              Does that make more sense?

            • M. Jay Lee permalink
              April 15, 2012 7:36 am

              >One question I think is worth exploring is how are any myths whether they are relatively new like paul bunyon, or ancient like zeus, made and spread? They all started sometime and some spread faster than others. The making of myths and not only how but why they spread would aid in learning how to work with myths new or old.

              Rua:

              If you are interested in how humans create and spread myths and how myth functioned in primitive societies, I highly recommend the book “When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth” by Elizabeth Barber and Paul Barber. The same processes that created myths in antiquity are still happening in the modern world, but this process is never IMO fully completed. We are a very literate people focused on factual history and scientific accuracy, who neither understands nor appreciates myths. We correct myths not spread them. As you know I love myth and the loss of shared narratives about the meaning of life is IMO part of the fragmentation and alienation that plagues modern life. This lack of myth in liberal, secular society may also be a reason that conservative religions, which do have group binding myths (even though they think of them as histories) is thriving. Liberal culture does have fictional stories that reflect our values and metaphysical beliefs like Star Wars, but these IMO simply do not function as myths in our culture.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 15, 2012 12:52 pm

              Yes, that is how I feel about it too. I am currenlty reading Sacred Balance by David Suzuki which goes into how science looks at things in parts and we are missing out on the whole and need a modern cosmology that explains what science teaches but as a whole instead. I’ve just only started so I am looking forward how this is further explained.

              I had recently been shared a great modern story that has become a beautiful myth The Man Who Planted Trees – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Planted_Trees

              as a response to a story I shared on someone who really did single handedly plant a forest – http://www.care2.com/causes/indian-man-single-handedly-plants-entire-forest.html

              This story is something that I had thought would be great to explore here on HP, but it appears that there is no interest in modern myths that are relevent to today’s concerns.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 15, 2012 12:56 pm

              *will also look into that book too – thanks :) *

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 15, 2012 1:06 pm

              Been reading the reviews and am stoked to get my hands on it now!

          • M. Jay Lee permalink
            April 12, 2012 8:45 pm

            > Part of this comes out of a comment in Rue’s book that religionists who no longer believe in the realism of their myth are not long for that religion. The necessary emotion needed to motivate behavior just can’t be consistently summoned for something not considered real.

            You are really getting at the heart of whether or not naturalistic religion is viable. We all agree that the world is real, that nature is real, but is that enough if nature is not that which can know or care about us personally? To me it seems that religion (and its metaphors and symbols) must be grounded in something outside of ourselves, even though it is through our subjective experiences of this that the content of religion is created. Mental experiences do have their own kind of reality, but to me that doesn’t seem sufficient for religion. But I do think (maybe) I see what you are getting at, but it is a hard thing to communicate. Many, many people have powerful and transformative experiences of personal gods. These experiences are real even if the interpretations may be wrong. How do we validate and even expand on these experiences within a naturalistic worldview? How much weight should these experiences have? This is a lot to think about.

            • April 13, 2012 1:42 am

              >Mental experiences do have their own kind of reality, but to me that doesn’t seem sufficient for religion.

              Does it change anything if the inner depths from which these particular mental experiences emerge are seen as beyond our conscious control, “external” to the ego, as alien as the depths of cosmos or the deep sea?

            • M. Jay Lee permalink
              April 13, 2012 7:57 am

              > Does it change anything if the inner depths from which these particular mental experiences emerge are seen as beyond our conscious control, “external” to the ego, as alien as the depths of cosmos or the deep sea?

              I do see the gods as poetic symbols, metaphors, and allegories for the forces of nature that shape human life both outside and inside of us. The forces inside of us are our biological instincts, which I believe are much more powerful and (unconsciously) manipulative forces then we care to admit. The problem I have with defining the gods as “as “real” mental phenomena in and of themselves, irreducible to any other thing, yet associated with all kinds of other natural phenomena” is it breaks the link with nature (with the objective world) and makes the gods more relativistic. The Greeks did not believe the Olympians were their personal gods, but were The Gods, universal gods worship by others under different names with different customs. To say that our mental experiences are deep don’t they need to be based in and reveal some truth about the human condition, some truth about the human relationship to ourselves and the world? On what grounds can we judge the depth/source of our mental (religious) experiences? Mental experiences are private and personal, but I think the gods and religion originates more in communal life. Obviously these things are not mutually exclusive, but I think the gods and religion need to be about more than personal psychology. Do you think that the gods (as archetypal mental phenomena) are in someway similar to Platonic forms?

              Just because, here are a few more quotes from Robert Parker’s book “On Greek Religion”:

              “But there was always a sense in which the gods were not a collectivity of individuals with individual wills, but rather the uncontrollable and inevitable element shaping and constraining human life and human lives.“ (Kindle Locations 2460-2462).

              “All the forces that are powerful within human life are in a sense divine; in Wilamowitz’s famous formula, “god” is a predicate, a special power recognized in certain phenomena.” (Kindle Locations 2658-2659).

              “Gods, we might say, were powers who were treated as if they were persons.” (Kindle Locations 2956-2957).

            • April 15, 2012 2:47 am

              >To say that our mental experiences are deep don’t they need to be based in and reveal some truth about the human condition, some truth about the human relationship to ourselves and the world?

              Yes, absolutely. And the truths about the human condition revealed by mental experiences are, for example, a) the nature of our biological mind and how we are predetermined by certain structures and tendencies in the subconscious; b) the universal condition of subjectivity, i.e. that we always bring something of ourselves to our experiences and perceptions of the world; c) the universality of human limitations, revealed especially when we come up against what Brendan Myers’ calls “Immensities”, existential realities which we cannot overcome but can only confront, such as death, the earth, or solitude. Those are just a few examples.

              >On what grounds can we judge the depth/source of our mental (religious) experiences?

              The interior experiences of the mind are of course notoriously difficult to measure and verify objectively. But recent advances in cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and the like, are starting to produce inroads that may eventually yield at least *some* degree of objectivity by which we may judge mental experiences. It’s too early to tell, really, but the future looks optimistic.

              >Mental experiences are private and personal, but I think the gods and religion originates more in communal life. Obviously these things are not mutually exclusive, but I think the gods and religion need to be about more than personal psychology.

              Yes, I agree completely. But the communal *is* always and at the same time a private experience, insofar as you experience it via your mind. We can never experience the world beyond us without also bringing some part of us to the experience.

              >Do you think that the gods (as archetypal mental phenomena) are in someway similar to Platonic forms?

              When it comes to Platonic forms, I prefer not to go there. To put it simply, I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around them. Perhaps it’s because Platonism is generally considered dualistic, but I’m deeply entrenched in the monism of scientific naturalism.

            • M. Jay Lee permalink
              April 15, 2012 6:31 am

              I found your recent post on this topic on the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group helpful. In this post you said:

              “I’m coming to see deities as entities within nature that are *real* experiences. Just as dream images are real *as dream images* but cannot be disconnected from the mind of the dreamer, so deities are real as subjective experiences that cannot be disconnected from the one who experiences them. There are objective correlates in the world beyond oneself, such as the cultural meme of “Zeus”, as well as the natural phenomenon of thunder, but these are not yet deities. Until the mind brings these two together in a meaningful subjective experience of Zeus-as-thunder or thunder-as-Zeus, there is no “real” Zeus. After that point, however, the god is “real”, and real phenomena can create affect, motivate behavior, and bring beauty and meaning to life. And yet, despite this, the next person does not necessarily experience the same thing at all. For them thunder is thunder, and Zeus is a character in an old Greek story. The experience cannot be disconnected from the experiencer.”

              I think in some ways we are approaching deity from two different directions. I am more focused on the historical, cultural function and origins of deity in ancient societies and how this might relate to us, and I would say you are more focused on the interior experience of deity, how the mind creates deity and how deity once created as a mental phenomenon functions in the individual and community. I of course am in complete agreement that Zeus is something created by human minds, and once created, Zeus as a mental phenomenon, an idea which the mind accepts as real, changes the experience and behavior of the believer. While the ancients may have created Zeus from their experiences of weather and fatherhood and shaped Zeus to meet their cultural needs, the Zeus of modern focus is almost exclusively about the meme Zeus (and our modern interpretations of this), which has only a vague connection to the Zeus that originated in natural phenomena. (We have NOAA; we don’t need weather gods).

              I can understand you moving away from the idea of gods as metaphors for natural forces (or as I would say the human experience of natural forces), that this is too disconnected from the modern experience of gods and simply not “real” enough in a world that understands the impersonal mechanics of natural forces. What I find really interesting though is my reaction to all this. Somehow to me it feels like an abandonment of the gods (the gods from antiquity) and a reduction of the gods, although I know what you are talking about is an evolution of the gods and an exploration of how the gods are and can be relevant to modern people and how the gods function in a modern content. A lot to think about. Thanks.

            • April 15, 2012 6:55 am

              >I think in some ways we are approaching deity from two different directions. I am more focused on the historical, cultural function and origins of deity in ancient societies and how this might relate to us, and I would say you are more focused on the interior experience of deity, how the mind creates deity and how deity once created as a mental phenomenon functions in the individual and community.

              Spot on, I think. And I think both are essential to a complete view.

              >Somehow to me it feels like an abandonment of the gods (the gods from antiquity) and a reduction of the gods, although I know what you are talking about is an evolution of the gods and an exploration of how the gods are and can be relevant to modern people and how the gods function in a modern content.

              I can understand that feeling. There’s so many aspects and facets of what I’m working on right now that I have trouble fitting them all into a concise statement. I’m actually thoroughly committed to appreciating how the gods were viewed in their own historical context. It’s a legacy of my ADF influence probably, but it also seems to go along with the concern of science for accuracy (in this case, historical accuracy). Rather than abandonment, lately I feel like I’ve been growing closer to the ancient Greeks. The more I learn from folks like John Halstead about experiences of the numinous “Other”, and the more I read Woodruff’s book “Reverence”, the more I appreciate the way the ancient Greeks spoke about their gods and apparently experienced them (whereas previously I had been drawn to a more Eastern experience oof oneness or nonduality). So, I feel like I’ve been growing closer to the ancients in recent months.

          • M. Jay Lee permalink
            April 12, 2012 8:47 pm

            Concerning the use of the generalized “the god” and “the gods” by ancient Greeks, Robert Parker writes:

            “At one level, the question “What is a Greek god?” scarcely seems a difficult one to answer. On the pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, Apollo stands forth plastic, majestic, a superb type of imperious young manhood. Gods are mortals without their limitations. And such they are for the most part in myth too. But when gods are spoken of other than in tellings of myth, the perfect clarity of the sculptural image tends to dissolve, even if we set aside as an eccentric minority opinion the view of those who denied that they had human form at all. On the one hand, just as no mortal ever in fact saw Apollo’s unshorn locks tossing on his shoulders, so too it was rare in ordinary speech to speak of individual named gods, except in expressions such as “by Zeus.” An orator addressing the Athenian assembly would assure his audience of the favor of “the gods” to Athens; he would not tell them of the particular attitude of Zeus or Athena. So too juries were warned of the danger of offending “the gods” by an unjust verdict.

            It is in oratory that the preference for this anonymous form of expression is most obvious. But we have every reason to think that oratory is here merely reflecting the norms of everyday speech. Tragedy is full of named gods, but they mostly appear in contexts such as choral odes which are furthest removed from the representation of ordinary language. In the more realistic portions, anonymous “gods” again predominate. In the most mimetic of all genres, the New Comedy of Menander, individual gods are indeed named frequently, but almost without exception in oaths or curses or prayers or with reference to their sanctuaries or cult acts addressed to them; they are not adduced by characters as an explanation for events in the human world. There is in fact no kind of Greek writing in which “the gods” are not often spoken of as a nameless collective.” Parker, Robert (2011-07-21). On Greek Religion (Kindle Locations 2424-2437). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.

            Parker here is relying in part on the work of Mikalson, who has done more of the primary research on this topic. See “Athenian Popular Religion” by Jon D. Mikalson pages 66-68 and 113-114. Mikalson is very interested in the religious practices of ordinary people and is critical of earlier scholars who relied almost exclusively on poetic works like Homer. Mikalson’s sources are primarily the orations from law courts and citizen assemblies, inscriptions from temple dedications and headstones, and the works of Xenophon. I highly recommend Mikalson’s book. It is full of unexpected insights.

  5. Rua Lupa permalink
    April 10, 2012 8:50 pm

    “star-born and earth-formed” Is a really great line that I’m definitely going to use.

    “I want to avoid the error that “eco” has to always mean non-human wild nature, because we are natural beings too, and our own unconscious is as much wild nature, beyond our control, as the depths of space.”

    yes, exactly. So many people miss that about Nature – we are inseparable. Although I’ve always viewed ‘wild’ to mean ‘uninfluenced by humans’ or ‘not human altered’, unlike what domestic implies. So I’d simply say ‘wild’ as opposed to ‘wild nature’ because the latter implies that there are separate kinds of nature, while the primary doesn’t, leaving Nature whole.

    This definitely links back to what we discussed earlier on my interpretation of myth for the 21st centurary. Basically saying that traditions and customs within a community setting set the stage for creating that sense of value. The themes through a festival will resonate with the people long after it is over, especially if it is an annual thing. My point being that a primary concern is to establish what is valued and promote that value through community events. What we would consider mundane speaks of our cultural world view. The culture shock someone experiences, is a shock to different perceptions of value and how a people lives according to that value. You end up needing to relearn things that you subconsciously did in your everyday life in order to function in a different culture. Simple things like how you prepare food, wash, dress, decorate our homes (or lack of), gesture and speak to more overt things like birthdays, seasonal festivities, funerals, etc. To analyze each thing we do and ask how would this be done in an eco-centric world view is a good place to start.

    I still think ‘pagan’ as pre-christian euro-centric traditions doesn’t provide enough wiggle room for such a venture as any eco-centric teaching would tell you that the local climate & geography plays the biggest role in relating to the land. So an easier place to start is with things that are universal, and then having the space for each region’s flavor to fill in the gap.

    You already know my view on ‘humanistic’. And Iv’e been thinking on the sagecraft thing – sage is a common herb for smudging ceremonially or as a general incense. The very act being an expression of a mythos. Sage is also intrepreted as a wise person. And again sage is a herb from the earth. So the craft is like crafting a wise earth mythos. Thoughts? *’sagecraft’ has been growing on me more and more, I worry it may be fungal* ;P

  6. Rua Lupa permalink
    April 16, 2012 1:04 pm

    “In the same vein, if we understand that interaction with these mental phenomena I’m calling deities is real, then it becomes a “no duh” that any interaction with them will have consequences. Behavior that yields beneficial consequences becomes more understandable. On the other hand, speaking of them as metaphors just doesn’t seem to convey the same concreteness of the cause-effect sequence, and perhaps makes behavior seem like mere aesthetic preference.

    Does that make more sense?”

    That makes a lot more sense. I understand the mental phenomena as a real experience (which would ulitmately could only be a personal thing as no two people would share the exact same thing even if done in the same way. There is bound to be variations). I think I got tripped on the “deities” as real because I understood that HP folks didn’t think gods were real, but that would be supernatural gods, as opposed to ‘mental phenomena gods’. Which is really difficult to get a handle on and tell the difference in common speach. And I get that this is a form of reclaiming god speak, I’m honestly not sure that it’ll work and personally find no interest in it myself as I feel that there is no need for it.

    So we’ve been hearing a lot about the internal stuff. What about the community and external stuff? Are there going to be more posts on those?

    • April 17, 2012 2:45 am

      >So we’ve been hearing a lot about the internal stuff. What about the community and external stuff? Are there going to be more posts on those?

      Of course. All in good time. The current DT Strain interview hits the community button big time, for example.

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