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An interview with HP’s founder, B. T. Newberg

December 22, 2013

We kick off our early winter theme, “Beginnings”, with a conversation with B. T. Newberg, the founder of HumanisticPaganism.com and its current Treasurer and Advising Editor.

B. T. Newberg, photo courtesy Leora Effinger-Weintraub 2011

B. T., what prompted you to create the HumanisticPaganism site?

Basically, I was a stressed-out grad student drowning in anxiety. Since therapy was doing zilch for me, I realized I had to figure my own way out of it. To continue the drowning metaphor, I needed to find a way to help myself swim to shore. Now, I’d been exploring various religions and philosophies for many years, from Buddhism to Paganism to Humanism, and could draw on their spiritual (read: psychotherapeutic) practices, but none of them gave me a boat that wasn’t full of holes. Nevermind why, but suffice to say none of them completely worked for me. So, I couldn’t just go back to one or the other to help me this time. Finally, I lashed together a raft out of their various parts that stayed afloat. The HumanisticPaganism site was that raft – it started as an outlet for me to record my efforts, including a week-long naturalistic retreat aimed at flushing out the stress and returning to a focus on connection and beauty in the world.

Did you anticipate the response you would get to HP?

Hardly. I crossed my fingers that there would be somebody – anybody – out there like me. If I’d found a small handful of kindred spirits, I would have been happy. What I found instead was a whole lot of others out there, mostly isolated or collected in tiny pockets here and there. As a result, it seemed like a good idea to feature other people’s writing on the site in addition to my own. Little did I realize the site was transforming from a personal blog into a community blog. Who would have thought that two years later, we’d have over fifty authors featured! Not to mention a staff of multiple people, and a new managing editor (love what you’ve done with the site, by the way, and looking forward to what’s yet to come!).

The most encouraging part for me is when I think how many might never have met each other if not for the site. They might have been in a place like I was – just crossing their fingers that they weren’t alone – but now there’s a sense of community.

The response has been amazing!  How did you see the HumanisticPaganism site as different from other online resources that are open to Naturalistic Pagans, like the Naturalistic Pagan yahoo discussion board and the World Pantheism Movement?

The Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group is very close to what we do at HumanisticPaganism, and I can’t give enough props to Jon Cleland Host for organizing it. I had been following the group’s email discussions for a while before starting the site, but frankly I hadn’t really digested what it was about yet and didn’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserved. Had I done so, I probably would have created a very different site (starting with the name)! Jon deserves credit for being the first organizer of the Naturalistic Pagan community, as well as the guy who coined the term “Naturalistic Pagan.” I heartily recommend the group for its community and conversation, not to mention its under-utilized resources in the files section of the group home page.

Nevertheless, HP is different. HumanisticPaganism exists specifically to showcase the writing and artwork of as many people as possible, so that you get a sense of the breadth of naturalists out there, as well as their heartfelt thoughts and struggles. If the yahoo group is like meeting for conversation at a coffee shop, HP is like meeting for a presentation at a community center. It’s different, and I’m glad both exist to suit different needs and tastes.

As for the World Pantheist Movement, they are pretty focused on straight scientific discussion. They extend open arms to those who like symbolism and ritual too, but it’s not really their focus. HP is for those who want to fully integrate myth and ritual with naturalism. Again, different needs and tastes.

How has the mission of HumanisticPaganism evolved since you started the site?

Well, I already mentioned how it morphed from a personal blog into a community blog. Apart from that, it’s also evolved a lot due to the contributing authors and readers. Thanks to them, there’s this sense of what it’s like to be a Naturalistic Pagan – a sense that goes beyond what I once thought. Consequently, what I wrote in the earlier days has had to be revised a lot to reflect the reality of the community.

About a year ago, you did a major revamp of the site and discarded some organizing themes while developing others.  Can you talk a little about that process?  Were there goals that you had for HP that you had to discard or alter?

As the site got more community-focused, I started to become conscious of how much was “me”-centered and how much was “we”-centered. Comments discussions and reader polls helped a lot in sorting out what the community actually thought on various issues.

For example, originally I’d envisioned a full path called the “Fourfold Path”, with specific elements to it. Well, that part didn’t really get much traction. So, that ended up getting de-emphasized in favor of what did attract people: sharing their views and work within a more general naturalistic sensibility.

Other things that evolved included a consensus on the preferred name for what we do – Naturalistic Paganism” – and an expanded sense of what “Paganism” covers, no longer focused on the Euro-Mediterranean cultures but open to a worldwide variety of traditions.

So, in short, yes, there were goals that had to be ditched, and new ones adopted. And I think we’re better for it.

I think you are to be applauded for your ability and willingness to put the community’s needs ahead of your own, especially on a site that began as your personal blog.  It’s part of what makes you a great editor.  What do you think the future is for the Naturalistic Pagan community?

Bright. We’re now recognized as a presence within the larger Pagan community. I think we’ll continue to hit the radars of more and more people as we grow in visibility. And the more recognized we become, the more those like us will feel they are practicing a valid form of spirituality.

What would you like to see happen in the Naturalistic Pagan community in the next 5 years?

I want to see more writing on myth and ritual. One thing that’s surprised me about the writing of both myself and other naturalists is that we tend to focus more on our approach than on what we approach. Mythology and ritual have kinda gotten left in the dust, at least in terms of what we end up writing about. Instead, we write loads on how we approach mythology and ritual. I guess that makes sense in some respect, since our approach is what makes us distinct. But I hope that as we feel more and more legitimated in our approach, the focus will shift from the how to the what. I want to see more people writing about the mythological figures that inspire them, and the rituals they practice in daily life. I’m as guilty as any other, but that’s what I’d like to see in the next five years.

I’d like to see the same.  What do you think Naturalistic Paganism has to contribute to the Pagan community as a whole?

Two things, mainly.

The first has to do with the alternatives on offer. For this, I like to draw an analogy to Reconstructionist Pagans. If you don’t know them, they are a movement of folks who don’t particularly care for the fantastical approach to history – for example, the idea that the first Druids came from Atlantis. Reconstructionists place a premium on historical accuracy, painstakingly doing the real work of research, even when the facts of history aren’t as inspiring as the romantic fantasy. Thanks to them, the Pagan identity is gaining greater integrity. I like to think that Naturalistic Pagans may contribute something similar, but whereas Reconstructionists offer historical accuracy, we offer scientific accuracy. In both cases, others are always free to take it or leave it, but at least it’s on offer.

The other thing we contribute is a reminder of our orthopraxic roots. Orthopraxy emphasizes shared practice, as opposed to orthodoxy, which emphasizes shared beliefs. Paganism is an orthopraxic religion, but it’s easy to lose sight of that. Having others with considerably different views visible in the community is a good reminder of what Paganism is really all about – practice.

What’s your next project?

Right now I’m studying to eventually start a PhD program in cognitive psychology, which doesn’t leave a lot of free time leftover, but I do have two projects in the works. First, I’m continuing my series on the history of Naturalistic Paganism in the ancient world, hosted by Patheos. Second, I’m working with DT Strain of the Spiritual Naturalist Society to design an introductory course. DT is a great guy to work with, and I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be a four-month course, all online but with a mentor to facilitate progress. The goal of the course is to gain a firm foundation in Spiritual Naturalist practices in all their varieties ancient and modern – including Naturalistic Paganism. The course is above all practical, so the student will not just study this stuff but actually try it out.

Working with the SNS has given a great opportunity to expand my horizons. Spiritual Naturalism is a wider umbrella under which all of us Naturalistic Pagans fall, so I can be who I am while interacting with people of very different traditions. It’s invigorating to do something different for a change.

Finally, what’s one thing you have learned about yourself since starting HumanisticPaganism?

Where my sense of meaning comes from. Recently, psychologists have started to realize that happiness and meaningfulness are two very different things. Happiness comes from positive feeling, but meaningfulness comes from connections and what you give back to others. The HP site has provided a real source of meaning for me. I thank all those who’ve been a part of it, and who continue to make it a worthwhile service to the community. I hope it can provide a sense of meaning to others, too.

In the words of the Delphic Maxims:

Love friendship.

Long for wisdom.

Give back what you have received.

About B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.

Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.

In 2009, he completed a 365-day challenge recorded at One Good Deed Per Day.  As a Pagan, he has published frequently at The Witch’s Voice as well as Oak Leaves and the podcast Tribeways, and has written a book on the ritual order of Druid organization Ar nDriocht Fein called Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites.  He headed the Google Group Polytheist Charity, and organized the international interfaith event The Genocide Prevention Ritual.

Several of his ebooks sell at GoodReads.com, including a volume of creative nonfiction set in Malaysia called Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu.

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

B. T. currently serves as the treasurer and advising editor for HP.

To speak with B. T. Newberg, find him on Twitter at @BTNewberg, or contact him here.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

This Wednesday

Rhett Aultman

This Wednesday, we hear from Rhett Aultman, “Yes, Virginia, I’m a Pagan Atheist”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 26, 2013 7:22 am

    B.T. thank you so much for all you have done with HP. This site has been very important in my development as a naturalistic pagan and a real motivator to move me past just intellectual theorizing about naturalistic paganism into actually practicing naturalistic paganism as a religious path. HP has really helped me feel a part of a wider community and given me a sense that naturalistic paganism has real viability as a path.

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