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“What you want, God wants” by Tomas Rees

July 13, 2014

The essay was originally published at Tomas Rees’  blog, Epiphenom: the science of religion and non-belief.

Religious people tend to think that they know what their god wants, but how do they come by that knowledge? For me, as an atheist, it’s a fascinating question. The gods can’t be communicating their preferences directly (because there’s no such thing), so where do these beliefs come from?

One obvious source is the various holy books. However, even if you restrict yourself to adherents of a single religion, there are vast differences in beliefs about god’s opinions (and that’s just looking around the world today – when you extend the comparisons back in time the disagreements between believers become even more dramatic).

All this suggests that people must be projecting their own beliefs and opinions onto their god. A bundle of new studies from Nicholas Epley, at the University of Chicago, suggests that that is exactly what happens.

What he and his colleagues did was to subtly manipulate people’s own opinions, and see if that affected their ideas about what God’s opinions were.

So, for example, in one study he had people read two arguments, pro-and anti-affirmative action. In the ‘pro-policy’ condition, the ‘pro’ argument was strong and the ‘anti’ argument weak. In the ‘anti-policy’ condition, the strength of the arguments was reversed.

This had the desired effect on the subjects own opinions. Whether they were pro- or anti affirmative action was influenced by which arguments they read.

Then he asked them about what the average American thought about the topic, and also what George Bush thought. As you can see in the graph, this didn’t change regardless of how their own beliefs have been manipulated.

Their beliefs about what god thought did change, however. In fact, the correlation between their own opinions and those they attributed to God was very strong.

Now, what’s interesting is that their beliefs about Bill Gates’ opinions also mirrored their own. The thing about Bill Gates is that he’s generally admired, but nobody really knows what his opinion is on this topic. So they were free to invent it.

They did another, somewhat more sophisticated experiment that showed something similar. Basically, if you change people’s attitudes to the death penalty, then that changes whether they think God is pro- or anti-death penalty.

This is all good stuff. But it gets really interesting when you look at some of the brain scans they did. In these scans, they asked subjects to think about attitudes to euthanasia. First, their own attitude. Then the average American’s attitude. And finally God’s attitude.

The first brain image shows the difference between thinking about your own opinions and thinking about the average American’s opinions. You can see that some bits light up, indicating that there is a difference between the two thought processes. The brain recognises that the average American has a different opinion.

Looking next the brain image, which shows thinking about God’s opinions compared with the average American’s. Again, some differences. According to this brain, God does not think the same as an average American.

Now look at the last brain image in the panel. This takes the brain activity of someone thinking of their own opinion, and subtracts that from the brain activity of that same person thinking of god’s opinions. And guess what? They are exactly the same.

‘What would jesus do?’ It turns out that what Jesus would do is exactly what ‘I’ would do – at least in so far as figuring out what Jesus’s opinions are. Thinking about God’s opinions and thinking about your own opinions uses an identical thought process.

This is a fascinating result. It suggests that people use God not to inform their own decision making, but to reinforce it. Here’s what the study’s authors conclude:

People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

Now, this doesn’t show that religion has no influence on attitudes and opinions. Other research has shown that it does. But it does show is that people can and do reinvent their god to suit their own beliefs.

They make god in their own image.
Epley N, Converse BA, Delbosc A, Monteleone GA, & Cacioppo JT (2009). Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 19955414

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The author

Tomas Rees

Tomas Rees:  I want to know why some people believe in gods, and what the psychological and social consequences of those beliefs are. I read the research, and when I find something juicy I write it up and post it here! If you’ve found something interesting, or just want to say ‘Hi!’, then drop me an email.

Who am I? Well, I’m a medical writer by profession, living and working on the south coast of England. I have a PhD in biotechnology, and an interest in what makes people tick.

My contribution to the sociology of religion, on the causes of international differences in religiosity, was published recently in the Journal of Religion and Society (see related blog post).

In the media:

Call for Papers: What positive role do the emotions play in our Naturalistic Paganism?

July 11, 2014

“… I’m not sure that I could be said to believe in divinity in any real way. But when it comes to how I resonate emotionally, I have very strong pantheistic feelings. … It is an emotional response to awe, to beauty, to mystery. And that emotional response is very strong in me.

“I’ve come to the understanding that this emotion is what is most important to my spiritual practice. My need for ritual and a spiritual practice and belief is reinforced by my logic and intellect – the mysteries of the universe are certainly awe-inspiring to even the most sceptical. But its seed is in emotion, in an inherent response that is so natural as to be almost a reflex.”

– Áine Órga, “Emotional Pantheism: Where the logic ends and the feelings start”

Heart vs. Mind stencil by ArtisticInsomnia

Our theme for late summer is Emotion. Naturalistic Paganism may sometimes seem to be a matter of the mind rather than an affair of the heart.  What positive role do the emotions play in our Naturalistic Paganism? Remember, your writing is what makes HP great!  Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.

A Naturalistic Creed, by B. T. Newberg

July 9, 2014

Editor’s note: Recently, Maggie Jay Lee wrote here about Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, and his naturalistic creed. In the comments to Lee’s essay, our own B. T. Newberg offered the following draft of a Naturalistic Pagan credo. We would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations for what a Naturalistic Pagan creed might look like. Share your thoughts in the comments.

(1) Reality is my pantheon;

(2) Evidence is my oracle;

(3) Big History is my mythology;

(4) Ecology is my tradition;

(5) Integrity is my ritual;

(6) Ensuring a just and healthy future is my offering.

About B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

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

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.  Several of his ebooks sell at, 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  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.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

“Letting Go of the Side of the Pool” by DT Strain

July 6, 2014

In earlier articles I’ve discussed what spiritual transformation could mean in a naturalistic context. Many times the real essence of these profound experiences can be difficult to communicate. They involve glimpses of such things as: unconditional compassion, greater humility, extreme empathy, profound experience, a sense of the sacred, revelatory perspectives, and so on. Experiences with several ancient philosophical sources of wisdom and their sincerely-applied practice can help to make us something closer to a “different kind of person” altogether.

But I was asked recently to write about what roadblocks might exist for some of us who come from secular humanist, skeptic, atheist, freethought, and similar backgrounds face. Sometimes our own tendencies can create a serious impediment to really exploring these practices properly. Here are some I can think of…

  1. Always looking at things from the third-person; seeking ‘objective’ descriptions of everything, as though writing an anthropological research paper on it. This, as opposed to greater appreciation and immersion in first-person subjective experience. We cannot achieve greater subjective intuitive experience through greater objective intellectual knowledge alone. We are still holding on to the edge of the pool, scared to float.
  2. An outward social/political focused agenda and perspective, as opposed to an inward-looking focus on personal growth and development (which, incidentally, helps give a firmer foundation to social efforts).
  3. Talking/writing about the thing rather than putting it into practice (be it meditation or any other practice).
  4. Appreciating the role of metaphor merely in an intellectual sense, without ever really moving one’s perspectives, responses, and feelings into that place.
  5. Trying to approach the matter in a step by step process, whereby we: (a) note the claims, (b) assess them empirically, (c) decide if they have merit, (d) engage in them, and (e) reap the benefits. Where experiential cultivation practices are concerns, this algorithm will never get us there. We will eternally be stuck on stage (b) as many of us indeed are. In Buddhist practices, for example, we could be an expert in every character of the Pali Canon and more written over the centuries and this would not even constitute the first step. We will never reach a point where we have assessed the practices and decided they are worthy to be engaged in – not fully and not to the extent that matters. This is because they are inherently subjective experiences. The way you investigate them is by engaging in them without reservation.
  6. The impulse to reject anything with the ‘taint’ of religion upon it, either because of ourselves or because of our fear others might think we are religious.
  7. The effort to build something “alongside” or “other” than religion – instead of working to help the continued transformation of religion into a naturalistically compatible genuine path. This involves a completely bold and shameless use of their terms, imagery, practices, and manners of speech, whenever they are applicable – without apology. Not because of some effort to steal them – but because these terms convey honest feelings we have a right to and which illustrate the feelings we have about the awesomeness of reality. “a-” words and “non-” words and alternate clinical descriptions (alone) are – when it comes to the realm of spirituality – the *ghetto* of the English language, and we must aspire to better.
  8. A continuous drive to debunk, critique, or complain about others’ beliefs – focusing on telling others what they ought to believe and do, rather than leading by living example.
  9. A failure to appreciate or trust the full power of universal and unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion; a generally harsh demeanor instead of loving-kindness, and an underestimating of the importance of such a demeanor to one’s well-being.

Many of we rationalists, Humanists, etc. who aim to approach naturalistic spirituality sit against the wall at the dance, talking with one another about the dancers out on the floor. We analyze their movements and critique their techniques. Then we speculate about the biological underpinnings of their enjoyment of the dance. We might even present studies on the neural correlates of dancing. We imagine that this discussion and knowledge somehow gets us closer to being good dancers or to sharing in that enjoyment. Then the lights come on, the party is over, and we go home completely failing to have ever danced or even understood what the experience of dance is like or how it really feels.

In the Houston chapter of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, we have covered topics like meditation, compassion, spiritual progress, awe/wonder, Taoism, Paganism, Buddhism, etc. I have found that many attendees love talking about “how it is” as if we are a bunch of aliens floating over planet earth, assessing the humans. But when I ask them to share their experiences, feelings, and how these practices affect their lives, I sense a resistance to ‘getting personal’. The former kind of intellectualizing and rhetoric is not even a ‘lower level’ of spiritual practice – it is another kind of thing altogether, and will not be sufficient to the practitioner.

There are other doors yet to be entered for many naturalists. And they must be if we are to truly heal the schism and reunite the natural and the sacred.

This article is a paraphrase of comments originally left by the author at and has also been published at the Spiritual Naturalist Society blog.

The Author

Rev. Strain speaks and writes on a wide variety of philosophic concepts and participates in several organizations. His “Humanist Contemplative” group and concept has since helped inspire a similar group at Harvard University. He is former president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH), and has served as vice-chair on the Executive Council of AHA’s Chapter Assembly, on the Education Committee of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and as a member of the Stoic Council at New Stoa.DT is a Humanist Minister, certified by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a Spiritual Naturalist. He is the founder and director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

His writing appears in the Houston Chronicle and has been published in magazines, newsletters, and in the AHA national publication “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism”. He has been a guest speaker on the Philosophy of Religion panel discussion at San Jacinto College, and has appeared on the Houston PBS television program, The Connection, discussing religious belief and non-belief. DT Strain is an enthusiast of Stoicism, Buddhism, and other ancient philosophies; seeking to supplement modern scientific and humanistic values with these practices. His essays and blog can be found at

See DT Strain’s other posts.

Naturalistic Paganism FAQ, by Jon Cleland Host

July 2, 2014

Editor’s Note: This FAQ can be found in files section of the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group.

Neolithic monument in Denmark visited by Jon Cleland Host one spring.

Q.  What is Naturalistic Paganism?

A.  Naturalistic Paganism is the spiritual path which uses Pagan symbols, rituals, and ideas while maintaining a Naturalistic worldview.

Q.  What is “Naturalism”?

According to the dictionary: Naturalism (noun): The idea that the world can be understood in scientific terms without recourse to spiritual or supernatural explanations or supposed divine revelation. 

Q.  What is a “Naturalistic Worldview” (what do Naturalistic Pagans believe)?

A.  It is an approach to existence based on the natural laws found by science, on observable evidence, and on objectively confirmable experiments.  Because things like ghosts, gods, magic, dowsing, astrology, and spirits have not been shown to exist, they are generally not included in a naturalistic worldview. People with a naturalistic worldview include pantheists, agnostics, non-theists, atheists, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, Universists, etc.  This worldview is often arrived at by the approach of using objective evidence as the only reliable means to determine the truth.  We don’t require anyone to agree to a rigid doctrine, but instead urge that everyone use reason, logic and evidence to critically test any belief.  Famous naturalists include many of our founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and others such as Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Bertram Russell, R. G. Ingersoll, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and many more.

Q.  What is “Paganism”?

A.  Paganism is an umbrella term for a large number of spiritual paths, which are usually Earth or Nature centered, focused on this life or world and often polytheistic.  In the context used here for “Naturalistic Paganism”, Paganism refers to practices common in Pagan religions such as Wicca, especially the Wheel of the Year.  The Wheel of the Year (along with the compass directions) can be used to represent many ideas.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans make up the majority of Pagans?

A.  No.  Most Pagans believe in things that are not part of a naturalistic worldview, such as reincarnation, literal gods, spirits, divination, etc.  We don’t have data on the actual number of Naturalistic Pagans, but it appears to be small.  That’s OK.  We generally get along well with other kinds of Pagans.  Since very few Pagans of any kind believe in a hell for those with the “wrong” religion, all of us are usually content to see our various tastes in religion the same way we see our various tastes in fashion — as ultimately unimportant.  Part of the reason for the small proportion of Naturalistic Pagans could be the long spiritual path often needed to get to Naturalistic Paganism.  Many of us have left Christianity for Humanism, and then only later added Paganism to enrich our spiritual practices (without changing our naturalistic worldview).  Conversely, others of us have left Christianity to become Pagan, and then have become Naturalistic Pagan only after beginning to doubt the literal truth of the Pagan gods, just as we had earlier done in Christianity.

Q.  What holidays do you observe?

A.  Many of us celebrate the 8 holidays (Sabbats) on the Wheel of the Year (the solstices and equinoxes, plus the cross-quarter holidays).  Because these are real astronomical events, they feel more like real holidays than dates made up by people.  They also celebrate the Wheel of Life, with youth at Beltane and death at Samhain, etc., so I’m constantly reminded to honor and cherish all of my loved ones in turn, and to honor those who have died.

Q.  How do you celebrate those holidays?

A.  Many of us are just now working out how to celebrate them, if we choose to celebrate those eight at all.  Many of the more common celebrations follow seasonal, evolutionary, or natural themes.  You’ll probably find many of those very familiar, such as the coloring of eggs for Ostara or the Maypole of Beltane.  Circle rituals can also be used.

Q.  Why did you call them “Sabbats” instead of  Holidays?

A.  The word “Sabbat” comes from the same root as “Sabbath”, and means a day of rest.  The word Sabbat is often used because the eight Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year are from the Wiccan religion, where they are called Sabbats.  The words “Sabbat” and “Holiday” can be used interchangeably.  Use whichever term you are most comfortable with.

Q.  But if your Naturalistic worldview doesn’t include a literal Goddess or God, then are you really Pagan?

A.  Well, that’s for each of us to decide on our own.  We’ve found Paganism to be very tolerant of diverse religious views. After all, we Pagans all see the Gods a little differently.  We respect those who see the gods as real, and we’ve been respected in return.  Naturalism & Paganism are both focused on this life and this glorious Universe, so for us, they fit together well.

Q.  But how can you take part in Pagan rituals if your naturalistic worldview doesn’t include gods or magic?

A.  Because we can see them as fun and useful metaphors, like “Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”.  If we insisted on only literal truth in everything, we’d be a pain to be around, and our lives wouldn’t be much fun.  We’ve found the Pagan metaphors add fun and color to our lives.

Q.  What political party do Naturalistic Pagans belong to?

A.  Naturalistic Paganism is not about politics, though having a naturalistic worldview usually means that Biblical (or Qu’ranic or other scripture based) instructions don’t persuade us.  We don’t have data on the political views of Naturalistic Pagans, but I would guess it is similar to that of others with a naturalistic worldview, such as many scientists, Humanists, freethinkers, etc.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans condemn homosexuality?

A.  Because a person with a naturalistic worldview bases his or her morality on reason and compassion, and not on what other people have written down, the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible or Qu’ran are not significant.  Views may vary, but will be based on real world evidence of harm or other scientifically verifiable data, and not on dogma or creed.   As such, Naturalistic Pagans are likely to be more accepting of homosexuality than someone with a morality based on the Bible.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans believe in God?

A.  That depends on how you define “God”.  If you mean “some kind of order or process that pervades the Universe”, then maybe (after all, even the force of gravity fits that description).  If you mean a literal personality with whom you can intelligently discuss your date last night, such as the Roman god Zeus, or the Hebrew god described in the Bible, then no.  However, any of these gods can be seen (and even invoked) as a metaphor for something real.  For instance, a Naturalistic Pagan scientist may offer a prayer to Prometheus, seeing Prometheus as a metaphor for the human drive to discover, but not as a literal personality.  Ultimately, of course, that the answer to that question will vary from person to person.

Q.  Are you saved?  (Have you found Jesus?  Do you know the Lord?  etc. …)

A.  The question is based on an assumption that we don’t share (the assumption that one needs to be “saved” from something).  Because a naturalistic worldview doesn’t include anything without testable evidence, most Naturalistic Pagans don’t believe in a heaven or hell, or often even any kind of afterlife.  So there’s nothing we need to be saved from.

Q.  What if there really is a hell? Shouldn’t you be Christian just in case?

A.  This reason for being Christian is known as Pascal’s Wager, and has been shown to be an illogical approach for a number of reasons which are too numerous to list here.  However, a short and simple reason to reject Pascals wager is that of other religions.  Islam claims you have to be Muslim to avoid hell, while many Baptist churches claim you must be members of their church to be saved, while the Roman Catholic church asserts that there is no salvation outside their church, etc.  You can’t logically be simultaneously a member of each of these while refuting all the others.  So if hell exists you’re pretty much screwed anyway.  In fact, I could state “I’m in charge of hell, and I’ll cast you there unless you pay me $5 right now. Isn’t a paying a measly $5 better than the chance that I’m right?”.  I hope you would know better than to pay me.

Q.  How do you view the Bible?

A.  The same way we view the Qu’ran, the Gita, and other revealed scripture.  We see these as works of humans that contain both good and bad.  As with any other book, it takes reason and logic to decide what to agree with and what to ignore.  Please don’t try to convince us of the inerrancy of the Bible.  Some of us may be more knowledgeable than you are concerning the Bible, and the many problems with the Bible have been pointed out for hundreds of years.  A good primer on these problems is the classic “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine.

Q.  How can you be moral with a Naturalistic Worldview?

A.  Before answering, let me ask that same question of you.  Why are you moral?  Is it because your parents or a teacher told you to be moral?  I hope not, since blindly following someone means that our morality could be wrong.  (Imagine following the morality of, say, Stalin.)  Is it because you are afraid of some divine punishment or seek some divine reward?  If so, then does that mean that you are actually immoral, but are afraid to do what you want?  Are you moral because you want to be like someone you admire?  If so, then would you be immoral if that person was immoral?  OK, so then why am I moral?  Because I value other human beings.  Because it is the right thing to do.  Because I want to be moral.  Because I can logically imagine what it is like to be treated immorally, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  I don’t need a threat to keep me moral.  Morality is a self-evident logical position.  I don’t need detailed instructions.  Morality can be summed up by the principle of life ownership, which is “the person who lives the life is the person who owns the life”.  So taking part or all of someone’s life is immoral, since they own it.  Other Naturalistic Pagans may have other ways to work out their own morality.  That is just one approach.

Q.  Is Naturalistic Paganism some new crackpot religion?

A.  You can decide that for yourself.  Just like any living religion, it has ancient roots and modern branches.  Many of the ideas in Naturalistic Paganism have been around for millennia.  For instance, many Pagan practices, such as celebrating the Solstices and Equinoxes date back at least 7,000 years, and possibly many times that.  Naturalistic views bloomed into their modern form three centuries ago during the Enlightenment, and early forms of Naturalism are found in Greek philosophy, over 2,500 years old.  Our ancient Pagan Ancestors (such as those who built Stonehenge or the Goseck circle) celebrated our Universe using the most advanced knowledge they had available at the time.  We do the same, and now the most advance knowledge we have is that of science.

Q.  Are Naturalistic Pagans weird?

A.  Well, one can decide for oneself what “weird” means.  We are normal people like you meet every day.  We come from many walks of life.  We are fathers, mothers, students, wives, husbands, scientists, computer programmers, laborers, Europeans, Americans, sisters, brothers and neighbors.  We feel a connection to our Earth, indeed to the Universe.  Is that very different from most spiritualities?

Q.  What about spells and magic(k)?

A.  A Naturalistic worldview means that only things with verifiable, testable evidence are believed in, and that generally eliminates a belief in magic.  However, magic spells do serve to make a desired outcome more real in one’s own mind.  For instance, before a track meet, a Naturalistic Pagan may conduct a ritual spell to help them focus their intent — kinda like wearing a lucky shirt.  Spells are not understood to cause a real change in the world other than in the mind of the participant.  This view of spells is different from that of many other Pagans.

Q.  Is their a local Naturalistic Pagan coven I can join?

A.  Because this approach is quite new, there aren’t established local groups.  There may or may not be in the future — who knows?  However, this approach is similar to other naturalistic approaches such as pantheism, spiritual humanism, and others.  Also, Naturalistic Pagans often fit in acceptably well in eclectic Pagan groups.  This is because even a ritual with supernatural names can be interpreted metaphorically, and because Pagans are often accepting of various types of Pagans, including Naturalistic Pagans.  Eclectic Pagan communities are appearing, such as CUUPS groups at UU fellowships.

Q.  I’d like to learn more about Naturalistic Paganism.  Where should I start?

A.  There are few books explicitly about Naturalistic Paganism yet.  However, you could start by learning about a Naturalistic worldview, and then learning Pagan practices, and seeing these practices metaphorically.  

For more information, check out the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group.

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

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

See Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s other posts.

What to look forward to in July at HP

June 30, 2014

This month, we continue our early summer theme: “Intellect”. Beginning with the summer solstice in June, we began discussing what role intellect plays in our coming to Naturalistic Paganism, what role it continues to play, how we make intellect serve wonder, and what constructive role intellectual inquiry plays in our Naturalistic Paganism. Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.

This Month at HP

July 2  Naturalistic Paganism FAQ by John Cleland Host

July 6  “Letting go of the side of the pool” by DT Strain

July 9  A Naturalistic Creed by B. T. Newberg

July 13   “What you want, God wants” by Tomas Rees

July 16  Mid-Month Meditation: “Adorations to the Sun” by thalassa

July 18  “‘As mortals pour, so do the gods': A critique of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 1)

July 20  De Natura Deorum: “Polytheism, Emergence and the One” by Gus DiZerega

July 23  “Godlessness and the Sacred Universe” by Crafter Yearly

July 27  Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology by Glen Gordon

July 30  Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host

Humanistic Paganism Calendar for July

July 11  World Population Day

July 12  Malala Day

July 18  Nelson Mandela Day

July 20  Anniversary of the Moon Landing

“Four strategies for naturalizing religion” by David Chapman

June 29, 2014

David Chapman discusses four strategies by which religion can be naturalized. He uses Buddhism as an example, but his discussion applies well to any religion. As you read, think about which strategies, or combination of strategies, Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans might use most profitably.  (Note: This essay originally appeared at David Chapman’s blog, Meaningness.)

I’ve noticed four strategies for “naturalizing” a religion—for making it compatible with the scientific worldview.

Two strategies get rid of supernatural aspects: ignoring and denying. Two other strategies reinterpret supernatural aspects in natural terms: psychologizing and mythologizing.

My aim is to naturalize Buddhist tantra, but these apply to any religion. The innovators who naturalized Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism) used all four strategies. All four can be useful for Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) too.

Interestingly, the first two strategies correspond to the fundamental method of Sutrayana: renunciation, or rejection of harmful stuff. The second two correspond to the fundamental method of Vajrayana: transformation of harmful stuff into helpful stuff. This makes me think reinterpretation strategies may be particularly useful in naturalizing Buddhist tantra.

Renunciative strategies for naturalization

Modern Buddhism simply ignores most supernatural parts of traditional Buddhism. Teachers rarely mention the Pali Canon’s discussions of the magical powers attainable through meditation, like walking on water. As long as students don’t know or don’t care about these, it’s mission accomplished.

Most of the supernatural parts of traditional Vajrayana can also just be ignored. For example, some tantric scriptures are full of spells for practical magic, like how to fly on the back of a vampire by drawing a magic symbol on its chest. Probably nothing needs to be said or done about this, because no one is going to ask “can you really do that?”

When a question about the supernatural does come up, it can be denied explicitly. All modern teachers will deny that hell is a cave, inhabited by demons, that you could get there by digging in the ground—although Buddhist scriptures clearly say so.

To naturalize Vajrayana, we might issue a blanket denial of all its supernatural traditions, and reconstruct it without any mention of them. That would be the hardline approach. We’d get a squeaky-clean, sleek, modern religion that way—which many people might like.

Is this possible? From a naturalistic point of view, if Vajrayana practices work, they work naturally. Perhaps they don’t work at all—but I think they do. So I believe a “renunciative” approach, rigorously purifying the religion of all contaminating hints of the supernatural, is possible. In later posts, I’ll sketch how this might work.

This might be the most broadly-accessible presentation for modern Vajrayana. It is not my preferred option.

Some might say removing all mention of the supernatural throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’d say it is more like a stew. If you fish the potatoes out of the pot and wash them off carefully, you’ll have an edible meal—but the potatoes by themselves are not very tasty, and you’ll waste most of the stew’s nutritional value.

Psychological transformations

Psychological transformations of Buddhist traditions are common, in both Sutrayana and Vajrayana. For example, Lama Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons is a psychological reinterpretation of the tantric chöd practice:

[A] demon might be addiction, self-hatred, perfectionism, anger, jealousy, or anything that is dragging you down, draining your energy. To put it simply, our demons are what we fear… anything that blocks complete inner freedom is a demon.

In general, we can reinterpret tradition’s external, supernatural entities as internal, mental ones. This may have great value for modern people, because we find ourselves shattered into fragments that can be hostile and uncommunicative. (That is much less true for people in traditional societies.) We can translate supernatural realms (such as the heavens and hells) into psychological states or ways of being. Supernatural powers and mysterious forces become metaphors for emotional energies.

There’s no obvious reason this should work. Why would concepts and practices concerning imaginary external beings prove useful when applied in an entirely different domain?

Some say it is because the supposed demons were always internal: tradition misunderstood mental phenomena as supernatural ones. Shamanic systems such as Vajrayana were primitive forms of psychotherapy. They developed methods by trial and error that may be powerful and useful, despite their total misunderstanding of what they were up to. I’m somewhat skeptical about this explanation; it’s too tidy.

In any case, it’s more important to know whether these psychological transformations work than why. Many people’s experience—including mine—suggests they do. Still, I’d be happier with stronger evidence than anecdotes.


The fourth naturalization strategy is to declare supernatural parts of Buddhism to be myths: religious fictions. Mythologization is close to my heart, and I believe it has enormous potential. It’s a complex topic, and little understood in modern Buddhism, so I’ll say a bit here, and more in future posts.

Myths are stories about religiously significant events that did not actually happen, usually involving people who did not actually exist. As statements of objective fact, myths are false. That does not mean they are worthless.

Christianity (especially modern Protestantism) is obsessed with the claim that its mythology is actually true—and that’s what makes Christianity special. Westerners unconsciously transfer this silly idea to other religions. Having realized the Christian myths are untrue, they go looking for true ones. This misses the point. Truth and belief are irrelevant for most religion.

Novels, dramas, and paintings are not true, but the best have great aesthetic value. Myths are not true, but the best have great religious value. Religious and aesthetic value are not the same, although the best myths have both. Myths are not mainly entertainment, although they may be that too.

Myths unclog energy by provoking wonder. “Wonder” is the union of passionate interest and open receptivity. I have defined the path of tantra as “unclogging energy by unifying passion and spaciousness”—so you can see why myth is particularly important here!

You do not need to believe in magic to be inspired, moved, and perhaps permanently transformed by The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Their creators were both deliberately making modern myths. These fictions are major influences on many people’s spirituality—though not many recognize that.

Still, both have limited religious impact—and not only because they are taken to be mere entertainment. The religious/philosophical ideas their authors used as backgrounds to their stories were limited and muddled.

In following posts, I’ll explain that myths, as stories about people doing things together, are particularly important for tantra—which is about how to do things together. And I’ll explain ritual as the enactment—the doing—of myths, so they are felt in the body.

The Author

David Chapman










I write several web sites about Buddhism, society, and what might be called philosophy.

Each of these sites presents the same set of ideas, but in radically different styles, for different audiences.

Those style differences make it difficult to write a biography for myself. Indeed, one of the main ideas I explore is the fluid, ambiguous nature of self-ness. Since we are all also subject to extensive delusions about ourselves, probably you can learn more about me from reading my Buddhist vampire romance than from any supposedly non-fictional account I might give.


Describing myself as a Buddhist, engineer, scientist, and businessman, I have a short biography on my Approaching Aro site.

And as a pop spiritual philosopher: Ken Wilber, my colleague in that endeavor, has writtena psychedelic novel which may be about my early work. I have written a psychedelic commentary on it. Whether Wilber’s book is about me or not, my commentary discusses that work in some detail.

To avoid spam, I’m not posting an email here, but if you use this web contact form, I’ll email you back.

You can also find me on Twitter and Google+.


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