Neither religious nor secular: A home for those with none

Odysseus vor Scilla und Charybdis, by Johann Heinrich Fussli

Odysseus found himself between Scylla and Charybdis, like so many today who must navigate between a rock and a hard place.

image enhanced from Odysseus vor Scilla und Charybdis, by Johann Heinrich Füssli

– by B. T. Newberg

Do you find yourself between worlds, neither religious nor secular?  Do you feel without a home?  It can be frustrating for those with a naturalistic view of the universe, but an inclination to spiritual metaphor and growth.  There aren’t many high-profile traditions espousing such a path.  Many of us end up feeling lost in the cracks between the religious and the secular.

Our culture hasn’t yet developed secular words adequate to describe the magnificence of life.  Perhaps that’s why many of us still feel called to terms like “gods” and “spirit”, though we don’t mean guys in the sky or ghosts in the machine.  What we express by these words is a certain reverence toward existence, a reverence we can only describe as spiritual.

Yet that reverence is easily misunderstood.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

The ultimate “rock and a hard place” metaphor comes from Homer’s Odyssey, where the crew of Odysseus’ ship has to navigate the narrow straits between two sea monsters called Scylla and Charybdis.  That’s the situation in which many of us find ourselves today.  Tossed between hardcore religionists on the one side and fervent secularists on the other, we struggle to navigate a way home.

Since starting this blog, I’ve met many who identify with Humanistic Paganism.  I’ve also met those who look on it with bewilderment bordering on disgust.  A Facebook conversation sparked by HP saw this comment from a Neopagan Druid:

“Why bother with a ritual to a deity if you think it’s fake? Wouldn’t that be a waste of time? I personally don’t care what other people believe or not, but the whole ‘just do it even if there is nothing behind it’ way of thinking just seems stupid to me.  …  If their actions or words are empty, I’d rather they shut up and stay home frankly.”

While this comment grossly misconstrues the spirit of HP ritual, it is a common reaction.  Many assume that spiritual practices without literal belief in deities must be “empty”, and shake their heads in amazement.

Others get possessive.  For example, a few years ago a Hellenic polytheist wrote that if I did not believe in the literal existence of the Greek gods, I should not use their names, because there are those who do believe in them.  Apparently they own the copyright to Greek mythology!  I do understand what she was saying – we should not treat flippantly what others take seriously.  But HP takes mythology seriously too, just in a different way.

Meanwhile, Pagans are not the only ones who look askance at HP.  I recently attended a Humanist event where I introduced myself as a “spiritual humanist.”  That single word spiritual was enough to send the event leader off into a long and defensive aside about how she is uncomfortable with that term.  Others at the event seemed to assume without question that “Humanism” meant Secular Humanism, even though that is only one branch, and a recently invented one at that.  No one was rude, but I went away feeling like I had not found a welcoming community.

Resistance is to be expected

I don’t blame any of the people mentioned above for their comments.  Humanistic Paganism is confusing.  The same goes for Spiritual Humanism or Religious Naturalism or Enchanted Agnosticism or whatever moniker you choose.  These are counter-intuitive terms that provoke a double-take.  Dare to call yourself one of these, and you will have your beliefs questioned.

But that is no reason to keep quiet.  One of the reasons for misunderstanding is simple lack of visibility.  Humanistic Pagans and others of similar persuasion need to put themselves out there.  That is one reason this blog exists.  It’s not just a place to articulate ideas, it’s a forum to educate the community.

If you’re wondering how a ritual could possibly work without literal belief in gods, this is what you should be reading.  If you think spirituality can’t possibly have something to offer the naturalist, again this is the blog for you.  Whether you come to agree with the ideas here or radically oppose them, at least you’ll understand what it’s all about.  Ignorance is the enemy.  Difference is beautiful.

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Humanistic Pagans need to be more visible.

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There are open-minded people too

All this talk about resistance might give the impression of being under siege.  Actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Although there are those who attack and ridicule, the vast majority I’ve met in both Pagan and Humanist camps are open-minded.  In the Facebook conversation quoted above, several theists stood up in defense of HP.  The person quoted actually found herself shouted down.  Likewise, at the Humanist event there were those who were interested in Buddhist meditation, church-like organizational models, and other connections to spiritual traditions.  Suffice to say the open-minded folks usually outweigh the closed-minded, even though the latter tend to leave a bigger impression.

A home for those with none

For those neither religious nor secular, attempting to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, Humanistic Paganism is a beacon fire.  It’s a safe harbor where that counter-intuitive viewpoint, which may provoke questions and resistance, can be openly explored.  It’s a port town where those from diverse backgrounds can exchange ideas and learn about their differences.  Lastly, for some, it’s a home.

But Humanistic Paganism is not yet a group, nor a tradition.  That may emerge in time, but if so it must happen organically.  One person cannot start a tradition; others must come together to create it.  Or create something else, something better.

Until then, those sympathetic to HP can find fellowship in a number of groups that are similar in spirit.  Perhaps the closest analogy can be found in the Yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.  Two other close kin are the World Pantheist Movement and Universal Pantheist Society.  Further community might be found in the Druidic Order of Naturalists or the forums of Spiritual Humanism.  For still more, see the Resources page.  Continue to check back as I’m finding more and more each day.

Are there other communities you love, communities in the borderlands between the religious and secular?  Please share them in the comments section.

Or share your experience: What is your story of navigating between the religious and the secular, between Scylla and Charybdis?

Tree flower at Loring Park

Ignorance is the enemy. Difference is beautiful.

photo by B. T. Newberg
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29 Comments on “Neither religious nor secular: A home for those with none

  1. I’m not comfortable with the word “spiritual” either because of its supernatural baggage and how ambiguous it is: it could mean a thousand contradictory things depending on who you’re talking to.

    So I’ve been on a quest of sorts to gather words that more precisely express what we may mean by the word “spiritual”. Here’s what I have so far: connected, transcendent, compassionate, inspiring, timeless, edifying, awful (in the archaic sense), wonderful (again in its archaic sense), humbling, poetic, beautiful, wise, alien, pious, religious, whimsical, vivacious, empty, receptive, open, fearless, colorful, dreamlike, soft, equanimous, pacific, creative, vibrant, autonomous, content, confident, abundant, satisfied, accepting, passionate, awake, alive, free, empowered, etc.

    • How about “reverent” to add to the list? I recently discovered Paul Woodruff’s interview with Bill Moyers (see Youtube) and his work on reverence and the ancient Greeks. And for “awe”, I just ordered a book by Kirk J. Schneider called “The Rediscovery of Awe.”

      I’m surprised to see “pious” and “religious” on your list. Why these but not “spiritual”?

      • I’ll add it to the list, thanks. 🙂

        The reason I include “pious” and “religious” is because they express something a bit more specific to my mind than “spiritual”. Also, I include experiences that I don’t necessarily share, so while I don’t feel “religious” very often, I include it in the list because I think it’s more specific and therefore useful when you want to actually communicate something.

        On the other hand, “spiritual” may be a useful word if someone feels haunted by actual spirits. 😉

  2. You’re certainly right to point out that the word is ambiguous. It has a wide range of meanings, from the literalistic “haunted by actual spirits” to purely secular meanings as in existential psychology where it refers to the meaning-making side of man.

    I do like the word though because it seems to be where our culture is headed in referring to the pursuit of a broad range of philosophico-religious experiences without necessarily invoking a religious organization or dogma. “Spirituality” has a more ecumenical ring to it. And apparently there was a census survey in which a sizable percentage (20%? I forget) described themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Robert C. Fuller explores this in his book “Spiritual but not Religious”, which is an interesting read.

    • I feel that the word Spiritual is definitely considered a moral “grey area” by most people, especially for those who feel that need for fulfillment but don’t associate with any particular belief structure, or yet know of one that suits them. Or perhaps there was no other option for them to fill in the survey and that seemed the most suitable option.

      • >Or perhaps there was no other option for them to fill in the survey and that seemed the most suitable option.

        Indeed, but then why not also check the “religious” box? I think the reason is as you say, “spiritual” is starting to feel comfortable for people who don’t, or don’t yet, associate with any particular belief structure.

  3. I found myself in that middle ground about 3yrs ago now. I was raised in a Christian Pentecostal household and always had an interest in understanding different beliefs. I also enjoy reading fantasy, to the point that I wanted to write. So I decided to try to be a good writer and do research on different beliefs to help develop a believable one for my writing.

    Through my research I gathered things that sung true to me, and then realized that I didn’t believe in the Christian faith any more. I felt like the ground fell out under me at that moment. “What to do?” I asked myself. “Well”, said my creative side. “You already have a bit of a blueprint.” and I realized I had inadvertently started my own path, so I ran with it and kept the name I started with, Ehoah.

    Over time I decided that I shouldn’t keep this to myself and sharing sounded like a good idea. Because who knows, maybe someone else may find it sings to them too. So I started a facebook page and created a website and now I have 73 people who’ve joined in saying that it sings true to them too. It is still a working progress and the way it is designed is that it allows for individual pursuits without any doctrine to hinder that pursuit.

    And now I am getting ahead of myself, allow me to explain a bit on what Ehoah even is. Through my research I had stumbled upon Reformed Druidism and found a home where I could revere Nature openly without being considered a “Devil Worshiper” (as I always had a strong love for Nature).

    However, I couldn’t get behind the aspect of deities, spirits, or anything of the like. Because through most of my life in Christianity, I couldn’t truly say to myself that I’ve experienced communing with a deity in any way, even though I put my gut and soul into trying to experience that.

    Sure, I’ve had spiritual experiences, but none of which I can honestly attest to any deity or spirit. Through my continued research, I’ve come to believe that these spiritual experiences I’ve had are purely through thought. A sensation of the mind that only happens when certain thoughts, possibly along with certain physical poses, actions or other physical aspect, trigger an ultimate euphoria. Most cases, this thought and resulting ‘spiritual’ feeling happened in association with Nature.

    In Reformed Druidism, they had Two Basic Tenets they held by that agreeing with, automatically makes you a Reformed Druid. But, as mentioned before, I couldn’t get behind deity or spirits, and the Tenets had aspects of this. Other than that, I loved the Reformed Druids and their approach to spirituality. So I decided that I could have an Ehoah Revision of the Two Basic Tenets, and added a Third, which seemed to be missing from the Basic two. Creating The Three Basic Tenets of Ehoah. Which is,

    “One of the many ways spiritual fulfillment can be found is through Nature.”

    “Nature, being one of the primary concerns in humanity’s life and struggle, is important in spiritual quests.”

    and thirdly,

    “It is important to live balanced within Nature, as to live unbalanced with Nature is destructive physically and spiritually.”

    It is from this point that Ehoah developed further to what it currently is, and it works for me and apparently for others too.

    Over time I came across others (or others have come across me) who had the exact kind of feeling about Nature, and deities and the like. None really completely fitting into Paganism or Secularism, but somehow felt like they had a foot in both. Some have greatly articulated this phenomenon and have put together their own way of filling that gap. And thus far, all of these groups have complimented each other in every way, yet each starting a tradition in their own right.

    Humanist Paganism is one such group, whom of which came across me before I them. I am glad to have become connected with you and others of the like. I hope that this connection will greatly aid in our pursuits in Nature Spirituality, or which other name is preferred in these parallel paths (we may need to collaborate a name for this, dare I say movement?, among similar minded comrades). It is exciting to see what may come of it as many individuals seem to feel in a similar fashion but didn’t know of this possibility for themselves.

    May it bear much fruit and many blessings!

    • Thus far the names I’ve come across are Godless Heathens, Humanistic Paganism, Naturalist Spirituality/Spiritual Naturalism, and various subgroups of Pantheists and Naturalists.

      All of which have merit in their names, and speak of the same thing. I personally have added them all to my “Religious Views” on FB as I agree with them all and cannot choose one over the other.

      Do you think it is possible to come up with a (I kind of hate to say this) umbrella term that can be agreed upon? In my opinion, Naturalistic Spirituality has my vote as it already is a recognized term that would not conflict with any groups that would logically fall under it.

      These are just my thoughts on the matter and need not be taken seriously.

      • >Do you think it is possible to come up with a (I kind of hate to say this) umbrella term that can be agreed upon? In my opinion, Naturalistic Spirituality has my vote as it already is a recognized term that would not conflict with any groups that would logically fall under it.

        It would be nice to have an umbrella term so that public consciousness could wrap its mind around the idea. Whatever it is, it needs to become a household word if the view has any hope of going mainstream.

        Call me a pessimist, but I don’t know how likely it is that such a term will arise. The main reason is because the people who subscribe to these views are generally independent trailblazers by nature, and as such may not be likely to band together under one term. That’s been my experience in philosophy and alternative spirituality in general. Still, if we make enough noise, the media will have to come up with a term to label us (for better or for worse).

        • “Still, if we make enough noise, the media will have to come up with a term to label us (for better or for worse).”

          Exactly.

        • I like Naturalistic Spirituality as well. I’ve gone with the term “naturalistic pagan” for quite some time now, which i got the the WPM (World Pantheist Movement). I’m very fond of that term, but I could see how pagan would not be as encompassing.

          I do agree with Rua Lupa, an “umbrella” term would be nice – especially when in discussion with others. It helps to establish a good starting point, rather than having to go into long explanations of what you are or are not. Sort of a hard thing to do, though…

        • I got “naturalistic pagan” from WPM as well, as I think it was there that I was directed to the yahoo group by that name.

          I wonder how other pagans receive the term “naturalistic” to describe nontheistic paganism? Many pagans consider their deities to be within the bounds of “nature.” I don’t mean metaphors for nature, but genuine independent, real-existing transcendent entities that are somehow also “natural.” Thus, even though outsiders looking in might consider them quite supernatural, pagans would say they are natural. So “naturalistic” paganism seems like it would be a slap in the face to them. But I haven’t heard anyone complain about that yet.

        • “pagan” and “paganism” itself has its own problems defining what it is. Most (from what I’ve gathered) agree that it essentially means non Abrahamic in origin or influence that has polytheistic religious traditions.

          As a non-theistic individual, who feels Nature is my best teacher; I cannot allow myself to go under the label pagan, as I feel that it would be misleading.

          Some of the biggest debates in paganism is that it is based on beliefs prior to the influence of Christianity and therefore has historical roots, even though they practice differently in modern times.

          Ethnologists avoid the term “paganism,” with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism.

          Even myself being inspired by older beliefs, I am very much admittedly new and feel no need to back up my beliefs and practices with a historical justification. Which many pagans claim a need for to be legitimate.

          This new wave being non-theistic and Nature based is, in my opinion, not in any way pagan. Even if you use deity images in practice, as you do not believe they have power over you. Unlike in pagan beliefs and practices.

        • Also, it is, to me, misleading to even use anything with -theism, unless to say non-theism, as it means a belief in god or gods. And that is not the case in this wave.

          Even Naturalistic doesn’t agree with me. As it seems to say “natural-ish” to me and that is not the point of this wave’s pursuit, from what I see.

          Therefore Nature Spirituality is appropriate to describe this wave. No theism attached and yet it describes achieving a deep feeling of worth and purpose in its practice and emphasizing Nature being a focal point in that.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I think a lot of folks have had similar experiences.

      >I hope that this connection will greatly aid in our pursuits in Nature Spirituality, or which other name is preferred in these parallel paths (we may need to collaborate a name for this, dare I say movement?, among similar minded comrades).

      Perhaps one way we can begin is by networking as deeply as possible, so that those of like persuasion can find each other. I’m no whiz at Facebook, and still haven’t taken on the task of Twitter, but I hope to get better at social networking soon. In the meantime, it has proved fruitful to get on email lists and surf websites like yours.

        • I came across it as part of an exhaustive google search. I think I was probably searching “naturalistic paganism” when your site came up. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly, though. It may have been a link from another site somewhere.

  4. Another group who seem to me to have similar positions are the Nontheist Quakers (http://www.nontheistfriends.org/). Quakers especially in the UK are theologically diverse to begin with and the ‘ritual’ method of unprogrammed and largely silent worship seems to foster independent thought and acceptance of widely differing viewpoints.

  5. Wow, I wouldn’t have thought of the Quakers, but now that you mention it, it makes total sense. Thank you, Rhiannon.

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