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.
image created here
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?