Four critical questions for HP in the coming year

Contemplation, by Bill Gracey

Thanks to critiques, we have four essential questions to contemplate.

– by B. T. Newberg

Welcome to the second year of Humanistic Paganism.  After starting up last spring, we published pieces from more than a dozen authors, pumped out three ebooks, and interviewed some big-name authors.  What’s more, last week saw our 100th post!

Now we’re looking forward to a brand new year of quality work.  What should we try to accomplish this year?

We might take a cue from critical voices.  Analysis of critiques aired in last fall’s challenge post, as well as comments on various other posts, yielded some interesting findings: most critiques appear able to be categorized as variations on four essential questions that keep coming up and again.

These questions were first introduced in our ebook, Year One: A Year of Humanistic Paganism.  Its Dynamic Table of Contents organizes all of last year’s articles according to how they address these four questions.  Each piece has something to say, though none gives a comprehensive reply.

In the coming year, perhaps we should devote more explicit attention to these critical issues.

Without further ado, then, what are the four essential questions?

1.  What do we mean?

This question asks for more clarity and nuance in our discourse.  What do mean by things like “gods” and “spirit”?  What do we mean by “Paganism”?  What is entailed by “responsibility?”

To a certain extent we must accept Weber’s admonition that we can only define something at the end of a discussion, since the discussion itself will illumine the concept.  But that’s no excuse not to try.  We need to strive toward working definitions for our major ideas.

One thing I hope to generate this year is a general glossary for HP.  Key terms will be given a range of definitions so that everyone is on the same page.

2.  Why do it?

Why bother with mythology and gods?  Why bother with ritual?  What do we get out of it?  What’s the point?

These questions ask for the value of naturalistic practices.  Obviously there must be some value, or else we wouldn’t do them – but what is that value exactly?

Thomas Schenk’s  Bicycle Meditation post did a good job of describing the shift in consciousness or mental state derived from that practice.  Eli Effinger-Weintraub’s Deities as Role Models post indicated how the figures of myth can be employed like role models to draw out traits in oneself, like orderliness or responsibility.

In the same way, we must be clear about what it is that we get out of our practices.  And if the value is ineffable, then we should say so.

3.  Why not do otherwise?

Why not use fiction or theater to achieve the same ends as ritual?  Why not speak of “psychology” instead of “spirit?”

This question is more difficult to describe, as the difference between this one and the last is subtle.  Number two asks for the value derived, while number three demands we compare that value with other potential sources.  There also might be an implied assumption that if we can get the same benefits by other means, maybe we should.  Is there something unique about what we’re doing, such that no other activity can bear quite the same fruits?  If so, why?

None of last year’s articles addressed this question in any explicit way.  Is it a question we are obligated to answer?  If not, should it at least be a question we ask ourselves?

Since the paths that make up modern Paganism generally do not claim to be the One True Way, there is no reason to try to show they are inherently better than other religions or secular activities.  Yet it may be worth our while to show that naturalistic ritual activity is not just another way to get your kicks.

In such a discussion, it may be helpful to distinguish instrumental value from intrinsic value.  The former indicates value as a means of achieving some end, while the latter conveys the value of a thing as an end in itself.

4.  Is it responsible?

Even if it can be shown that there is some unique value in what we do, something that can’t be obtained any other way, there is still the problem of whether it may be harmful to ourselves or others.

Could we be wasting valuable time and energy without contributing anything of value to society?  Are we potentially misleading others in our words or activities?

These are the sorts of questions that engage the issue of responsibility.  The second critical question asks for value, the third for comparative value, and now this one asks for net value.  Are we doing more good than harm?

Incidentally, one of the reasons I started HP was the responsibility issue.  I felt I could not responsibly invoke the figures of myth if I wasn’t explicit about my naturalistic understanding.  Otherwise, my example might be taken as implicit support for literalistic religion.  To be responsible, I had to be honest.  That’s one reason why HP exists.

Writing for our critics is writing for ourselves

Ultimately, it only benefits us to answer these questions.  Not only does it present a stronger case to critics, but it helps us clarify our own paths.  In the coming year, we can strive to be more clear about these issues.

What do you think?  Are some of these questions unnecessary to answer?  Or are there other critical questions not covered here?

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27 Comments on “Four critical questions for HP in the coming year

  1. I think they are all great questions. I especially look forward to seeing a discussion unfold on number three.

    I’ve been trying to expand upon why it is that I’m drawn to the traditions I hold to so strongly. I could speak on how passionate I am about it all day… but a discussion like that isn’t solid enough to move beyond the “just for kicks” sentiment that could still be derived from an outside understanding of it. Discussions on topics like question three are a huge help to me, especially since I’m not as well read in philosophy as many on here — been learning a lot lurking around! 😉 Not sure I’ll ever catch up on my reading list.

  2. Love the Photo for this Topic! Yes, a working glossary would be great, as it can get a wee bit confusing without clear definitions.

    On the Why part, I think it has everything to do with how it affects the mind and the different ways of doing it have different outcomes, and that is what is being explored. It would be interesting to see what forms of ritual/psychological activity become considered naturalistic or what is created/reinvented to be naturalistic.

    Why Not Do Otherwise? I can see it being something of a mixture of different activities that serve the same purpose instead of just ritual activities or just mythological sources. I am not sure of any of it being intrinsic in any way. Although I might be convinced otherwise through further discussion on that topic.

    OOooo.. That last one is real good. I would like to see how that turns out.

    are there other critical questions not covered here?

    As I am always full of questions, yes, I have a few *Muahahaha!*

    Humanistic/Humanism. When I read that I can’t help but think anthropocentric. I realize that Humanism concern’s itself with the environment and so on, but it usually is addressed solely on how it affects humans only, otherwise its not really concerned about it. Are we not concerned on matters beyond how it affects humans? (a future blog post will address the question of paganism in a similar manner)

    Would HP be better called Sagecraft? Are we not searching for betterment through challenging how we perceive the world and ourselves; taking what we learn through that process to better shape our minds and to benefit our communities and environment? Or would that be called something different?

    Will mythology play more of a minor role on this path as various other forms and methods are used as well to address our perception of ourselves and world, and learn from them? What would this kind of approach be called?

    The use of the word God/Goddess as metaphor, why not skip metaphor and call it what it is? Whatever that may be? This morning I had woken up with markings on my neck from the way I slept, and my young daughter inquired about that. My husband called the markings fossils. I had responded that they weren’t fossils, they were something else, but didn’t have a name for them. He responded back saying that it was only a metaphor to describe them and didn’t know of a better name either. I personally settled on ‘imprints’. Could a new, more accurate word describe what is really meant? Perhaps Immensity even? Or is what is meant different?

    There was a question sometime ago on what can this path provide to others? So I’m thinking, “What we learn is what we teach” what are we learning and how can it be taught to others? What actions are involved in that?

    Those are all the questions I have for now, maybe I’ll come back with more later ^_^

    • Summary:
      Why structure it this way?
      Why use the terms you use?
      What are you trying to accomplish?

    • >Humanistic/Humanism. When I read that I can’t help but think anthropocentric.

      That is a common point, and a good one. Despite Humanism actually being very much concerned with environment, ecology, cosmos, etc., the name does suggest a human (only) focus. At the time that I chose the name Humanism, I didn’t yet realize how big the movement of Religious Naturalism/Spiritual Naturalism had become, nor was I sure if the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism was in alignment with what I was doing (didn’t want to create the impression that I was speaking for them by using their name). So the name became Humanistic. But in all truth, “naturalistic” describes HP just as well. No human-only impression given off by that term.

      >why not skip metaphor and call it what it is?

      There’s an example of #3! (why not do otherwise?)

      Your example of the pillow line imprints referred to as “fossils” illustrates perfectly why I prefer to use metaphors like “god” and “goddess.” There’s no question about “imprints” being the more technically accurate term. Of course the lines aren’t fossils; to believe so would be silly. But the word “fossils”, as soon as I read it, conjured up such an image and feeling that it inspired my imagination and creativity, and made me smile, just like good poetry does. “Imprints” didn’t conjure up any feeling at all, only a grammatical meaning. It was an abstract word, and it just can’t compete with a word like “fossils.”

      The same is true of “god” and “goddess.” Words like these conjure up not just a grammatical meaning, but also inspire emotion and fire the imagination. In philosophy, it is most important to be precise in meaning, whereas in art is most important to conjure a feeling. In spirituality, which combines philosophy and art, it is necessary to balance meaning and feeling.

      As we form the vocabulary we’ll use, we have to remember to appeal to both the intellect and the emotions (throw the imagination and creative impulse in their somewhere too). How a word feels is just as important as what it means.

      • Of course the lines aren’t fossils; to believe so would be silly.

        Can the same be said of Gods?

        I think that the use of metaphors can create a slippery slope of understanding the difference between literal and figurative.

        Can we not create the feeling associated with the word? Many rituals cause a feeling, and then the associated words become associated with that feeling. Like the words used for meditations. When you hear them, you automatically associate it with the feeling of the time.

        I thought “Immensity” conjured a great feeling and could easily be used in naturalistic views and practice.

        • Sorry, I realize I am making a lot of posts, But think this last thing is worth it.

          What about exploring why certain words conjure up certain feelings?

          I think our cultural background has a lot to do with why. What do you think?

        • >What about exploring why certain words conjure up certain feelings?

          Great question. I’m in the middle of an in-depth investigation of that.

        • >Can we not create the feeling associated with the word? Many rituals cause a feeling, and then the associated words become associated with that feeling. Like the words used for meditations. When you hear them, you automatically associate it with the feeling of the time.

          You make a good point.

  3. By the way, I read a story today in “Never Trust A Smiling Bear” (a collection of funny stories – usually outdoor related) edited by Matt Jackson, called “The Name Game” by Darin Cook about how he and his wife went to South Korea as ESL teachers and were surprised to find that they were charged with giving english names to their students and how, for them, became a name game when the students realized that the could name themselves. Yet, for some, that led to identity crisis. Which left the teachers responsible for giving out names still. They had a neat trick where they either used an english name that sounded similar to their Korean name or their english name was the meaning of their Korean name, like Pearl or June. Do you expect something similar?

  4. I struggle with Why.

    I know why I came: to supplement my practice with more awareness of and connection to the world outside of humanity. I thought paganism seemed to be a likely source of wisdom in this regard. It has served that purpose, but there is so much more to it that I don’t find especially valuable. I struggle to find a community that I can invest in, that I have something to contribute to, and that can nurture me in return. It’s hard to have a full experience of community online.

    I feel pulled in two directions. Should I send down roots even though I don’t feel completely comfortable with my surroundings, or should take what I have learned and move on? Why do I hesitate on the threshold?

  5. I think one of the “What do you mean?” questions we should discuss is “What do you mean by religion?”, if it is religion that we are attempting to create. Often people talk about religion in terms of ontology (what really exist or doesn’t), but I think the real insight comes when the discussion moves to function: What function does religion serve? What did religion do for our ancestors? Why do we still have religion? etc. If we substituted spirituality for religion in the above questions how would that change the answers? To me questions like “Why do it?” and “Is it responsible?” flow out of the “What is religion?” question.

    • Great questions. Defining religion is notoriously difficult. One of the most widely recognized, to my knowledge, is that of symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz:

      Religion is defined as (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (p. 90)

      Two points seem especially worth noting for HP. First, the “moods and motivations” part indicates we need to attend not just to intellectual ideas but also to emotions and attitudes.

      Second, the “aura of factuality” part is interesting. Unlike literalists, naturalists generally agree that to be convinced of facts, we need to look for empirical, scientific evidence. All our mythic and ritual activities ultimately need to connect or lead to the “real” world. They should lead us beyond mere intellectual understanding into the realm of emotion, such that the “moods and motivations” they evoke affirm and reinforce our scientific understandings with positive emotion. What might happen if rituals made a point of employing rudimentary scientific method (e.g. a ritual could be framed as an experiment in how to evoke emotion)? In such a way, those who support science can bond with it on a more holistic level (beyond intellect to include emotion), and doubters of science can see it work before their eyes and discover experientially how and why scientific method is effective, and how it is relevant to their lives.

      As for the function(s) of religion, it is still hotly debated whether religion serves any function at all, or whether it is a “spandrel” or by-product of some evolutionary or social process, existing only because it can.

      I find the arguments for function more interesting, and the most interesting I’ve come across is that of Loyal Rue, from his book Religion Is Not About God. In it, he proposes that religion integrates into a single, compelling narrative ideas about what things are real (cosmology) and which things matter (morality, in the sense of values). By doing so, religion is able to efficiently address two essential goals of humanity: personal wholeness and social coherence. Personal wholeness means satisfying one’s basic needs as well as yearnings for self-esteem, fulfillment, etc. Social coherence means a society that is distinctive and ordered well enough that all can work together more or less as a group toward the same ends. These two goals can be at odds, as one person seeks to maximize their own satisfaction at the expense of neighbors, or as the group pursues its agendas at the expense of individual freedom. Yet the paradox is that it is very difficult to achieve either of the two goals without pursuing both. Religion has evolved as a strategy for obtaining a working balance that fosters both personal wholeness and social coherence.

      The social aspect of Rue’s theory is supported by a lot of hot new research in biology on multi-level selection theory. This is the evolutionary idea that natural selection occurs not just at the individual level, but also at the group level. For this to happen, there needs to be a high level of agreement on goals within the group. For example, a basketball team that is well-coordinated toward the goal of winning will beat the pants off one where everyone is in it for themselves to maximize showing off or getting ball time or whatever. Religion functions to align the desires of the individual with the desires of the group, so that all can work together toward the same goals. This provides a powerful advantage over competing groups that cannot get their act together as well, so cultures that evolved religions were gradually selected over time.

      What does all this mean for HP? It gives us a hint as to how to make our path both personally fulfilling and socially adaptive. We need to concentrate not just on individual satisfaction (what “works” for you), but also on gradually building up community structures and shared symbol systems, so that some level of social coherence may emerge. I think we’re a long way from that, but we’ve made a start.

  6. My own view on this question is along similar lines. I am not familiar with Clifford Geertz or Loyal Rue, but their works look very interesting. My thinking on this topic has been very influenced by the work of Jonathan Haidt. He is a psychologist who studies moral intuition/reasoning. His work in India and in the lab has led to some insightful conclusions about the moral domain of traditional societies (and modern western conservatives), which I think are relevant to understanding both ancient polytheism and why modern liberal religions are having such a hard time gaining momentum. Haidt gave a great talk on his theory at The Science Network’s (TSN) 2007 conference Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0/jonathan-haidt and a similar but slightly shorter version to TED http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html. (If you are not familiar with TSN’s Beyond Belief series, it is worth checking out. They have a lot of heavy hitting scientists and intellectuals discussing the meaning of religion, science and morality.)

    Basically Haidt says that traditional societies and modern conservatives see the basic unit of society as the group, whereas for modern liberals, it is the individual. Liberals view society as the interaction of autonomous individuals, and so what is important is to protect the individual’s rights by preventing individuals from harming each other and making sure that society is fair – that everyone plays by the same rules and everyone has the same basic opportunities. Haidt characterizes these moral categories as harm-care and fairness-reciprocity. Conservatives are also concerned with these things, but they add other moral qualities that help maintain and promote groups. These are categorized by Haidt as in-group loyalty, authority-respect and purity-sanctity. The last one is particularly interesting because it is something peculiar to religion and is a very prominent concern in traditional/archaic religions. Haidt doesn’t talk much about this in the TSN or TED talks, but he does cover it in his book the “Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” and amazingly the relevant chapter (Chapter 9: Divinity With or Without God) is available on-line, all be it in a draft format (although as far as I can tell it is the same as the final published version) – http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/haidtreading2.pdf.

    I do think religion can and did foster personal wholeness, but I think its main historical and evolutionary function was in the service of the group. Religion has been especially successful at creating, maintaining and enforcing group loyalty and participation, which was especially important in the ancestral environment. I think it is the tendency of religion to place the group above the individual that is the underlying objection that many atheists have to religion. And it is true that all this groupiness can have a very dark side –authoritarianism, racism, sexism, classism. In traditional cultures it is one’s role in the group that is most important, not one’s individuality, and those who wished to step outside of their role in the group often faced a very hard road.

    Liberalism rightly wishes to address the excesses of groupism, but it ends up creating a very weak, watery religion. Liberal religion almost exclusively focuses on personal wholeness and religion often comes off as an expression of one’s own individuality. Liberal religion often seems very relativistic and self-absorbed; beliefs, values and practices are based on each individuals experience and inclination, and all beliefs are considered equally valid at least for the individual who holds them. This is certainly true of paganism. It is really hard to create community when everyone is off doing their own thing and finding themselves (often multiple times).

    Obviously the answer is to find the right balance between individualism and groupism (personal wholeness and group cohesion), as you said, “We need to concentrate not just on individual satisfaction (what “works” for you), but also on gradually building up community structures and shared symbol systems, so that some level of social coherence may emerge.” This is a difficult task especially in our culture, but I look forward to discussing it in more detail in the coming year.

    • >I do think religion can and did foster personal wholeness, but I think its main historical and evolutionary function was in the service of the group.

      Yes, but the interesting part is that serves the group via achieving the personal wholeness of its members. The other way to create social coherence would be by external force, as in a totalitarian state. Religions do it by cultivating the individuals values and experiences such that they come to see that the interests of the individual and the interests of the group are one and the same. Personal wholeness is found through the group.

      And let me say straight off the bat, before anyone feels the need to point it out, that this can obviously by done well or door poorly – plenty of room for exploitation here, but also room for good stuff. For example, the scientific community can persuade the average person that the supporting scientific institutions ultimately benefit the individual through medical advances, technology, improved living conditions, etc. In such a way, the individual sees that personal needs are best met by attending to group needs. It’s the same basic argument structure. So there’s exploitative and non-exploitative ways to go about this.

      >It is really hard to create community when everyone is off doing their own thing and finding themselves (often multiple times). Obviously the answer is to find the right balance between individualism and groupism (personal wholeness and group cohesion).

      Good point.

      >as you said, “We need to concentrate not just on individual satisfaction (what “works” for you), but also on gradually building up community structures and shared symbol systems, so that some level of social coherence may emerge.” This is a difficult task especially in our culture, but I look forward to discussing it in more detail in the coming year.

      Me too, and let me say I’m in no rush to make it happen. I take my cue from an ADF motto: “Fast as a speeding oak!” In other words, this kind of thing must emerge on its own through organic growth of the community.

      • I’m glad you acknowledged the potential for abuse in religion. My experience of religion was not what you described. Group cohesion was achieved through various methods including totalitarian control of thought. So I don’t think inducing group cohesion through enlightened self interest is a particularly religious method, perhaps just the way that we would like to see it happen in our religion.

        • Maybe I should have been clearer. By the totalitarian state reference, I was referring to control by force, i.e. threat of physical harm. Religions don’t tend to do that. They do, however, tend to use ideology (which is not exclusive to religions) to convince followers that their best interests are the group’s interests. This can be done in an exploitative way, by limiting information access and attaching severe negative moral value to deviating from the group dogma, or it can be done in a non-exploitative way, by having open information access and allowing followers to decide for themselves what’s right without threat of shame, guilt, or hellish afterlives if they come to different conclusions than that of the group. Does that fit your experience better? I would guess the “totalitarian control of thought” you experienced would fit best under the second of the three paradigms.

        • That’s fair to say. I only bring it up to point out where a religion can go wrong. I imagine my ideal religion explicitly including freethought as a central principle.

        • Me too.

          I’ve always been amazed at the level of freedom to stay or leave in Pagan groups. In every instance I can think of where someone has decided to leave, the response has always been “Blessings on your new path.”

      • >Yes, but the interesting part is that serves the group via achieving the personal wholeness of its members. The other way to create social coherence would be by external force, as in a totalitarian state. Religions do it by cultivating the individuals values and experiences such that they come to see that the interests of the individual and the interests of the group are one and the same. Personal wholeness is found through the group.

        You make a good point. I agree, religions do prosper by “cultivating the individuals values and experiences such that they come to see that the interests of the individual and the interests of the group are one and the same” and this certainly must be true for the majority of a religion’s adherents or they would be adherents no more. And I certainly agree with the statement, “Personal wholeness is found through the group.” That is one of those profound truths that is echoed again and again in the wisdom literature of various cultures. Human beings are social animals, and in the end, it is the ties of friendship, family and community that bring the greatest fulfillment (at least for average, healthy humans).

        Of course the conflict comes in when the interest of the individual and the group are not in perfect harmony. It is often in the interest of the individual to cheat the group if the individual can get away with it, and the group uses various positive and negative means to insure loyalty to the group’s interests. Historically it was religion that did a lot of the work to prevent cheating and freeloading within the group (society); religion was the bedrock of society. Religious conservatives still see religion that way, whereas liberals tend to see this as the function of government.

        Obviously paganism, and certainly HP, is too marginal to have a big influence on society, but I still think we should think of religion as being something rather bigger and more important, something that is not just about the individual but about society. I tend to think of the purpose of religion as the creation of right relationship with self, community and the world/Gods. Of course the hard part is knowing what right relationship is and how to achieve it.

        • (Nods) Well said.

          >I tend to think of the purpose of religion as the creation of right relationship with self, community and the world/Gods.

          Michael Dowd says it in almost exactly the same way. He advocates “right relationship with Reality”, and he takes his cue from Rue in dividing up that up into personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity (that last one must have been added in one of Rue’s later books).

          Dowd has a phenomenal page with an almost overwhelming list of resources along these lines. I haven’t even begun to scratch its surface yet:
          http://evolutionarychristianity.com/blog/big-integrity-resources-growing-in-right-relationship-to-reality/

        • It is no coincidence that my phrasing sounds similar to Michael Dowd’s. I am a big fan of the work of Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, and they have been a great inspiration. In many ways it was Christian naturalists like Michael Dowd, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong and others that inspired me to walk this walk. But it is not the Christian path that I am drawn to and inspired by but that of paganism and ancient polytheism. The myths, legends and history of the ancient polytheisms are as every bit as deep, inspiring and challenging as those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Like Dowd says his tradition/background is Christianity, but any tradition can and should be “Evolutionized.” It is really great to FINALLY be connecting with others who feel similar about paganism.

        • Cool. Then may I ask you a question about Dowd? I haven’t had the chance to dig very deep into his work yet, but so far I haven’t noticed anything distinctively Christian about it. How does the Christianity part come in?

        • Michael Dowd used to be a Christian pastor and fairly conservative I do believe. A lot of his work is very universal and his wife and “mission” partner Connie Barlow is a UU atheist, but if you look a little closer you’ll find the influence of Christianity pervades a lot of Dowd’s work and his approach. He is still very much a preacher, but now it is the good news of evolution that he is spreading. His book Thank God for Evolution is written to appeal to people of different faiths and no faiths, but it is the Christian tradition he uses to illustrate his evolutionary approach to religion, and he gives new interpretations of foundational Christian doctrines like sin and redemption. Dowd has done a lot to reach out to traditional Christians the way only a former Christian minister can. For more on his Evolutionary Christianity see http://evolutionarychristianity.com/blog/welcome/. If you are not already familiar within it, you might want to check out his Inspiring Naturalism podcast – http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/. The episodes are rather sporadic, but he has had some good shows, including an interview with our very own Naturalistic Pagan, Jon Cleland-Host.

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