Is Naturalistic Paganism harmful to society?

Burning Off Fields in the Evening in South Georgia, by Richard Elaine Chambers

Are we doing harm?

– by B. T. Newberg

The goal of this website is to promote naturalistic spirituality (check out our mission statement).  But is it possible that, in the end, we’re doing harm to society?

By harm, I mean any substantial increase in anxiety or suffering, or decrease in progress toward whatever humanitarian goals you may support.  Any such harm may well be outweighed by benefits, but let’s leave that for another discussion.  Right now, let’s just consider potential harm at the social scale.

I’m going to be throwing up some arguments against what we support, some bad and some good.  Before you read, please voice your opinion in this poll:

What we support

First, we need to be clear about what it is we do here at HP.  By promoting naturalistic spirituality in Paganism, we publicly support:

  • a way of life which incorporates myths, rituals, meditations, and other traditions associated with Paganism, approached from the worldview of naturalism.

If you’re unsure of any of the italicized terms, see their entries in our HPedia.

Bad arguments against us

First, there are a number of arguments that are truly bad.  Here are just a few:

  • Mental illness argument: If any of our spiritual activities resemble a mental illness in any way, we are mentally ill (and may be spreading it)
  • Selfishness argument: If deities are not real to us, then we are only in it for ourselves

The first charge is a plain logical fallacy, but has been raised on more than one occasion, such as ritual resembling OCD or aspecting resembling psychosis.  Even if there are some valid similarities, the charge fails to recognize that the mental illness in question might represent the unhealthy operation of an otherwise healthy system functioning normally during spiritual activities.

The second assumes that deities are the only possible beneficiaries of ritual activity other than ourselves, but ritual can motivate environmental and humanitarian action, cooperative virtues, and group solidarity – all of which transcend individual self-interest.

Both of these arguments have entries in our HPedia.

Good arguments against us?

There are also arguments that may be more cogent.  I’m not advocating for or against these arguments, only presenting them for discussion.

1.  Myth and ritual direct attention away from other activities that may be more worthwhile

This is possible, especially in the case of clergy devoting their whole life to their spiritual path when they could devote it to something else.  It assumes the benefit to society of such a life must be little or none, which is a big assumption, but at least it is a logically-sound argument.  I won’t spend further time discussing this one, as it’s already been debated at length in a previous article.

2.  In promoting Paganism of any kind, we promote Paganism of the majority kind

By disseminating Naturalistic Paganism, we disseminate myths and rituals involving deities, magic, and other things common to Paganism as a whole.  Promoting the one promotes the whole.

Now, you may consider this argument a non-issue, depending on your view of the potential harm inherent in Paganism.  If there’s no harm in any kind of Paganism (or religion generally, for that matter), then this implies no harm in our kind.

But suppose there is potential harm.  This is not as controversial as it sounds: most things with potential for good also have potential for harm, depending on how they’re used.  For example, imagine if Paganism, by spreading ideas about gods and magic that are radically contrary to current scientific evidence, were to contribute to a mass movement to reform education, much as Creationism is currently attempting to do.  For those who think Paganism is or could be harmful in some way, wouldn’t we be causing harm by promoting it?

3.  We are a gateway to nonreligion

What if religionists who embrace naturalism are really just on their way out of religion altogether?

Philosopher Loyal Rue makes a similar point in his book Religion Is Not About God.  After elaborating the role of a religion’s root metaphor in motivating behavior, Rue writes:

Any substantial increase in nonrealism regarding the root metaphor constitutes the ultimate warning signal for a mythic tradition and its interpreters.  (Rue, 2005)

In other words, if Pagans come to doubt the reality of the gods as persons or magic as efficacious, they are not long for that religion.  It would appear naturalistic forms of Paganism, which see gods and magic as symbolic and not literally real, lead away from the religion.

Of course, this argument might be another non-issue if you don’t think nonreligion is harmful.  Some might.  Personally, I would at least feel disingenuous if all I’m really doing is enticing people away from religion.

4.  Since naturalistic spirituality is radically counterintuitive, it tends to be transformed as it spreads, and ends up as non-naturalism or simple atheism more often than not

When I say radically counterintuitive, I mean it in the special sense used by Cognitive Scientists: profoundly contrary to the mind’s innate categories for thinking about the world.

Much research has shown that our minds are not blank slates; we’re born already equipped with a first draft for thinking.  We gradually revise that first draft by learning, but the original intuitive categories never cease exerting influence.  This leads to interesting results as ideas spread through the population.

When an idea is only modestly counterintuitive, violating innate categories in only one or two ways, it becomes highly memorable and transmissable.  An example is the deity Zeus – he is invisible and superhumanly powerful, but otherwise thinks and behaves pretty much like a normal person.  This makes him highly memorable while still being easy to understand.  Superhuman agents spread easily through a population.

By contrast, a radically counterintuitive idea doesn’t just violate innate categories in one or two ways, it completely redefines them.  Quantum physics is a good example.  Others include calculus, science, theology, and – you guessed it – naturalistic spirituality.  Radically counterintuitive ideas are difficult to remember and difficult to transmit, because it’s tough to wrap your mind around them.

When a person encounters such an idea, the mind tends to transform it into a less counterintuitive form.  After passing through a few minds this way, you tend to end up with something quite different.  There’s a reason why popular conceptions of science don’t match up very well with real science, despite large and well-funded institutions pounding away at wrong conceptions.

In the case of naturalistic spirituality, we don’t have any such institutions to fight the uphill battle against misunderstanding.  For every dedicated naturalist who puts in the arduous effort necessary to understand, there may well be ten more who misunderstand and drown out the voices of the dedicated few.  Speaking of gods in any form, regardless of our intended symbolic meanings, may end up spreading more non-naturalism in society than naturalism.  Or it may spread simple atheism, meaning atheism without any spiritual or religious content whatsoever, because that’s what many boil it down to.  Perhaps that’s why naturalistic forms of religion, all throughout history, have never comprised more than a small minority within a larger, quite different tradition.

So, in the end, it could be that promoting Naturalistic Paganism really promotes non-naturalistic religion or simple atheism more than anything else.  Again, this may not constitute harm in your view, but it should at least give reason to question the viability of what we’re doing.

So, is there potential for harm?

In the end, any potential harm must be weighed against the potential good.  My next post will consider arguments for the good done by naturalistic spirituality.  For now, though, let’s just concentrate on whether there is harm.

What do you think?  Is there some truth in these arguments?  Are there other cogent arguments for harm?

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51 Comments on “Is Naturalistic Paganism harmful to society?

  1. I believe that “promoting” isn’t the right word. Blogs of this kind aren’t something that is forced on the population. Only people that already want to know something about the subject will google it and come across websites, blogs and forums which are dedicated to it. I don’t see Pagans walking around and knocking on people’s doors preaching about “the right path”. I think that this promoting argument is completely invalid just because promotion in the pagan society only exists in itself and not outwards.

    As for ritual and myth being too timeconsuming. Well…if rituals are too time-consuming then why not just ban any kind of preaching, mass or ritual event (including Christian masses!). Myths aren’t time-consuming at all. People will read myths on their own time. It’s like saying that reading fairy tales or novels or other kinds of story-based literature is harmful.

    Also, I would appreciate if you could elaborate a bit on your fourth point. I got lost while reading it and am not quite sure what you wanted to say. Thanks! 😀

    All in all, nice post 😀

    • >I believe that “promoting” isn’t the right word. Blogs of this kind aren’t something that is forced on the population.

      Promotion doesn’t force anything on anybody, it just gives it a fighting chance in the idea market. We do actively try to raise awareness of Naturalistic Paganism and help it flourish. We promote it.

      >Also, I would appreciate if you could elaborate a bit on your fourth point.

      That’s the hardest one because it’s the least well-known in the popular sphere. It boils down to this: aspects of how our minds work may cause the message of Naturalistic Paganism to be so commonly misunderstood that we end up spreading something other than Naturalistic Paganism. Is that clearer?

      For a deeper understanding, follow the many links in that section, which will connect you with the research being done in the field.

  2. Interestingly, “harm” is relative. However, when you refer to harm within the context of “society”, then it becomes clear: humanistic paganism most certainly causes harm.

    Controversial movies also cause harm to society. And people with funky hair.

    Many moons ago, it was considered immoral for a man to wear a beard. Joseph Palmer wore one, regardless. According to many authority figures, at the time, he was harmful to society. His majestic beard didn’t literally hurt anyone… but, it did shake up the social fabric to the point that people were deeply troubled. The reality is that nearly every instance of societal harm can be associated with resistance to change. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Palmer_%28communard%29)

    So, because humanistic paganism encourages exploration of thought and seeks new perspectives, it is quite harmful to society. Good. One of the reasons that America is so incredibly dynamic and diverse is because there are so many “harmful” elements within it.

  3. I’ve long struggled with my logical, science believing self, and my interest and enjoyment of the various Pagan pathways. When I began down the Pagan road, I had no intention of becoming a witch. But as I expanded my exploration, I had so much contact with Wiccans, and they were a positive and happy bunch. I might say that this was in 2003, and I believe there was a different feel to Wicca than there is now. So for 7-8 years I happily traversed the Wiccan path.

    However, a few years ago, I began reading a lot of Sagan, Hawking, Dawkins, and doubt began creeping in. The logical part of my brain questioned the actual existence of gods, and the validity of magic. This mental tug-of-war led to some depression, which might fall into the mental illness aspect of your presentation.

    I struggled with this for some time. Eventually I found your blog, and read how others combined Paganism and some form of Humanism. I felt better, since I realized I was not alone in my back and forth.

    Eventually, I came to the Jungian conclusion that deities are archetypes, and that magic simply adjusted my mind to achieve what I desired. However, I must admit to more than a sliver of belief that magic may put some kind of dent in the universal order, and work on some degree of supernatural or energy plane.

    I made the decision that this was my form of Wicca. Now would Janet Farrar or Raymond Buckland agree with me? No. But none of us truly know anything for sure in the spiritual realm, so why would my approach be any less valid?

    I find your approach to spirituality just as valid as any other’s, and probably more comforting to a great many people than you can even imagine.

    Cheers.

  4. I’ve been worrying about argument four. Coincidentally, in just the last couple of days, I came across this first hand account of a mob being conned by a healer into exiling an accused practitioner of black magic from his home village and this video (warning: human deaths) of another mob beating and burning alive several suspected witches. It strikes me that what allowed these incidents to happen is how deeply these people believe in the reality of and fear magic.

    I am quite ambivalent about magic. On the one hand, it fascinates me. I am actually trying out ceremonial magic. I hope that it is possible to create an honest, naturalistic form of magic that plays nice with my skepticism. On the other hand, I worry that if I promote naturalistic magic, the message will get garbled and distorted by human irrationality, and I will end up promoting superstition, injustice, and violence like what I found in those incidents above.

    Maybe magic is just too dangerous an idea. Maybe it’s better to spend my time promoting critical thinking, skepticism, and science literacy than flirting with redeeming religion and magic from supernaturalism.

    I have been pondering posting to the naturalistic paganism mailing list about this, but then this came along. 🙂 I honestly don’t know what to think.

    • Jonathan, that’s the one that gives me the most pause as well.

      I know from personal experience, as well as the testimony of many others, that a person can have a legitimate and fulfilling personal practice of ceremonial magic or any other kind of Pagan-ish stuff that is totally naturalistic. I completely support everyone’s freedom to explore this and make of it what they will. When it comes to being an influence in society, however, that’s when I think it’s legitimate to bring up ethical questions.

      Human irrationality (I don’t like that word, actually, and would rather speak of human susceptibility to error) is prevalent everywhere, even in the sciences, by sheer virtue of how our brains are built. Some ideas are particularly tenacious, due to how well they appeal to the way our brains are built. Superhuman agents (i.e. deities, spirits, etc.) and magic are two particularly tenacious ideas. That might make them “just too dangerous.” I haven’t decided about that yet, either. That’s why I’m hoping for good comments on that topic here. 🙂

      Drew Jacob and I just completed a long discussion about this in the comments to his post “Magical Services: Taking Money Out of the Equation.” The comments started to get heated toward the end, and in my opinion went over the top. Still, Drew brought up many good points and it’s worth the read. 🙂

  5. I agree we will be misunderstood and people will naturally drift toward the more simple categories of atheism or theism, but I don’t see this as an argument against promoting a great idea. I see it as an argument to promote it harder or better.

    A lot of great religious ideas have been counter-intuitive: “God made Flesh”, “That art thou” (Brahman-Atman), “Thou art God/dess”, “The Way that can be spoken is not the Way”, etc. I think that is what makes them great.

    • >A lot of great religious ideas have been counter-intuitive: “God made Flesh”, “That art thou” (Brahman-Atman), “Thou art God/dess”, “The Way that can be spoken is not the Way”, etc.

      Absolutely right, but notice that those are theologies. Theologies tend to be radically counterintuitive, just like science or naturalistic spirituality. Anthropological studies of religious behavior “on the ground” often show that followers’ behavior doesn’t necessarily reflect their theological doctrines all that well, even if they can parrot that doctrine back to you in detail (researchers call this “theological incorrectness”). What tends to obtain is a more modestly counterintuitive version that violates intuitive categories only slightly.

      >I don’t see this as an argument against promoting a great idea. I see it as an argument to promote it harder or better.

      It can be done. The religions mentioned above as well as science have managed it by organizing large institutional structures and educational programs to support them. Can we achieve such a thing? It’s a daunting thought.

      • “Can we achieve such a thing?”

        I think so, especially if we see HP/NP as part of a larger movement of spiritual/religious naturalists.

  6. Spirituality, and the philosophy on which it is based, is not a ‘pastime’, ‘hobby’, ‘entertainment’, or simple self-help. It is the most serious of things – the ‘root operating system’ of an individual and the society of those individuals. The consequences of philosophy-gone-wrong are unhappiness, suffering, and tragedy – perhaps immense. Therefore, such an endeavor *always* invites the possibility of harm. This is why we must proceed with utmost caution, humility, and with a vigorous inoculation against the worst dangers: dogmatism, intolerance, hatred, close-mindedness, and lack of compassion and loving-kindness for *all* beings, without exception.

  7. The point about naturalistic religion possibly leading to supernaturalistic religion, or to non-religion. Yes, it can lead either to or from many places: it’s like a cross-roads. That may make it both a danger and a blessing.

    Religious narratives and ceremonies, i.e. myths and rituals, can indeed divert energy away from other activities. On the other hand, they can also motivate and energize other activities.

    And that may be a danger too, depending on what sort of other activities they are energizing or motivating.

    I agree very much with your statement “most things with potential for good also have potential for harm, depending on how they’re used.”

  8. This is a great question which we should continually revisit. My answer, not intended to be flip or glib, is that while Naturalistic Paganism might prove harmful in a number of ways, the alternative (doing nothing, presumably not engaging in religious practice at all, or keeping our practice secret) is even more harmful.

      • It’s simple, I think. You’ve highlighted the worry about HP et al transforming into simple atheism or non-naturalistic religion, because those views are more intuitive. This is a valid concern. But if it weren’t for HP (or, more generally, if it weren’t for religious naturalism) then simple atheism and non-naturalistic religion would simply continue to dominate as they do.

        Let’s call simple atheism A and non-naturalistic religion B. And for consistency we’ll call religious naturalism C. Furthermore, let’s assert that everyone has to be in once of these categories (A, B, C) with no other options available.

        For the purposes of argument, let’s just assume that both A and B are indeed harmful. C attempts to provide an alternative which we’ll assume is not harmful in any way, except there’s a tendency for practitioners to slide (back) into A or B. But so long as even a handful of practitioners remain true to the non-harmful C, overall harm is reduced.

        If C didn’t exist, all of humanity would be A or B, which as assumed are harmful. Therefore even if C does end up unintentionally promoting A and B a lot, it’s clearly better for C to exist.

        Am I making sense, or have I lost my mind?

  9. Editor B wrote:
    >Am I making sense, or have I lost my mind?

    That makes a whole lot of sense.

    The only question remaining in my mind is, is there a better C?

  10. Has anyone here besides me read Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha? There is an image in the book that seems relevant — a river with a ferry crossing, that functions as a boundary between the land of spiritual seekers, and the land of worldly people such as merchants. Some take the ferry to give up spiritual search and embrace worldliness, other take the ferry the other way: from worldliness to spirituality. Only very rarely does someone see that the river itself, with its ferry and its ferry-man, is a third option, a C.

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  12. Let me re-frame the issue in terms of the dilemma I’m personally struggling with right now. You guys have given great ideas so far, and I’d be grateful to get your input.

    As I think I’ve mentioned before elsewhere, most naturalistic religious traditions throughout history have survived only by dependence on a much larger and less counterintuitive tradition from which they draw support and membership. For example, monastic Buddhism has popular lay Buddhism, Greek philosophy had popular Greek religion, philosophical Daoism has popular Daoism, and naturalistic forms of Christianity have the other supernaturalistic forms. Similarly, modern science, perhaps one of the most counterintuitive of all, has the entire edifice of Western education mostly (though not completely) supporting it, and would likely disappear without it. I’m not sure what larger movement could be analogous for Naturalistic Paganism, apart from non-naturalistic Paganism. John’s comment about “if we see HP/NP as part of a larger movement of spiritual/religious naturalists” might indicate SN/RN could play the part, but I’m not sure SN/RN is any less counterintuitive.

    Now here’s my dilemma: I must admit it makes me feel uneasy to depend on large numbers of Pagans holding ideas I don’t prefer to spread so that I can have my small community of Naturalistic Pagans. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t condemn them or anything, but naturally if I don’t personally think their ideas are true I don’t want to contribute to the spread of those ideas. Now, I know non-naturalistic Pagans will exist with or without me, and more power to them, but it feels like a cop-out to use that as an excuse for my role in spreading their non-naturalistic ideas. By spreading myths and rituals and what not, I contribute to the spread of non-naturalistic Paganism, because (in my estimation) my highly counterintuitive naturalistic forms are likely to be gradually transformed into less counterintuitive non-naturalistic ones that spread faster and eventually outweigh the original forms.

    Editor B gave a logical argument with his A-B-C example, but it still leaves me uneasy. As I understand the argument, even if my work supports ideas I don’t prefer to spread (A and B), it will be good in the end if it supports even a little of what I do want to spread (C). However, do the ends really justify the means?

    • Whatever ideas and practices you offer people, they will take what makes sense to them and set aside the rest. That’s human nature, surely.

      Should Hermann Hesse’s ferry-man have felt uneasy about helping people get to places which the ferry-man himself thinks aren’t the best places?

    • These are very valid concerns BT. This is not too dissimilar from my experiences in Humanism. There is a part of Humanism that is all about humanity, equality, compassion, the principles, etc, and I think certain spiritual practices can help people be more humanistic. But there is also a part of the movement (the loudest/most known part) which is all about criticizing others’ beliefs and political action, getting God off the money, etc. While I think some of these are valid (everyone’s rights are important for example), much of what Humanism is known for is not what is relevant to me. Though, when I read the Humanist manifesto, I agree with all its points so I am indeed a Humanist.

      In another example, I can only imagine what naturalist Christians like Michael Dowd must think regarding Christian fundamentalists (not to say that supernaturalist Pagans are as disreputable lol).

      Your concerns were part of the very reason behind why I think a community of Spiritual Naturalists is so important. When we all agree on the One-ness and beauty of the natural universe, and cultivating qualities in ourselves that make for a happier life in that universe, then the differences between the Pagan, Christian, Humanist, Buddhist, and other paths becomes a matter of joyful diversity and a bounty of wisdom from which to share and draw. These differences do not seem nearly as significant as those we all have with the literalist/fundamentalist/supernaturalist ends of the spectrum in each of our traditions.

      I have continuously been told “you’re not really spiritual” and I’m sure each of you have been told “you’re not really pagan”. I’m sure Michael Dowd has been told he’s not “really” Christian many times. But we are all spiritual naturalists and all of these traditions will always be welcome in that community. I think the best we can do is hope to bring a little evolution to each of our respective traditions, and in so doing, help the world become a better place – as a part of our personal practice.

  13. A couple or three things.

    First, unless there’s some other options besides A, B, C, this is what I believe is called a zero-sum game. Promoting C cannot increase the numbers in A or B, though it might shuffle them about. Any increase in C, however small, must represent a decrease in A or B. Putting it back into plain English, religious naturalism cannot create more simple atheists or non-naturalistic religious types. It can, in fact, only lessen their numbers.

    Second, I don’t see religious naturalists as depending on the existence of non-naturalistic types for our existence. It could well be the other way around. Buddha might have been a naturalist, for example. Perhaps the non-naturalistic varieties of Buddhism resulted from the sort of transformation you describe. Pursuing that line of reasoning, would the world really be a better place if the Buddha had never taught? I don’t think so.

    Finally, as an atheist and a humanist, when I first started learning about contemporary Paganism, I wondered if there was a naturalistic pathway into these practices. At first I thought I would have to blaze my own trail. That had a certain appeal, but it was extremely encouraging and nurturing to realize there were plenty of like-minded folk out there. This bolstered my resolve, and I’ve felt much more confident in my own walk because of the presence of voices such as are featured here on HP. Your advocacy has helped me. Without it I might have lapsed back into simple atheism. This is a clear case of harm reduction in my view. So, thanks — and keep up the good work.

    • For what it’s worth, if promoting an unstable position (unstable in the sense of counter-intuitive and unlikely to last in human culture over time) like naturalistic religion causes people to move from one of the more stable positions (i.e. irreligion and supernatural religion) to the other, then I would prefer for them to end up in irreligion. That being the case, should I instead focus my efforts on promoting that stable position to be on the safe side?

      • That’s an excellent question. My little reduction makes it sound as if A and B are equal, but what if they’re not?

      • Is irreligion really preferable to supernaturalist religion?

        It is easy to think of examples of harm to society caused by some forms of religion, for instance the killing or banishment of alleged black magicians. On the other hand, perhaps we should consider how much violence is done by people who don’t have a religious community or a sense of that life and nature really mean anything?

        I’m think now of violence associated with drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual jealousy, street crime. I’m not saying that religion can always prevent people from falling into these forms of violent behavior. But doesn’t it at least give them something different to aim for?

      • Strange. For me, mere irreligion is rather unstable. Unstable because it doesn’t address deep human needs. Supernaturalism is similarly unstable because it is deeply at odds with reason and obvious logic. A naturalistic spirituality, to my mind, is therefore the most stable; meeting both human needs and reasonable consistency at once.

        Even when we consider the mass numbers of people over large amounts of time, the instability is more apparent when we consider the poor consequences dogmatism has had on humanity, and the tumultuous upheavals to society in the face of conflicts with science, seem to show a history of moving from one instability to the other.

        For these reasons, I suspect that naturalistic spirituality is not merely a hopeful ideal only to be forever on the margins, but that it is poised to grow significantly in the coming century, and a significant niche already lies waiting to be filled.

    • Editor B wrote:
      >First, unless there’s some other options besides A, B, C, this is what I believe is called a zero-sum game. Promoting C cannot increase the numbers in A or B, though it might shuffle them about. Any increase in C, however small, must represent a decrease in A or B. Putting it back into plain English, religious naturalism cannot create more simple atheists or non-naturalistic religious types. It can, in fact, only lessen their numbers.

      B, I’ve been trying for days to shoot holes in this argument, and I haven’t been able to. I think you’re right: Cs can’t create more As or Bs. I’ve been focused on my personal role in spreading ideas I don’t believe in, while ignoring the fact that people already believe what I don’t believe in.

      The only addition I’m able to make is that Cs can get better at making more lasting Cs. If the rate at which Cs turn into As or Bs is currently one a day, can a change in the content of C ideas reduce that rate to one every two days, or one a week?

      Applied to Naturalistic Paganism, could our ideas be made more durable if we just ceased talk of superhuman agents, even in the symbolic sense? Or would that drain NP of its appeal, resulting in a net loss rather than a net gain? I think these are questions worth pursuing.

      • I think you’re butting up against that old unresolved question of what you want HP to be: an umbrella for a diverse array of approaches or a specific path. At least I think that’s never been resolved. Anyhow, if you’re wanting to delineate a path, then by all means, cease talk of supernatural agents and see how that works. On the other hand if you’re wanting to address the big forum of all naturalistic Pagans then it’s a much harder sell. A great discussion point, for sure. In my personal practice the symbolic language of Gaia has a certain poetry which I find highly desirable. But I do think you can construct a “Paganism Without the Gods” which would be recognizable as a distinctly Pagan form of religious naturalism. After all, as we know, religion is not about gods.

  14. DT Strain wrote:
    >Strange. For me, mere irreligion is rather unstable. Unstable because it doesn’t address deep human needs. Supernaturalism is similarly unstable because it is deeply at odds with reason and obvious logic.

    Those might seem unstable if we assume people are “rational actors.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be true of us. Most of the time we think in ways that evolved because they were pragmatic toward survival and reproduction in our evolutionary environment, not because they served to track reality or provide personal fulfillment (though the former overlaps with the latter much of the time, thankfully). Due to these factors of human cognition, the stable position may not be the one you might expect.

    • >For me, mere irreligion is rather unstable. Unstable because it doesn’t address deep human needs.

      This is my gut reaction too. But then I see interviews of people in Norway and other Northern European countries who are largely irreligious and seem well adjusted and happy. It seems very strange to me, but it does make me wonder.

  15. Very interesting discussion. BT you raise some difficult questions. There is a sense of fatalism in your comments. I wonder what you mean here by religious naturalism. What is it that is so hard to achieve and sustain?

    The religious instinct is strong in humans. It is clear that religious beliefs and practices have changed and evolved over the course of human history. When the human world changes, due to changes in the environment, technology, culture etc, the old religious groundings (the metaphysical beliefs that support religion) can become unstable and unsatisfying and humans then find new way explain and express these same religious instincts. I believe we are in such a transitional time. I am not discouraged that religious naturalism hasn’t been more prevalent in history. None of our ancestors had the depth of knowledge we do about our relationship with Nature. We live in a new environment, and I think this environment is ripe for religious naturalism.

    I think naturalistic paganism can satisfy our ancient instincts for religion. Religious naturalism grounded in the shared experience of Nature and the story of the Universe as revealed by science can provide the sense of meaning, purpose and comfort in dark times. It can provide the beliefs and practices upon which people can bind themselves into relationship with each other and their environment. But in doing so will Nature become something more than natural, more than physical? Well that all depends on how one defines natural. To me the Universe is more like a living organism than a machine. My religious practices increase my sense of emotional connectedness. I believe I am in relationship with something greater than myself, something which transcends my own ego. I have no doubt that some atheists would accuse me of magical thinking and a kind of soft supernaturalism. So be it.

    • M. Jay wrote:
      >There is a sense of fatalism in your comments.

      Not fatalism, just facing facts, and asking how we can do better in light of them.

      >I wonder what you mean here by religious naturalism. What is it that is so hard to achieve and sustain?

      RN is a hard one to define, because it’s so broad, and there is probably great variety depending on the person. Some may combine naturalism with one quality of religion, others with another. Regardless, it seems to me like most of the time Religious Naturalisms tend to be highly counterintuitive. I don’t mean simply contrary to cultural expectations, but actually contrary to our brain’s innate genetic categories of thought. Being modestly counterintuitive is good, which is why deities are so memorable and easy to transmit to others. But being radically counterintuitive is bad – it’s so hard to wrap your mind around it that it becomes difficult to remember and difficult to transmit. That’s why calculus and evolution are hard sells, and take enormous educational efforts to spread through the population.

      I think you’re last paragraph, which is a beautiful personal credo by the way, can serve as an illustration. You speak of “emotional connectedness” and “relationship” with the universe, which are things normally reserved for human social relationships. There’s a counterintuitive transfer there from the domain of intuitive human sociality to the domain of intuitive physics. A universe comprised largely of inanimate objects becomes capable of an emotional relationship. That’s only one violation, which is modestly counterintuitive – so far so good. Yet we RNs also place radical constraints on that violation – we say even though the universe can have a relationship, the universe has no personality, no intentional agency, and no emotion of its own to contribute to that relationship. There’s no cosmic goddess in any literal sense, i.e. no real “person” to be discovered, unless you completely redefine “person.” These constraints add enormous complexity to the violation, so that it deviates far from our innate modes of thought, making it radically counterintuitive in the end.

      I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense – it *does*, but it takes real effort and considerable background knowledge in order to understand why it makes sense. You have to radically redefine the nature of a relationship. It’s not intuitive. For those of us willing to go through the extensive effort of understanding this relationship, we find it can be profoundly sensible and rewarding. But those not willing are left scratching their heads, or misunderstanding it as something less counterintuitive.

      For any interested in reading deeper into this issue, the best book I can recommend is Robert McCauley’s “Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not.”

      >When the human world changes… humans then find new way explain and express these same religious instincts. I believe we are in such a transitional time.

      That’s exactly what people were saying 300 years ago in the age of the Enlightenment. They thought science would lead and religion would wither away, but it hasn’t. Religion – and here I’m talking about the traditional non-naturalistic kind – is as strong as ever. We are seeing increasing secularity, especially in Europe and East Asia, but evidence seems to suggest it may be due more to the effects of economic prosperity than fundamental changes in thought patterns. Despite low affiliation with organized religions, Europe is a hotbed for astrology and horoscopes and the like. These sorts of facts, combined with discoveries in cognitive science, lead me to believe that non-naturalistic religion is due more to innate human nature than environmental or cultural conditions (though the latter two are quite significant). Acknowledging this, I’m interested in how we can help Religious Naturalism, and Naturalistic Paganism in particular, thrive best given the kinds of brains we have.

  16. Editor B wrote:
    >I think you’re butting up against that old unresolved question of what you want HP to be: an umbrella for a diverse array of approaches or a specific path.

    At this point, I’m more asking for my own sake than for HP. I think HP has become, and should remain, the more umbrella-type thing. We can ask about possible directions without invoking superhuman agents, but it would not want it to ever be a requirement or something like that. I’m more interested in possibly pursuing that direction for my own path.

    >But I do think you can construct a “Paganism Without the Gods” which would be recognizable as a distinctly Pagan form of religious naturalism.

    Would it be Pagan or more post-Pagan, I wonder?

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  18. I just started Robert McCauley’s book “Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not”. I’m looking forward to learning more about the concept of counterintuition, which I find rather baffling. It is hard to fathom why RN is so highly counterintuitive and other religions, like Christianity, aren’t. I know here we are not talking about theology, but the underlying hidden mental processes of the subconscious. I wonder how McCauley teases out theology from religion. After all conscious thought and subconscious processing are not isolated systems, but are deeply intertwined and mutually influential. If religions like Christianity can have highly counterintuitive theologies (i.e. hard to comprehend), but still be considered only slightly counterintuitive (and therefore psychologically fit for reproduction), then might not this also hold true for NP? I’m very skeptical about the whole idea of NP being highly counterintuitive and therefore being well less viable than other religions. But maybe I will see things differently after learning a little more about McCauley’s rather counterintuitive hypothesis.

    • Cool. McCauley lays it out quite well. 🙂

      To jump the gun a bit, you put your finger right on the paradox: Christian theology is in fact highly counterintuitive. God is three persons that are somehow one, can be in all places at once, knows everything, is all powerful, is highly abstract and beyond description yet can also somehow love you, is completely “other” yet can become human (via Christ), and so on. But researchers have found that most people only think in such theological terms when given time to reflect. When under time constraints, cognitive load, or just not taking the time to reflect, they tend to revert to a “theologically incorrect” way of thinking about God that is only minimally counterintuitive: a bearded guy in the sky that is invisible but otherwise pretty much like a human. Despite the picture created by official doctrine, and despite what individuals may profess to believe, that’s what tends to predominate in actual instances of religious behavior. So, that’s why some might say Christianity is only minimally counterintuitive, even though its theology obviously is not.

      I find the same experience to be true when I talk to Pagan deities. Despite having written pages and pages on my naturalistic conceptions of Isis, when I kneel and “talk to her”, I find myself automatically slipping into a pattern where she is pretty much like an invisible human confidant. I even find myself asking for blessings I know she can’t provide, like protection for my wife while she’s driving, even though at other times I’ve told myself I shouldn’t ask for things like that because it’s impossible to happen via my own two hands. It just feels so natural in the moment. That, I suspect, is the influence of my intuitive cognition treating her like a minimally counterintuitive agent.

      Anyway, happy reading. 🙂

      • I think I understand what you are saying here – that regardless of humanities various often divergent theologies, our inner human nature leads us to have a similar form of religiosity, to form a human style relationship with “other”, one that is personal, relational and to some extent reciprocal. I do feel this happening in my own practice.

        This year I am taking Glenys Livingston’s on-line PaGaian Cosmology course and doing the rituals with a small group. I find PaGaian Cosmology to be a very emotionally evocative tradition, rooted in naturalism, in scientific cosmology, but very much about deepening the sense of emotional connectedness and relationship with Nature, with Gaia. It is naturalism plus something more than naturalism. I don’t experience this something more as a connection with an external person, but more of a Star War’s like Force. I find this path deeply satisfying and healing, but I do wonder if I am on a path that will lead away from naturalism.

        On the other end of RN the spectrum are groups like the World Pantheists Movement, which I was a member of for several years. The WPM is very rigorous in maintaining scientific orthodoxy and in its disapproval/discouragement of religious devotional practices and any kind of nature personification. I personally find WPM’s style of religion to be indistinguishable from atheism. It’s more of an alternative to religion than a religion. So really there may be something to your hypothesis that RN will lead to non naturalistic religion (or at least not fully naturalistic) and atheism. It is interesting that although of course WPM fully accepts scientific cosmology, there is very little discussion of it as a new “creation story” or grounding myth in the style of Brian Swimme or Michael Dowd.

        • >I think I understand what you are saying here – that regardless of humanities various often divergent theologies, our inner human nature leads us to have a similar form of religiosity, to form a human style relationship with “other”, one that is personal, relational and to some extent reciprocal

          Yes!

          >Glenys Livingston’s on-line PaGaian Cosmology course…

          I never got the chance to delve as deeply into PaGaian as one might like. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by “It is naturalism plus something more than naturalism”?

          >I do wonder if I am on a path that will lead away from naturalism

          In one of Glenys’ comments here at HP she said that for her, cosmic Creativity entailed that “every hair is counted”, which I took to imply some kind of cosmic consciousness. I was surprised by that, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I wondered if I had been too quick to call PaGaian naturalistic – perhaps it is better described as soft polytheism. But I decided not to pursue the question for fear of sparking an unfruitful “who’s in/who’s out” debate. I decided just to concentrate on exploring the concept of naturalism itself. In any case, whether naturalistic or not, PaGaian seems to have great potential as a wonderful spiritual path, IMO.

          >The WPM is very rigorous in maintaining scientific orthodoxy and in its disapproval/discouragement of religious devotional practices and any kind of nature personification. I personally find WPM’s style of religion to be indistinguishable from atheism.

          I found that too. It seems ironic to me that “pantheism” includes god (pan-theos “all-god”) in its very name, yet the WPM is fairly resistant to any kind god-talk, myth, or ritual (with only a few individuals comprising exceptions, like Tor Myrvang, who posts a lot about symbols). It makes me wonder, why be pantheists then?

          It’s interesting that you bring up both PaGaian and WPM in this context, as they were both eye-openers for me too.

      • A few observations to the recent comments here. That concrete example from B.T.’s personal life (about praying to Isis) is quite interesting in terms of highlighting some important questions. Getting out of the abstract and into the concrete is helpful, I think. This could be explored further, perhaps as a post on this site.

        For my part, I avoid intercessory prayer. Is that the right word? I do not ask Gaia to do anything. What prayers I say, if you can call them that, are intended to serve as reminders of our participation in Gaia. They are reminders to ourselves and expressions of gratitude. I try to keep in mind that the aspect of Gaia most likely to hear and respond to my voice is humanity.

        Glenys does seem to place some importance on the sentience of the universe, but I did not find that concept to be absolutely crucial to the path as a whole. Then again I’m not sure I ever fully understood what she mean by that. Certainly this would be another interesting topic for future exploration.

  19. B.T. Newburg wrote:
    >I never got the chance to delve as deeply into PaGaian as one might like. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by “It is naturalism plus something more than naturalism”? . . . I wondered if I had been too quick to call PaGaian naturalistic – perhaps it is better described as soft polytheism.

    I definitely wouldn’t characterize the PaGaian tradition as soft polytheism. If anything it is more pantheistic, although Glenys doesn’t like that term. It is a naturalistic tradition in that it is grounded in the science based story of the Cosmos, but unlike traditional naturalism, the Cosmos here has an inner dimension as well as an outer dimension, so in many ways it is an enlivened Cosmos. I don’t mean that the Cosmos has human self-reflecting consciousness. Each part of the Cosmos has the sensitivities appropriate to its own nature. The Cosmos, the Universe is here not a thing, but a being, a being with a nature, with a way of being, out of which arises new ways of being. PaGaian Cosmology celebrates the creative dynamics of this enlivened Nature, which we can see unfolding throughout the year and feel within ourselves, as without, so within. When we connect with the Cosmos within, we are in a way connecting with the whole.

    This way of thinking does not contradict naturalism, but it is a profound paradigm shift from atheism. I think it probably flips a switch in our intuitive mental modulars (to get back to the mechanism of cognition) that allows and stimulates feelings of relationship, religious feelings of that something more. I think this feeling of relationship to the World is something deeply natural to the human psyche. What is challenging is explaining this with the flatland language of naturalism. The job of translating this kind of intuitive “knowing” is the work of theology, which is why theology is often so paradoxical.

    • >the Cosmos here has an inner dimension as well as an outer dimension, so in many ways it is an enlivened Cosmos. I don’t mean that the Cosmos has human self-reflecting consciousness. Each part of the Cosmos has the sensitivities appropriate to its own nature. The Cosmos, the Universe is here not a thing, but a being, a being with a nature, with a way of being, out of which arises new ways of being.

      I get lost in that. I can catch the feeling of it easily enough, like grokking poetry, and on that level I find it inspiring. But as soon as I question what it’s supposed to mean on the level of facts about nature – the “flatland”? – that’s when I lose it. 😦

  20. Editor B said:
    >Glenys does seem to place some importance on the sentience of the universe, but I did not find that concept to be absolutely crucial to the path as a whole. Then again I’m not sure I ever fully understood what she mean by that…..

    I find the term sentience a tricky one too. When I think of the Universe as being sentient, the first thing I think of is what I said earlier about the different parts of the Universe having different sensitivities. The Universe (including the Earth) is in fact not inanimate and inert, but is on all levels active, in motion and reactive, responsive. The other thing that the term sentient brings to mind is the anthropic principle. It is an astonishing fact how so many characteristics of the Universe are just exactly what is needed for life to emerge, as if the “Universe in some sense must have known that we were coming“ as physicist Freeman Dyson is quoted as saying in Brian Swimme’s book “Journey of the Universe.” The question of course is is this significant and meaningful as many religious people maintain or is this insignificant and random as a lot of atheists believe. I don’t know what this all means, but I think it is meaningful. And I think naturalism needs to be broad enough to encompass both views.

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  22. Brandon, I can relate to what you said about kneeling and talking to Isis. I’ve been kneeling and talking with Kali for many years. I think of her as within me, yet beyond me as well, as the soul (or character) of the whole world, indeed the whole cosmos.
    So I can also relate to what M Jay says about connectedness with Nature, with Gaia.

    M Jay, I like your quote from Freeman Dyson: “The universe must have known we were coming.” The contrasting view, the cosmos as random, was succinctly expressed by the French biochemist Jacques Monod in his book “Chance and Necessity”: “The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”

    The term sentience, applied to nature may be philosophically tricky. On the other hand, do we really know that the universe is simply a “Monte Carlo game”? I agree with you that naturalism needs to encompass more than one conception of nature, more than one way of relating to nature.

    • Colin Robinson wrote:
      >The contrasting view, the cosmos as random, was succinctly expressed by the French biochemist Jacques Monod in his book “Chance and Necessity”: “The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”

      I wonder why folks like Monod choice to interpret the facts of our existence in this way. Is it because of Christianity? If the Universe and life is more than just a random fluke, does that give Christians a stepping stone to argue for the necessity of their God and all that follows from this? I think it probably does, but it seems to me a high price to pay for keeping Christians in line.

      I am reminded of a quote by Einstein. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

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  24. B.T. Newburg wrote:
    >I get lost in that. I can catch the feeling of it easily enough, like grokking poetry, and on that level I find it inspiring. But as soon as I question what it’s supposed to mean on the level of facts about nature – the “flatland”? – that’s when I lose it.

    It is not a question of facts, but of interpretation. Do we grant the extended world, the Universe and all its inhabitants a sense of subjectivity, a sense of inner integrity, or is this something reserved for those with a self-reflective consciousness, humans and maybe a few of our closes kin on the evolutionary tree? As science progresses in unveiling the inner workings of the mind and as engineers become more and more skilled at mimicking consciousness in robots, this question will become more and more poignant. The bottom line is that we are fundamentally of the same substance as the Universe. We grew out of the Earth and Earth grew out of the stars and stars grew out of the Big Bang. As withiout, so within.

    What does it mean to see the Universe as a subject (as having inner integrity) rather than as only an object? For me this passage from Brian Swimme’s book “Journey of the Universe” is illustrative:

    “We cannot fully explain why a proton is attracted to an electron. Saying that opposite electrical charges attract one another does not address the mystery of why this is so. Nothing outside is pushing them together. They are not being forced together by something called “electromagnetic interaction.” Rather, it is by their very nature that they are drawn to each other.” (page 13)

    Here the active principle is seen as being within electron and proton themselves, where as in conventional science the active principle is placed outside the electron and proton so that they are seen as passive and inanimate. To me this is the fundamental difference between an enlivened Cosmos and a lifeless Cosmos.

    • That makes sense to me, except perhaps for the phrase “a sense of subjectivity.” If by that you mean granting the universe an inner subjective experience, something that it would be like “form the inside”, then that sounds like an attempt at fact, not interpretation. Glenys’ comment that “every hair is counted” sounds like a similar ascription of an internal experience or even consciousness.

      • By a sense of subjectivity, I don’t mean having self-awareness, being aware of being aware. To me this all really comes down to a question of value, and self-awareness is just too limited to be the criteria for this value. To what extent do we grant (in our hearts, if not our minds) the non-human, the non-conscious a sense of self, a sense of possessing its own beingness? I think this is a very important question, and it is something that can not be answered by science.

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