– 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?
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?