Is Naturalistic Paganism beneficial to society?

May Day: Fremont Maypole, by Elf Sternberg

Are we helping society come together?

– by B. T. Newberg

What good do we do?  Last time, we tackled the question of harm.  Now let’s consider the potential good.

We should be careful not to let this become a self-congratulatory fest.  We must be even more critical here, as it will be so easy to let personal bias slip in.

Before you read, please voice your opinion in this poll:

Why does benefit matter?

If we follow a strict non-harm clause, such as the Wiccan Rede (“Harm none, do as you will”), then benefit would seem unnecessary.  So long as we harm no one, we’re free to do as we please.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but is there really any time when we’re not doing harm to someone or something?  Having a job means someone else can’t have it; living in a home means less habitat for other wildlife.  An ethics of non-harm really means minimizing and/or balancing out the harm you inevitably do.

Incidentally, the reason why we’re asking about benefit to society is because benefit to oneself seems less a matter for public debate.  What you do for yourself is your own business; when it affects society, it’s worth discussion.

Bad arguments

There are some arguments we often give which are not so hot.  We’ll consider those first.

  • All paths are valid
  • Whatever works
  • As long as I say I don’t know whether the gods or magic are real or not, it’s okay

The most obvious problem is that none of these are arguments for benefit.  They are, if anything, defenses against charges of harm.  Nevertheless, they are often used to justify Pagan practices, and that role can easily be confused with demonstrating benefit.

The first is plain relativism, the second plain vagueness.  Though common Pagan aphorisms, they fall flat unless embedded within arguments with considerably greater nuance (see entries on each of these in our HPedia).

The third warrants a little more explanation.  Some seem to think that all it takes to be naturalistic or to resolve potential ethical issues is to say “Hey, I don’t know if gods and magic are real or not, I’m just doing what seems to work.”  Tanya Luhrmann calls this “convenient ambiguity”, and suggests it allows a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences build up that eventually persuade one of the intellectual truth of gods and magic.  Moreover, no matter what you might say as a caveat, one’s ritual words and actions serve as role model for others who may interpret them literally.  Thus, one who offers a disclaimer but does nothing else different can serve to spread ideas that even they (supposedly) don’t believe in.  So, not only does this not demonstrate benefit, but it may show potential for harm.

Good arguments?

Some arguments are much better, though none are faultless.  For each, I’m going to be throwing up counter-arguments to serve as points of discussion.

1. Psychological benefit

Most typical arguments for benefit fall into this category.  Of nineteen effects recently listed as benefits of naturalistic ritual, at least fifteen can be classed as psychological benefits to the individual, many of which also make for more responsible citizens of society.

One problem, though, is that psychological effects are often hard to confirm. If we cannot verify them, are they any better than a non-naturalist’s claim that spells can affect the weather?

Many effects are empirically-straightforward sensations, such as an enhanced feeling of gratitude, and therefore require little testing beyond trying it out yourself.  However, does a subjective sense of gratitude actually translate to more generous behavior?  That’s more difficult to say.  It’s a testable hypothesis we can pursue.

Moreover, we should be specific about exactly what kinds of benefits we expect from our practices.  Otherwise, we run the risk of emptying our claims of all meaning.  Just like an astrological sign, so infinitely interpretable as to fit nearly any situation, “psychological benefit” can become little more than a Barnum effect.

2. Social solidarity and cooperation

The remaining benefits of the nineteen listed earlier relate to prosocial values.  Religion is often credited with bonding society together, both by academics (e.g. Durkheim, Geertz, Wilson) and lay people.  Naturalistic Paganism may bring people together, and encourage values conducive to a healthy society.

There are several problems with this argument.  One problem is that it’s not unique to religion: even if does aid cooperation, it’s not the only game in town.  Secular ideas like justice and law have been found to elicit prosocial behavior as much as religious ones.  Another problem is that religion can divide as much as it unites.  Finally, even as religion encourages cooperation within groups, it tends to foster animosity between groups.

Like psychological benefits, social benefits can be difficult to test – though not impossible.  Luke Galen has surveyed studies of the prosocial effects of religion, and found encouraging results.

3. Liberalizing influence in religion

A third argument suggests that naturalistic forms of religion provide a liberalizing influence.  I don’t mean politically liberal, but liberal in terms of progressive religion.  Naturalistic forms of religion are usually progressive, and may provide a needed counterbalance to more conservative, traditional forms.

Sam Harris offers an argument to the contrary.  He thinks liberal religion provides legitimacy or justification for extremist religion.

4. A place for those with nowhere else to go

Finally, naturalistic forms of religion may offer a haven for those who feel called to spirituality but don’t believe all the hocus pocus.  In that case, it may be a social benefit just to provide a home, or better yet a way forward, for those struggling people.

If that’s true, it would have to survive Sam Harris’ critique (above) in order to show it’s a legitimate benefit and not just preying on the vulnerable.

More good than harm?

After reviewing both the arguments for harm and for good, which do you think are stronger?  Does the good outweigh the harm?

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9 Comments on “Is Naturalistic Paganism beneficial to society?

  1. I definitely think that naturalistic paganism and religious naturalism in general have the potential to be very beneficial to society. I am a religious naturalist because I just don’t find supernatural theism/spiritism believable or inspiring, but still I feel a spiritual response to being part of the Universe, a response which is deepened by the revelations from science.

    I see the story of the Universe as told by Brian Swimme and others as the central narrative of RN (http://www.storyoftheuniverse.org/). Most other religious traditions either minimize, ignore, or outright disavowal this science based story of the Universe and its significance. On the other hand RN not only embraces the facts of science but humanizes them, turns these facts into a story that we can use to orient our lives. I see naturalistic paganism is one approach to celebrating and deepening our relationship with this story and ultimately with our own nature.

    I do think NP can provide the psychological and social benefits of religion, but it will have to grow much, much larger before we can say it benefits society. I think a lot of the benefits of religion derive from its group nature, and to fully realize these benefits you need to meet some population threshold. From where we sit now that seems unlikely, but the history of the Universe is full of unlikely happenings. Who would have thought in the age of the dinosaurs that the ancestors of a small insignificant furry rodent like mammal would one day replace them, but it happened.

    B.T., I know you are here (and in the previous piece on harm) playing devil’s advocate in order to stimulate thought and discussion, after all most folks visit HP because they already like NP and think it is beneficial in one way or another. But still I am disappointed that this piece wasn’t a little more positive. I had anticipated this piece would present the positive side of the harm argument (i.e. we have talked about how NP might be harmful, now let’s talk about how it might be beneficial), but really it is a critique of arguments for benefits. Both pieces are in fact challenges to the idea that NP/RN can become a beneficial and viable religion in our society. Most of us who find our way to naturalism are here because we have to some extent a skeptical temperament, and this is one of the qualities I like about naturalism. I have certainly found these two pieces thought provoking. Thank you B.T. for all the work you do to promote and facilitate a thoughtful NP community.

    • > I had anticipated this piece would present the positive side of the harm argument (i.e. we have talked about how NP might be harmful, now let’s talk about how it might be beneficial), but really it is a critique of arguments for benefits.

      I was afraid if I just presented the positives, the comments would be nothing but nods and thumbs up. I was hoping adding potential critiques would encourage discussion. Maybe I went a little overboard. 😦

      >I do think NP can provide the psychological and social benefits of religion, but it will have to grow much, much larger before we can say it benefits society.

      The word “society” might be a little overboard too. I only wanted to move the discussion out of private, personal practice, even if we’re only talking about benefit to our little neighborhoods and circles of friends at this stage in the growth of our community.

  2. I’m charmed that you chose to use my photograph as the header of the article. But it’s a bit synchronistic that you did for this article, because I’ve been wrestling recently with a correlative question:

    Of what good is Paganism to the individual?

    Most of the successful religious traditions, those that don’t fall back into a kind of vicious debased tribalism, have at their heart daily practices that encourage one to seek excellence in one’s own character.

    Stoicism, my practice of choice, has a morning meditation (“This is my place in the universe. Fate willing, I will make progress in these works the world has brought me.”) and an evening (“Three times, this was my day. To the best of my ability, here is what I accomplished, and what I did not.”), as well as small mantras throughout the day to maintain one’s will to excellence in character. Buddhism has something similar. Even Christianity, in its relatively undebased forms, has such practices.

    Where are daily, obligate practices in Paganism that help individuals better themselves, a necessary prerequisite to bettering the world?

    • Good point. I think they abound, though they are not always quite so obvious. I know ADF Druidry has the Nine Virtues, and places considerable emphasis on putting them into practice.

    • Elf, I’d be inclined to say you’ve offered an excellent answer to your own question — if we may assume (as I do) that modern Stoicism is a form of contemporary Paganism. Those meditations you cite are quite compelling. I can only assume other specific traditions have similar practices. However, I believe most Pagans in North America today are solitary eclectics: each person on their own path. With such a highly individualized spirituality, what guarantee is their that any “daily, obligate practices” will be followed at all?

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