Starstuff, Contemplating: “The Spirituality of our Ancestors … with a Pitch” by Jon Cleland Host

We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.

Over 500 years ago, Polynesian islanders crafted the monumental figures on Easter Island as embodiments of spiritual power. What are we creating today to express our sense of the sacred?

As Samhain approaches, the lives of my Ancestors are increasingly on my mind.  Of the many ways their lives were so radically different from ours (such as the overall level of difficulty), their way of viewing spirituality/religion was very different as well.

Today, for many of us, religion/spirituality seems to be tacked onto an otherwise “normal” life.  One can see this by noticing that for millions of Americans, watching them or talking to them, even for days or weeks (especially if you don’t see them Sunday mornings) will not tell you their religion.  This is the case for most of the people I work with – I see them for hours every day, work with them, talk with them, and often have no clue as to their religion.  Religion is not part of most decision making discussions, and most aspects of our daily lives are not seen as directed by this or that supernatural entity.  Nearly all of us agree on nearly all aspects of what we think is real, despite the fact that we have very different religions.

I think that a lot of this is due to our scientific discoveries over the past 300 years, which explained and exposed the naturalistic ways our world works.  We no longer needed to use demons to explain physical (or mental) illness, a divine impetus to explain the motion of the planets, nor angels to explain a good harvest.  That’s a radical change from a time when one’s religion literally was one’s understanding of the real world.  Any real religion tries to tell us what’s real.  In the past 300 years, as more and more of reality was found to actually be very different from the way traditional religions such as Christianity literally described it, our culture has responded by separating “religion” from “what’s objectively real to everyone” – when the two used to be synonymous.

This is undoubtedly much of the reason for the plummeting of religion’s role in our society and lives.  On a societal level, because a religion was simply a description of what was real, it was silly to talk of “Separation of Church and State”.  After all, you want your government based on reality, right?  Of course you do.  So of course the government and the church were the same thing, and that’s how it’s been for nearly all of human existence.  With agreement (even if often enforced through power) on what was real, large projects based on religion were an expected result.  Imagine the work needed from thousands of people to build Stonehenge, the pyramids, or literally hundreds of other similar projects from our past.  For Stonehenge (only one of hundreds of similar monuments, some of which are/were larger), those huge stones had to be moved up and down hills and valleys for dozens of miles, shaped, and perfectly aligned.  Imagine the marshaling of a huge percentage of a society’s resources that was needed for these to succeed, at a time when there were no power sources beyond muscles, no electronics of any kind, and populations of only a tiny fraction of what they are today.   Our Ancestors must have put a good chunk of their resources into their religion – maybe 20% or more.  Now, compare what they built for religious reasons to even our grandest religious constructions, in our age of trillion dollar GDPs.  Wow, we can’t even match them.

Back then, religion was one’s reality, and it’s been around 300 years or more since those two began to separate for so many people in the west.  However, because you and I have a naturalistic worldview, the agreed upon empirical reality once again fully agrees with our religion!  I don’t know about you, but I find this to bring a life-changing honesty – an ability to greatly reduce the amount of mental compartmentalization, denial, and dissonance in my mind.  It also means that my effort to make a better world for our children, out of gratitude to my Ancestors, is my Sacred Work – something that gives my life purpose and meaning.  It’s why I take the time to write these blog posts – indeed, it directs every action I take, every day.

In fact, it’s not just the approach of Samhain that spurred the thought process above.  It was partly spurred by seeing the HP campaign for $538 to get a spot on the Wild Hunt page.  Having been involved with religion for much of my life (first as a Catholic and then, for the past ~15 years, as a Unitarian Universalist), I’m familiar with the resources put toward religion today.  Even with the massive withering of traditional religion and the de-coupling of Church and State, which cut the percentage of one’s resources given by 90% or more, it’s still a lot of money.  The American part of the Catholic Church brings in billions (with a b!) every year.  Looking at that at an individual level, it averages in the hundreds of dollars a year per Catholic family.  Similar numbers are seen for Protestants and UUs as well (See the Appendix below).

So I compare that to our total goal of $538.

Come.  On.  That’s nothing.

That’s smaller by at least 4 whole orders of magnitude than the budgets of entire dying denominations, and smaller by a full three orders of magnitude compared to many individual congregations.  Is it really the case that we, as one of the most prominent sources of Naturalistic Pagan thought, even need to think about how to come up with an amount that is less than what a few average American families donate every year to a religion that no longer matches reality?

I know, we are just starting.  I know, we are not the only naturalistic religious outlet in existence (for instance, I’ve been very happy to see the unbridled success of the Sunday Assemblies).  I know, that we are all living real lives, with real expenses.

However, I have hope that in the future, even we Atheists will realize that if we want to make the spiritual landscape more life-giving for future generations, we need to put our work, our money, and our time, where our mouth is, and start building something real.  At least, let us start with this, which is really practically nothing by comparison.  Have you pitched in yet?

Blessed be —

Jon Cleland Host

Appendix: A few estimates of religious giving

While estimates of religious giving in the distant past are hard to quantify, the many huge monuments make it clear that many cultures spent large fractions of their GDP on religion – 20%?  40%?  Even in the bronze age, writings in the Torah explicitly require 10% of individual income.  Today, while that is followed by some fundamentalist churches, most people in practice give much less.  For Catholics in the United States, a 2012 Economist1 estimate put just the budget for US RCC parishes at 11 billion, which works out to ~$150 per family2, roughly in line with ~$350 per Catholic family based on weekly donations.  For Protestants, the PCUSA budget was $80 million in 2014, working out to ~$100 per family3, and for a non-Christian data point, the UUA budget & membership gives ~$500 yearly donation from the average UU family4.   Regardless of the exact amount, these are all suggesting an average contribution in the range of hundreds of dollars a year, or, for a family making just $50,000, around 0.5%, clearly a lot less than the 10% required in some Christian churches, and less than the 1-4% suggested by the UUA5.  Nonetheless, if most of the Naturalistic/Humanistic Pagans reading this blog donated less than half that (0.2% of their income), then the $538 would be paid many times over.

  1. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/03/catholic_church_and_pope_francis_religious_institutions_are_exempted_from.html
  2. http://www.economist.com/node/21560536
  3. http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/4/25/presbyterian-mission-agency-board-approves-2014-20/
  4. http://www.uua.org/ga/virtual/2014/business/iii/296121.shtml
  5. http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/budget/151840.shtml

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

See other Starstuff, Contemplating posts.

See Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s other posts.

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