Canadian Atheist Interviews Jon Cleland Host, Part 1

Here is part 1 (of 2) of my interview with Scott Douglas Jacobsen of Canadian Atheist!

Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his Ph.D. 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 at evolutionarytimes.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 and posts videos on his YouTube Channel. Jon is also a regular columnist at HP. His column is called Starstuff, Contemplating.

Here we talk about his views, projects, and life, and extensively about Naturalistic Paganism and Humanistic Paganism.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You host a super-minority and intriguing view within the Humanist community, internationally. I haven’t seen much like it. So, I wanted to get the view out there, as another consideration. Often, there can be grazing the orbit of this manner of looking at the world in some popularizations of agnosticism, Humanism, and science, in à la carte manner. For example, the late Carl Sagan and Sagan’s intellectual descendant, Neil deGrasse Tyson (Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History), speak of the awe, majesty, power, and wonder of nature qua nature for them. This amounts to the sensibility without the formal personal identification and philosophical affirmation of Naturalism and Paganism, i.e., Naturalistic Paganism, where Tyson, for example, mightily identifies as an agnostic based on the not-knowing of certain things, trained as an astrophysicist, earned Humanist awards, gets coverage in the Humanist press, while never identifying as a Naturalistic Pagan or a Humanistic Pagan. Something like an Agnostic-Humanist with Pagan sensibilities. Let’s define some terms. What is paganism in this context? 

Dr. Jon Cleland Host: I’m glad that the term “Paganism” has evolved from its earlier use as a derogatory term applied by Christians to non-Christians (those out in the “country” – “paganus” in Latin) to a more accepting use now. Today, “Pagan” is an umbrella term encompassing many different spiritual paths. I think that the international Pagan Federation’s definition of “Pagan” is helpful:

“Pagan: A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion.

Source: https://www.paganfederation.org/what-is-paganism/.

This includes a huge range of Pagan paths, including the Goddess worshiping Wiccan, the Atheist who knows how she is enmeshed in our vast web of life, the Odin worshiping Asatru, the follower of Bast, and so many more. Much of the reason for our diversity of belief is our rejection of the Christian idea of eternal torture for having the wrong beliefs. Because Pagans don’t expect anyone to be tortured for having different beliefs, it’s much more common (though not universal) for Pagans of different beliefs to accept each other. Our diversity gives us strength.

What’s most important, and what unites us Pagans, is that we Pagans explicitly celebrate our world, our Universe. We openly embrace the wonder, joy and awe we feel from being connected to, indeed being part of, our natural world. We don’t need an excuse or a reason, we feel the deep power of the atoms and cycles of which connect us. There is no embarrassment, and we don’t care if society doesn’t like it. Paganism gives us permission to dance under a waterfall, to be overwhelmed by a starry sky, to be in love with our world. We proudly proclaim that this is one F**ing awesome universe, to the point of worship, and if someone thinks that we shouldn’t say that, and that we should be worshiping only their imaginary sky daddy instead, then they can go jump in a (wonderful, awesome) lake.

Jacobsen: What is Humanism in this context?

Host: Humanism is an ethical approach to life that is based on reason, naturalism and making the best of this one life we know we have, for ourselves and for everyone. Though originally focused on humanity, Humanists today include our whole Earth, our whole web of life, recognizing that we are not separate from the web of life, so we can’t have a flourishing humanity without a flourishing web of life. Humanists want to help build a just, healthy and sustainable world for everyone, and know that decisions based on reality and focused on this world are the best way to do that. I love the Humanist community. We do a lot of good. But I’ve found that Humanist based celebrations and rituals feel stilted at best. It’s really hard for us rational people to let go of the analysis and live in the moment – more on that below.

Jacobsen: What is naturalism in this context?

Host: By “Naturalism”, we are referring to philosophical naturalism – the belief that the universe is governed by natural laws, and that there aren’t any disembodied spirits, ghosts, deities, magic, or other supernatural. This is not a claim or assumption, but is rather a conclusion – the result of simply trying to be unbiased. Why do I say that?

Well, consider the opposite. Imagine that I was to say that supernatural things are real. Well, how would I support that? Perhaps by pointing to sacred scripture, such as, say, the Amitabha Sutra. But if I accept the Amitabha Sutra as describing reality, then that means that I have to reject other sacred scripture (say, the Pearl of Great Price), because they contradict each other. In fact, the same thing happens with any supernatural belief source. Oh, I talked firsthand with a person who had a personal vision of the supernatural? But then why would I accept that over another person’s personal revelation, which contradicts it?

Should I believe one over the other simply because I randomly happened to meet one person and not the other? OK, how about I apply some critical thinking to the other revelation? I would soon find that the other revelation is not supported by the evidence. So does that mean I should just believe the first person’s revelation – hook, line and sinker? Of course, that’s not being fair. And as soon as I apply the same critical testing to the revelation from the first person, I see that it also is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, realizing that people “remember” things that didn’t happen (big topic – look it up), or that humans can and do hallucinate (with or without the aid of drugs), and that literally thousands of people have described supernatural revelations, shows that even if I myself remember having a revelation, that it too might not survive a look at the evidence. If a revelation does survive a look at the evidence, then I can just go by the evidence and then I don’t need the revelation anyway. In fact, if I accept my own memory of a revelation as a way to know what’s true, then what possible basis could I have for rejecting someone’s revelation telling them to kill people in a terrorist attack?

Additional examples of supernatural beliefs are all around us – in religions and pop culture. Looking at any of them shows pretty quickly that people believe in supernatural things for often random or emotional reasons, such as which country they happened to be born in, or what their parents believed, or who one’s friends are. If we are to fairly look at beliefs, then it’s hard to avoid a conclusion of naturalism (as explained above). Perhaps the clearest evidence for this the fact that we naturalists can say to nearly everyone (to Muslims, Asatru, Christians, Hindus, etc) that “you already believe in practically everything that we believe in”. Nearly everyone already believes in things like atoms, like gravity, sound, rockets, cooking, animals, and so on. The things that everyone agrees are real are very likely real – because the overwhelming evidence is why there is nearly universal agreement on their reality. For us naturalists, those are our beliefs (more at https://humanisticpaganism.com/religious-naturalism/). For me at least, my naturalism gives me profound meaning and purpose (link https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/03/12/starstuff-contemplating-by-jon-cleland-host-a-naturalistic-credo/).

This means that naturalism is not an arbitrary choice among equals, and is certainly not dogmatically believing what one is told. The demographic patterns, the evidential justification, the robustness to testing, and so much more show that we naturalists are not picking naturalism willy-nilly from a menu of equally likely worldviews, listed after, say, “Catholicism, Zoroastrianism, …” and just before “Jainism, Crystal Healing, Judaism, etc.”. Unlike the others, naturalism is the only path which says that because our world is what is important, and because real understanding is most likely to give the best results, finding the most likely truth is more important than following tradition, obeying dogma or believing things for arbitrary reasons. Instead, naturalism means that we look at the evidence, form hypotheses, test them, revise them based on the evidence, and repeat. It means that we look at the tested and predictive consensus of the experts in areas we can’t test ourselves, and it means that all conclusions are tentative, getting us closer to the likely truth.

Because believing wrong things leads to taking wrong actions, and because taking wrong actions hurts real people (others, ourselves and/or future generations), naturalism seems to me to be the only ethical approach to knowledge. There are, of course, a wide range of consequences to different beliefs. I’m certainly not saying that all non-naturalistic belief systems are horrible. It’s quite clear that the Judaism of Anne Frank makes the world a better place compared to the religious belief system of the KKK. Also, all of us have been influenced by our life history, and I’m grateful for being brought to the point where I could choose to test my beliefs against the evidence (many people never get that opportunity). I’d like to think that believing things based only on evidence is simply a matter of self-respect and respect for everyone, but, of course, our life histories are more complicated than that.

Jacobsen: Following the last three questions, what knits these together in two sets of two as either Humanistic Paganism or Naturalistic Paganism?

Host: Naturalism brings hard-headed scrutiny of the evidence. While not always fun (like most humans, none of us enjoy the slow realization that one of our beliefs is likely wrong), it gives us the wonderful gift of being wrong a little less often. Like other forms of honesty, it is overall a small price to pay for the benefits to us and our world. Naturalism means that we are a little more likely to have the positive effect on the world we intend, and by at least trying to use critical thinking in every area of our lives, we are a little more likely to avoid the lies, and resulting harm, from a demagogue.

But there is another huge benefit – one that is perhaps a surprise to some. At least for me – and I’ve heard this from other too – naturalism brings an amazement, an awestruck wonder, to our lives. To see the marvels all around us, and especially to learn about the workings of each through the incredible wealth of information we now have though science, fills me with a joyous astonishment. It’s impossible to describe. I’ve tried to do so in a post (https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/06/11/starstuff-contemplating-by-jon-cleland-host-the-wonder-amplifier/). Simply put, learning more about the scientific details of every aspect of our Universe makes them each all the more rapturous. At first, I really wasn’t sure this would continue – but it never stops. Every year I learn more and find more incredible things, and they seem to feed on each other, maybe squaring the wonder over and over as I learn more. Even after a half-century of life, there is no end in sight. I’m especially grateful to Carl Sagan for helping open this door for me.

This joy could be trapped inside. But it’s not. Raising kids helps – kids, like Pagans, don’t need permission to revel in the joy of a waterfall, forest ridge or science experiment, and neither does their Dad! Paganism also provides a life-changing, a life-giving, outlet for this joy given by our universe. The rituals, the daily practices and especially the recognition that our real universe is deeply, powerfully sacred, are things that enrich my life.

Naturalism and Paganism are knitted together in my life with the universe supplying a deep well of inspiration, and Paganism providing the tools that help me live this inspiration, to drink it in and weave it into my life. Together, they are so much more than either could be alone.

Jacobsen: How did you enter the world as a Catholic (imposed) and come to the point of Unitarian Universalism, Humanistic Paganism, and Naturalistic Paganism?

Host: My own history starts out with the very common story of one leaving Catholicism. I was raised Catholic, and unlike some, was still solidly Catholic in my teens. But then I started to see contradictions. Logical problems, like “if God is just, why are non-Catholics sent to Hell, if they are raised in another religion?” etc. I even booked a time with a priest to discuss them. I thought that since the Catholic church had been around for well over 1,000 years, with tons of top-notch scholars, these silly questions must have been figured out many centuries ago. The priest offered trite sayings that didn’t answer the questions. It began to dawn on me that there the “answers” *didn’t exist*! Such a huge shift takes time, and it was years before I could look at things based mostly on evidence instead of how I had been taught to see things. Looking at the evidence, it became clear that the traditional religions had grown from real needs, and been invented by people, partially to gain power over others. I also realized that many religions have been, and continue to be, harmful in many ways, including fighting against women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, LGBT rights, scientific advancement, and evidence-based problem-solving. I became the stereotypical Atheist, eschewing all religious observations because they weren’t based in reality. I found this to be too empty. I’m human – I need emotional connection, colour, vibrancy. I realized that humans for well over five thousand years, and probably much more, have been finding deep significance in the yearly cycle of the Sun, and especially the sunrise moment of the Winter Solstice. So I started a simple practice – watching the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. I found that it is invigorating to be celebrating, noticing, and being deeply moved by, this one moment in time when our Ancestors stood in fear and hope, and when we, with understanding given by science, can stand in confidence that the Sun will return. These powerful moments gained strength every year, connecting me to billions of lives of people who, like me, strove to attach meaning to the best and most reliable understanding out of the world around us.

I met my wife around that time, and with that powerful connection growing every year, it was only natural for us to add the Summer Solstice. The others were added over time, until we’re celebrating the Wheel of the Year. We realized how moving, how awe-inspiring, we found this approach to be – drawing on the grand Universe as revealed to us by science, and celebrating that connection with the Wheel of the Year and other Pagan metaphors. We discussed a lot of names, and settled on Naturalistic Paganism because it both described what we were (instead of what we were not, as in the term “Atheist”), while also being clear (“naturalism” has a clear philosophical definition – “no supernatural”). That was 2003. We started a webpage (Naturalpagans.org), and a yahoo group followed (Naturalistic Paganism). Later (2011), B. T. Newberg created the Humanistic Paganism website (having arrived at the same idea independently). B.T. explains this history and the longer-term history of Naturalistic Paganism in this post. https://humanisticpaganism.com/2015/06/09/exploring-the-historical-roots-of-naturalistic-paganism-by-b-t-newberg/ I joined the team around 2015, and it has been wonderful seeing this (and other) forms of Naturalistic Paganism continue to grow (such as Atheopaganism, see below).

Throughout all of this, It’s been wonderful to connect with other Pagans in the wider Pagan community, and join in many different rituals and celebrations. It can be a tricky balance at times between my own hard-nosed naturalism/atheism and the prevalence of pseudoscience/woo in the wider Pagan community. I sometimes have to remind myself to consider if a supernatural belief is very harmful or not, but overall it’s been great to simply enjoy a ritual with others, even if we personally think of the language used differently – such as if many others see a deity as literal and I see a metaphor. After all, no one thinks anyone is going to hell for being a heretic.

(Part 1 of 2 – second half coming soon)

Original post here.

See Starstuff, Contemplating posts.

See all of Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s posts.

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