Humanistic Paganism

What are our goals?

Thing on Thursday #7

The topic this week is goals for the website.  I’ve long wanted to craft a mission statement, something that sums up our aspirations and sense of direction.

I do not mean a mission for the HP way of life.  The goals of individuals are their own.  These are goals for the website.

What are we trying to accomplish by maintaining a public presence on the Internet, publishing writing, and debating the topics we do?

Please choose your top three.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

YSEE ritual

Rituals make sense for those who believe, but if you don’t take it literally, why bother?

This week we have something new: a “challenge” piece.  Jake airs many concerns common among those who question naturalistic ritual.  He says: “While it may reflect a dissenting opinion on HP, I feel it could be valuable as a point of discussion and a way for people to examine their beliefs.”

So, this is an opportunity to listen, question oneself, and develop thoughtful responses.

Remember, this is offered in the spirit of dialogue, so let’s make the most of this chance for a meaningful exchange of opinions!

– B. T. Newberg, editor

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.

I’m not a Humanist. I’m not a Pagan. I’m certainly not a synthesis of the two. I’m an atheist of no particular stripe or affiliation. I suppose you can consider this an outsider’s perspective.

There’s some mention about the role of ritual in Humanistic Paganism. I suppose that with the word Paganism in the title you’ve set yourselves up to invoke some ancient tales and mystical rites. The question to ask is this: what’s the point?

How to justify it?

Since HP isn’t meant to be a literalist movement, I’m assuming a lot of people reading and contributing don’t believe that gods or spirits actually exist. The word ‘metaphorically’ comes up a lot, but all that really means is ‘I find this to be a useful and/or clever philosophical/literary construct to get my point across, so there’. I set my hand to writing fiction occasionally, so I can appreciate a good metaphor as well as the next person. I just don’t find them particularly relevant to real life.

For those of you who believe the gods actually exist, ritual makes sense. It’s a way of bribing, blackmailing or pleading with an entity vastly more powerful than yourself, who’s just as likely to accidentally squish you as give you the time of day. You probably need all the help you can get.

However, for those of you who don’t believe the gods are actually real, how can you justify ritual? If you do a sunrise ceremony to welcome the sun, while acknowledging that the sun 1) Cannot hear you across the vacuum of interplanetary space, and 2) Is not capable of caring even if it could hear you, then what are you really doing? Well, to be frank, you’re performing a religious or spiritual rite that you don’t believe has any impact or effect on the world around you: that makes you a religious hypocrite, of one form or another. When Christians do this, we sneer and call them “Sunday Christians.”

Just because it makes you happy…

So why do the ritual, if it doesn’t have any real impact? Most people will say they feel a sense of fulfilment, wonder, comfort or satisfaction, and use this to justify the performance. So essentially, you’re doing repetitive, physically meaningless motions, while repeating certain phrases, in order to provide a sense of comfort to yourself. This sounds suspiciously like obsessive compulsive disorder, or some related medical condition, which is generally considered unhealthy. What I’m saying is, just because it makes you happy doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

The problem with ritual is that it takes up time, which has value, while producing nothing of value other than a sense of ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’. I’m not against time-wasting in general (I quite enjoyed wasting days away playing video games in my youth) but I think we have to call a spade a spade. We can’t pretend that ritual is inherently more valuable than, say, watching a movie, or going for a jog, or sitting down and reading hours and hours of webcomics (my own personal vice, alas).

A thought experiment

Here’s an example. Two people lock themselves in separate rooms for the rest of their lives. One sits down and begins a lifelong meditation ritual. The other boots up the computer for a lifetime of World of Warcraft. Eventually, as humans do, they die, leaving the inevitable stinky corpses. Out of the two, which life had more meaning? One person sat in a room thinking all day, the other spent all day pwning n00bs. Neither of them had experiences that they might otherwise have had. Neither of them accomplished anything real, since the meditator and the gamer lived and died in isolation. Neither have  spirits, so there’s no way for the one who meditated to achieve some kind of nirvana or spiritual reward, and I think that we can all agree that the gamer didn’t do anything spectacular with their life either.

In fact, one could argue that, in the absence of a soul, the gamer accomplished more, since they at least were interacting with other people through the game. For better or worse, they, however briefly, touched the life of another. The world did not even notice the death of the meditator, while perhaps the gamer’s guild still tells tales of them in some digital tavern somewhere.

Contributing to humanity

The point, then, is this: ritual may give a sense of fulfilment and happiness to people, but it’s empty. It produces nothing, and you learn next to nothing from it. It’s no better than a potent drug.

The danger in ritual is that it has a way of supplanting actual experience, because people believe it has intrinsic meaning. It’s dehumanizing, when you think about it. It creates nothing, encourages conformity and mindlessness, and makes individuality irrelevant.

If you want to spend your time doing something meaningful, go out and climb a mountain, or read a book, or chat with a friend. Go out and make something, write something or fix something. Learn! Do! Create! These are all human experiences, through which we can contribute, even in small ways, to the species as a whole.

If that’s not fulfilment, I don’t know what is.

A few ground rules for comments

Since this is the first time we’ve had a challenge piece, let’s set it up right.

  • Use “I” language, not “you” language.  Talk about what you think or feel, rather than making accusations against others.
  • Keep it civil.  Comments that stray toward rants or flames will be deleted.
  • Speak your truth.

The Author

Jake Diebolt

Jake Diebolt

Jake Diebolt works as a GIS Technician (translation: map guy) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. By night he reads, writes, and cooks (he does the best he can). He also enjoys archery, hunting and getting pushed face-first into snow banks (see photo).

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Jake Diebolt

We have something new coming up: a “challenge” piece.  Jake airs many concerns common among those who question naturalistic ritual.

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

Appearing Sunday, November 6th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

Now that we’ve explored many of the basic ideas in HP, it’s time to take a new look at the big picture.  What are we trying to accomplish here?  What should the “mission” of this web site be?

Join us for the next council on matters vital to the future of Humanistic Paganism.

The conversation continues this Thursday, November 10th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

B. T. Newberg

How do you know what you’re doing is not some shallow parody of religion?  B. T. Newberg responds to the moments of self-doubt we all experience.

Real religion? by B. T. Newberg

Appearing Sunday, November 13th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake

Encounters with the Goddess? by Thomas Schenk

Of consequence and wonder: Exploring the “why’s” of Humanistic Paganism, by C Luke Mula

What is spiritual experience like for you?

Thing on Thursday #6

This week we come to the spiritual experience itself.

“Spiritual” may not even be the best word for it necessarily, but it is that unique experience or range of experiences encountered in moments of transcendence or depth.  For some, it might be encountered in religious ritual, for others in camping overnight in the wilderness, contemplating the infinity of space, or exploring the dream world.

Attempts to describe the feeling of spiritual experience have been made by Schleiermacher and Otto, among others.  But truth be told, it is a subjective and misty topic.  It can be different for different people, and different for the same person at different times.  Yet how we choose to describe it can say a lot about our values.

This week’s question, then, is: What feelings do you associate with “spiritual” experience?

Please choose your top three.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake

Allegory of Fortune

Should we be grateful, even though our existence is but the gift of Fortuna, goddess of chance?

image: Allegory of Fortune, by Anonymous

The universe can be a scary place, as terrible as it is beautiful.  So is it right to express gratitude toward it?  Jonathan Blake challenges us to rethink how we relate to the cosmos.

Gratitude begins with the recognition that something we value or enjoy could have been different. For a practically infinite number of reasons, I might never have been born, ranging from cosmic circumstances like if the Earth had formed a little farther away from or closer to the Sun, to details like if my parents had decided “not tonight.”

Gratitude begins with the ability to imagine the world counterfactually.

Just lucky?

I can easily feel this kind of gratitude when regarding the cosmos.  I feel “lucky” that I’m alive, but is that gratitude?

When I think of gratitude, I usually think of it as something more than just feeling lucky.  I think of it as warm feelings for someone else for doing something that I value that they didn’t have to do.  They could have done something else, but they didn’t, so I feel grateful to them.

I feel like I owe them something because it is human nature to try to reciprocate good or ill that comes our way.  If nothing else, I give them my feelings of gratitude.

Gratitude toward the universe?

My life exists on a razor’s edge. As I mentioned, there are so many reasons why I might never have been born. There are almost as many reasons why I might have died since then. So I feel grateful that I exist at all, but my gratitude is not directed to the universe.

As far as I can tell, the universe is impersonal and therefore indifferent to my existence. The universe hasn’t conspired to give me life and sustain it. Life for me and my ancestors has always been a hard fight against an indifferent universe to eek out a living. If anything, I feel like I have everything I value in spite of the universe.

Yet I wouldn’t have the things I value without the universe.

However unwitting, the universe is the ground in which the beauty of my life has grown. So I feel grateful for the universe, but I don’t give any gratitude to the universe.

This is one reason that even though I can see myself as a pantheist, I don’t see in myself a perfect reflection of the devotion that theists express to their gods.

I feel more awe and fear toward my god than devotion, and yet I still feel gratitude for the cosmos.

The author

Jonathan Blake

Jonathan Blake

Jonathan Blake: Born into a Mormon family who had followed railroad work to the Mojave Desert, Jonathan Blake struggled with religious doubts from early childhood but went on to serve as a Mormon missionary in upstate New York and to marry his first love during a secret ceremony in a Mormon temple. With the birth of his two daughters and a growing sense of responsibility for their welfare, he sought greater certainty about his religious beliefs and more knowledge about Mormon history. What he learned caused his faith in Mormonism to fall away and his eyes to be opened to a world with more freedom and beauty than he had imagined. He now seeks to live according to the dictates of his own conscience and to learn as much as humanly possible about the cosmos. Still living in the Mojave, he recently completed a Master of Science degree in computer engineering and earns his living as a data warehousing professional.

This work published under a Creative Commons license

Creative Commons License Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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