– by B. T. Newberg
Today is the first day of a seven-day Humanistic Pagan retreat. Each day I’ll concentrate on describing one or two key experiences or activities. Today I’ll talk about divination and ritual.
What do I need to see to make the most of tomorrow?, I quietly asked while shuffling the deck. Then I turned over a card from the Haindl Tarot. It was the Three of Wands: Virtue.
I find that tarot cards, far from telling the future, tell about the mind. The evocative cards spur a creative process. Associations leap as the mind interprets their meaning, and what results may reveal hitherto hidden thoughts and feelings, or generate new ones. Card selection is random, and each card is rich enough to apply to nearly any situation. The game of divination is essentially an exercise in lateral thinking.
The card that came up this time was the Three of Wands: Virtue. It suggests the power of character. My mind associated it with the virtues of willpower, creativity, and integrity which will help me respond productively to this retreat. With this image swirling in my mind, I went to sleep.
I woke at dawn, leaving my fiance to sleep. Emerging from the bedroom, I went out and took in the pale blue sky from my third-story apartment window. I didn’t bother turning on the lights, but went straight to my statue of the goddess Isis.
In Egyptian myth, Isis is the archetypal mother and magician. Her husband Osiris is the murdered king and lord of the dead, and her son Horus, the young heir to the throne. She was identified with Demeter, Artemis, Io, and other goddesses of the Graeco-Roman world. I know her as the Veiled Lady from a dream-like experience in which she appeared as a woman with a white veil covering her face, glowing from within. When a wind lifted the veil, it revealed only more darkness beneath. This image fits an inscription on her temple at Sais, reported by Plutarch: “I am all that is, was, and shall be, and no mortal has yet lifted my veil.” Ever since, she has been my goddess, even as I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods. I have always been agnostic, and the dream image further confirmed me in that. After all, it suggests that the unknown is the unknown, and that is that. Try as you might to lift the veil of mystery, but all you shall find is more darkness beneath.
I knelt before the statue of Isis, knowing that she represented a part of me, my highest self, and that to kneel is not to submit but to honor that self. Ritual is connecting with deep parts of oneself or the world through dialogue with mythological forms. By communicating outwardly with the forms, one communicates inwardly with the parts of oneself that project onto those forms. I lit a candle, rang a bell three times, then chanted an Egyptian prayer of awakening I’d learned years before. I find chanting calms me, takes me outside my normal frame of reference, and puts me in touch with a voice deep inside. The Pavlovian associations built up over years of such chanting efficiently recall a contemplative state of mind. Today, it had that same effect. I found myself slipping into a calm, relaxed state of concentration in which words could flow from the heart. After chanting, I poured a libation of water into a cup before the statue. Libation is a kind of ritual, a form of offering common in Ancient Greek, Roman, and other Mediterranean cultures. It consists of the pouring out of a liquid, such as wine, honey, milk, or water, accompanied by a prayer to a deity, ancestor, or spirit. I spoke words to Isis, requesting that I might see what I need to see this week in order to overcome stress and recover my center. As I asked for wisdom and courage, I could feel the grip of stress loosening.
That morning I felt clear and open. Perhaps it was the excitement of a new experience. When my fiance came out and joined me for breakfast, I felt like I was genuinely turned toward her with both body and mind. Later I rode my bike to Minnehaha Falls, enjoying a strenuous but exhilarating ride. When I arrived, I cleaned up trash around the park for my good deed, and found a modest white stone to serve as the token I will carry for the week. It was a good start to the day. Soon, however, I grew uneasy. I had trouble feeling a connection with nature, and instead felt guilt for taking this time for myself. I’m on vacation, but somehow I still feel like I should be working. Irritation grew as the sunny weather turned gray, and the line for food at the park restaurant grew long. I came home feeling like I wasn’t really on retreat anymore. My previous habits of mind had resumed.
Last night’s tarot card had pointed at virtue. An association leaped to mind, reminding me that the quality of my retreat experience depends on my attitude, my virtues of character. Will I let myself get irritated and depressed, or will I notice these mental habits and change them for the better? This point was reinforced by the homework assigned by my therapist, a reading on self-talk and mental habits. Last night’s tarot card aligned with these very challenges of mind. It all stacked up to communicate an important lesson about attitude.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the lesson, though meaningful and true, is utterly cliche: “your experience is what you make of it.” If someone had simply told me that, I would have shrugged it off without a second thought (and probably with a cynical smirk). But instead of being told it, I experienced it. That is the value of divination, in my eyes. Through the powers of association and imagination, wisdom wells up from within. A voice speaks, and the experience is personal and meaningful. Forget fortune-telling – even if divination did have the power to tell the future, it would pale in comparison to the power of unlocking one’s inner voices.
The value of ritual is similar. Through the outward form of interacting with divine or spiritual entities, an inner voice is awakened. Perhaps the mind is hardwired to respond to ritual stimuli; a growing body of cognitive research suggests it does. In any case, it has been my experience that enacting ritual conduces to a contemplative state with therapeutic effects. Sometimes a lesson or insight is learned, other times it is simply a feeling. Either way, it is a valuable human experience.
In the end, it makes little difference whether divination tells the future or ritual contacts real-existing beings. A far more interesting question lies in the psychological effects of divination and ritual. Both offer benefits that help human beings realize their potential. By doing so, they help bring about a better, fuller human being.
– by B. T. Newberg
It is time to put words into action. I am taking the coming week, starting tomorrow, as a seven-day Humanistic Paganism retreat. This comes at a time of great stress in my life, as well as great potential. I hope to recover a sense of calm, become centered, and put into practice the principles of Humanistic Paganism. This will serve as a trial of the validity of this new path. It will also explain the path in greater detail by way of concrete example.
Each day will follow the schedule below.
Dawn (5:20 am)
wake at dawn
observe sunrise on veranda at 5:53 am
Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation
exercise and time in nature – a different park each day
one good deed each day
Exploratory, reflective, or creative free time
Wednesday morning only – therapy
Dusk (9:00 pm)
Observe sunset on veranda at 8:26 pm
social time with my fiance and/or close friends
Divination for following day
Deep relaxation meditation
You’ll notice this schedule dedicates time to socialization. Some may find this peculiar. Many spiritual retreats emphasize the aloneness of the retreatent, temporarily cutting off contact from the social world. I find solitude an important element in the retreat process, and most of my day will be spent alone. However, complete solitude may be contrary to the spirit of Humanistic Paganism, which emphasizes human needs and potential. “Man is a social animal” said Aristotle. Humanistic Paganism does not aim to isolate individuals from that inherent social need. Epicurus valued socialization so much he’d rather not eat than eat alone, and Martin Buber made dialogue the centerpiece of his existential spirituality. Humanistic Paganism does not seek a journey away from the world, but toward it. The Humanistic Pagan functions within the world, including the social world. The goal is not transcendence but resonance. Thus, this experimental retreat grounds experience in socialization each evening.
The schedule incorporates all four elements of the Humanistic Pagan path, as shown below:
In addition, I’m undertaking a number of what I will call displacements. By this I mean special practices that displace the status quo, disrupting the ordinary flow of routine in daily life. Almost all mystical and initiatory religions employ such displacements, but they are typically phrased misleadingly as moral or purificatory injunctions. These function as signals to the mind that something outside the ordinary is afoot, leading to heightened awareness and openness. The displacements I will undertake are presented below.
With any luck, this pattern of goals, scheduled activities, and displacements will produce a significant spiritual experience. I’ll be posting each day on my experiences and challenges along the way.
NOTE: This article is now outdated and no longer accurate. For an up-to-date version, see “About > What’s this?” in the menu bar above.
– B. T. Newberg, editor
Humanistic Paganism is a naturalistic* way of life rooted in nature, myth, and wonder. It accepts modern science as the best way to access knowledge about our world, and myth as a particularly useful means of enriching and deepening experience. The yield is a life filled with wonder.
Humanistic Paganism is a hybridization of Humanism and Paganism. Humanism is a life-stance which asserts the power and responsibility of humans to meet challenges without recourse to supernatural aid, while Paganism is a group of religions rooted in Pre-Christian European traditions. These two cross-fertilize to produce a powerful way of life grounded in modern science and enriched with mythic texture.
For many in the 21st century, the metaphysical claims of most major faith traditions are no longer tenable. Modern science has revealed an orderly universe that is beautiful and complete in and of itself, requiring no divine being(s) to set it in motion or maintain it. Yet the modern era has also shown us the darkest faces of man, with some of history’s bloodiest wars and most contemptible offenses against humankind. What we need now is a way of being-in-the-world that fully embraces the advances of modern science while also affirming the dire need for ethics and responsibility. Humanism is such a way.
Humanism goes beyond atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, and other similar philosophies by introducing an ethical element. Not only must we invoke no deity to solve our problems, but also we must actively acknowledge our responsibility to solve these problems. Responsibility is a necessity if we hope to prosper as individuals and as a species on this planet.
A rich tradition lies in our past. While the Pre-Christian religions of Europe have been largely dormant for many centuries, we are still rooted in a fertile field of Pagan culture, tradition, and symbolic imagery. The Pagan traditions of our past, embedded in modern Western culture through myth, metaphor, art, music, and other modes of symbolic expression, still speak to many of us in the 21st century. They form a bedrock of identity and an aquifer of emotive experience. Pagan myths and rituals offer shared forms and structures enabling the expression of certain human experiences that cannot be fully expressed in any other way. This expression is vital to human fulfillment, as vital as scientific understanding and ethical action.
Paganism is uniquely suited to fulfilling our human needs at this time in history. We have learned from centuries of tragedy the danger of promulgating singular dogmas of Truth with a capital “T”, and today’s global village demands that we learn to live peaceably with differences of culture, gender, race, politics, and so forth. The Abrahamic religions which have dominated the globe, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, focus on single Truths; meanwhile Paganism offers a vision of diversity, with multiple deities, genders, perspectives, and versions of myths. At the same time, Paganism also grants value to the natural world, which some Abrahamic religions undervalue or even devalue. For these reasons, the time is right for a resurgence of Pagan forms of being-in-the-world.
Humanism began in Pagan contexts. In Europe, Humanism flowered especially in the budding arts and philosophies of Classical Greece. It declined throughout the Christian period but enjoyed regrowth during the Renaissance, a time which also saw a renewal of Pagan imagery. Today, Humanism is once again growing at the same time that Paganism is putting out new shoots and buds. There seems to be something mutually nourishing about the two.
Humanism and Paganism are complementary. While Humanism is well-adapted to address the latest intellectual and social issues, it lacks the kind of deep symbolic texture conducive to psychological fulfillment. Paganism is positioned to fill that void, providing a field of symbolic imagery in which the modern individual can feel rooted and nourished. Meanwhile, Paganism by itself is prone to superstition and factiousness. Humanism, which embraces a vision of knowledge rooted in the five senses and verified through the scientific method, offers empirical inquiry as a means to sift the wheat from the chaff, as well as to mediate the varieties of Paganism without eradicating their differences. Together, Humanism and Paganism keep in check and mutually nourish each other. Humanism keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism enriches Humanism with deep symbolic imagery.
A life grounded in Humanistic Paganism can take a remarkable variety of forms. For some, Paganism may provide a meaningful backdrop for otherwise secular Humanist activities. Others may foreground Paganism as a primary spiritual endeavor, informed by the empirical methods of Humanism. Most will find a balance somewhere in-between. Amidst such robust diversity, what is held in common? Four elements unite Humanistic Pagans: exploration of the Five +1, relationship with mythology, responsible action, and a sense of wonder.
Exploration of the “Five +1”: five senses, plus an introspective sense
First of all, the life of Humanistic Paganism is grounded in the five empirical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These are the faculties by which we experiment with and learn about our world, and modern science is founded upon information revealed through them via empirical observation. Yet an important source of information is missing: introspection. Our minds are also aware of sensations of emotions, thoughts, and mental imagery. It is expedient, for reasons to be explained shortly, to conceive of this awareness as a semi-empirical faculty of sensation. This is not to posit a psychic, magical, revelatory, or prophetic “sixth sense”; on the contrary, the introspective sense is natural, materialistic, and thoroughly familiar to all of us. We simply don’t usually think of it as a sense. But something is gained by conceiving of it as such – namely, the power to stand back and observe the contents of our minds. We spend so much time completely identified with our thoughts and emotions that it rarely occurs to us to observe them as such. Yet doing so is a powerful means of growing in self-knowledge. It is also the method which enables exploration of traditionally theistic practices from a naturalistic point of view. Meditation, prayer, ritual, and so forth can be approached as practices with observable effects upon the mind. Introspection allows observation of these effects. Thinking of it as faculty of sensation allows one to observe mental phenomena without getting lost in them.
Of course, this process is not entirely empirical. While all perception is subject to influence by unconscious prejudices and biases, mental phenomena are particularly malleable. Furthermore, it is difficult if not impossible to subject interior sensations to peer review, which is a key element of the scientific method. For these reasons, the introspective sense is called “semi-empirical”, while “empirical” is reserved for the five external faculties of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
The sum total of senses available to are the “Five +1.” This term avoids confusion with the paranormal connotations of “sixth sense.” The Five +1 are the natural, ordinary, and familiar powers by which all human beings learn about their world and themselves.
All inferences we need make about the world and how we ought to live can be traced back to these six sources of empirical and semi-empirical data shared equally by all humans. Those things neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by reference to the five senses are simply placed in the category “unknown.” For example, metaphysical claims not subject to verification via the Five +1, such as the existence of divine beings or authority of revealed texts, are unknowns. The introspective experiences of others are also appropriately labeled unknown, even if one’s own such experiences are knowable. As a result of this method, Humanistic Paganism is equally accessible to all. There is no dependence on individuals, texts, or initiations privileged with special authority; every Humanistic Pagan can investigate truth-claims for him or herself. Furthermore, truths once found can be shared with others without special pleading; they can be demonstrated through simple empirical verification. This allows the development of a common body of knowledge and experience shared by all, accessible to all, and uniting all. Humanistic Pagans thus devote themselves to the contemplation of the Five +1 and the study of knowledge deriving from them.
Relationship with mythology
Second, the Humanistic Pagan cultivates a relationship with a mythology, a set of cultural symbols drawn from Pagan tradition. There is no need to posit the real, independent existence of deities or the historicity of mythic events; instead, these may be treated as shared cultural forms and structures uniquely capable of expressing certain facets of human experience. In this way, the individual opens to a deeper, more comprehensive field of expression than is communicable by purely rational, scientific reasoning. Relationship with a mythology may take some active attunement. This can be accomplished through researching a Pagan culture, meditating on its symbols, sharing its myths with others, and participating in rituals designed to inspire. The net effect of such effort is not only familiarity with Pagan mythology but also self-development, as the psychological nature of the work can unleash new levels of self-awareness and understanding. Humanistic Pagans thus devote themselves to mythological development. In this way, they embrace not only the science but also the art of life.
Third, Humanistic Pagans accept responsibility for their actions. Our impact on the world is more visible than ever in this age of globalization and environmental crisis. The mere act of living has consequences for society and nature, and the way we choose to live can help or hinder. Accepting responsibility involves two affirmations: first, that we cause many if not most of our problems, in whole or in part; and second, that we are capable of solving our problems. We have no need of divine or supernatural aid; the power is ours. Thus, Humanistic Pagans devote themselves to meeting the challenges of life with positive action.
A sense of wonder
Finally, the life of the Humanistic Pagan is marked by a sense of wonder. The mysteries of the natural world, from human psychology to the farthest star, never cease to fascinate. If any aspect of the path truly deserves to be called spiritual, this is it. Wonder is that feeling felt in the presence of natural beauty – beauty which is all the more astounding for having been self-created, free of purpose. Humanistic Pagans sense the sublime majesty of nature, and know that they belong to that very majesty as integral parts of the whole. Wonder is also felt upon the realization that within that whole we are free to determine our own purpose, free of any interloping deity and free of the threat of what may come after death. Wonder is what is felt when we understand that the present moment is all that is certain, all that we have, and all that we need. The thing that makes life worth living is, at bedrock, wonder. Humanistic Pagans acknowledge that, and nurture their natural sense of connection to nature through wonder.
These four characteristics unite the cornucopia of diverse lifestyles grounded in Humanistic Paganism. Through dedication to the Five +1, mythological development, responsible action, and wonder, Humanistic Pagans embrace a powerful way of being-in-the-world. They take a life-stance rooted in the best aspects of Humanism and Paganism, two traditions that together give birth to a hardy hybrid well-suited to the modern era. They walk a path that is positive, fulfilling, and ultimately life-affirming. That path celebrates human experience, diversity, and the natural world. It makes virtues of human reason, self-development, responsibility, and curiosity. It addresses the intellectual, social, and psychological needs of our time. Through it, one may live a life grounded in modern science, enriched with mythic symbolism, and inspired toward responsible action and wonder. Humanistic Paganism is a path of human fulfillment for the 21st century.
*Editor’s note: The original article read “a nontheistic way of life, but this has been changed to naturalistic. Nontheism, indicating a path in which God or gods are not the central concern, is the correct theological term, but it caused confusion. Many thought it meant a complete absence of gods and god-talk. Thus, we now speak in terms of naturalism, which indicates a methodology where all causes are sought within the natural world, not the supernatural. Gods are viewed as natural entities emerging from human psychology and culture.
 “Paganism” can also be used more broadly to mean virtually any non-Abrahamic religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, etc. While the value of these traditions is acknowledged, it becomes extremely difficult to make any valid generalizations about Paganism at such a broad level. Thus, I restrict myself to European forms. Even within Europe, there is a wide variety of different traditions that should be carefully distinguished. Mixing and matching generally produces superficial results, so the Humanistic Pagan would be well-advised to stick to a single culture with a single pantheon or mythology, such as Norse, Greek, Gaelic, Roman, etc., within any given ritual or meditation.
 Indeed, such a resurgence is already underway. For a good primer on the modern Pagan revival see Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, and for a broad account of Paganism from ancient to modern times, see Jones and Pennick’s A History of Pagan Europe.
 Non-European roots of Humanism are also acknowledged. Confucianism, for example, is a particularly venerable tradition basically Humanistic in outlook. Also, it should be noted that Classical Greek Humanism was significantly different from modern forms of Humanism, as was Renaissance Humanism. All these should be considered historical strata contributing to the overall character of modern Humanism.
 While some Pagans today do assert the real, independent existence of deities, many others do not. Both literal and metaphorical interpretations have precedents going back millennia, all the way to Classical times. Thus, Humanistic Pagans should be aware of and sensitive to those who interpret deities literally, but know that neither interpretation has any more claim to the “real” Pagan tradition.
 This is not to imply that a life without mythology is necessarily incomplete, only that a life with it opens certain doors, just as an artist’s life is certainly enriched in ways not so for those with no interest or inclination to create art. Mythology enriches the lives of those inclined to it.
ACLU – fighting to preserve freedom of thought
American Humanist Association – a national organization of Humanists
Center for Spiritual Atheism – project to unify spiritual atheists
Druidic Order of Naturalists – Celtic-inspired organization of naturalists
Naturalistic Paganism – Yahoo! Group for naturalistic pagans
Planet Humanism – blogroll of Humanist and Humanism-related blogs
Reason and Reverence, by William Murray, at UUWorld.org
Spiritual Humanism – organization promoting religion based on science and reason, with ordination available
The Humanist – a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern
Theoi Greek Mythology – comprehensive and historically accurate encyclopedia of Greek mythology
World Pantheism Movement – community of naturalistic pantheists with an active Ning.
Image Credits (in order of appearance)
Earth with Sunrise – source unknown
Hands Holding Earth
Psyche and the Sleeping Eros, Roman mosaic 3rd century AD, Antakya Museum
Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche (Campfire Graphic Novels), by Ryan Foley
“Vitruvian Man with Planet Earth” created from original and original by B. T. Newberg
“Steps at Haguro-san Jinja, Yamagata-ken” by B. T. Newberg
This article has been translated into Italian.
There is no single practice for Humanistic Pagans. The religious practices of some Humanistic Pagans may be outwardly indistinguishable from other Pagans, including prayers and offerings to “gods” and working “magic”, while other Humanistic Pagans may not use theistic symbolism in ritual. Humanistic Pagans often can easily practice alongside other kinds of Pagans. Many observe some form of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. Jon Cleland Host brings science and Paganism together in his unique family celebrations. Some Humanistic Pagans turn seemingly mundane activities – like making stock, crafting or composting – into religious practices. Other Naturalistic Pagans join Pagan organizations, like the druid fellowship ADF (Ár nDraíocht Féin) or the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), which include naturalistic and non-naturalistic Pagans. Or they create their own traditions, like Rua Lupa’s Ehoah, WhiteHorse’s Druidic Order of Naturalists, and Mark Green’s Atheopaganism (also a Facebook group). Humanistic Pagans also seek to learn about the natural world through scientific inquiry and direct experience. They also meditate and read mythology for inspiration and insight. And they work to improve both themselves and society through responsible action.
Ritual, too, is an essential part of many Humanistic Pagans’ religious practice. Through ritual, Humanistic Pagans seek to express their sense of wonder and reverence at the universe and to connect on a deeper level with that process of life. The ritual enactment of myth helps to transform our understanding of the natural world into a religious experience. Some Humanistic Pagans may invoke deities, spirits, or ancestors as part of their rituals, but these are usually understood in poetic, allegorical, or psychological terms. This is not the same thing as play-acting, though. Ritual is known to have many psychological and social benefits, which are not affected by the absence of belief in supernatural beings, including:
Ritual enables us to cultivate certain subjective states of mind which are personally healing and socially and environmentally integrative. This is especially important in our time of widespread spiritual alienation and ecological desecration. Ritual can also give rise to experiences which help motivate socially and environmentally responsible behavior.
Humanistic Pagans may be atheists, pantheists, or even animists. Not all Humanistic Pagans use theistic language, but some do. The use of “god language” by non-theists can be confusing. Some feel that we should “say what we mean” and avoid theistic language altogether. However, other Humanistic Pagans feel that to surrender all theistic language to literalist demands is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Both the heart and the head need to be satisfied. In religion, the evocative power of language is at least as important, if not more, than semantic precision. As B. T. Newberg explains:
“The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be. This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire. The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect. At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior. They radiate the power to transform.”
Some Humanistic Pagans have found that use of theistic language in a ritual context is more productive of certain kinds of religious experience than non-theistic language. For one thing, the word “god” or “gods” is embedded in a complex web of cultural associations. This is precisely why many Humanistic Pagans discard such language (especially when those associations are negative), but it is also a good reason for retaining “god language”. Such language is laden with emotional resonance (both positive and negative) and has unique potential to evoke powerful emotions of a special character. Because the word “god” lacks an objective referent, it is like a container that can be filled with many different meanings. Whatever goes in the container takes on the qualities associated with the word, including a sense of sacredness, a relationship to what is of “ultimate concern” (Tillich), and moral power.
In addition, much of “god language” is anthropomorphic. Again, this is another reason why some Naturalistic Pagans avoid it: Anthropomorphism can lead to anthropocentrism. But anthropomorphic language is useful to Naturalistic Pagans because it stimulates different parts of the brain than non-anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic language tends to activate the regions of the brain associated with sociality and relationship, in contrast to the part of the brain that processes objects and abstractions. This is why we have a different experience in response to words like “God” or “Goddess” than we do to more abstract or impersonal words like “Being” or “Nature”. We experience “Goddess” as a “Thou” rather than an “It” — to use Martin Buber’s terms — even when we are using the word to mean an impersonal Nature. As a result, we become open to a kind of relationship with nature that would have been impossible had we used more objective language, and we become more susceptible to the life-transforming religious experiences that flow from that relationship.