Humanistic Paganism

Retreat, day three: Meditation

Foam on the Mississippi River

When the mind is clouded, meditation helps clear away the muck.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

It’s the third day of the retreat.  In my experience, day three is the make-it-or-break-it day.  The initial high has worn off, and the challenges have begun.  Temptations to quit cloy at the mind, and your resolve is put to the test.  This was true to my experience today.  I’ll talk a little about that, and then about a very important topic: meditation.

The omen drawn last night from the Haindl Tarot was the Three of Stones: Work.  Knowing that day three often brings challenges, I thought to myself, Now the real work begins.

Meditation I: Deep Relaxation

The last activity of each evening on the retreat is deep relaxation meditation.  I use it to let go of the day and slip into a deep, restful sleep.  It is widely recommended by psychologists and spiritualists alike, and is not hard to learn.  You simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position, and bring your awareness to each part of your body, relaxing each in turn.  Listening to a guided meditation recording can be helpful.  Click the link below for an mp3 audio recording.

Click for a Guided Meditation in Deep Relaxation – mp3

(opens in Fileswap)

Deep relaxation is something I’ve been practicing since high school, yet I found it difficult during my grad program this last year.  I found myself so full of tension from study and work, that I couldn’t let it all go.  I could only attain a superficial level of relaxation.  Only now, during vacation after the end of spring term, am I finally finding myself able to go deeper.  I have yet to reach the levels I used to reach, however.

Rocky lake shore at Lake Toba, Indonesia

Deep relaxation soothes, calms, and clears away tension.

photo by B. T. Newberg, 2002

Interlude: Ritual and Cognitive Dissonance

In the morning I awoke at dawn and went to my statue of Isis.  As I poured the water libation and chanted, I could feel a reaction inside me against it.  Quickly turning my gaze inward, I saw that it manifested as a warm, unpleasant sensation in my solar plexus, and it seemed to resist the idea of performing rituals before a statue.  Intrigued, I used imagination to allow the feeling a voice, and it said in a cynical tone, Seriously?  Praying before a statue?  Have you lost it completely?  Without responding to the voice, I realized what I was experiencing was cognitive dissonance.  This is an uncomfortable feeling caused by entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time.  On the one hand, I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods.  On the other hand, I perform ritual to mythological gods for its psychological benefits.  The conflict between withholding belief and performing ritual was creating cognitive dissonance.  Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this might not be a bad thing.  Instead, I could see it as a trigger for questioning.  Why, exactly, did this part of me object?  Was it genuinely concerned with rational consistency, or was it more worried about what others would think if they saw me?  Was it concerned with my well-being, or the opinions of others?  As I contemplated these questions, the feeling dissipated rapidly.  In its wake was a sense of insight and self-knowledge.

Hailstorm sky

Conflicting beliefs create roiling tensions in the mind.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

Meditation II: Fire, Ice, and Fog

How often do we find our minds too clogged and cluttered to peer into its depths?  This has been discussed with regard to divination and ritual, two practices which can help get past that surface chatter.  The trump card, though, is meditation.  Through a combination of relaxation and concentration, meditation is able to focus the light of introspection into a laser.

But there are many different kinds of meditation, so I should be clear about what I’m talking about.  One kind, as seen above, is deep relaxation.  Another is breath meditation.  This is probably what I’ve found most useful over the eleven or so years that I’ve been meditating.  There are already lots of excellent audio-recorded training talks available online (Gil Fronsdal, Tara Brach, and Mark Nunberg are personal favorites), so I won’t introduce breath meditation here.  What I do want to introduce is an experimental meditation which I’ve been developing and exploring during this retreat.  It belongs to a third type of meditation, namely visualization.

Visualization is the practice of picturing certain imagery in the mind’s eye, imagery which may have desired effects on the mind.  For example, you may imagine walking along a seashore, and as a result begin to feel the calm that goes along with such an experience.  Neurological research has shown that the same areas of the brain activate when thinking about an action as when actually doing it.  In other words, there is no difference in terms of brain activity between skiing down a slope and visualizing it.  This gives some idea of the potential that lies in visualization meditation.

The Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation, also called the Three Wells meditation, is a visualization intended to assist introspection of three kinds of mental phenomena: desires and aversions, repressed material, and mood states.  There are many more species of mental objects, but these have been singled out for their particular utility in managing emotions in one’s daily life.  Desires and aversions are visualized as fire, which greedily spreads toward an object (desire) while at the same time its tongues leap away from it (aversion).  Repressed material is represented by blocks of ice encasing what your mind doesn’t want you to see.  Finally, mood states are seen as mist or fog that body through the air and may obscure your vision.  These mental phenomena are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but their influence can take you in places you’d rather not go if you’re not careful.  Becoming aware of them breaks the spell of their influence, so that you can live free and fully conscious.  That is the intention behind this meditation.  A nuanced development of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation is available here.

Each morning during this retreat, I’ve performed the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  Three wells are visualized, one filled with fire, another with frigid black water in which blocks of ice float, and a third with wisps of mist.  By gazing into these wells, a picture of one’s inner state is revealed.  The shape of the tongues of flame, for example, may suggest or bring to mind specific desires or aversions which are manifest presently but not necessarily obvious.  In this way, ignored or missed thoughts and feelings can be brought into the light of awareness.  Once noticed, they can be dealt with fruitfully by observing them, questioning them, and gently letting them be.

Of all the benefits I’ve ever experienced from meditation, by far the greatest is knowing what you are feeling at the moment you experience it.  It sounds simple and automatic, but often we go unaware of our feelings, even intense ones.  For example, how many times have you failed to notice yourself getting angry till a friend points it out to you?  Or how many times have you walked into a crowd of new faces and not realized your nervousness till your words fumble coming out of your mouth?  Awareness of such feelings gives you the opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision of how you want to act.  Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes (or perhaps we should say, awareness is power).

In this retreat, I’ve become aware of feelings of excitement, joy, nervousness, embarrassment, tiredness, hope and hopelessness, and more through the help of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  I’ve noticed unhelpful self-critical thoughts and self-aggrandizing preoccupations, as well as positive self-affirming thoughts.  I won’t go into them all, but there’s one that deserves detail.  It has to do with the tarot card drawn last night.

The tarot card was the Three of Stones: Work.  This morning, as I sat in meditation, I vividly perceived a desire to present my experience in a certain way for this blog.  Thoughts of how to present what I was doing so cluttered my mind that I could barely concentrate on what I was actually doing.  I realized that I was turning the experience into work.  With that discovery, it became easier to refocus on the task at hand, no longer harried by visions of how great it might look on the web.  This illustrates how becoming aware of mental phenomena empowers you to take conscious control of how you live each day.

By now, a picture is starting to form of the psychological benefits that are claimed for spiritual practices.  Consistently throughout this retreat, divination, ritual, and meditation have dug up important insights that might otherwise have lied buried beneath the mental clutter.  If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.  This is preliminary evidence that Humanistic Paganism is a valid path capable of helping one fulfill that ancient injunction inscribed above the gate to the Oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Foam and trees in the Mississippi River

Beneath the muck, amidst the roots of the mind, lies self-knowledge.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

Retreat, day two: Nature and the Five +1

– by B. T. Newberg

Today I’ll talk about spending time in nature, and exploring the Five +1 (fives senses, plus one introspective sense).  Befitting the topic, there’s extra sensory stimulation in this post: not only images but a video too (click play above).

Last night I drew an omen for today (see Day One for a discussion of naturalistic divination).  The card that came up was the Nine of Swords: Cruelty, which in the Haindl Tarot signals either suffering or inflicting oppression.

This morning I awoke at dawn to meditate and soon encountered cruelty of a kind.  Whereas yesterday I was aglow with excitement for this retreat, today I felt no such thing.  I had to drag myself out of bed.  Then, as I knelt before my statue of Isis, I thought to myself Why am I doing this? and This is stupid.  I looked out the window, and it looked so rainy out there.  Oh, greatSo much for spending time in nature today.  Pretty soon my fiance, unable to sleep, got up.  Suddenly I was filled with nervousness and embarrassment.  I usually do ritual alone, because I feel weird doing spiritual practices around other people who don’t share the same beliefs.  Even my fiance, who loves and supports me in this, puts me a little on edge.  I couldn’t concentrate because half my mind was worried about what she might think seeing me chanting in front of a statue of a goddess that I don’t even believe is real (see Day One for why I do nontheistic ritual).

That’s when I realized I was inflicting a kind of oppression.  It wasn’t cruelty toward others, but toward myself.  The voice of the self-critic was blaring away in my head.  From the moment I got up, it had been one vitriol after another.  Catching myself thus, I made a decisive decision to change my thinking.

Trees rippling in Quaking Bog

The mind is easily clouded with surface chatter. Spiritual practices like spending time in nature can help bring deeper thoughts and feelings to light.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Spending time in nature

Gazing out at the early morning rain, I decided to make the most of it.  I went out on the veranda with my camera and started filming.  Quickly I grew absorbed in the work.  Lightning forked across the sky, and the camera caught it reflected in a puddle forming on the patio table.  A rumble of thunder followed, and all my negative feelings disappeared. I stood entranced by the cool pitter-patter of drops on my head, and the smell of fresh rain.  When I finally went inside, I went straight to work mixing the clips into a video meditation, which you can see for yourself above.

I had expected the day’s nature experience to be a wash (no pun intended), but instead it turned out profound.  All it took was a change of attitude.  Spiritual practices seem to have the power to catalyze such changes – but I’ve already talked about that.  Now, I want to talk about the world of our senses: the Five +1.

Pondside trees at Wirth Park

Spending time in nature calms and quiets the mind.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

The Five +1

Nature comes to us through five doors: the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin.  By the proper application of these five senses,  empirical science has developed detailed knowledge of nearly every aspect of our world.  The five senses are the keys that unlock knowledge.

But there is another sense that yields knowledge, self-knowledge.  The power of introspection, which enables us to perceive feelings, emotions, thoughts, and mental images, can be thought of as a kind of sense.  We don’t normally think of it as such here in the West, although Buddhism made that conceptual leap some 2500 years ago.  The power of introspection amounts to an additional faculty of sensation.  I’ll refrain from calling it a “sixth sense”, lest it acquire psychic or magical connotations, and instead call it the “+1” in Five +1.  What I’m talking about is thoroughly ordinary.  The extraordinary thing is that we typically pay it so little attention.  Other than surface thoughts and gross feelings like hunger, most mental phenomena slip by unnoticed.  Further, what little consideration we do give mental processes is often biased or confabulated (see introspection illusion).  Often it takes a practice like therapy to help us realize what’s really going on deep down.  If, however, we conceive of introspection as a faculty of sense, then we are empowered to look inside and discover a new frontier of nature (yes, nature, for we humans are as much a part of nature as stars or toadstools).  Just as there are birdwatchers, we can be thoughtwatchers.  The value of such activity is self-knowledge.

I mentioned earlier that I caught myself thinking negatively this morning, and turned my attitude around.  Spiritual practices like meditation and ritual seem to aid in such introspection.  In this case, it was the image of last night’s tarot card that helped me see the cruelty I was inflicting on myself.  Another particularly helpful practice is spending time in natural environs.  Walking along a wooded trail, mountain path, or seashore seems to have the effect of calming and quieting the mind.  It is then, when the ordinary surface chatter is muted, that deeper thoughts and feelings can well up from below.  Insights may arise, or just a simple sense of peace.  Nature outside begins to sync with nature inside as the illusion of separateness dissipates.  Wholeness permeates the complete world of the Five +1.

Birch branch at Quaking Bog

Harmony is when outer nature and inner nature are in sync.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Responsibility, almost

After the rain stopped, I took my bike on a long ride out to Wirth Park and Quaking Bog, which are almost in the suburbs.  Meandering around the wetlands, I found myself getting off my bike and trudging around off-trail.  My senses were heightened as I carefully weaved my way around branches, thorns, and fallen logs.  A brilliant red cardinal sang above me, and a wild turkey shot through the bushes.  Beneath my feet the ground squished and slogged.  I had to weigh each step to make sure I  didn’t sink into the muck.  I felt my thought process slow, and my awareness grow, as I adjusted to the pace.

The wetland was littered with plastic bottles, and I started gathering them up as I went along.  I had no idea how I was going to carry them out, as I had no bag with me.  I just started making piles, partly for the fun of it.  Honestly, I actually enjoy picking up trash.  I call it trashmonking, because I have this ridiculous vision of monks walking along meditating and picking up trash.  In any case, after gathering plastic bottles for a while I came across some plastic bags and ended up carrying three full shopping bags of bottles out of the wetlands.

Feeling proud of myself, I headed home on my bike.  Unfortunately, I was a little too proud, and cruised through a crosswalk without noticing the don’t walk light.  A left-turning car honked and the guy behind him shouted, “Hey, don’t you know what ‘Don’t Walk’ means?”  So, I was a responsible citizen today – almost.

The value of responsibility is several fold.  Not only is it good for others around you, it’s also good for you.  The Humanist Manifesto III boldly affirms the greatest potential for human fulfillment lies in benefiting others.  If you don’t buy that, there’s the simple fact that people need to live together, so preserving the circle of good will and trust is in your own interest.  Environmentally, a similar relationship obtains: sustainable living keeps the planet livable for us and our descendants, so it’s in our interest to treat the planet well.  Finally, there’s the generally pleasant feeling that accompanies doing right by others and the world.

I felt a hedonist’s delight today as I was hauling trash out of Wirth Park.  And when I messed up at the crosswalk, I curtailed the anger I might have felt at the drivers.  Using the power of introspection, I was able to notice my feeling of embarrassment, acknowledge it, and gently observe it fade as I went on with my day.

Today began with a bit of cruelty, but a change of attitude opened me to a rewarding experience of nature – first in the rain, then in the park.  By the faculty of introspection I sensed awareness growing within, and a sense of peace pervaded the world of the Five +1.

Picking up plastic bottles at Wirth Park

It’s in our interest to do right by others, ourselves, and our planet.

 photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Retreat, day one: Divination and ritual

Libation scene

Divination and ritual operate on a psychological level to realize human potential.

image enhanced from original: Libation scene, Greek red figure vase, c. 480 BC

– 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.

Divination

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.

Three of Wands

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.

image enhanced from original by Hermann Haindl

Ritual

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.

Isis statue

Through the outward form of interacting with mythological beings, an inner voice is awakened.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011

The value of divination and ritual

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.

Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls, part of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011

Words into action: A Humanistic Pagan retreat

Sowing and reaping seeds with Demeter

This week I will sow the seeds of a new way of life.

image enhanced from original, original, and Demeter, Attic red figure, c. 480 BC

– 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.

Goals

  1. release stress and achieve wellness after an extremely demanding graduate program
  2. put principles of Humanistic Paganism into practice

Daily Schedule

Each day will follow the schedule below.

Dawn (5:20 am)
wake at dawn
observe sunrise on veranda at 5:53 am
water libation
yoga
Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation

Day
exercise and time in nature – a different park each day
one good deed each day
Household chores
Exploratory, reflective, or creative free time
Wednesday morning only – therapy

Dusk (9:00 pm)
Observe sunset on veranda at 8:26 pm
cook dinner
social time with my fiance and/or close friends
journal reflection
water libation
Divination for following day

Night
Deep relaxation meditation
Sleep

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.

Conversation

“Man is a social animal” says Aristotle. Socialization is an integral aspect of Humanistic Paganism.

image enhanced from original

Incorporation of the Four-fold Path of Humanistic Paganism

The schedule incorporates all four elements of the Humanistic Pagan path, as shown below:

  1. Dedication to the Five +1 – meditation, time in nature, empirical framework of interpretation
  2. Relationship with mythology – libation, divination
  3. Responsible action – one good deed per day, social time with significant other
  4. A sense of wonder – unplanned, spontaneous, but encouraged by time in nature and journal reflection

Displacements

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.

  • waking at dawn
  • abstaining from junk food, sweets, coffee, and alcohol
  • carrying a token, to be sought and found in nature on the first day; the token will be carried on my person at all times, then cast into the Mississippi River on the last day, signalling release from displacements and completion of the retreat

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.

Meditation at Penang, Malaysia

Meditation is a powerful way to release stress and build awareness.

photo by B. T. Newberg, 2001

What is Humanistic Paganism?

Earth with Sun on Horizon

Humanistic Paganism is a way of life for the 21st century

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.[1]  These two cross-fertilize to produce a powerful way of life grounded in modern science and enriched with mythic texture.

Why Humanism?

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.

Hands holding earth

Humanism affirms our responsibility to ourselves and our planet.

Why Paganism?

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.[2]

Eros and Psyche Roman mosaic

Eros and Psyche Stolent Hearts

Pagan myths, such as that of Eros and Psyche, continue to fascinate us. Above, the same scene is shown in a mosaic from the 3rd century and a modern graphic novel.

Why these two together?

Humanism began in Pagan contexts.  In Europe, Humanism flowered especially in the budding arts and philosophies of Classical Greece.[3]  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.

Vitruvian Man with Planet Earth

Together, Humanism and Paganism make for a life grounded in science and enriched with mythic symbolism.

Where does this path lead?

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.[4]  In this way, the individual opens to a deeper, more comprehensive field of expression than is communicable by purely rational, scientific reasoning.[5]  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.

Responsible action

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.

Steps at Haguro-san Jinja

The life of Humanistic Paganism follows a path of empirical science, mythic symbolism, responsible action, and wonder.


*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.

[1] “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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

Resources
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.

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