Humanistic Paganism

Why do ritual?

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:

  • facilitation of group cohesion and cooperation
  • management of anxiety
  • fostering of individuation and personal transformation
  • cultivation of a sense of meaningfulness
  • a felt sense of connection to something greater than ourselves

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.

Religion without deity?

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.

Something bigger than ourselves?

Many Humanistic Pagans use ritual and meditative practices to connect to something greater than themselves. Theists and atheists alike may wonder how this is possible, since Humanistic Pagans do not believe in deities or spirits. But there are other things that can be understood as transcending ourselves, including the natural world, the community of life, and our deeper selves. For example, B. T. Newberg explains how the experience of transcendence can arise out of an encounter with nature:

“… stand at the foot of a mountain and you may be impressed by how much greater it is than you in degree, how alien it is from you in kind. Climb that mountain and confront limits of endurance beyond which you thought yourself incapable, feel the relation between yourself and the mountain’s flora and fauna as part of one interdependent ecosystem, and discover how the experience of the mountain becomes part of you and changes who you are – then you may draw close to something like transcendence.”

Typically, “transcendence” is understood as a movement beyond the human condition, beyond our embodiment, and beyond our connections to the world around us. But there is another kind of transcendence, what Phil Hine calls “lateral transcendence” or “horizontal transcendence” (and Luce Irigaray calls the “sensible transcendent”). Hine explains:

“Transcendence, in these terms, is not some unknowable absence, but a feature of phenomena as they announce themselves within a horizon. Transcendence means that what is perceived ‘always contains more than what is actually given’ – that any phenomenon has the capacity to surprise us, to broaden or even explode our horizons. Lateral transcendence can be thought of as a reaching-beyond the boundaries of isolated selfhood towards the web of relationships, and perhaps, an openness to novelty, surprise, the unexpected.”

B. T. Newberg identifies several of the common indicia of transcendents:

  • They are greater than us in both degree and kind.
  • We participate in them even as they transcend us.
  • When they manifest, they do so not as problems that can be solved, but as challenges to be confronted and integrated.
  • There is no avoiding or escaping them, as they are part of the human condition.

Examples of such naturalistic transcendents include the Earth and the Cosmos, the human community and the more-than-human community, and the “Big Self” (what Starhawk calls the “Deep Self”) as distinguished from the ego-self or our conscious identity.

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