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Monday, December 10, 2012

Giving and the holidays: making a change

“The Piety and Generosity of the
Roman Women” by
NicolasGuy Brenet (1785).
Last year I wrote a letter to friends and family, and shared it on my blog, about concerns I was having about consumerism and the holidays (letter here). I told them that we’d prefer gifts be restricted either to things they make themselves or to charitable donations on our behalf. At the time I still felt my thoughts about this were evolving, and not sure where I’d end up. After a year of this approach, here is what I’ve noticed…

The approach of trying to give only created instead of purchased gifts still created stress during the approach to the holidays. It was very difficult to make the time needed to make custom gifts for friends and family. Accompanying the stress were feelings of guilt that not enough was done. Given what the holidays could and should be – something was still wrong with this picture.

The Problem

Gifts should be things given from the heart, as the occasions arise naturally. Perhaps the problem is in having a pre-designated hyper-gift-giving bonanza, all to taking place simultaneously? Such a thing seems like the perfect way to create a maximum of emotional stress, financial difficulty, and unfortunate gift-comparison-thinking. If we were to do this with other acts of kindness, friendship, or intimacy the craziness of it would be more apparent. Imagine if people in a romantic relationship decided to make love at a pre-designated regular day and time, ready or not (some do I’ve heard). Or, what if we decided we would go over to our sibling’s house on the 11th of June each year to be listening and supportive?

Still, it seems reasonable and good to have special times of the year. And it also seems appropriate to have times of the year where we celebrate generosity, sharing, and giving. But now I’m thinking that I may have been missing the point in focusing too much on whether a gift was purchased or made by hand. That focus does help to address the rampant consumerism facing our society. But when it comes to creating joyful and meaningful holidays, I see now that the real issue is forced reciprocal gift-giving at artificially pre-designated times. I’ve come to think this is a bad habit for our society, and one that would be healthy to break.

Reason for the Season: Really Meaning It

Should a person be generous? Yes, this is a character trait we should all try to cultivate, and giving habits are a part of that. But when we ritualize the purchase and exchange of goods at particular times, the ritual can easily become empty and hurried. Even if we spend a lot of money and make sure everyone on our list has received items of some designated appropriate value, does that annual activity really have the effect of cultivating a charitable character? It seems more like cramming for a test only to forget the material after, rather than a semester of stimulated learning. Does it really create a more giving society? Or, does it instead have more tendency to promote materialism? If we were to instead try to be more mindful to do things for others and give of our time and efforts to others throughout the year, this would go much further to promote generosity.

As for holidays, we always say that their true meaning is in the time we spend with family and friends, but we never really put our money where our mouth is. Even in our popular stories, such as “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (one of my favorites – spoilers ahead!), the Grinch is surprised to see the Whos singing even after he’s stolen their presents. Yet, the Grinch returns the presents at the end because he’s come to understand the meaning behind the giving. But, suppose he’d destroyed them before his conversion? Could we have really considered the story to have a happy ending if the presents were never received? The fact that the singing alone would be insufficient for the writer or the audience to consider it a happy ending suggests that we still haven’t learned the lesson the story has to teach.

A similar thing could be said of “It’s A Wonderful Life” (another favorite – and more spoilers ahead). George Bailey is in trouble after losing a great deal of money from his savings and loans business and in danger of going to prison. Distraught, he’s about to commit suicide before an angel teaches him how much he has to be thankful for and how important he is to others, despite the troubles. But as enlightened as the films message, it is still forced to undercut that message by giving its unenlightened audience (all of us) what we need to have a happy ending… Just after George learns the lesson that money isn’t important, the town shows up to donate to help him out and the film ends victoriously with a giant pile of money on his table.

Was the message supposed to be that money isn’t important? Or, was the message that if we don’t care about money that we will get it anyway (kind of a Chinese finger trap approach to greed)?  If the message in these stories is really true (and I believe it is), and if we had truly internalized that truth, then an imprisoned George Bailey with a family that loves him and empty-handed Whos joined in song should still be able to constitute a “happy ending” for us without the Hollywood twist. Sometimes the princess would be able to learn that love is what matters, choose the peasant boy, and then not have to discover that he was a prince in disguise in order to live happily ever after. In other words – if our stories are going to teach a lesson, they should mean it – and if we are going to practice a holiday, we should mean it.

What I would recommend is that we celebrate our holidays for their true purposes, and enjoy the company of one another, doing things together during this time. As for giving, let us decide against reciprocal mass-giving at pre-designated times.

What of Generosity, Giving, and Charity?

I would make one exception to this, which would be giving to charitable causes (including friends and family if they are in true need) – simply because that should never be discouraged. When it comes to holidays that are meant to celebrate and support generosity, I propose another way to do that. Instead, let us use the day to give proclamations, testaments, and invocations about the importance of giving and having a charity of spirit. Let us hold up noble examples of charity in our myths, in our fictional stories, and in current day examples. We can also personally reflect on how generous and ungenerous we’ve been over the past year, think about how we might be more giving in the future, and make resolutions to build those habits in the coming year. And then, of course, follow through when all the lights and decorations are gone.

This would be a far more effective way to promote and encourage real improvements in generosity. Meanwhile, it would have the secondary effect of removing the stresses and frustrations of massive shopping and purchasing that has come to accompany these times of the year, and pull the reigns in a little on materialism and consumerism.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: A Spiritual Naturalist approach to tragedy

A commonly heard response of many religious and spiritual people during times of disaster is, “I’ll pray for you”. Spiritual Naturalists are a varied bunch and some may engage in some kinds of contemplative prayer. But in our case, we view ritual as a means to help focus our own thoughts and cultivate inner qualities. This means, absent of any confirmed evidence, we don’t hold a belief that our prayers will affect the circumstances of others in a supernatural sense, either directly or through the favor of any other entities that listen to and answer prayer.
This begs the question, then, of what Spiritual Naturalists can and should do in response to the suffering of others, particularly in disasters and other tragedies such as the recent Hurricane Sandy which recently struck the Eastern portion of the U.S.

The most significant thing we can do, of course, is to act. This can include anything from traveling to the area to volunteer, to giving financially, to helping to spread the word, to simple words of support and encouragement to victims. All of these things really do affect the external circumstances for the better.

Here is the White House’s page, with further links, on How to Help the victims of Hurricane Sandy

However, important though these actions are, action is the symptom of spiritual development. Our focus at the Society has been on spiritual practice, and that means ways of developing ourselves to be better people enjoying happier lives, regardless of external circumstance.
Fortunately, we do not have to be fully enlightened beings before we can act to help others! In fact, by jumping ahead and performing acts of compassion, this can have an inverse affect to help develop those inner qualities – which makes perfect sense in a universe where mind and body are all part of one, interconnected natural and causally-linked whole.

But, realistically, we also know that there are many cases tragedy strikes others and our ability to do much to help them is severely limited. There is far too much suffering in a world of billions of people to keep up with it all. For those who are on a spiritual path of practice, how then can we respond inwardly – in our practice – in the face of these realities? Certainly ignoring suffering cannot be a path to enlightenment, even when we cannot stop it externally.


The first step is not to let the great suffering in the world defeat our spirit. If we are in the process of cultivating our compassion and extending our concern for all beings, this will result in great suffering unless we also balance that development with the cultivation of wisdom. By ‘wisdom’ I mean, in this case, the deep awareness and acceptance of the nature of impermanence. In this, we not only recognize the impermanent nature of the universe, but we actually come to see beauty in that whole tapestry of complex activity. Even if we don’t like some instances of it which result in suffering and loss, we realize that none of the beautiful things we love would be possible without that ever-changing flow. Here, what is needed is the cultivation of a very subtle and challenging kind of love without attachment – a kind of love for others that is like enjoying the soothing waters flowing around us in a running river, but which does not try to stop the flow or desperately grab up all of the water.

All of us are unique and beautiful as we are. We all have our own height, our own looks, our own hair color, and yes, our own lifespan. We live in a certain place, and in a certain time. The time we exist in this pattern is our ‘home’ on the great timeline of the universe. Everything that happens, happens according to the Logos – that is, the same underlying rational order that brings about all things, and in which both death and birth are essential.

These are not the kind of thoughts that will relieve suffering for those undergoing it, who at that time simply need our love and support rather than our philosophy. But it is the kind of wisdom of living in accord with Nature, which we can cultivate in ourselves and – when tragedy strikes us or those with whom we empathize – will greatly fortify us.

Cultivating Inner Motivation

A friend of my wife is a Catholic, and every time an ambulance passes, he makes the sign of the cross. My wife, also a naturalist, was telling me how there was something about this she found appealing. Especially since coming to an understanding of the practical inner effects of ritual, I too have come to admire this kind of practice. I am not sure what supernatural beliefs our friend may have about this activity, but I do believe that the practice of stopping for a moment and performing some kind of physical action when passing a car accident or some other kind of suffering, is a healthy activity.

Outward physical actions connect to our minds. They call upon us to momentarily direct our attention, and this builds mental habits – habits of concern and empathy. For this reason I often try to stop what I’m doing and take a few meditative breaths whenever an ambulance passes or I drive past an accident or learn of some other misfortune.  I have even found a more immediate effect: whenever a traffic jam happens, I immediately try to be cognizant that a wreck may have occurred in which people may have been harmed. I try to think about the possible victims as their family might. This concern not only helps to cultivate empathy in the long term, but it also removes any kind of anger or frustration coming from my selfish ego about the inconvenience!

Of course, neither meditative breathing nor familial concern for victims affects them directly. But what it does do is affect me. It is a practice whereby, if more people were to engage, would create a more compassionate people and society, and that will affect others tremendously.  This is the kind of root activity that is, perhaps, the most important kind of endeavor – even more than donating time of funds to any one tragedy – because it affects our world at the deepest level. Human minds are the gateways through which all good and evil enter the world. And, since we can only control our own choices, it is up to each person to engage in their own practice. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

When it comes to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, we naturalists, focused on the practical though we are, should not dismiss the importance of taking moments to reflect, focus, and use our imaginations to put ourselves in their place and the place of their families. Let yourself experience on their behalf, if only for a moment and if only to the degree we can. Use the moment to exercise your empathic muscles. This is how the ‘duty’ of helping others outwardly, becomes a deep impulse to do so over time.

Share Your Empathy

Again, not to dismiss the importance of action, but with the importance of inner motivation also established, it becomes more obvious why we might consider sharing those sentiments with others. Not only can this encourage them to undertake their own practice of cultivating empathy, but it can be encouraging to victims.

Often I will tell people, “best wishes” when prayers and thoughts are sought or seem helpful. This doesn’t mean I believe my ‘wishes’ affect their outcomes. But it is a way of letting them know that I am thinking about them and care what happens. This shouldn’t take the place of action to help, but it can provide emotional support; much needed since positive attitude can greatly affect our behaviors, our determination, and our recovery. And, if you are the person in need, don’t be so offended if someone tells you they are praying for you – whether you believe in prayer or not, the point is that someone cares about you, and that is a beautiful thing!

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Marriage and Spirituality

(c) 20th Century Fox.
As a Humanist minister, I have had the honor of conducting the wedding services for many couples. As we work together on the wording of the service and their vows, it calls upon both the couple and myself to think about the meaning of marriage. In this article, I will share some thoughts on the potential benefits of marriage to one’s spiritual practice. First, it is important to talk about the commitment integral to marriage, because this plays a role in its effect on our spiritual progress.


It comes as no surprise to my readers nor friends that I am socially liberal, and that extends to relationships. But unlike some social liberals, when it comes to marriage I believe in the importance of lifetime commitments. That isn’t to say that there can’t be justifiable reasons for divorce. But it does mean a rejection of approaches to marriage that, from the outset, are merely agreements to stick together only so long as “love endures” or, in less eloquent language, until you get sick and tired of one another, or simply feel like a change. There is nothing wrong with that, or any, arrangement between consenting adults so long as both understand one another. But this is called a boyfriend or girlfriend. In these cases, I suggest simply remaining as such.

While the moral obligation to be honest and supportive to a boyfriend or girlfriend is the same as any serious relationship, the distinguishing characteristic of marriage is the temporal element – that is, the sacred pledge to be there for one another into the future, in bad times and good. For those who have children, this kind of commitment is what is needed to have mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all of the stability and support structure most healthy to a child’s upbringing. The structure of a family can vary – we aren’t stuck with a typical hetero-mono-nuclear model. But what’s important are those dutiful bonds of loving commitment. Even for those who choose not to have children, many feel it is still important to have someone in your life to depend upon, to share life’s experience with, and who you know will not abandon you when times are tough. The core of the concept is that when we leave our childhood home we leave a supportive family structure, and though we may remain close to that family always, marriage is how we form new families of equal bonds and support.

Of course, we are all free to live whatever kinds of lives we agree upon with others, but this is what I mean when I refer to marriage in this article. While any relationship offers opportunities to be more mindful, tolerant, communicative, and patient – it is long-term commitment that potentially has the following effects on a more specific spiritual practice.

A Window into True Love

(cc) Anthony Kelly,
Most adults come to understand the difference between love and infatuation. What may be less obvious is that further stages of deeper love continue to reveal themselves when in a loving relationship with another after an extended time. We begin to learn the real differences between self-driven love and other-driven love. Given that tough times in relationships over time are inevitable, only a commitment to stay together through those times has the chance to continue for periods long enough for those deeper levels of love to manifest.

Since we are human, we may often mislead ourselves into thinking we can understand what it means to be human from the single example of our own experience. But in a long-term relationship that lasts years or decades, we continue to become more and more familiar with another human being. Even after 13 years, my wife and I continue to surprise one another and I’m told this happens well after 13 years. This makes sense since a person continues to evolve throughout life.

That growing familiarity over time results in an intimate knowledge of our partner ‘from the inside’. Just as the discovery of alien life on other worlds would undoubtedly illuminate new concepts in biology as a general field, the intimate knowledge of another person illuminates what it means to be human in general terms. This is a far more profound string of experiences than I can justify with words.

The following is not a continuous effect, but there have been moments in which I see my wife and feel almost as if my subjective view has transported inside her; as if our understanding and perspectives were so intimately tied that I saw the world through her eyes and identified herself with myself. One gets the deep sense of what justice, right, wrong, beauty, humor, and meaning are to another mind. I could never have imagined what this experience was like without being a part of someone else for an extended time. Further, many times it happens in a manner that gets my attention, it has been in more profound ways than before.

The ancient Greeks are often recognized for having had many different words for ‘love’ which adeptly distinguish between affection, passion, friendship, parental love, and so on. However, the truth we come to find by seeing through another person’s eyes is that love is even more varied and subtle than this. Over time, an intimate relationship can help us to learn about a seemingly infinitely various kinds and degrees of love. When it comes to spiritual practice, progress is simply not possible without understanding the nature of love more deeply.

Putting it to Practice

In terms of applied spiritual practice, one important project is that of escaping the ego. That is, seeing beyond our narrow singular point of view toward a broader view. Stoics propose expanding one’s sense of self outward to include others. This expandable re-definable vision of the ego is consistent with the Buddhist realization of the ‘self’ as an illusory construction. In seeing through another’s eyes, possible in a deep extended relationship, it is possible to get a first-hand experience of what it means to have one’s ego – one’s sense of first-person – displaced, expended, and jarred. This can be an important part of learning to expand it further to include all beings. I know the experience has aided in my own efforts along these lines.

Another effect of that kind of connection, is seeing the ‘child within’ in another person. We all have that innocence – that child we were – still within us. At times he or she comes out in the best sense. Glimpsing this provides a sense of intense affection. In this sense, we come to see the whole person, faults and all, from a sympathetic point of view. This is not too unlike how an ideal mother might see her own child; even the most flawed for which she will yet retain love.

This experience of intimate affection combined with ego-jarring perspectives form two important steps in achieving a more universal compassion for all beings. This is one way in which a long-term loving and committed relationship can be an invaluable aide in our practice and our spiritual journey of transformation.

Spirituality for the Full Life

Given the incredible experiences of marriage and the remarkable help it has been to my practice, it seems especially odd to me when I think about religious leaders, in the East and West, who take vows of chastity. Regarding those who do this successfully, no one can doubt their commitment and dedication. When it comes to Buddhists monks for example, the absence of family obligations undoubtedly frees such people to pursue wisdom and practices to greater levels than is possible for many of us. These two facts suggest that our respect and attention to their input is warranted.

In the Christian bible, Paul only reluctantly accepts marriage merely as an alternative for those who aren’t disciplined enough to be chaste. Even Socrates only jokingly advocates marriage, saying, “By all means marry. If you have a good wife you will be happy and if you have a bad one you will become a philosopher!”  But how many important aspects of life are celibate spiritual leaders missing out on? Given that spirituality should be practical and useful for real people living their lives out in the world, can they really be authoritative on these matters? More importantly, could the lack of deep long-term romantic relationships actually hinder deeper understanding of other spiritual concepts which, on the surface, may seem unrelated? These are important questions, and why I think the active participation of lay persons in guiding, educational, and organizational roles are crucial to a spiritual community.
In any event, if readers take anything from this, I hope it is to consider how their own relationships, rather than distractions or worse, can be opportunities for spiritual growth and development in even more profound ways than perhaps considered previously.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Distractions to Spiritual Practice, Pt 2

This is the second in a 4-part series which explains, in each part, one of four deceptive distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on external circumstance. Last time we covered the distraction of metaphysical cosmology (link to part 1 here). This time we cover the Ego.

The Ego

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Many of us have encountered egotistical people, but we should not take their example as an opportunity to gloat over how much better we are than to be so egotistical, lest we make the same error. Rather, we should take it as a cautionary example and realize that – just as they are unaware of their own ego – we too are unaware or unmindful of the many shortcomings we most certainly have.

For example, while I write this article with sincere intentions that it be helpful, and that I might learn from reading your reactions to it, can I deny that my human nature underlies this motivation and some subtle backdrop of egotism exists whereby I think my words superior or worthy to be read by others? Perhaps some part of me seeks the praise of others for having written this, despite my conscious intention to discard concern for the praise or blame of others as per Stoic teaching? To my shame, some residual of this egotism almost certainly exists despite my best efforts to be humble.

There are at least a few ways that the ego can be a distraction to spiritual progress. An egotistical teacher or professor of spiritual wisdom can distract others from the path by allowing their personality to become an object of attention rather than the teachings and practices. But our own ego can also be a distraction to our progress. The strong desire for answers to certain questions can lead us to anchor ourselves on particular ideas, becoming attached to them. This can blind us, close us off to further possibilities, and limit our progress.

You can subscribe to get notice future articles in this series, where we will cover further examples of distractions to spiritual practice.

(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series.)

Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society
Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Distractions to Spiritual Practice, Pt 1

Recently I have noticed some recurring concepts in many of the discourses I’ve been attending in our local Spiritual Naturalist chapter and various other discussions. These have to do, not with obvious distractions, but with things that often draw our attention and may be worthy endeavors, but may seem like they are central to spirituality when, in fact, they can be distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on the whims of external circumstance. This is the first in a 4-part series which will look at some of those distractions in each part.

Metaphysical Cosmology

Everyone has an opinion, but
how does this help me to
love my neighbor or address
my suffering?
In this first form of distraction, I use the word “cosmology” in the older, broader metaphysical sense – not in the strict term for that branch of science. Cosmology, in general, is an overarching view of “how the world works” – the ultimate secrets of existence, one might say.

It can be good fun to discuss the fascinating possibilities and compare our cosmologies, and there is nothing inherently wrong or bad with this subject. As Society contributor B.T. Newberg has pointed out in his excellent articles (including the next in his series coming soon to our site), our understanding of the world and our place in it not only inspire, but provide important insight to how we might best live. But the really insidious thing about cosmology is that it feels like we are doing spirituality when we engage in such thoughts and discourse. In fact, cosmology has very little to do with spirituality as a practice.

In the Parable of the Poison Arrow, one of the Buddha’s students became upset with him because he was silent on a number of questions such as nature of the cosmos and life after death. The Buddha discouraged wasting time on metaphysical speculation. He specifically said that these questions were irrelevant to his teachings and to true religion.

Early Western parallels such as Pyrrhonism prescribes withholding assent to non-evident propositions, always remaining in a state of inquiry. It was Socrates who fulfilled the Oracle’s claim that he was the wisest of men because, unlike so many others, he knew that he was unwise.

And that is the real trap of being distracted by cosmology: it is egotism. In truth, none of us has perfect access to the ultimate truths of existence. When we become engrossed in mental gymnastics and claim-making about these issues, we fool ourselves into thinking we are making spiritual progress when, in fact, we are not even engaged in the endeavor at all. This is why a Spiritual Naturalist can consider withholding assent to claims without evidence (a practice called Epoché) to be an important spiritual discipline.

One of the significant and profound ‘advancements’ (or re-discoveries, rather) made by Spiritual Naturalism today is the divorcing, or disentanglement, of spirituality from cosmological claims. If we are to reunite the sacred with the natural, then one of the requirements in this effort is to let go of the need to have our spirituality make claims about ultimate reality. To really incorporate modern naturalism, we must respect its space and role in our spirituality. That means leaving claims about the nature of reality up to those who do the hard work of carefully observing and measuring it, and being humble in not trying to fill in the wide gaps in that information with our own speculations. The religious and the non-religious are equally susceptible to this.

You can subscribe to get notice future articles in this series, where we will cover further examples of distractions to spiritual practice.

(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series which, in this part, discusses how Stoic concepts fit the above, and gives more detail on the Parable of the Poison Arrow. Another part of the member archives describes the practice of Epoché in more detail.)

Continue to Part 2

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Spirituality without the supernatural? New organization says yes

A new non-profit, the SpiritualNaturalist Society, is launching today with a mission to “spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life”. What is spiritual naturalism? The organization’s Executive Director and Humanist minister, Rev. Daniel Strain, explains, “Spiritual naturalism (or religious naturalism) is a term that covers a myriad of different forms of spirituality that don’t involve faith-based beliefs in the supernatural.”

Rev. Strain notes that as secularism rises, naturalistic (non-supernatural) interpretations of religious worldviews and practices are growing within Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism – even within Christianity. In addition to these naturalistic leanings within traditional faiths, the self styled ‘reason-based community’ is meanwhile finding its way toward spirituality. Some atheists and agnostics are beginning to discover the usefulness of meditation, other traditionally religious practices, and even ritual.

This, says Rev. Strain, means there is a growing convergence toward the intersection of naturalism and spirituality happening from groups on both sides of the theistic and supernatural divide. Many individuals across these groups are finding more in common with one another than with other members at the more supernatural-end of the spectrum in their respective groups. This, the Spiritual Naturalist Society states, calls for a new kind of organization and community that cuts across familiar categories – a new paradigm for understanding human spirituality.

But most people think of ‘spirituality’ as inherently about the supernatural – God, the afterlife, souls, and so on. How can there be spirituality without spirits? The group’s literature points out that the root Latin word, spiritus, meant wind or breath – the essence of life. “When we say ‘the spirit of the law’ we mean the essence of the law. In the same way, a true spirituality would be a practice that focuses on the essence or the ‘essential in life’. To those with supernatural views,” says Rev. Strain, "...that might be salvation in the afterlife. To us naturalists, the ‘spirit of life’ is about living a good, meaningful, and flourishing life in the here and now. This is an older and broader understanding of spirituality."

It’s true this approach to spirituality is not new. Nature as the basis of spirituality can be found in wisdom streams running throughout ancient philosophy and religion, up to thinkers like Spinoza. More recently these kinds of views have been expressed by those who find the scientific understanding of nature to be a kind of ‘religious experience’, such as Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This is precisely why the SNS has been on a mission to bring together the artists, scientists, religious leaders, writers, professors, and practitioners of these various naturalistic spiritualities into a community.

“Our organization is setting out to be more than just a website, or even just a publisher. We’d like to become a think tank; a community of naturalists from diverse backgrounds coming together to share wisdom, ideas, practices, and fellowship. Spirituality is about walking a path, cultivating one’s habits, character, and compassion so as to enjoy life more fully. We will help provide the educational materials and community that make a positive difference in everyday quality of life.”

To that end, the organization has already brought together an impressive assortment of Buddhists, Humanists, and Pagans on its Advisory Board, including Professor Susan Blackmore (author, The Meme Machine), philosopher and former monk, Stephen Batchelor (author, Buddhism Without Beliefs), and more. Through their help, the new organization’s website already provides a number of informative articles, essays, and community functions.

One thing the organization will not be doing is engaging in political activism or religious criticism, says Rev. Strain. “We will be focusing on our values and beliefs, helping people lead happier lives, and that means an inward focus on personal development through wisdom and practices useful to naturalists.”

Readers can learn more about the Spiritual Naturalist Society at

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Taoism: An introduction for Humanists and Naturalists

Taoism (also spelled Daoism) is a life philosophy and practice of living in harmony with the Tao. Tao means ‘way’ or ‘path’ – a sort of double meaning, as both the ‘way of Nature’ and the ‘way to happiness’.

The primary source of Taoist teaching is called the Tao Te Ching, which could be translated as something like, “Book of the Way of Nature, Virtue, and Empowerment”. The book is believed to have been authored by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, in the 6th Century B.C.E. Perhaps the next most prominent Taoist figure is Chuang-Tzu, whose writings in the 4th Century B.C.E. are also considered foundational (A condensed summary of the teachings of Chuang-Tzu will be available to Society members in our member archives upon launch). There have been several other works and today the Taoist canon, the Daozang (Treasury of the Tao) consists of almost 1,500 texts.

While Taoism, by its nature, is highly focused on the individual life-practice, institutions grew up around Taoism over the years. Throughout Eastern history, there has been much meshing and cross-influence between Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism with elements of each to be found in the other as they are often practiced today.

With such a long history, and having been an integral part of so many cultures, Taoism is vast and certainly includes many aspects practiced in various parts which naturalists would not find compatible to their views. Some Taoists accept and include such things as exorcisms, ancestor worship, literal belief in myths, divination and astrology, immortality, alchemy, and more. But this is, of course, no different than the many supernatural elements practiced in the supernaturalist end of the spectrum in many traditions which naturalists yet find useful ethical and other wisdom, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, and more.

Within this complex body of thought and custom lies much deep and subtle wisdom which is fully compatible with a naturalistic worldview. This ‘core Taoism’ can be found practiced in many places; especially as it often finds itself in the West.

The Tao is the ineffable ‘flow of the universe’ – the true nature of the universe, which lies beyond our full grasp and beyond capture by mere language. Tao is both the source of everything that exists and the driving force behind the universe. It may be cautiously comparable in some ways to the Western Stoic Logos (the underlying rational order on which the cosmos operates). The nature of the world, according to Taoism is that all things are flowing and in a constant state of recreation. There are also orders of magnitude and nested cycles in Nature. Thus, when we understand the ways of Nature, we understand ourselves, and vice versa.

This is remarkably similar to what the originator of the Logos, the philosopher Heraclitus, said of Nature. It is also remarkably compatible with how we understand the complex systems of life and the environment to work today. But intellectual awareness of these facts is different from deeply ingrained intuitive knowledge of the subtle but profound implications of such a universe.

To be ‘one with the Tao’ means that we have freed ourselves from selfishness and desire – from the binds of our narrow egos, and are living simply, in harmony with the nature of things. Many of the teachings and practices of Taoism are aimed at helping the practitioner achieve this state, and can be tested by those who wish to apply themselves to them.

Taoist ethics includes a concept called Wu Wei or “effortless action”. This is the art of moving in unison with the natural flow of events to achieve goals, rather than crudely going against the grain. Its hallmarks are patience, timing, simplicity, spontaneity, attention, and moderation. The “three treasures” of Taoism are: compassion, frugality, and humility.

These concepts can have very practical applications. For example, in facing our fears, Taoism helps the practitioner to internalize a value system whereby irrational attachments that breed fear are released). Taoism can also enhance joy in life through greater appreciation of the world around us. In its assessment of the ego and techniques for seeing beyond the ego, Taoism helps us to bring love more fully into our lives. Through its approach to compassion, Taoism can also aid in more external endeavors, such as conflict resolution. For more on these practical applications, see Diane Dreher’s book, The Tao of Inner Peace, available though the Society at this link.

One of the things naturalists may find most relevant in Taoism is how intimately linked its prescriptions are with realizations about ‘the way the universe works’ – along with a conception of the universe which is compatible with a modern scientific conception. Further, understanding some of the basics of Taoism will be helpful in approaching many other Eastern concepts and practices, especially in Zen Buddhism. In turn, where concepts like these are touched upon by Western philosophers, a wider understanding of these ideas can only add breadth of comparative understanding.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happy World Humanist Day

Today is World Humanist Day! Humanists are people who believe in a natural universe as understood through reason, people who wish to live ethical and meaningful lives without faith in the supernatural, and people who care for their fellow human being. Humanists are informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. The International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU) says:

"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for building a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

The Humanist Manifesto III was signed in 2003 by a long list of people, including notable figures from science, education, literature, entertainment, and other sectors. It was a successor to the first manifesto, published in 1933, and the second published in 1973. In the Humanist Manifesto III, the American Humanist Association outlined the following basic principles of Humanism:

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  • Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

For a reading of these principles explained in more detail, please see the complete Humanist Manifesto III.

See also: The Really Simple Guide to Humanism

Humanist Institutions
Consistent with Humanism's values of Freethought and a healthy skepticism that questions dogma, there is no officially recognized 'authority' for the Humanist life stance. However, Humanist groups exist at many different scales all over the world. Perhaps the broadest organization is the International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU). It can best be said to represent the views of over three million Humanists in over 100 national organizations in 30 countries.

Here in the United States, the American Humanist Association (AHA) is the oldest national-level Humanist organization. Another major national organization is the Council for Secular Humanism. Both of these organizations publish magazines and have several types of programs and facilities throughout the U.S. There are many other organizations growing all the time, such as the Institute for Humanist Studies and the Humanist Institute, for example.

Click Here to find a Humanist Group in YOUR area

The History of Humanism
Humanism as an organized, provisional philosophy is relatively new but it is the product of several millennia of human growth and development. Hints of scientific and humanist thought can be found among the earliest nomadic tribes and civilizations. The Ideas of some of the later classical Greek philosophers, as well as the Chinese Confucians, serve to highlight areas where human-centered (as opposed to god-centered) ideas were especially prevalent.

During the Middle Ages of Western Europe, humanist philosophies, such as those of Michael Servetus and others, were violently suppressed by the dogma and political power of the church. Not until the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with the flourishing of art, music, literature, philosophy, and exploration, would consideration of humanism be permitted.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century brought the development of science as philosophers finally began to openly criticize the authority of the church and engage in what became known as “free thought.” In the nineteenth century, with the challenges to religion by celebrities such as Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll, the Freethought movement made it possible for the common citizen to reject faith and superstition without risk of persecution.

The twentieth century has seen remarkable influence from science, technology, and Humanist philosophy. Despite attempts of the unscrupulous to twist science to serve their ends, despite continuing local fluctuations in crime or other problems, the overall growth, prosperity, and human well-being remains unparalleled throughout history. This is a direct result of scientific thinking in the solving of human problems.

These historical foundations have led those who reject supernaturalism as a viable philosophical outlook to adopt the term Humanism to describe their non-religious life stance. In 1933 the modern Humanist philosophy was formulated in the Humanist Manifesto and several organizations have been founded around the world since then. It is with such a rich history that we strive to carry Humanism into the future.

Special thanks to Amanda Chesworth, who co-wrote this section on the history of Humanism.

Well Known Humanists
Many notable people have been humanists or humanistic thinkers. You can click on any of those listed here to see their Wikipedia articles:

Albert Einstein, scientist
Gene Roddenberry
, producer/Star Trek creator
Thomas Jefferson
, U.S. President/founding father
Whoopi Goldberg, comedian/entertainer
Carl Sagan, scientist/author
Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator
Leonardo Da Vinci
, artist/inventor
Mark Twain
, author
Clara Barton
, Red Cross founder
Isaac Asimov
, author
Margaret Sanger
, Planned Parenthood founder
, philosopher
Marlon Brando
, actor
Jonas Salk
, physician/inventor of polio vaccine
Ted Turner
, broadcaster
Gloria Steinem
, feminist activist
Kurt Vonnegut
, author
Philip Adams
, author/filmmaker
Margaret Atwood
, author/literary freedom activist
Béla Bartók
, composer
Luther Burbank, scientist
Brock Chisholm
, physician/World Health Org. Director
Francis Crick
, scientist
John Dewey
, philosopher/educator
Frederick Douglas
, liberator
Albert Ellis
, psychologist
, philosopher
Philip José Farmer
, author
Betty Friedan
, feminist activist
Erich Fromm
, psychologist
R. Buckminster Fuller, futurist/inventor
John K. Galbraith
, economist
Emma Goldman
, author/revolutionary
Stephen J. Gould
, scientist/author
Julian Huxley
, philosopher/biologist/UNESCO Director
Robert G. Ingersoll, author
Margaret Kuhn
, Grey Panthers founder
Richard Leakey
, anthropologist
Abraham Maslow
, psychologist
John Boyd Orr
, Food & Agriculture Org. first Director
Linus Pauling, scientist
A. Philip Randolf
, human rights activist/union leader
Carl Rogers
, psychologist
M.N. Roy
, political thinker/Radical Humanism founder
Bertrand Russell
, mathematician/philosopher
Andrei Sakharov, scientist/human rights activist
Michael Servetus
, theologian/physician
Barbara Smoker, author/freethought activist
James Thurber
, humorist
Harriet Tubman, educator
James Watson
, scientist
Faye Wattleton
, Planned Parenthood Director
Walt Whitman
, poet
E.O. Wilson
, biologist
Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Poet/Musician ‘Apollo Poetry’ preaches non-dogmatic spirituality

Apollo Poetry describes himself as a spoken word poet, hiphop artist, filmmaker, and author. He says that his work is about using “words as tools of inspiration to bridge the gap between our cultural divisions…” My work with the Spiritual Naturalist Society has recently has included reaching out to artists, musicians, poets, and other creative people to help build up this new community. Apollo’s infusion of spirituality into his work is one reason I became interested in him.

Apollo was the first spoken word artist to perform at the Billboard Awards (2007). His appearances include MTV, Showtime at Apollo, and several other shows, magazines, and venues. He spends a good deal of time traveling, and has performed and presented in over 40 states at high schools, colleges, retirement homes, homeless shelters, and other community based projects.

In his performances, he aims to take the crowd “on a deeper journey” by bringing an intensity to his work. Recently I interviewed Apollo to learn a little more about his views and how that affects his art.

DT: Thanks for your time Apollo. Your work seems to touch on spirituality a lot. Can you share with us your views and how your spirituality intersects with your poetry and music?

Apollo: My art is an extension of my spirituality. It always has been. I just had to awaken to that knowledge to recognize that. The world is a stage. Life is a poem. And the music is the soundtrack of our lives. What a beautiful gift to be able to take something invisible out of the ethereal and create it into existence. That’s what poetry, art,and music is!  The very nature of its creation contains the magic of its essence.

DT: Your website says that you have the goal to “uplift humanity through words”. How did you come to have this as a goal, and how do you envision that process?

Apollo: Words are extremely powerful. We see that with advertising and marketing. Or even when somebody blushes. How is it that a sound out of somebody’s mouth can be a symbol in somebody’s mind, and that invisible thought can make blood rush to their cheeks because of the emotion? Words are symbols and very powerful ones. Like all tools, we can use them for good or for bad. I use them to help people reflect and hopefully get inspired by them. The power that words have is to create emotion, and the power that emotions have is to create action.

DT: In your song “Spiritual Bullshit” (see video below) you seem to be saying that many people get obsessed with the trappings of spirituality and their image as a spiritual person, but then hypocritically treat others badly or fail to focus on what matters when it comes to how they live their lives. Would this be a fair understanding of that message, and what else does the song communicate?

Apollo: Yes. Any interpretation of it would actually be a fair understanding because it’s meant to reflect the viewer’s perspective on life. We are all hypocrites and judgmental in something, but we point out those two traits in everyone else except ourselves. I feel that if people come to peace with what they actually are and understand the root of their emotions, they will more easily be able to be accepting and compassionate to others who are displaying the traits that don’t sit right with us. Often times, when we see somebody doing something that gives us a strong emotional reaction, it’s because it triggers a subconscious aspect of ourselves which we are not at peace with yet.

Another part of the song is the false ‘image’ of spirituality which is marketed to us. Westerners loves to glorify Eastern religion, but it might be different if they actually visited some of these countries to see how people live. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE all world religions. But too many of us fall into the brain-washing dogma. Even people who think they’ve escaped it. What a clever trick by the ego eh?

DT: And yet, the different religions seem to have contradictory beliefs about the nature of reality and our place in it – gods, the afterlife, salvation, and so on. What does it mean to love all world religions without the dogma? Can you go into that a little more and give us your take?

Apollo: Sure. I don’t mean to love every aspect of every belief system, but to love that there are so many different ones and see what we can learn from each one. The fact that there are so many could mean many things. Perhaps the presence of a higher power is so strong, that regardless of what culture or time period a person is born, most people end up seeking a connection with the universe. And people can choose to celebrate that similarity if they want. It could also mean that religion is just part of our human evolution. It will either help us transcend our primal thoughts by witnessing the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the unknown. Or it will completely wipe us off the planet, which ironically, would be the best thing for almost every other species on this planet. I don’t mean to sound so sinister, but if you compare what humans do to the earth in the name of invisible belief systems (such as religion, money, economy), you can compare us to a cancer. Or perhaps there will be a third outcome not known to us yet. Either or, it serves a divine purpose.

DT: Were there some events in your life personally that inspired “Spiritual Bullshit”?

Apollo: I’ve seen conscious individuals talk about how they left mainstream religion because they don’t believe the Christian stories of humans walking on water and talking snakes, yet they now they believe in reptilian shape-shifters battling space travelers for the souls of humanity. I’ve seen people say Judaism is crazy because of the concept that they are the ‘chosen ones’ by God, yet I’ve seen people boasting how they are part of a special star-seed soul family who is here to enlighten earth. I know they might seem different on the surface, but they activate and massage the same part of human psychology. The concept that we have found something special or have a ‘higher’ knowledge and we are part of something greater. So when we judge people, it’s hilarious, because at the ROOT, we are sooo much like them, but we are blind to seeing that because we put on different costumes. I created the song to take off the veil and face the mirror without a mask. I’m calling me out!

DT: So, in calling yourself out, how do you plan to get out of that situation, where you’re not just accepting one set of unfounded beliefs in exchange for another?

Apollo: It first begins by admitting what we are. Tiny specks of dust floating on tiny specks of dust. If you take all the animals on land, sea, and air, and all the tiny micro-organisms, human beings are an extreme minority. And our planet is even more of an extreme minority compared to all the flying rocks and stars out there. Not only that, but there are also 1000′s of religions and 1000′s of translations within many of these religions. Don’t we see that we are mostly by-products of our environment? Do you think it’s a coincidence that most people have the same religion as their family upbringing? It’s not a BELIEF system that most people have. It’s an installed piece of software. How could you believe in one religion over another if you never studied them both?

It’s okay to have a belief system if it’s attached with a little bit of flexibility and open-mindedness on a very simple notion. I might be completely wrong! If we approach it with that humbleness, perhaps we won’t have the need to kill people over it. Perhaps we will focus more on the philosophies that create happiness.

DT: It seems people can identify with your work from a variety of different beliefs. Is that intentional? What kinds of topics would you think all people could find useful regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural (or lack thereof)?

Apollo: There are many paths to get to the top of the mountain, but once we are there, the view is the same. Why would I get mad at you for taking the Eastern route, just because I’m taking the Western path? Why would I want to bomb you and destroy you because you’re talking the Southern trail? Why would I hate you because you’re not on the same journey as me? If the mountain didn’t have many angles, it wouldn’t be a mountain. There would be no journey. It is the many paths that makes it beautiful just like the different colors of the rainbow. If I feel happy doing what i do, as long as it’s not stopping you from doing what you do and vica verca, why can’t we co-exist? I believe that once we know how to take care of everybody and be honest, starting with ourselves, and show mutual love and respect, we can create peace. As long as we keep attacking and trying to prove what’s right and wrong, there will be war. All religions have something to teach to humanity. At the core, most humans just want peace, love, safety, sustainability, and companionship. I focus more on the philosophies of the religions, more than the separatist dogma, which was likely created by corrupt power-hungry political and economic systems.

DT: Is there anything else about your work that you’d like to mention?

Apollo: I have so much going on that it’d be hard to focus on one thing. I’m making films, acting, doing photography, trying to launch some inventions and business ideas, traveling, making a music album, a poetry album, writing a book, and a whole lot more. My time here is limited, so I’m just trying to make the absolute best out of it. People can stay in touch at my site,
Thank you for everything.

DT: Thanks for the great discussion!

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Special thanks to Karma Camilleon for making me aware of Apollo Poetry!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Spiritual Naturalism is the future

I've recently published an article over at the Spiritual Naturalist Society that my readers might like to know about...

6 Reasons you will see more of Spiritual Naturalism in the future

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