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Friday, October 7, 2011

Exploring Humanism and Paganism with B.T. Newberg

B.T. Newberg
Many forms of Spiritual Naturalism are growing, inspired by the ideas and wisdom from many different philosophies and traditions. Naturalists also exist within paganism, and one website has been making strides in exploring the nexus between Humanism and Paganism.

B.T. Newberg is the editor of Humanistic Paganism, a website devoted to naturalistic spirituality for the 21st Century. I recently interviewed B.T. about his philosophy and his project...

DT Strain
Thanks so much for your time and your thoughts! I'll begin by asking, what is the best way to summarize Humanistic Paganism?

BT Newberg
Mythology and science married.  If you can picture that, you've got Humanistic Paganism.

In a nutshell, Humanistic Paganism is a naturalistic way of life rooted equally in science and myth.  Modern empirical science has revealed a startling universe that is a wonder to behold, and we have every reason to stand in awe.  At the same time, the world's ancient mythic traditions reveal our inner, psychological universe.  Both are valuable in the 21st century.  When it comes to science and religion, there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  One way of life that fully embraces both is Humanistic Paganism.

The website by the same name appeals to all those who feel akin to this way of life, including a wide range of folk from Neopagans to Spiritual Humanists to Taoists.

What can you tell us about your background and what brought you to what you're doing with Humanistic Paganism today?

There was a moment in late high school when I was riding along on a John Deere tractor in the tiny, all-Christian town where I grew up, when I had a eureka experience.  It occurred to me: If I'd grown up in China, I would be just as certain about Buddhism being "true" as I was about Christianity.  In a flash the spell of dogma was shattered, and I saw religions as natural cultural phenomena.  Since then I've been agnostic but intensely interested in spirituality.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I'd explored most of the world's religious traditions, looking for some way to still be spiritual and revere nature, but without the woo-woo of superstition or dogma.  Paganism made a deep impression, and it had a long tradition of naturalism as one of its many valid modes of belief.  So I have come to practice Paganism in a form that puts those naturalistic elements at the forefront.  I call it Humanistic Paganism.  Others call it Naturalistic Paganism, and still others prefer a broader label like Spiritual Naturalism.

Beyond the philosophy itself, tell us about what you're doing with the website, and what your future goals are.

The mission of the website is to amplify the voice of naturalism within spirituality.  To do that, we seek out and publish the best writing of spiritual naturalists.  Some of our writers are established authors, but we are particularly interested in everyday folk like you and I.  The most honest and candid pieces often come from those who are just struggling to work out some kind of meaning in their daily lives.

Some of the writings are about the science of spirituality, like Rhys Chisnall's Paganism and the Brain.  Others explore practices, like Thomas Schenk's Bicycle Meditation.  Still others are personal experiences, like Ryan Spellman's How the Universe Speaks to Me.  We've even done interfaith work, like our ebook Encounters in Nature, which brings together a Celtic polytheist, a Vodou priest, and a Humanistic Pagan to talk about experiences in the wild.

In addition to publishing articles, we also provide resources and community links so naturalists can find each other more easily.  Most of all, our site is there to help the struggling seeker realize there are valid ways to be spiritual without all the woo-woo.

In the future, we hope to expand our line of ebooks, and refine our goals and mission.  Our next ebook, tentatively titled Our Ancient Future, aims to refine our roots as well as our vision for the days ahead.  That vision will be directly shaped by debates happening right now on a weekly website feature called Thing on Thursday.

What do you say to Humanists who might think you're including a lot of material they see as extraneous at best, or perhaps even too condoning of superstition?

They are right to be suspicious.  They should investigate us with a critical eye.  That's what good science does, after all.  If they do so, they'll find we subject our experiences and practices to the same examination.  We're working toward theories of spiritual experience which are consilient with biology and the physical sciences, and which make the least extraneous assumptions about God or gods beyond the observable universe.  Superstition is precisely what we leave behind.

Where we might have differences of opinion is on whether mythic language has any value today.  We think it does.  The symbols of myth, including words like "spirit", "Goddess", or "Dionysus", raise the hackles on our necks.  They lead us into certain vital states of mind that cannot be experienced in any other way.  How they do so is a matter for scientific inquiry.  That they do so is simply self-evident from experience.  That it enriches our lives is equally self-evident.  Experiencing the depth of myth is no less natural than experiencing the beauty of the full moon.  And like the latter, it deepens the sense of wonder and mystery in life.

What are some of the criticisms you envision from the Pagan side, and how do you respond to them?

One person reported going to a Pagan gathering and being pitied for not being "properly wired" to receive signals from the gods.  Author Brendan Myers has been accused of being a non-Pagan.  I've been scolded for using the names of the gods of myth if I don't "really" believe in them.  These are the sorts of criticisms we find leveled against us.  You see, lately there's been a swing in Contemporary Paganism toward literal belief, the idea that deities literally exist "out there" somewhere, independent of our minds.  Now, naturalism has been around in Paganism for a long time, all the way back to the Stoics of ancient Greece and farther still.  It used to be strong in modern Paganism too, whether you interpreted deities as Jungian archetypes, metaphors, or what not.  But lately some have started to assume that literal belief is the only genuine belief.  It's not unlike the fundamentalism of certain other religions.  We're responding by developing a stronger presence, amplifying our voices so people know that naturalistic Pagans are "real" Pagans too.

We're also responding by taking the situation as a challenge to refine our own understandings.  As John Halstead argues, when we psychologize gods as archetypes, we risk reducing them to "just" archetypes.  What we need to do is find a way to raise them back to gods, to express the truly godlike nature of archetypes, and to utter the numinous power of all such naturalistic phenomena.

I like what Jung said in Halstead's article, that the gods refer to the "ruling powers" of our universe. That would indicate that, at least in some form, what the gods represent does indeed exist outside of our own minds wouldn't you say?  I'm reminded of Dr. Ellie Arroway in the film version of Contact - when the aliens appeared to her in a human form to which she could relate. Would you say that the gods are one way human beings can relate to those ultimate "ruling powers" of our universe which are difficult, perhaps impossible, to fully communicate in words?

No.  There's a big "on the other hand..." coming up in a sec, but first I gotta say no.  I know a lot of readers will want to read that statement as supporting literalistic god concepts, i.e. intelligent beings with independent wills that respond to prayers and magical invocations, but with a minimally scientific twist.  We have to be very careful not to exploit science to justify our pet theories.  That happens a lot in Paganism, as when quantum physics is invoked to explain magic.  So, no, I wouldn't say it indicates something outside our minds, or alien-like entities unknowable except through myth.

On the other hand, if by "ruling powers" you mean the existential realities that shape our lives, like the sun, sky, death, love, or the profound sense of order in the universe, then my answer is yes.  They are outside our minds, and myths are uniquely capable of helping us fully express them.  Alternatively, if "ruling powers" means the archetypes, or modules in the unconscious mind that drive our deepest behavior patterns, then yes in that case too.  That's what Jung actually meant, as he makes clear elsewhere in the passage.  These are not outside our minds, but they are outside our conscious ego's control, so in that sense they are beyond us.  Since they are also beyond conscious perception, the symbolic images of myths help us glimpse them, just as Perseus glimpsed Medusa reflected in a mirror.  And I can't stress enough that this transcendence of the conscious self makes them godlike, deserving of religious awe.

This gives a sense of the razor's edge we walk when trying to heal the rift between science and religion.  The science has to be truly science, and the religion has to be truly religion.  It's not an easy path to tread.  But if we can do it, we may lead lives in which what we know about the world and what we need to feel fulfilled are in harmony.

Yes, that latter sense of 'ruling powers' is the one I meant. Have you heard much from readers who are enthusiastic about Humanistic Paganism? And, what have you been most surprised and/or inspired by in those responses?

I've been blown away by the response.  The website started out as a one-man show, a platform for my own personal explorations.  Within six months, it became a burgeoning spiritual community.  That was a big surprise.  We are now typically booked six weeks out with submissions from authors.

What inspires me most is the sheer number of folks out there, each trying to figure it out on their own.  Hey, there are others just like me!  At the same time, there aren't enough high-profile places for us to find each other.  So it's hard to connect, and easy to feel like you're on your own.  But others are out there.  We're out there.  And hopefully projects like Humanistic Paganism and the Spiritual Naturalist Society can help make it a little easier to link up. 

Yes, I have high hopes for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. We'll be ready to launch soon and it's my hope that people doing work such as yours will find the Society a useful avenue to share what you're doing and contribute to an even larger community of Spiritual Naturalists that include Pagans as well as naturalists from many other traditions. How do you foresee your relationship with the SNS once it's up and running?

Potentially intimate.  Humanistic Paganism can be seen as a form of Spiritual Naturalism, so it would fit right in as a close partner.  I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do for the SNS, and what it can do for us all.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Yes - we accept "challenge" pieces.  If you're reading this and you just don't buy it, write up your critique and submit it as an article!  As long as it's constructive and offered in the spirit of dialogue, i.e. not a rant or flame but a well-reasoned argument, we'd love to publish it. Peer review is an essential element of the scientific method.  Criticism may not be the most pleasant to hear, but it keeps us on our toes.  It's how all good ideas become great ideas. 

Finally, I'd like to finish up with a question:

What kind of spirituality is best suited for our times?

In this postmodern age of alienation and confusion, it is tempting to want to trade observable reality for simplistic supernatural models.  On the other hand, it is equally tempting to want to stamp out all spiritual language for fear of "fuzzy thinking."  We believe we can do better than both of these.

Imagine it: a natural world where the language of myth and the discoveries of science mutually reveal the wonder of life.

That's spirituality for the 21st century.

Well said! Thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best and look forward to working with you in the future.

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  1. I had that same John Deere moment. I wasn't on a tractor but nevertheless I had that same shattering revelatory flash, around the same age. I suppose many of us have.

    Great interview. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Thanks!

    It seems to be something about that age - you're searching, struggling to form your identity, re-evaluating everything with which you've been raised...

  3. Great interview!

    Looking forward to seeing where Humanistic Paganism goes from here, and especially how it will fit with the Spiritual Naturalist Society.