Our Pagan News Beagle today is all about faith & religion -- both Pagan and otherwise. Today we have 17th century British (accused) witches; a rare documentary on British Witches of the Sixties; a naturalist Pagan describes the purpose of ritual; religions that are highly concentrated in only a few places; and a suggestion of how black churches can function, post-Ferguson.
I have a perennial (and quite possibly crazy) vision for an Order of Trashmonks.
Let me explain what I mean...
I often pick up trash around my neighborhood. This has developed into a kind of meditation. I'm fond of calling it the way of the "trashmonk." It has nothing technically to do with monasteries, but it's an image of meditative spiritual awareness. Oh, and of course there is no gender bias intended either - both men and women could join and call themselves whatever they want: trashmonk, trashnun, trashmonastic... that can be worked out later. On to the main idea...
I have this idea that for all our differences, we are all one in matter. We are all one in the material earth. And this earth is like a commune. Like it or not, we are all living here together in this place of boundaries and limitation. Living produces trash. Trash is matter out of place. Matter out of place leads to disorder. And an inordinately high level of disorder leads to anxiety.
Putting things in order is putting things right. Putting things in their appropriate place is putting things right. Putting things right leads to order. And an appropriate level of order leads to calm and happiness. The commune becomes a monastery.
An Order of Trashmonks would be a society of fellows who join together in a practice. That practice is a formal exercise, wherein a person resolves to pick up trash from a certain place, of a certain kind, to a certain amount, and/or for a certain period of time, then proceeds to fulfill that intention, puts the collected trash in an appropriate place, and finally bathes. Undertaken formally, this is not unlike a ritual or a meditation.
Depending on the person, appropriate prayers and hymns may be added. The collected trash may be dedicated in some way, perhaps as an offering to a deity or to the earth. The act of collection may be a devotion, a prayer, a spiritual practice, a cultivation of virtue.
There need be no uniformity on these points of interpretation. It is enough that we are one in matter, and one in the formal practice. The practice is a symbolic expression of our oneness in matter. It is the recognition of a common living space, hence a common society, hence common duties and obligations, and common respect for this place.
There is unity in the physical act of the formal practice. But the physical is not the only aspect. For each body that picks up trash, there is a mind that experiences picking up trash. For each body that puts things in their right place, there is a mind that experiences putting things in their right place. And this affects the mind in fortuitous ways.
What we do with our bodies affects our minds. It affects our mood-states. It affects our values. Matter matters. How precisely this works is a subject for psychologists and philosophers. But the simplest of folk can see the effects on them of an appropriate level of order in their environment. As without, so within. The simplest of folk can see how physical work strengthens their bodies and lightens their minds. And the simplest of folk can observe how their mental state brightens when they play an active role in settings things right.
Of course, there is a limit to the appropriateness of order. Unity is not uniformity. Diversity is not disorder. These things are not to be overlooked either.
I can see a web site where trashmonks can associate. They can maintain their own private pages, and the system will allow them to record and keep track of their goals. They may have the option to make parts of their information public. A system of honors might recognize those who consistently fulfill their goals. There might also be contests for most kilograms collected, largest volume collected, largest space cleared of trash, longest trash collection at one go, longest distance covered while collecting trash, and so on and so forth. There could be a space to share photos of mounds of trash collected, or areas cleared. There could be trash art. Trash music.
Trash, when it becomes a value in itself, is no longer trash, but is in its appropriate place and time.
So, these are my thoughts on trashmonking for the moment. Idealistic, I know. But everyone needs to dream once in a while. Is it really so crazy?
Heck, if people sharing photos of cute cats can catch on, why not this?
Trash is matter out of place.
Respect all matter.
All forms of matter have their appropriate place and time.
Diversity, not disorder.
As without, so within.
Clean without, clean within.
Take care for your health
Respect others' territory
Respect others' possessions
Set goals and achieve them
What is clean one moment is dirty the next; what is dirty one moment can be clean the next
Don't be a burden on others
Set an example for others
Don't be troubled by those who mistreat you; just go on your way
Weather your hardships
Enjoy your rewards
Carry nothing that can't get dirty
Reduce, recycle, reuse
Take care to avoid righteousness
Keep your mind on what you are doing
Take things one step at a time
To be dirt is to be out of place
All things have their place
Whatever cleans tends to get dirty
Whatever can become dirty can also become clean
Mind your own habits before minding others'
Clean your own home first
Study waste: its materials, its effects
Rome was not built in a day
A constellation is not an object, it's a pattern of objects visible from a certain perspective. Look from a different perspective, and the pattern disappears.
That's what's going on right now with the raging controversies over the meaning of the word "Pagan." From some perspectives it makes sense, from others it does not. And since no single perspective has authority, neither does any single definition.
Here's a small sampling of the questions skewed by the constellation dilemma:
To be fair, many of the authors linked to above give fair and sensitive treatments of the subject. But that doesn't change a single glaring fact:
Not one of these is an answerable question.
The reason is simple: from different perspectives, the pattern under debate looks different and yields divergent answers. Talking about these questions can help us understand our differences - which is good - but it would be foolish to get frustrated when we inevitably find no final answer forthcoming.
We keep treating "Pagan" like it's a star, an object that ought to look the same from any perspective. And we throw our hands up in frustration when other people just can't see what we see.
Instead of continuing to beat each other over the head with the constellations we see or don't see, we should start talking about what's really there: stars.
If "Pagan" is a constellation, then what are its stars? The stars would be the concrete phenomena going on within Paganism: ritual acts, magical intentions, divine invocations, cultural traditions, natural cycles, community celebrations, and so on.
If we concentrate on the stars, we'll likely find that the exact same stars may not be included by everyone in their personal constellation. Polytheism may be in yours, but naturalism is in mine. Christian elements may be in someone else's. Nevertheless, I think we'll find that many stars are still shared in common.
Precisely which stars are shared may differ as well, but overall I suspect we'll find we're all looking at roughly the same region of sky. Even if we don't, though, we'll still be far more enriched by studying stars than debating constellations.
With the amount of energy we've been putting into arguing the meaning of "Pagan", we could have landed one of us on the moon by now. How much better would it be if we stopped asking unanswerable questions, and got down to the nitty-gritty?
I don't mean to put a moratorium on all debate over the word. As mentioned above, such dialogue can help us understand each other and our differences. I do mean to shift attention to what we can really talk about: the concrete things we "Pagans" do.
What if we devoted our energy to questions like:
These sorts of questions are answerable, and would get us much farther than ceaselessly frustrating ourselves over the meaning of "Pagan."
Image credit: Vulpecula constellation by Reitzg
Nature is self-caused, both source and manifestation of all matter, all experience, all thought, all emotion, all life, and all death. We were not created by nature; we have emerged within it, as integral parts of it. In short:
We are nature.
Yet nature is also transcendent, extending far beyond us. We are one tiny yet significant part of a vast immensity.
Nature is who we are.
Naturalistic Paganism views humans as embedded within the same natural systems as the rest of the universe. We are not privileged causal agents, not magically able to will ourselves without being caused in turn. This follows as a consequence of naturalism.
On the one hand, that makes it difficult to justify the old myth of free will (contra-causal free will, at least). Some may find this a jagged little pill.
On the other hand, it has an appeal all its own...
When you think about it, it makes us one with the universe. The story of our behavior doesn't begin with us; it follows the chain of causes back before we were born. The story of the cosmos is our story. The epic of evolution tells us who we are.
By the same token, our story doesn't end when we die. The cosmos, of which we are and always have been an integral part, goes on. Death is only the end of this shape we have taken; more await as our influences on other people reverberate through society, and as our atoms recombine into myriad new entities.
To the extent that we balance identification with the small self (our conscious, ego-directed self and its personal biography) with that of the Big Self (the social, cosmic, and unconscious whole of which the small self is a part), we attain a transcendent yet thoroughly plausible perspective. Further, as we come to identify with something greater than our small selves, we discover the intrinsic value of society and nature, and thereby motivate behavior conducive to individual, social, and ecological ends.
We discover the transcendent Big Self by looking outward, but also inward. When we consider the mind, we must admit that our conscious, ego-directed self is but the tip of the iceberg. Out of the depths of the unconscious come forces as strange, awe-inspiring, and utterly beyond our control as the furthest nebulae. Thus, by looking inward, we can explore the transcendent within our very selves.
Many of the practices that make Naturalistic Paganism distinct from other forms of Spiritual Naturalism, such as Pagan myth, ritual, meditation, and so on, aim at discovering the Big Self not only outside but also within. The common Neopagan dictum applies: "As above, so below. As within, so without."
This view conduces to three kinds of religious experiences. First, the vast gulf between small self and Big Self evokes a numinous experience of Otherness. Second, the essential identity of small self and Big Self enables a mystical experience of Oneness. Finally, awestruck wonder at this paradox inspires a visionary experience of meaning.
Some have found naturalism bleak and empty, a jagged little pill. As for me, I can think of nothing more abundantly meaningful.
Thanks to nature, I know who I am.
But in all this endless talk, few seem to have the balls to say in no uncertain terms what's really going on:
It's about kicking people out.
The question seems to be, on the face of it, about labels. It's about what it means to be "Pagan", if anything. The label gets analyzed, dissected, and pulled apart. But that's just a facade.
Underneath lies a clash in our collective conscience, an ugly truth we don't want to acknowledge. There's a painful cognitive dissonance coming from holding two mutually contradictory beliefs about ourselves:
We are a community choking on our own relativism. Like the serpent Ouroboros trying to encircle everything, we've been eating our own tail for too long, and it's starting to hurt.
We always knew we were diverse in beliefs, but somehow at small scales it was okay. We told ourselves beliefs didn't matter. We made jokes like "I'm a theist on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and an atheist on Tuesdays and Thursdays." And we thought we were being sincere. Well, the "Pagan" question shows we still have some issues to work through. It turns out saying beliefs don't matter is kinda like denying racism by saying you're "color blind." We shouldn't be "belief blind"; we should embrace difference. Beliefs do matter to us.
When we come across others who believe radically different than we do, it feels like the bond is breaking. We want to say they're not Pagan, but then remember we're not supposed to police others' beliefs, and end up sputtering long-winded analyses of what it means to be "Pagan." Don't get me wrong - analyses are useful, and I'm as analytically-oriented as any other, but in this case I think we just need to say what we mean: we feel deeply uncomfortable, and don't know what to do about it.
I certainly haven't been blameless in this respect; I've felt that frustration, and made some mistakes as a result. I've also attempted to learn from my mistakes, and push toward something better.
We have crafted a community of "whatever works." We have posed ourselves as nondogmatic. We have championed orthopraxy, or shared practice, over orthodoxy, or shared belief. I have personally lauded this as amazing, a rare and precious thing in contemporary religion. But is it sustainable? The current debate over the "Pagan" question calls it into doubt.
There are a few sensible ways out of the dilemma.
Option 1. Bow out from the label
One is to take the minimally exclusive approach, excluding only yourself from the label. Heathens have long since rejected the "Pagan" identifier, and those moving to the "polytheist" label are doing the same. I respect and applaud their intellectual integrity.
Option 2. Learn to exclude
Another sensible response is to give up our non-exclusionary ideals, and take a more realistic view of the Pagan community. Instead of trying to embody the antithesis of monotheist exclusionism by including everything, we can humbly learn to exclude some things. If, in the end, majority consensus were to decide to exclude me, I honestly wouldn't lose that much sleep over it. I'd just keep on doing what I was doing under a different label.
Option 3. Re-envision solidarity
A third and final option, probably the most difficult of all, but the most promising, is to re-envision what we hold in common. This must begin, first of all, by an honest and thorough rejection of false-consensus bias. We do differ in beliefs, and beliefs do matter. Second, after that admission, we must discover what it is that we do hold in common. I recently interviewed Jason Pitzl-Waters about this whole issue, and this is what he said:
"Community isn't about unity, it's about solidarity."
In that brief statement I sense an inchoate resonance. Solidarity, not unity. If we can come to a point where that collectively makes sense to us, then we'll have achieved something.
So, where does this leave us? I suspect a simple, six-point perspective can help us get over this hump and headed toward solidarity.
If we can manage such a perspective, then we can get on to the real work of forging solidarity. We won't feel others are " "stealing" our gods, posing some "militant, evangelical" threat, or promoting some kind of Calvinistic "orthodoxy." We won't arrogantly suppose others exist at our grace as our "clown-skeptics." Nor will we pretend to be "belief blind."
Rather, we'll stand side-by-side, a true community.
Finally, let me conclude with an appeal to both naturalists and non-naturalists alike:
Please, don't call me an "Atheist Pagan." Yes, I'm technically an atheist, but that's not how I identify. A fair number do answer to that label, but I don't, and here's why:
First, when you use that term, the first thing people think is "no gods" and the next thing is "not Pagan", which leads into the whole "Pagan" question. But it's all much ado about nothing: I do in fact work with deities, as do many other Naturalistic Pagans like me; we simply differ from theists in what we believe about them.
Second, atheism is too often associated with a moral judgment that religion is bad. That makes it rather awkward to stand side-by-side with your co-religionists. Personally, I think religion does a great deal of good; I just happen to believe differently about some aspects of it than others.
In the end, you may still disagree about whether we so-called atheists (I prefer "naturalists") are "Pagan" enough, but please at least take the time to learn what we believe and why we do ritual before making your decision.
My rituals are done to please the gods. Therefore, if you do not acknowledge the existence of those gods then there is absolutely no reason to be in attendance at the rites because — and I know this will come as a shock to some — true worship isn’t about us and what we get out of the experience however much one may, indeed, get out of it. (emphasis Sannion's)
You can feel the power of that statement. I completely disagree with it, but I respect it. Why? Because it displays integrity. Sannion lays out his beliefs in a way that is totally unambiguous: the gods are real, and ritual is for them.
Naturalists are rarely so bluntly clear. But perhaps we ought to be.
In this post, I offer my views phrased as bluntly as possible.
Warning: what follows is no edifying homily. It captures none of the mystery or wonder of religion, but takes a hard-nosed utilitarian approach, with a radically unconventional way of talking about deities. Sometimes it's necessary to take such a down-in-the-dirt look at things, in order to more confidently embrace the mystery and wonder.
These represent my views, not those of naturalists generally. They are built on personal experience as well as extensive research in cognitive science and evolutionary approaches to religion. They are open to revision based on new evidence. As Dan Kahan says, "Science is a scale that never stops weighing."
Deities are exactly what they appear to be, once you rule out as extremely unlikely the hypothesis that gods are independent causal agents "out there" somewhere. Put simply, deities are culture.
More specifically, they are evolving cultural entities whose only "interest"* is replication by leaping from mind to mind. They encourage humans to pass them on by exploiting innate biological dispositions and providing a suite of enticing psychological and sociological benefits.
Deities and humans exist in symbiosis. To the extent that they mutually support each others' interests, that symbiosis is beneficial.
Ritual** is for humans and deities.
For humans, ritual is one of the primary means by which we represent and integrate deities, thus cultivating the conditions under which the psychological and sociological benefits of symbiosis may emerge.
Ritual is also for deities. By deeply integrating deities into human cognitive, emotive, and behavioral structures, ritual makes participants more likely to pass them on. Further, ritual is itself a passing on of the deity to any newcomers present.
Ritual thus mutually advances the interests of both humans and deities.
Indirectly, ritual benefits may also extend farther. By motivating human action in favor of the environment, for example, benefit ripples out beyond the human-deity symbiosis.
The hypothesized psychological and sociological benefits accrued through symbiosis are many. For a detailed list, see the article "Why Do Ritual as a Naturalistic Pagan?"
Despite benefits, humans can still get on just fine without deities and rituals.
Studies show that highly secular societies function quite well. They do not fall into chaos, nor do their citizens' lives become a colorless malaise.
There may be some significant tradeoffs to secular life, but suffice to say it's not the end of the world.
We can live without deities and their rituals. We benefit from them, but we do not depend on them. If they should become detrimental, we can walk away.
It is possible for human interest to be compromised in favor of divine interest. Since deities have only one "interest", that would inevitably mean replication by means detrimental to humans.
Detriment can be defined as overall cost in terms of time, energy, and expense which is not "paid back", as it were, in benefits. Costly devotion to a deity that produces more anxiety than it alleviates, for example, could be a red flag.
Benefits may not always be obvious, of course. The situation is complex, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, we can and should have structures in place to guard against parasitism.
We can do that by keeping two things firmly in mind:
Sannion suggests that "true worship isn't about us and what we get out of the experience", it's about pleasing the gods. Insofar as I understand and respect his hard polytheism, I can't fault his argument on rational grounds.
As a naturalist, however, I take a different tack. It is dangerous to prioritize the interests of deities above those of humans. Symbiosis should be mutually beneficial.
The best way to ensure that is to recognize deities for what they really are, and affirm that ritual is for both deities and humans.
In the last post, I suggested naturalists can connect to something greater than themselves. Without literal belief in deity or afterlife, they can achieve transcendence. How?
There are myriad ways of naturalistic transcendence, but I'm going to concentrate on three major ones: through nature, community, and mind. I'll illustrate each with a story or example, then tie them together at the end.
Standing at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, I beheld how much greater it was than me in degree, how alien in kind. It soared above the island; wrapped itself in mist.
Then, as I made the long, two-day ascent, I confronted limits of endurance beyond which I thought myself incapable. Beyond the timberline, I felt the thup, thup, thup of my heart pounding some two-hundred times per minute. The altitude and chill showed me a body I'd never known before.
At the peak, I discovered the experience of the mountain changed who I was. It was not that I became greater than the mountain, but the greatness of the mountain became part of me. It became part of my life story. Ever after, I felt a bond with it and a humility before it that endures to this day.
Finally, contemplating this and other such experiences, I saw the relation between myself and the mountain as one interdependent ecosystem. Nature is vast, and we are part of that vastness. We come out of it, belong to it, and contribute to it with every thought and action.
This kind of experience can arise whether looking into the eyes of a wolf, as in Aldo Leopold's hunting experience, or gazing at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, as in Neil deGrasse Tyson's "most astounding fact."
Nature is explored more deeply here.
As my wife and I slogged along on our bicycles, generally irritated at each other, suddenly there was a pop. Her back tire went flat, and we were in the middle of nowhere on a Korean highway. We had to find a repair shop, communicate our problem, and somehow make it home.
As we pulled through this minor crisis, a peculiar thing happened: we were no longer irritated at each other. Through working together as a couple, each of us had moved from me to we. In some small way, we’d experienced a tiny moment of transcendence.
There are also big moments.
On August 28th, 1963, over 200,000 men and women descended upon Washington, D.C. This collective unit, shouting with one voice, was also a gathering of individuals. Hundreds of thousands of unique personalities joined to demonstrate commitment to something greater than themselves: the ideal of justice.
The march expressed deep rifts in the community, frustration at the systematic disenfranchisement of an entire race. The footfalls of each individual rang with suffering, and hope against all odds for something better.
Our species has a deplorable capacity for cruelty, especially toward outgroups and deviants within-group. At the same time, we also have the power to cooperate and achieve great things when we come together. In doing so, we take part in something greater than ourselves.
Community is explored more deeply here.
I sat down at my altar to Isis with an emotional knot I'd been working on for days without resolution. It wasn't an intellectual problem with a logical solution, but an emotional one. Life had grown confused; I was unsure what I was doing with my career and my marriage; I felt closed off and restricted. Within minutes of chanting and talking to Isis about it, the knot loosed. Suddenly, I felt clear and open, like there was a way forward.
This happens to me regularly. Somehow, an unconscious process is facilitated by the images and actions involved in devotion. Perhaps the image of a supernormal mother figure like Isis and the bodily actions of rhythmic chanting, gift offering, and intimate confession are props that aid cognition. Ritual devotion may not be unique in its ability to facilitate this, but it appears to be one way to do it, and an effective one in my experience.
I'm sure other people's experiences with ritual may be quite different. Regardless, this example demonstrates, like a pebble cast into a well, just how far down the unconscious mind goes. It can do things that "I" can't. It is not "me"; it is radically "other." To sound its depths is indeed to discover something greater than oneself.
Mind is explored more deeply here.
When I speak of naturalistic transcendence, I mean an experience of something greater than you not only in degree but also in kind, yet in which you nevertheless participate. In experiencing your participation in this something greater, you encounter something which challenges and transforms your whole sense of who and what you are, your way of being-in-the-world.
Some Pagans are somewhat wary of "transcendence", including T Thorn Coyle ("transcendent thinking") and myself not long ago. But these mainly object to that kind of transcendence which opposes immanence.
In contrast, naturalistic transcendence explodes the traditional theological dichotomy between transcendence and immanence, which asks whether the divine is outside or inside nature. That question makes no sense to a naturalist. Nature is all there is; nothing could be outside it. The divine, whatever that may mean, either is within nature, or is nature. Naturalistic transcendence, then, manifests in a context of immanence. It is transcendence of the individual self or ego within a wholly-immanent universe.
The three ways of transcendence outlined here share a few characteristics:
When we have drunk the cold cup of the moon’s intoxication, we thirst for something beyond ourselves, and the mind flows outward to a natural immensity
Has something important been overlooked or left out? No doubt it has. Your personal experiences may differ, and I'd love to hear about them.
How do you seek transcendence?