Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his Ph.D. in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism and posts videos on his YouTube Channel. Jon is also a regular columnist at HP. His column is called Starstuff, Contemplating.
Here we talk about his views, projects, and life, and extensively about Naturalistic Paganism and Humanistic Paganism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You host a super-minority and intriguing view within the Humanist community, internationally. I haven’t seen much like it. So, I wanted to get the view out there, as another consideration. Often, there can be grazing the orbit of this manner of looking at the world in some popularizations of agnosticism, Humanism, and science, in à la carte manner. For example, the late Carl Sagan and Sagan’s intellectual descendant, Neil deGrasse Tyson (Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History), speak of the awe, majesty, power, and wonder of nature qua nature for them. This amounts to the sensibility without the formal personal identification and philosophical affirmation of Naturalism and Paganism, i.e., Naturalistic Paganism, where Tyson, for example, mightily identifies as an agnostic based on the not-knowing of certain things, trained as an astrophysicist, earned Humanist awards, gets coverage in the Humanist press, while never identifying as a Naturalistic Pagan or a Humanistic Pagan. Something like an Agnostic-Humanist with Pagan sensibilities. Let’s define some terms. What is paganism in this context?
Dr. Jon Cleland Host: I’m glad that the term “Paganism” has evolved from its earlier use as a derogatory term applied by Christians to non-Christians (those out in the “country” – “paganus” in Latin) to a more accepting use now. Today, “Pagan” is an umbrella term encompassing many different spiritual paths. I think that the international Pagan Federation’s definition of “Pagan” is helpful:
“Pagan: A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”
This includes a huge range of Pagan paths, including the Goddess worshipping Wiccan, the Atheist who knows how she is enmeshed in our vast web of life, the Odin worshipping Asatru, the follower of Bast, and so many more. Much of the reason for our diversity of belief is our rejection of the Christian idea of eternal torture for having the wrong beliefs. Because Pagans don’t expect anyone to be tortured for having different beliefs, it’s much more common (though not universal) for Pagans of different beliefs to accept each other. Our diversity gives us strength.
What’s most important, and what unites us Pagans, is that we Pagans explicitly celebrate our world, our Universe. We openly embrace the wonder, joy and awe we feel from being connected to, indeed being part of, our natural world. We don’t need an excuse or a reason, we feel the deep power of the atoms and cycles of which connect us. There is no embarrassment, and we don’t care if society doesn’t like it. Paganism gives us permission to dance under a waterfall, to be overwhelmed by a starry sky, to be in love with our world. We proudly proclaim that this is one F**ing awesome universe, to the point of worship, and if someone thinks that we shouldn’t say that, and that we should be worshipping only their imaginary sky daddy instead, then they can go jump in a (wonderful, awesome) lake.
Jacobsen: What is Humanism in this context?
Host: Humanism is an ethical approach to life that is based on reason, naturalism and making the best of this one life we know we have, for ourselves and for everyone. Though originally focused on humanity, Humanists today include our whole Earth, our whole web of life, recognizing that we are not separate from the web of life, so we can’t have a flourishing humanity without a flourishing web of life. Humanists want to help build a just, healthy and sustainable world for everyone, and know that decisions based on reality and focused on this world are the best way to do that. I love the Humanist community. We do a lot of good. But I’ve found that Humanist based celebrations and rituals feel stilted at best. It’s really hard for us rational people to let go of the analysis and live in the moment – more on that below.
Jacobsen: What is naturalism in this context?
Host: By “Naturalism”, we are referring to philosophical naturalism – the belief that the universe is governed by natural laws, and that there aren’t any disembodied spirits, ghosts, deities, magic, or other supernatural. This is not a claim or assumption, but is rather a conclusion – the result of simply trying to be unbiased. Why do I say that?
Well, consider the opposite. Imagine that I was to say that supernatural things are real. Well, how would I support that? Perhaps by pointing to sacred scripture, such as, say, the Amitabha Sutra. But if I accept the Amitabha Sutra as describing reality, then that means that I have to reject other sacred scripture (say, the Pearl of Great Price), because they contradict each other. In fact, the same thing happens with any supernatural belief source. Oh, I talked firsthand with a person who had a personal vision of the supernatural? But then why would I accept that over another person’s personal revelation, which contradicts it?
Should I believe one over the other simply because I randomly happened to meet one person and not the other? OK, how about I apply some critical thinking to the other revelation? I would soon find that the other revelation is not supported by the evidence. So does that mean I should just believe the first person’s revelation – hook, line and sinker? Of course, that’s not being fair. And as soon as I apply the same critical testing to the revelation from the first person, I see that it also is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, realizing that people “remember” things that didn’t happen (big topic – look it up), or that humans can and do hallucinate (with or without the aid of drugs), and that literally thousands of people have described supernatural revelations, shows that even if I myself remember having a revelation, that it too might not survive a look at the evidence. If a revelation does survive a look at the evidence, then I can just go by the evidence and then I don’t need the revelation anyway. In fact, if I accept my own memory of a revelation as a way to know what’s true, then what possible basis could I have for rejecting someone’s revelation telling them to kill people in a terrorist attack?
Additional examples of supernatural beliefs are all around us – in religions and pop culture. Looking at any of them shows pretty quickly that people believe in supernatural things for often random or emotional reasons, such as which country they happened to be born in, or what their parents believed, or who one’s friends are. If we are to fairly look at beliefs, then it’s hard to avoid a conclusion of naturalism (as explained above). Perhaps the clearest evidence for this the fact that we naturalists can say to nearly everyone (to Muslims, Asatru, Christians, Hindus, etc) that “you already believe in practically everything that we believe in”. Nearly everyone already believes in things like atoms, like gravity, sound, rockets, cooking, animals, and so on. The things that everyone agrees are real are very likely real – because the overwhelming evidence is why there is nearly universal agreement on their reality. For us naturalists, those are our beliefs (more at https://humanisticpaganism.com/religious-naturalism/). For me at least, my naturalism gives me profound meaning and purpose (link https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/03/12/starstuff-contemplating-by-jon-cleland-host-a-naturalistic-credo/).
This means that naturalism is not an arbitrary choice among equals, and is certainly not dogmatically believing what one is told. The demographic patterns, the evidential justification, the robustness to testing, and so much more show that we naturalists are not picking naturalism willy-nilly from a menu of equally likely worldviews, listed after, say, “Catholicism, Zoroastrianism, …” and just before “Jainism, Crystal Healing, Judaism, etc.”. Unlike the others, naturalism is the only path which says that because our world is what is important, and because real understanding is most likely to give the best results, finding the most likely truth is more important than following tradition, obeying dogma or believing things for arbitrary reasons. Instead, naturalism means that we look at the evidence, form hypotheses, test them, revise them based on the evidence, and repeat. It means that we look at the tested and predictive consensus of the experts in areas we can’t test ourselves, and it means that all conclusions are tentative, getting us closer to the likely truth.
Because believing wrong things leads to taking wrong actions, and because taking wrong actions hurts real people (others, ourselves and/or future generations), naturalism seems to me to be the only ethical approach to knowledge. There are, of course, a wide range of consequences to different beliefs. I’m certainly not saying that all non-naturalistic belief systems are horrible. It’s quite clear that the Judaism of Anne Frank makes the world a better place compared to the religious belief system of the KKK. Also, all of us have been influenced by our life history, and I’m grateful for being brought to the point where I could choose to test my beliefs against the evidence (many people never get that opportunity). I’d like to think that believing things based only on evidence is simply a matter of self-respect and respect for everyone, but, of course, our life histories are more complicated than that.
Jacobsen: Following the last three questions, what knits these together in two sets of two as either Humanistic Paganism or Naturalistic Paganism?
Host: Naturalism brings hard-headed scrutiny of the evidence. While not always fun (like most humans, none of us enjoy the slow realization that one of our beliefs is likely wrong), it gives us the wonderful gift of being wrong a little less often. Like other forms of honesty, it is overall a small price to pay for the benefits to us and our world. Naturalism means that we are a little more likely to have the positive effect on the world we intend, and by at least trying to use critical thinking in every area of our lives, we are a little more likely to avoid the lies, and resulting harm, from a demagogue.
But there is another huge benefit – one that is perhaps a surprise to some. At least for me – and I’ve heard this from other too – naturalism brings an amazement, an awestruck wonder, to our lives. To see the marvels all around us, and especially to learn about the workings of each through the incredible wealth of information we now have though science, fills me with a joyous astonishment. It’s impossible to describe. I’ve tried to do so in a post (https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/06/11/starstuff-contemplating-by-jon-cleland-host-the-wonder-amplifier/). Simply put, learning more about the scientific details of every aspect of our Universe makes them each all the more rapturous. At first, I really wasn’t sure this would continue – but it never stops. Every year I learn more and find more incredible things, and they seem to feed on each other, maybe squaring the wonder over and over as I learn more. Even after a half-century of life, there is no end in sight. I’m especially grateful to Carl Sagan for helping open this door for me.
This joy could be trapped inside. But it’s not. Raising kids helps – kids, like Pagans, don’t need permission to revel in the joy of a waterfall, forest ridge or science experiment, and neither does their Dad! Paganism also provides a life-changing, a life-giving, outlet for this joy given by our universe. The rituals, the daily practices and especially the recognition that our real universe is deeply, powerfully sacred, are things that enrich my life.
Naturalism and Paganism are knitted together in my life with the universe supplying a deep well of inspiration, and Paganism providing the tools that help me live this inspiration, to drink it in and weave it into my life. Together, they are so much more than either could be alone.
Jacobsen: How did you enter the world as a Catholic (imposed) and come to the point of Unitarian Universalism, Humanistic Paganism, and Naturalistic Paganism?
Host: My own history starts out with the very common story of one leaving Catholicism. I was raised Catholic, and unlike some, was still solidly Catholic in my teens. But then I started to see contradictions. Logical problems, like “if God is just, why are non-Catholics sent to Hell, if they are raised in another religion?” etc. I even booked a time with a priest to discuss them. I thought that since the Catholic church had been around for well over 1,000 years, with tons of top-notch scholars, these silly questions must have been figured out many centuries ago. The priest offered trite sayings that didn’t answer the questions. It began to dawn on me that there the “answers” *didn’t exist*! Such a huge shift takes time, and it was years before I could look at things based mostly on evidence instead of how I had been taught to see things. Looking at the evidence, it became clear that the traditional religions had grown from real needs, and been invented by people, partially to gain power over others. I also realized that many religions have been, and continue to be, harmful in many ways, including fighting against women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, LGBT rights, scientific advancement, and evidence-based problem-solving. I became the stereotypical Atheist, eschewing all religious observations because they weren’t based in reality. I found this to be too empty. I’m human – I need emotional connection, colour, vibrancy. I realized that humans for well over five thousand years, and probably much more, have been finding deep significance in the yearly cycle of the Sun, and especially the sunrise moment of the Winter Solstice. So I started a simple practice – watching the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. I found that it is invigorating to be celebrating, noticing, and being deeply moved by, this one moment in time when our Ancestors stood in fear and hope, and when we, with understanding given by science, can stand in confidence that the Sun will return. These powerful moments gained strength every year, connecting me to billions of lives of people who, like me, strove to attach meaning to the best and most reliable understanding out of the world around us.
I met my wife around that time, and with that powerful connection growing every year, it was only natural for us to add the Summer Solstice. The others were added over time, until we’re celebrating the Wheel of the Year. We realized how moving, how awe-inspiring, we found this approach to be – drawing on the grand Universe as revealed to us by science, and celebrating that connection with the Wheel of the Year and other Pagan metaphors. We discussed a lot of names, and settled on Naturalistic Paganism because it both described what we were (instead of what we were not, as in the term “Atheist”), while also being clear (“naturalism” has a clear philosophical definition – “no supernatural”). That was 2003. We started a webpage (Naturalpagans.org), and a yahoo group followed (Naturalistic Paganism). Later (2011), B. T. Newberg created the Humanistic Paganism website (having arrived at the same idea independently). B.T. explains this history and the longer-term history of Naturalistic Paganism in this post. https://humanisticpaganism.com/2015/06/09/exploring-the-historical-roots-of-naturalistic-paganism-by-b-t-newberg/ I joined the team around 2015, and it has been wonderful seeing this (and other) forms of Naturalistic Paganism continue to grow (such as Atheopaganism, see below).
Throughout all of this, It’s been wonderful to connect with other Pagans in the wider Pagan community, and join in many different rituals and celebrations. It can be a tricky balance at times between my own hard-nosed naturalism/atheism and the prevalence of pseudoscience/woo in the wider Pagan community. I sometimes have to remind myself to consider if a supernatural belief is very harmful or not, but overall it’s been great to simply enjoy a ritual with others, even if we personally think of the language used differently – such as if many others see a deity as literal and I see a metaphor. After all, no one thinks anyone is going to hell for being a heretic.
Jacobsen: How does materials science training help with developing a clearer picture of the world rather than one clouded by mystery assuming a form of non-technical operations to the world? I separate this form of mystery from an empirical mystery point of view standard in all or most great scientists, or the epithet used against some others as in “the New Mysterians.”
Host: The most important part of my Materials Science background has been learning critical thinking and logical skills, which are universal to the sciences and needed for avoiding common errors in thinking. These include treating evidence as more reliable than tradition, testing hypotheses (and especially being able to change one’s view if unsupported), looking for logical fallacies, and so on. A good overview of these can be seen in Carl Sagan’s “Baloney detection kit”.
Being aware of the most often abused ways to deceive people is especially important. There are too many to go into here, but one that I’ve seen a lot of, especially today, is when a single case is used to make a point, often hiding the real picture. For instance, a shared video of a single mild case of Covid-19 used to say that the whole pandemic isn’t a concern, or the voice of a black Trump supporter shown to suggest that most black people support Trump, or the case of someone who prayed and then their cancer went into remission, etc. An understanding of large and small numbers allows one to see how we are fooled and make responsible choices.
Though I personally learned these guidelines of clear thinking through science, they are much more universal than that. Nearly all of us need this to be beneficial to those around us, to ourselves, to wider society, and to future generations. These aren’t “just for scientists”. All of us make choices about our own medical care, our own lifestyle, our own votes for our leaders, our environment, how we teach the kids in our lives, etc. Clear thinking is essential for all of those and so much more.
These are at least as important today as ever. With a US president who routinely lies, pseudoscience appearing online and on the TV, and a rise in evidence denials such as the anti-vaxxer and flat-earth movements, our world needs clear thinking to reduce the damage around us.
Jacobsen: How have the working relationships with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow developed into the present? Any particular fun and funny stories to share in the midst of collaboration?
Host: Sure! Once, we were recording an interview and suddenly Connie stopped Michael in mid-sentence. She said “wait, there – look! There’s a bald eagle going for fish on the lake!”. We turned and sure enough, there was an eagle who had swooped down to the lake surface and was working to regain altitude. We couldn’t tell if the eagle had a fish or not. Connie quipped “Yeah, life is tough not havin’ a home!” (they don’t have a permanent house, but rather are constantly travelling to different speaking engagements). We were recording the interview rather quickly before the rest of my family arrived, after which it would have been difficult due to my four rambunctious kids.
You can hear this interview (including the eagle part) here. It’s great for those of us interested in a naturalistic lifestyle. http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/4b_jon_cleland_host_it_s_all_really_there.
(the other interview recorded that day is also relevant for a naturalistic lifestyle) http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/4a_jon_cleland_host_inspiring_naturalism_for_families.
Jacobsen: You have 4 children. Can you clarify, please? What is “Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality”?
Host: Yes, let’s break that down.
“Universe-centered” – Focused on this real world, not on some imaginary afterlife, or any other supernatural idea. While this seems like a minor point (“why not live this life while imagining a possible heaven?”), it turns out that it’s a huge shift. If we are focused on this world, then we work to make this world better, instead of treating this world as unimportant, as one might do if they thought there were going to another world in a few short decades. If we are focused on this world, we work to make everyone’s life better, instead of trying to please this or that imaginary space ghost.
Pagan: We Pagans celebrate our Earth, its cycles, its seasons, and our universe. We do so often using the Wheel of the Year, the four directions, and Pagan metaphors, often in the Pagan community. The many practices we do have become a fulfilling part of my life, and covering all of them would be a book in itself. Here are some of them.
The Wheel of the Year: The Wheel of the Year is simply the calendar year mapped onto a circle, with 8 holidays. These are the Solstices, Equinoxes, Thermstices, and Equitherms (the peaks and midpoints of the yearly cycle of light and warmth). These are described in detail here, along with the specific celebrations we hold in our family. (https://humanisticpaganism.com/2015/03/09/starstuff-contemplating-our-powerful-sabbats-by-john-and-heather-cleland-host). We hold many of these in our stone circle – a place the has stones for the directions (the four cardinal points plus the directions halfway between them). Over time, repeatedly using this place as sacred has helped make it a special place for us all.
Ritual: We usually attend or hold a ritual for each holiday and at other times. These vary over a huge range. As humans, we feel more group energy with more people – at least more than just a single person, and over 10 is even better. Most of these are with a few other Pagan families, and are often simple enough to include the kids. Pagan rituals often start with casting a circle to designate sacred space, and then calling each direction to connect us to the Earth. Our Ancestors for millennia lived and died depending on knowing the directions, and so there is a reason they touch our hearts. To get a feel for the power and poignancy of Pagan rituals, finding one and attending it is much more effective than any words I can put down here (some rituals are much better than others). But I can give a summary of the most recent large ritual I was at (which had around 200 people, at Convocation in Detroit, February 2020). This was a ritual to honour our Ancestral mothers. In a darkened room lit by candlelight, we formed a (very large!) circle. After a basic start to the ritual, the person leading the ritual led us through a story like a description of our Ancestors, leading back through time, with a melodic, rhythmic, ritual voice. The floor had six large paintings of Ancestral mothers from our past. By this time I felt distinctly out of my day to day life, as if I was in a timeless place. A chant was raised, and with the slow chant, we formed lines, slowly walking past the images, taking time to look at each one and thank them. A mirror gave us each a chance to look at ourselves, seeing who we have become and who these mothers have given us. At the front of the darkened room was a large, dimly lit painting of the Lascaux cave bull painting. We each pressed our hand into a bowl of paint, and put our handprint on the painting, as if we were in Lascaux, 17,000 years ago. The ritual continued with more time for meditation on what we had felt, and steps to bring us back to normal time and a normal state of mind. This was a deeply centring experience – the kind of experience I would not want to be absent from my life. Similarly, even the simple rituals for the eight points of the Wheel of the Year greatly help in feeling connected to our Earth, to feel like I’m not missing watching the seasons pass.
There are a lot more Pagan practices in our family life – many are described in the links.
Family: My kids are the most important aspect of my life, and any spirituality which is completely self-centred is not healthy, so it’s not a surprise that our family is centrally important in my spirituality. As described in the link above (and here https://humanisticpaganism.com/2014/12/14/starstuff-contemplating-by-heather-and-jon-cleland-host-celebrating-meaning-in-our-lives-through-family-holidays/), there are specific, fun ways that we celebrate each holiday with the kids. If you want to find out what is important to someone, asking them is not necessarily the best way to find out. Instead, look at two things: their calendar and their chequebook. Where we put our time and money will show what is important to us – and likely what our effect on future generations will be. Holidays are no different – they teach our kids (and ourselves!) what is important. If holidays are empty consumerism, or worse, “celebrate” things we don’t believe or support, then what do the kids learn from that? This is why we make sure that our holidays teach the kids that we are part of the Earth, that our Universe is awesome, and that having fun is both important and can be done in a reality-based way. For this reason, what we do with the kids is at least, if not more, important than me personally being moved by a ritual. It’s a delicate balance to make our family celebrations honest and real, while still being similar enough to the surrounding culture so that none of this becomes too hard to maintain over many years. For instance, for Yule, we do have gifts and a tree. The gifts are opened on Winter Solstice morning, and the tree is fully reality-based.
Jacobsen: Any upcoming projects to announce for us?
Host: Yes! Though everything is shut down now with the pandemic, when life returns to normal I hope to continue discussions in the Detroit area Pagan community about an outdoor sacred ritual location. One cool thing about Pagan ritual is that we like to hold them outdoors. A ritual at sunrise or under the moonlight, in a forest or clearing, taps into environments that put our brains into a different state due to millions of years of evolution.
Also, a good friend of mine in the Naturalistic Pagan community just started a nontheistic Pagan podcast, called “The Wonder: Science Based Paganism”. The plan is for a podcast every week! Here is the link. https://thewonderpodcast.podbean.com/.
Jacobsen: Any recommended, authors, organizations, or speakers?
Host: For the wonder of Naturalism, I highly recommend the original Cosmos Series by Carl Sagan. It’s on Netflix and other outlets. Even after decades, the only thing out of date is Dr. Sagan’s turtleneck sweater. The recent second Cosmos Series by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson is a very close second. These are both perfect for family viewing and discussion except for the youngest kids. For the youngest kids, start them off with the first and second seasons of Scooby Doo (where all supernatural claims turn out to be a fake money making scam), Grandmother Fish (by Jonathan tweet), and walks in the woods.
Though our Naturalistic Pagan community is still small, we are growing, and already have resources out there. I edit the Humanistic Paganism blog (https://humanisticpaganism.com/, also on Facebook), there is a rapidly growing Atheopagan community (https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/, also on Facebook) which Mark Green started, and two books have also just come out – “Atheopaganism” by Mark Green and “Godless Paganism” Edited by John Halstead. I’m available to speak, as are probably others. I’d also recommend checking out your local Pagan or CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) group. It’s hit or miss, but many of us are out there, and we are growing every day. There is a reason, after all, that myself, B. T. Newberg, Mark Green, John Halstead, and many others realized this same idea of Naturalistic Paganism independently.
Also, my wife (Heather) and I wrote a book about some of our family practices – specifically about how we celebrate birthdays by atomic number (so a 6th birthday is has a carbon theme – the 6th element, an 8th birthday has an oxygen theme, etc.). The book is “Elemental Birthdays” by Jon and Heather Cleland Host, and it has birthday party plans, science experiments for each birthday, etc. It’s available at (http://www.solstice-and-equinox.com/elementalbirthdays.html).
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Host: Sure. There is an important concept that I haven’t touched on yet. I’ve explained why naturalism is not just another belief system among all the different superstitions out there, but instead is the simple result of trying to be as least biased as possible when looking at the world. I haven’t explained why Paganism is important, at least to me.
Understanding the literal mountain of evidence from geology, biology, anatomy, cladistics, genetics, and more makes it clear that we have evolved from non-human Ancestors. The evidence shows that our brains have evolved, just as our arms, livers, feet and ears have evolved. We can better understand those organs by looking at their evolutionary history and resulting structure. People often shy away from doing the same with our brains, I think due to the cultural prevalence of philosophical dualism, itself a hangover from Christianity (which is fully dualistic). Dualism is beyond the scope of this interview, but the point is that we can look at our brains the same way we look at any other part of our bodies – in light of the reality of evolution.
Looking at our brains in the light of evolution, we see that they have evolved from the inside out, with primitive, basic functions deepest down, at the brain stem, and subsequent additions on top of that. Of course, this is a model, and is not perfect. Evolution doesn’t make anything perfect, but jury-rigs everything, making connections here and there, and some happen to survive. This gives us a roughly four-part brain, with the deepest part, the brain stem, governing basic survival. This is our Lizard brain, in control of the four “F’s” – Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Mating. The next part out is the mammal brain (the limbic system), which is where our emotions, “gut feelings” and feelings of love, connection, and bonding come from. The biggest part is the neo-cortex, our “monkey mind” or primate brain – able to figure out complex puzzles, handle language, and analyze data. Lastly, in the front, we have the Frontal Lobes – our “higher human”, which can make long term plans, think about the future or even the time long after we die.
We need to feed and satisfy all parts of that brain which we all have (notice that Maslow’s hierarchy is simply the brain structure described above). Religion taps into the needs of the limbic system – the mammal brain which needs community, needs ritual, and needs feelings of purpose and bonding (and hopefully the parts above that too). Religion activates many of our most powerful motivators and response centers, guaranteeing the person’s attention and devotion. This means that humans, with rare exceptions, need a spirituality/religion. Humans will seek one out, and even build one themselves (often only a temporary solution). If a healthy, reality-based, beneficial religion is not available, millions of people will join harmful religions, harming our future world. If we are to have any hope of building a just, healthy, sustainable world for ourselves and future generations, we need to build a spiritual approach that is both reality-based and still includes ritual, symbolism, practices, and community. Carl Sagan recognized this too, when he said:
A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
Building such a religion is not easy. Building anything like that is a lot of work, and this is even more difficult because many of the most effective survival tools of supernatural religions (thought control, supernatural threats, etc.) are harmful, and so avoiding them is needed, but makes our task harder. Our own evolved brains require the emotion, connection, and feelings of rituals and ceremonies, while at the same time, Humanist rituals and ceremonies are often stilted and uncomfortable (as I alluded to earlier), if they happen at all. That’s a huge topic, which I’ve written a 15,000-word essay on (maybe I should clean it up and publish it as a book?). I won’t be able to cover it well, but here is a summary.
Why and how are Humanist (and any new, reality-based) rituals often stilted and uncomfortable? Two of the main reasons are because they lack emotion, and because they are unfamiliar.
Humanist rituals often lack emotion because we Humanists are often very rational, evidence-based, people who care what is really, literally true. We know that to keep from being fooled (especially by ourselves!), we need to control our emotions and instead use evidence and logic to determine what is most likely real. In addition to this, we see the immense harm of emotional thinking around us every day – from nationalism, racism, devotion to lying leaders, religious wars, quack health “cures”, and so much more – usually preying on the most vulnerable. Emotion is like fire – it’s very useful, and essential to our lives – yet it can be intentionally abused or accidentally released out of control, and in either case, real people suffer. This can make us uncomfortable when we try to harness it in even healthy ways when those are in a context (ritual or ceremony) so similar to the ways it is usually abused. Effective ritual and ceremony draw on the power of our emotions which requires that we mute the rational, analytical parts of our brains. We Humanists don’t easily mute that part of our brain (for good reason).
The other reason might be harder to see. A major part of the power of a ritual or ceremony is the feeling of familiarity and comfort it brings (do you remember the warmth from rituals of your childhood?). It feels safe and familiar because you’ve been doing it over and over for years. But hold on. Humanists don’t have rituals we’ve been doing for years! The familiarity isn’t there, and so you feel “unnatural” and self-conscious instead of comforted and secure. Worse, we can’t do the Christian rituals many of us are familiar with, because they are based on a false and harmful worldview which we don’t want to promote. It’s a catch-22: it takes repetition for the rituals to fully work, but it’s hard to repeat them when they aren’t fully working. With repetition, the rituals eventually begin to fully work, but it’s a big enough barrier (like an activation energy in chemistry) that prevents most people from getting to the other side. This is doubly true for a small group seeking new people, because everything we do will be new to a new person, and hence will not feel as natural as rituals done around longtime friends or family.
Both of these reasons are why rites of passage rituals are so much easier for us Humanists than seasonal or other rituals. With a baby blessing (previously called a baptism), wedding or funeral, the powerful emotions make easy for us to let the emotion take over – so that essential step is accomplished. Similarly, the situation gives us a clear and unquestioned focus (a baby, couple, or deceased loved one), and also provides a lot of familiarities – both from the many dear friends and family often present as well as with known parts to the ritual (such as vows, rings, etc.). It seems that a good path forward for any reality-based religion, whether Humanism or Naturalistic Paganism, is to first hone our ritual skills by celebrating these rites of passage rituals, while slowly adding the repetition and practice needed to get similar power from other rituals. Other components and methods of effective ritual are too big a topic for this interview, but my earlier description of a ritual contains many of them, and you can also learn them both by reading on this topic, and even better – by attending rituals, which is part of why I attend Pagan rituals.
I can’t know if Naturalistic Paganism will be the religion that succeeds in both rituals and overall. However, attempts at Naturalistic Islam or Christianity are chained to the anchor of their vicious, flat-earth “holy” books, as are many other religions. Any religion that rejects naturalism sets us up for the wars of “whose supernatural revelation is right” that have already killed literally dozens of millions of people. I’m sure there are other ways too. We’ll have to see how things go, but I know that for me, Naturalistic Paganism gives me hope for the future, and joy, meaning and purpose for today.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Host: Thank you!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.