Naturalism

About a year and a half ago one of my favorite pagan websites, Humanistic Paganism, posted a poll requesting readers submit what three elements of HP they valued most. In addition to a fill-in-the-blank free space the choices included: naturalism, relationship to mythology, embrace of nature, responsible action, sense of wonder, rituals and meditations, and magic and divination. It should come as no surprise that amongst humanistic pagans magic and divination received no votes as most valued in their practice. (This is not to say it has no value among some, or even all, of the voters.)

I left a comment regarding why I voted the way I did:

I vote on those four elements I have control over. A sense of wonder, while so important, is something that I experience outside of my control. I don’t choose to be filled with wonder. I just am. Appreciatively. The four valued elements I actively choose to practice to define myself as a humanist pagan would be meditation (to learn about myself), relationships with mythology (to learn about my past), responsible action (to better my present and future), and naturalism (as a reflection of my view and position in the cosmos).

It’s been a while since I voted but I believe the fourth element I didn’t actually vote for in the poll was naturalism, because it requires further explaining a simple comment box wouldn’t accommodate. Naturalism can be considered contentious within the pagan community because it does away with something fundamental to many pagans: a belief in the unseen. When choosing those four elements I wanted to select some basic tenets all pagans could recognize as important. Presumptuous? Sure. But in a forum like the internet which lacks rigorous peer review I can make some pretty outlandish statements and fear only trolls, not censorship. Let’s get started.

Definition of Naturalism, as found on Dictionary.com

1)      Philosophy.

a)      the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.

b)      the belief that all phenomena are covered by laws of science and that all teleological explanations are therefore without value.

2)      Theology.

a)      the doctrine that all religious truth is derived from a study of natural processes and not from revelation.

b)      the doctrine that natural religion is sufficient for salvation.

1a encourages people to seek out answers grounded in facts, observable data, and reason. No matter how your personal belief system is constructed, it’s just common sense to find answers first in the “real world” rather than the “mystical world”. Globally we have people turning this around. African villagers set ablaze little girls accused of witchcraft because a run of bad luck. Mid-western American parents lose their ill children because group prayer was the preferred cure over any medical treatment. Start with the real world laws of nature to explain and understand and (sometimes even) control your world before you reach for the “supernatural” answers. (Note: I’m disinclined to believe in anything supernatural, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of naturally super things going on. That requires further explanation in the future.)

1b tells us that everything in our observable universe is explainable by the laws of science. Does this mean those things we currently consider “supernatural” are all make-believe? Well, fire was once considered a gift of the gods, germs were not identified until the invention of the microscope, and mental disorders were thought of as spirit possession rather than a physiological ailments, so…

It also negates the notion of a purpose to the universe. As the laws of science provide the mechanisms for the framework of the universe to chug along all on its own, it frees those with a brain to explore, romanticize and apply cultural decoupage to that framework. But those same laws provide so much stability in our universe that those who wish to just chug along are free to do so.

2a talks about Truth. Scientific theories are True. The scientific method is based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to reason and repetition. So if it’s true for one person probing our observable universe’s secrets, then it’s true for the next person and the next. What does science have to do with religion? Good question!

Definition of Religion, as found on Dictionary.com

        i.            a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

      ii.            a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

    iii.            the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.

These definitions tell us that religion is an agreed upon perception of the universe central to a group of people. The creation and continued operation of the observable universe is certainly superhuman. Whether or not it was created and is now or was operated by conscious entities (gods), the magnitude of the universe and its operations is superhuman. Science provides as a set of fundamental beliefs and the scientific method is the set of practices we use to continually uncover more Truths about the observable universe.

Dancing hand in hand with these objective Truths based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to reason and repetition, our minds are designed to, and thrive on, the creation of perfectly fanciful mythologies concerning the creation and operation of the universe. This allows us to translate the awe and fear and wonder we have toward natural laws, scientific abstractions and taciturn theories into poetry, art, and dance. We take the marvel of science and embrace it in many marvels of ethos. The same law, the same theory, but seen in a kaleidoscope of cultural colors.

2b saves us from dogmatic salvation, which in turns allows room for myth to flourish. Laws of a secular nature are adept at keeping civil order, cocooning pockets of the natural world from pillage, and providing aid in times of need. Once these safeguards are put in place, cultural variation can flourish. Both the conservatives holding to tradition as well as social innovators can dance the steps of their own myths. Every side recognizing that the basics for order are established along secular lines and each individual is free to safely pursue their own myth, alone or in groups.

Naturalism should be society’s springboard to spiritual fulfillment, not the cultural goal. It provides basic tenets that can be universally agreed upon: science as a means to explain, and natural law as a means to protect, preserve, and foster growth. Naturalism doesn’t take supernatural experience out of the equation, but simply never addresses it, rather leaving those experiences to the individual in what is commonly referred to as UPG (unverified personal gnosis). These revelations, while not measurable, have great impact on a person or group of people, but cannot be expected to hold True for everyone. Teleology is removed to provide each individual plenty of room to maneuver to create one’s own mythology. Whether that mythology is deterministic or not, it’s your choice! (Ironic’d.)

It is this view of naturalism that I encourage in others, pagan or not. It is a way of starting the conversation about my beliefs to others of less-than-like-mind without coming off as some New Age Harry Potter wannabe. It’s a minimum for everyone, everywhere, that allows for plenty of room to express a diverse array of personally satisfying ideologies. From there every pagan can choose what rituals and meditations to better understand themselves. Every pagan can develop their own relationship with mythology to better understand history and ethnic traditions. Every pagan can take steps toward responsible action, magical and mundane, that makes them and the world around them a little better.

As you can see, this commentary could not fit within the confines of a comments box, but I wanted to finally address all four elements I think can be universally recognized by modern pagans. And non-pagans. It’s actually meant to be vague. Vague, but positive. So everyone can adopt a positive approach based in reason and betterment. I suppose this article comes off a lot more New Age-I’m-okay-You’re-okay than candle, book and bell. I guess I’ll need to start working on a good spell for world peace that includes damiana, passion flower, and sigil work if I want to improve my Diagon Alley street cred. (Yep, that helps.)

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