Sunday, 12 February 2012

Druidic Naturalism - a final review and critique

Is a naturalistic spirituality possible? Yes, I think it is. However is it possible to be a strong atheist and skeptic of the supernatural and still be fully part of the pagan-druidic community? I think now that is only possible if the naturalist/atheist/skeptic is willing to accommodate fully, and open mindedly, the beliefs/ways of other pagans and largely ride on is coat tails. I don't think that naturalists can create an 'alternative druidry' that can viably replace 'pagan theistic/animistic druidry' let alone create the basis for a real 'Order', Grove etc. My evidence for this assertion is based on my experience of the many discussions and interactions through the Caer Abred group/forum a.k.a the Druidic Order of Naturalists. We have found that atheists/sceptics have generally not supported the development of 'naturalistic ritual'. Most do not see it has a role in their spirituality.  Even where some enthusiasm has been forthcoming initially, the attempts to reformulate pagan druidic forms to remove the theistic and supernatural have appeared 'clunky' at best, a parody at worst. Indeed the dependance upon comic effect and simple criticism without suggesting constructive alternatives, has led some observers (pagan and atheist) into  doubting the seriousness of the whole Druidic Naturalism 'project'. 

Naturalism is an option for pagan druids but unless such a view is lightly held, atheism is a stance that relegates that naturalist to the fringes of the pagan community, rather as being a 'Christian' druid does (or being an Christian Atheist or Pagan in Christendom for that matter). As with 'Christian' druidry, for many pagans the juxtaposition of apparently antithetical religious and philosophical views, forces the druid naturalist always on the defensive, and explaining continually why their self definition is not simply an oxymoron. Other pagans will certainly have huge difficulty in 'getting it' and see in the naturalistic assertion an implied at least rejection of their beliefs. And of course if atheism/ naturalism is pursued evangelistically (in the manner and tone, say, of Richard Dawkins) one will quickly alienate other pagans.

My association with naturalism has shown me that  my religious devotion is based on 'faith' rather than reason, faith born out of  not adherence to a creed or revelation, but intuitive experiences, and yes, the 'aesthetic' response which druidic naturalism asserts is really the be all and end of naturalistic druidry. My druidry is a 'private truth', though a truth shared with others. Naturalism remains for me the preferred way of establishing public truth - the societal consensus about reality - and protecting the mind from nonsense and any attempts by others to foster cult-like behaviour by taking too much on trust. This is a healthy form of scepticism, where naturalism is a 'tool' for living, a key to solid knowledge but not the last word. Epistemological naturalism makes sense but metaphysical naturalism is claiming too much, even by naturalistic standards!.

Yet I would never enter my private truths, arrived at from intuition alone as evidence in any debate about public policy or argue for my private truths against the scientific consensus. In naturalistic terms they are speculative hypotheses at best. Naturalism has taught me the potential for self delusion and the fact that most so called 'paranormal' evidences fall far short of the standards of evidence required by science. Also my sojourn with naturalism has collapsed the 'supernatural' options for me, focusing me on physical nature (as the starting point both for my spirituality as well as the basic scientific datum) rather than abstract notions of many supernatural realms and levels of reality. In practice naturalism has led me away from theologising and creating intellectual 'castles in the air' toward the most basic form of mysticism - the numinous experience of the forces and ways of nature.

My debates with naturalism have rid  me of much of my earlier 'neo-platonism' except that I remain philosophically inclined to belief in a transcendent absolute 'source' of all things, that I may also refer to obliquely as the Infinite. Speculatively such a reality must be forever nameless and without concrete conceptualisation including any personification, but of course  I am thinking still in terms of the high mysticism of the Platonic 'One', the Brahman, the Eternal Tao etc. You see I could never fully embrace atheism, and have settled for an open minded agnosticism about the existence of a transcendent (beyond space and time) supreme being. My philosophical inclination to belief in such a reality or ground of reality  (an inclination that does not warrant the certainty implied by saying it is a belief) is supported in my mind by the logical need for a 'necessary being' and 'first cause', and again certain emotional and intuitive experiences. The theology I am inclined toward then is still very much conceived in terms of a practical pagan deism ( a deity that does not intervene in nature from outside disrupting normal processes) and process philosophy ( physical nature is itself the manifestation of  the creative power/being of the transcendent absolute in eternal procession). This theology also asserts that the divine is both 'One' and 'Many'.

As I said these 'mere' inclinations are not my 'beliefs'. From the point of naturalistic epistemology, they are unproven and uncalled for conceptions. However that I have these inclinations mean there remains a very large 'wedge' in the 'door' of my mind, leaving it very open to more traditional theistic belief. Being a dogmatic stance by definition, atheism insists any moves toward theism is still chasing delusion. I don't accept that atheistic view, at least I don't accept it can be held with anything like dogmatism. While I always doubt, and question, even my doubt, as well as my belief, must be held 'lightly'. Surely anything else is hubris, of which the gods are not particularly fond I hear...

 I have discovered that only a very strong open minded sympathy for animistic, and theistic beliefs is necessary to be part of the pagan community - a community that fortunately is immensely tolerant, and undogmatic, as long as the favour is returned. Returning to my initial comments, it is this open mindedness based on not just an emotional  and aesthetic sympathy but also a genuine philosophical inclination, a willingness to believe as it were, that continues to bind me personally to pagan/ druidry. If we close the philosophic door by insisting on a strict naturalism, then I think we also practically speaking close the door on being part of that tradition of native (but ever evolving) spirituality that is druidry.

A concluding triad...

Those who accept they don't know may learn, but those who insist they know already, will not learn. Those without a willingness to learn, how are they so sure they know?


  1. I am currently reading Brian Greene's latest book "The Hidden Reality" which is using the latest observations to further the string theory started in the 70's. This is proposing through observational analysis of current data, the concept and conclusion of the existence of parallel universes. The simple fact appears to be that lifes, in whatever guise it uses, primary function is the creation of more life through physical, and what we would consider at the minute, metaphysical means.
    The biggest problem with atheists, IMO, for all their useage of current data, is that they fall back to a default position of using modern language to try to debunk the traditional language used by most modern pagans.
    For example, the useage of the term "Gods". They make an immediate connection with the superstitious worldviews of previous generations. If anything, a good deal of them are themselves stuck in this idea of modern pagans being somehow basing their ideas in the past and some see it as their "mission" to correct them. Except, of course, that some pagans are actually finding confirmation of their beliefs in the scientific data now being released.
    You know from my blog how I consider polytheism to be an entirely logical position. The positioning of a good deal of the scientific community into this idea of parallel universes and how the idea of hidden dimensions are making the maths of theoretical physics work, only furthers the beliefs that there is, indeed, much life outside our immediate senses. This life, using the older language, would indeed qualify as an ideological or even theological conception of a God. What some atheists and indeed, a certain quarter from the naturalist camp fail to recognize, is that the insistence of nothing living or interacting outside imperical evidence is, nowadays, actually flying into the face of the emerging evidence.

  2. I totally respect your point and sentiments. Yeah modern science is throwing up ever more new mysteries that leave plenty of metaphysical 'room' for other realities and a literal multiverse of possibilities. However there are druid (so called) naturalists, who's names I won't mention, who seem to prefer to hark back to a period, a generation ago, when perhaps the scientific community thought rather arrogantly that there was nothing left to explain or new to discover about reality, which they thought could only be presented in stark materialistic, atheist terms(dare I say, I might identify this period as late 1970s and exemplified by Carl Sagan's pronouncements on the telly).

  3. Hi, Phil. B. T. Newberg here again, from I just left a comment on your "What Do Druid Naturalists Do?" article, which you previously agreed to let us publish. I would also like to ask your permission to publish this review and critique post, as it raises some critical issue that I too have been wrestling with. Please let me know if you agree, and whether you would like to publish as "White Horse" or "Phil." I can be reached at humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks!