When Is a Religion For?

Recently, I attended the Bay Area Solstice, a ritual celebration of the winter solstice which springs from the rational/skeptic community. Raymond Arnold, who first organized such a solstice event in New York, from which they have spread, has crafted a passage through time in which the darkness is contemplated, the human story is framed as an emergence from darkness into light, and the future is viewed as potentially one of health, optimism and exploration. I enjoyed it a great deal.

There are many ways for me to think about my experience at the Bay Area Solstice, and I’ve been having discussions by email with Raymond and others about its structure, underlying philosophy, and ritual practicalities, some of which vary widely from the Pagan rituals I am used to. But the one that strikes me as most intriguing right now is that event’s orientation to time.

I noted in my essay “How I Became an Atheopagan” that the Pagan community has a rather large prejudice toward a narrative of golden Good Old Days thousands of years ago, when Noble Pagans lived in Peaceful Harmony With The Earth. It’s a story only marginally supported by archaeological evidence, and it drives many Pagans’ assumptions about institutions, technology, and the nature of the arc of human history, leading to deep and sometimes paranoiac suspicion of new innovations and the institutions which create them. These assumptions cause many Pagans to believe that the ideal state for the human species would be a low population living in a stable rural, agrarian state of being, purportedly in sustainable harmony with the biosphere.

I was struck by the stark contrast of this backward-looking vision with that presented in the Bay Area Solstice, which posits as the “bright future” of humanity the idea of technology literally “transcending death” and inevitably leading humans to colonize other worlds. In that frame, technology is a positive force which will enable humans to break free of the limitations of Planet Earth, pursuing expansion as an ideology rather than sustainability.

While we can certainly argue the practicality of both of these views, they are clearly miles apart. And so as I think about how Atheopaganism might approach these questions, it strikes me that my vision of Atheopaganism is consistent with neither of the answers offered by these narrative frames.

I don’t really believe either of the narratives I described above. There are far too many humans to live in a rural agrarian system, life expectancy would plummet if we did so, and human nature is such that the groovy peaceful nature of the Pagan Golden Years vision is questionable at best.

Nor is it plausible that millions or even hundreds of thousands of humans will be able to leave Earth–presuming there would be anywhere to go, which is a pretty big assumption. Perhaps an elite might, but that raises the question, “who do you think your imagined future is really for?” What I saw at the Bay Area Solstice looked to me like a group overwhelmingly made up of college-educated elites, many from the technology sector, who might naturally assume that the Bright Shiny Future of rockets and never-dying bodies would obviously be available to them. But what about everyone else?

I view the evolution of technology as both blessing and curse. It has certainly proved to be both in the past. So I can see a role, for example, for genetic modification of organisms to reduce atmospheric carbon, as well as the dangers of using that technology in a manner which could seriously unbalance the ecological webs on which we depend. But if I have to pick, I’d say my positive vision for the future has to do with humans coming into harmonic interdependence with the biosphere, not abandoning it for other (currently imaginary) reachable and habitable worlds.

But none of this really speaks to what motivates my Atheopaganism. My religion is not about a Golden Past, nor a Golden Future.

It is about a Golden NOW.

We have tremendous challenges facing us as a species. They certainly will not be solved by hoping that we revert to some idealized, fuzzy picture of the past, and they probably won’t be solved by some deus ex machina approach such as the idea that we’ll all just jump off to somewhere else when old Earth is used up and uninhabitable.

What we can do is live by honorable and responsible principles, and within those parameters fill our lives with as much happiness, reflection, contentment, beauty, love and shared joy as is humanly possible.

Atheopaganism is for now. Not the past, nor the future. It is for this moment, right now.

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