Okay, So You’re an Atheist. Now What?

In my experience, many of those who arrive at atheism from another set of religious beliefs go through a “refractory period” during which their impulse is to celebrate their new perspective and, often, to do a bit of gloating about how much more reasonable they feel they have become than those credulous in supernatural phenomena like gods, effective prayer, and so forth.

Some find that stance satisfying, and stop there. In a national study of atheists in the U.S., the University of Tennessee identified 6 sub-groups, one of which, the “Anti-Theists”, comprising about 14% of the total, continually focuses primarily on disagreements with theists and actively advocates that others should follow their lead into atheism.

I’ve written before about how ineffectual I believe this approach is: to my knowledge, no one has ever stopped believing in gods because someone browbeat her with facts, science and reason. The Richard Dawkins approach may—and I believe does—perform a somewhat valuable service by showing atheists that there are more of them than they may think and encouraging them to go public with their atheism, but in terms of spreading atheism, which is its putative goal, I suspect it is failing miserably.

For a variety of reasons, however—changing demographics, rebellion against the values of right-wing Christianity, and access to alternative views through the Internet among them—lack of religious affiliation (including atheism and agnosticism) is nevertheless on the rise, at least in the United States. And so there is a growing cohort of people who are either arriving in adulthood having rejected the religion of their parents, or who were once believers themselves as adults and now no longer see merit in that belief.

I’m not in either of those camps, incidentally. I grew up as an atheist; not ideologically, but because the subject of God and religion never came up in our home. At all. Science was the way to understand the Universe and it seemed shockingly backward to subscribe to the idea of invisible personalities with magical powers apropos of no scientific evidence, so we didn’t.

Unlike my situation, however, for many atheists who emerge from other religious traditions the personal cost can be great. Family and friends can be alienated, whole communities associated with churches or temples or mosques can be lost. It is no surprise that if being a bit smug about having arrived at a more rational worldview is the only positive to emerge from what can otherwise be an experience of alienation, many new-minted atheists spend considerable effort railing against religion and cheering on the likes of Dawkins when he does so.

But it’s cold comfort, isn’t it? Doesn’t really add a lot of warm fuzzy feeling to your life.

That feeling of being right, I mean.

So…then what?

For some, other elements of their lives will ultimately carry the day: other loved ones and communities, or devotion to an art or craft or pastime, or a fulfilling career. And that’s great; there’s no rule written somewhere that says we have to have a yearning for a spiritual practice.

But what if it feels as though something is missing?

After a decades-long sojourn through Neopaganism—all the while biting my tongue when confronted with credulous belief in the supernatural—it was to answer that very question that I wrote the essay that crystallized my thoughts on this matter and created what I came to call Atheopaganism.

The University of Tennessee study identified as one of the six types of atheists/agnostics a group it labeled the Ritual Atheists, comprising 12.5% of its sample. These folks are looking for something to replace the religions they have left: something that doesn’t require them to believe in what science and reason show them is highly unlikely to be true.

I think these folks are the natural constituency of Atheopaganism.

And I just want to say: if you’re one of them, welcome! If you are a free thinker and open-minded and care about humanity and the planet, and you’re looking for something to help fill that hole in your life that is shaped like a desire for ritual observances that celebrate with awe and wonder the magnificent Cosmos, Atheopaganism might be for you.

Use whatever elements of it work for you. Adapt as you see fit. Adopt some solo practices for awhile, and then maybe ask some of your atheist friends to join you, and see what a group ritual would be like. If you don’t want to, don’t call it a religion—call it something else.

It feels awkward to start practicing something like this—I’ve written about that before. Religion is nothing if not personal, and it can feel exposing and vulnerable to share ritual with people you haven’t done that with before.

But I very much encourage you to try. The discovery that “I am no longer an X” inevitably leads to the question, “Well, what am I then?”, and Atheopaganism may help you to answer that question.

My goal here as always is to be encouraging, to provide tools and examples, and to foster the Atheopagan community at large. I’m not proselytizing; if it turns out that thousands of people across the globe discover Atheopaganism and think it’s just the thing for them, that’s great. If it’s only a handful, that’s great, too.

What matters most to me is that this is working for me. I am actually practicing this religion: the seasonal holidays, the rituals, the contemplative practices. Much of the time when I’m writing “you” in these blog posts, I’m really talking out loud to myself just as much as to an imagined reader.

You can have transcendent experiences that help you to grow and to feel joy in living. You can find deep meaning and a sense of place in the Universe, a sense of awe and wonder, without subscribing to supernatural tales. You can build community to share in these experiences.

It’s possible. I’m doing it.

I envisioned this path as something we can all help to craft to suit our individual needs, and out of a sense that many atheists are stuck on wanting something more but unsure how even to begin. If that sounds like you, try dishing yourself up a serving of Atheopaganism and see how it goes down.

And feel free to drop me a line to tell me about your experiences, or if you have suggestions or challenges. I really enjoy hearing from people who are using the materials and ideas here in practice.

Good luck on the journey!

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15 thoughts on “Okay, So You’re an Atheist. Now What?

  1. Atheism is not supposed to provide ‘something more’ or make you happy. That whole ‘what do I do with my life?’ thing is something we each have to answer for ourselves. Everyone does but many blame all their choices on supernatural forces. The problem of what now has never changed, you simply have no one else to blame things on. That is what freedom is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not a question of what atheism is “supposed” to do–atheism is an idea, it doesn’t have identity, much less a destiny.

      The point is that people are going to WANT “something more”. They pursue happiness. And while you are correct that people can make whatever choices they might in relation to those desires, nonetheless, the desires exist.

      For a lot of people, just “being right” and feeling good about that because they are atheists just isn’t enough. They want experiences that are meaningful, that bring them into a sense of being their truest selves, that help them feel a connected part of the Universe. Atheopaganism (and many other naturalist contemplative and ritual traditions) has the ability to offer these.

      For those who don’t want them, that’s great–as you say, they have freedom. But for those who do, this site exists and the resources archived here are meant to be used.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I always find particulary amusing when they try to categorize something with a -ism, so that they may feel their own concept has a universal place or a meaning that otherwise would be too volatile.
    This precious realization your article is talking about is indeed something important to get aware of, but we must not forget that this is something that belongs to the inner self. It is an individual realization.
    If we name it Atheopaganism or in any other way, this will only be perceived as something like a cult by other people, that will approach to this realization as if it were just another “way of life”. Paradoxically the sole fact of identifying this particular state will cause the opposite effect this particular state is meant to mean for people.

    The reason people don’t find their inner-selves in the various -isms in the world, and end up in unaware lives or with very confused and dubious approaches to life, is because appealing to an external object, and for object I include cults, fields of knowledge, symbols, etc. too, people will never be able to find the right awareness that they need to find inside, in their own psyche. It is a work that nobody and nothing else can help you accomplish, but you and you alone.
    The psychoanalytical approach of self-awarenees is indeed very delicate to reach, and people struggle to get it because they continue to entrust themselves to an external factor that they think is going to help them. I have noticed through my studies that especially in America this is very true, since the phenomenon of creating and following hundreds of different cults and groups of various nature is unfortunately diffused on large scale.

    If you have somehow lived through this phenomenon, good for you, but I suggest to leave the entire naming thing. If on one side you think it may help people to better recognize it, on the other side it has the huge disadvantage that will make people approach it in the wrong way, and in the end you will get the opposite effect.
    Indeed such things are better dealt individually because for their own nature they are individual. You can’t socialize an individuation process in a -ism.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, but I’m afraid that empirically, your assertion here doesn’t hold up. Hundreds of people have joined the Atheopaganism Facebook group and many are, indeed, referring to themselves as Atheopagans.

      Atheopaganism *encourages* individuation and adaptation of its principles and practices based on personal preferences. I think you are responding to a concept of “isms” that simply isn’t present here.

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      • Instead this is exactly what I’m talking about.
        People refeering to themselves as “atheopagans” is the problem. The process of self-individuation and self-realization is a natural process that belongs to the psychological mind and natural predisposition of our own psyche, and is something that people struggle to achieve exactly because they are obstacled by all those -isms.
        Atheism, Christianism, Paganism, now Atheopaganism. What next? (not to mention that etymologically the name Atheopaganism is a countersense).

        People don’t need to rely on a -ism on this particular and very delicate process. This is something that belongs to the natural predisposition and maturation of the psyche and the person, you can’t label it Atheopaganism because it’s not something that can, nor must be labelled.
        It would be like naming the movement of the clouds “Cloudism”, or the chemical processes of a star “Starism”.

        Maybe you don’t have a good idea of what a -ism is: it is a suffix used to categorize something by creating an abstract name, thus risking to abstracting that name. But due to the very nature of the individuation process, this is not something that can be considered abstract, because by abstraction the object you are refeering to is removed from your person and conceptualized away from your inner self.
        Carl Gustav Jung himself, if you don’t know him he is the psychoanalyst who researched and better bordered the process of individuation in his medical carrer and he is the father of the modern psychoanalysis, in his books never used the word “individualism” but instead went for “individuation” exactly to avoid a -ism. He did so to make it clear that the process of individuation is not something that must be abstracted, but belongs to human beings as humans (not as atheopagans).

        Now I’ll tell you what is going to happen, because it will have the exact outcome of what happened with Christianism and Atheism and every other -ism:
        – People will start believing that in order to achieve their own individuation they need to become “Atheopagans”. There’s nothing more wrong than this: that is, people who appeal to an external symbol, thought, figure, etc. to achieve something that by nature can only be achieved by themselves, and themselves only. And before you misinterpret, in your case the external factor is identyfing yourself and subsequently creating a movement about this.

        Your intentions may be good, or maybe you yourself have experienced this realization without having knowledge of psychoanalysis and thought that it was a good idea to start a movement about it, but I’m just here to tell you that you are doing more harm than good.
        You are dealing with psychological factors, and it’s dangerous for you and the people.

        If you want to be of some help to people, don’t create a movement, stop categorizing and start telling people they are not “atheopagans”.
        People understand themselves in their individuation process, but as human beings, not as people belonging to a movement.

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      • Sorry, but I completely disagree with you. Thanks for the concern, but I think I’ll just carry on with what we’re doing here. There is nothing inherently wrong with movements, and there is nothing anywhere in the philosophical underpinnings of Atheopaganism that encourages people to sublimate their individuality for a group.

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      • I already told you, it is the process of individuation and discovery that you believe or present as part of your movement that is not really part of your movement, but a universal natural reality.

        People don’t need to think it is due to atheopaganism, or atheism or anything else that they were able to become themselves. In this way you don’t help them, you just illude them to have found something that they need to find for themselves.

        Individuation is not individuality. Again, I tell you to study psychoanalysis to really understand what you are dealing with.

        P.S: To say that you disagree means nothing, it is just a way to refuse to amplify your knowledge. If you study the matter you will notice that what you experienced is not the process of a religious discovery, but just a psychological maturation. That is why I insist so much on the fact that you present it not as part of your movement to other people.

        What happened to you is that you simply never questioned your life. You lived as an atheist casting everything you considered irrational away. That is a huge problem that we have in our society, to cast things we don’t understand away.
        Then you finally discovered and met what you felt was a huge part of yourself in pagan practices. It’s not strange, it is true that religious practices express the unconscius side of the human psyche. Then you saw their gods as metaphors, again this is the case, since gods are representations of unconscious contents.
        But even in front of this realization, where you decided to put away religious beliefs, you end up in creating a movement that is going to mimick the way those religious beliefs have used to approach people.
        It doesn’t matter the way you see it, you are mimicking the same process and you will end up with the same result.

        Instead I invite you to avoid and put aside any formalization: it is not with a name that you will focus your own discovered state of mind nor those of other people.
        You had your personal individuation process, you cannot impose it on others by presenting it to them as atheopaganism.
        And by imposition I mean to present it as something that is called atheopaganism. You have to leave them do this on their own.

        What you came up to experience as something that you caled Atheopaganism is not Atheopaganism nor any other -ism.
        It is simply individuation process, and it is a psychological factor. Psychologists don’t go around funding a movement about it and preaching it to masses, because they know it is harmful. They appeal to very rigid and severe ethical approaches to avoid any damage to the person’s psyche, including illuding themselves. I’m trying to make you reason here, so just take your time to study. If you really had studied and understood the process so much, you would have never decided to create a movement about it. Study before acting.
        Life experiences don’t count for other people because they are personal.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Jung

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      • You do not appear to be listening. I understand your point. I disagree with it. I disagree with it from an informed, and not–as you seem to insist–from an uninformed position. No one is being “damaged” by Atheopaganism. If you aren’t interested in practicing it, I encourage you to go elsewhere.

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      • Yet you don’t provide any explanation nor reasoning for it, but a simple “I disagree”.
        No, you are not informed if you think a movement is going to solve the problems that movements have caused to people.

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      • Here is my explanation: I don’t buy your analysis. I disagree with it. People are perfectly able to perform their own individuation and personal gnosis within the context of a movement, providing that the movement endorses their ability to do so and encourages them to adopt whatever elements of the movement they choose, abandoning or altering as they see fit. Atheopaganism does this, so the “danger” and “harm” you claim do not apply. Yes, I am informed. No, not all movements are the same. Your analysis is a broad-brush, oversimplified characterization of a spectrum of phenomena (movements) which cannot reasonably be so characterized. It is fallacious, numerous examples can be identified of where it is wrong, and it can therefore safely be ignored.

        There: does that satisfy you?

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      • Yes, you don’t understand that the problem is exactly in the fact that people will individualize themselves along with the elements of the movement. Your movement means nothing, you are just creating a surrogate of other movements.
        If people need to find elements to help them individualize themselves, they need direct sources to such informations like studies on fables, mythology, psychoanalysis and such.
        They don’t need the context of a movement, but simply to tap in the human knowledge.
        That’s why you’re doing harm with establishing as a movement something that is not part of a movement, nonetheless your movement.

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      • Alessandro, you have made your point. I disagree with it, and there is nothing in the above that gives me a reason to change my mind. It is clear that Atheopaganism isn’t for you, so please go elsewhere.

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  3. I had a similar childhood in that religion wasn’t brought up in our home. Mom loved to sing and the only opportunity in that small town was the church choir and I was sent to sunday school mostly used as a “babysitter” until I challenged the teacher about the age of the dinosaurs (this was 1954). Didn’t have to go back after that. I feel lucky to have not been browbeaten about religion as a child. I think the best I can do for others is support general education and scientific inquiry….. In my opinion religious leaders that ask their followers to preach and bring others into the group are seeking power and money not salvation. Those that choose to have a faith but keep it personal don’t bother me at all. I think the religious right and their rantings that they are losing their religious freedom is laughable. What they fear is losing the ability to coerce others into their belief system and have power over them….. Good job on the blog, I’m sure it will be appreciated by many.

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    • Thank you! My whole goal is to provide tools and ideas that people can use as they will–I am NOT trying to create an atheist church, or something. And believe me…the folks that have joined the Facebook group have too much intellectual heft and individuality to be looking for someone to tell them what to do!

      Like

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