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.
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!