This sort of thing foments much unhappiness on the part of some theist Pagans, and in response, John Beckett has penned something suggesting that you can’t both be a Pagan and “look down your nose at it” (the second Halstead piece is a response to this).
I suggest you read all three of these pieces. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Increasingly, my experience of Pagan theists in relation to Pagan atheism is no longer that they want to kick us out of the clubhouse. It’s becoming recognized that the question of what a “real” Pagan is is meaningless, and that the term is an umbrella that covers a wide range of somewhat-culturally-and-values-aligned practices and beliefs.
So: that’s progress, and in little more than the space of a year since I began to join my voice with others online. At least I’m not hearing the get-the-fuck-out message (much) any more. That’s a great improvement, in my book.
What I am hearing, more and more, is the message that it’s okay to be a Pagan atheist so long as you don’t talk about it. That it’s rude, or “unhelpful” (Beckett), or otherwise insert-your-negative-adjective-here for Atheopagans to say that we simply do not find any credibility in claims of invisible intelligences with agency, nor magical powers, invisible dimensions filled with spirits or fairies or what have you.
If we don’t believe, so the theory appears to go, that’s our “problem”. But to avoid offending others, we really should refrain from getting our atheist cooties all over them.
The heretics, in other words, must be silenced.
Now, offensive is as offensive does. I personally find it extremely offensive when someone confides that her/his “god/dess wants me to do X”. That I am expected to simply nod tolerantly as if this is the most normal and sensible thing I could possibly have heard is completely galling to me. Yet if I even question the person’s certainty as to the source of this intelligence, I am apparently violating some kind of decorum that the likes of Beckett feel I should obey.
Should I say, “that’s ridiculous”? Well, of course not: that’s just rude. But I might well say, “You know, I have a hard time believing that. What makes you believe that this message came from a god?” As Halstead suggests, I might invite a little critical thinking in relation to that belief. I might ask, “how do you know this, exactly? Was it a voice you heard, or a divination result, or an interpretation of a Sign or Omen?”
None of these are particularly prosecutorial questions. There’s no “gotcha” there unless I were then to proceed to picking apart the answers until they inevitably lead to their conclusion: “I just believe it.”
Blind faith is well-established in world history as a path which can lead to dark, dark places. Asking the kinds of questions I raised above may not lead someone to become an Atheopagan—nor would that be my goal—but it might lead her/him to have a clearer understanding that faith involves choice, and that ultimately, s/he is choosing the interpretation of experience she has embraced. And that—particularly given that whatever evidence is asserted for the claim is inevitably completely subjective—there are other choices. In other words, believe it or not, there is some doubt.
If this is somehow viewed as threatening, I think it’s fair to say that the mentality of hard theism is actually dangerous. There is nothing so dangerous as ideological certainty. It is the certain who slaughter and torture in the name of “righteousness”. It is the hard wall of certainty that has bulwarked the worst social crimes of history. I have been alarmed to find that this kind of certainty seems to be on the rise in the Pagan community, particularly among those who embrace the term “devotional polytheist”.
As a scientifically-based thinker, I’m always open to new evidence and analysis that renders previous belief untenable. It is the very core of science to doubt: to poke hard at theories that have been advanced to see if they will withstand it.
If you’re not a scientific thinker—or if you make exceptions for your personal subjective experiences—I can understand why doubt might feel threatening. But frankly, them’s the breaks. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a discussion where someone blithely talks about what her gods “want” or “do” as if describing the motions of the sun and moon, but when I reply that I don’t believe that, all hell breaks loose.
There is a term for what these theists who want us to be silent about our atheism except when talking with one another are encouraging. It is called “The Closet”.
So let me say this: it is as legitimate for me to have beliefs about your beliefs as it is for you to have beliefs about mine. It is as legitimate for me to articulate my beliefs as it is for you to articulate yours.
If what you believe is so fragile, so tentative that the very suggestion that someone else thinks it’s hooey can actually threaten it, I’d suggest that it is not my responsibility to help you maintain it. I shouldn’t be rude about it, but if you’re going to go so far as to define rude as even acknowledging that I think differently, you have defined Atheopaganism as The Religion That Dares Not Speak Its Name, and I’m not having it.
I practice Paganism. I celebrate a Wheel of the Year, personal observances, and rites of passage, and I orient my religiosity around a set of values which most Pagans, I believe, would find familiar and amenable. I do all this without credulity in god/desses nor other supernatural phenomena. It is a path every bit as legitimate as any other, and I don’t have to shut up about it simply because others may find that last part threatening.
I’m not interested in converting anyone, but just as I wouldn’t pretend that I wasn’t gay (I’m not, for the record) in order to mollycoddle those uncomfortable with the idea, I don’t have a responsibility not to talk about how I view the world in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of those who see it differently.
Here’s a suggestion: start prefacing those declarative sentences about your gods with “I believe”. I’ll do the same with what I believe…and don’t.
I think that if we get in that habit, we can get along much better.
At least, I hope so.