The Religion that Dares Not Speak its Name

The provocative John Halstead has kicked the hornet’s nest again with his posts critiquing elements of modern Paganism, and defending the legitimacy of doing so while still identifying as a Pagan.

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.

19 thoughts on “The Religion that Dares Not Speak its Name

  1. Excellent post. I often find myself sort of in the middle of these debates because I choose to believe in the gods despite having no personal evidence for them.

    I prefer the interpretation of my life’s events that includes non-corporeal intelligences to the interpretation without them. I was once told that I could not possibly “believe” as deeply or as completely — which I took to mean I could not believe with certainty — as my dialog partner and perhaps that is correct. On the other hand, I spent years struggling with a way to understand my world, my place within it, and the experiences that others were having that I did not share. The outcome of those struggles was a clear, conscious choice. And, choices need to be made and re-made over and over again. I sound like I feel superior to others, and that’s not the case; I’m just not choosing my words well, I think.

    I’m often reminded of the following from the movie Dogma:

    Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

    Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

    Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

    A religious/spiritual life requires belief is part of what leads to those dark, dark places mentioned above. I have found that a religious/spiritual life that encourages choices is far better.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “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.”

    My goodness! Has decorum truly become so terrible a thing? Context matters a lot here. Are you talking about using this blog and the Atheopaganism Facebook page to call out suspect behavior? Or are you talking about going onto *someone else’s* blog or site or, Sagan forfend, *into their physical ritual space* and challenging their beliefs? The former sounds like a wonderful and logical use of your corner of the internet. The latter sounds like the kind of boorish behavior that would’ve gotten me grounded for a week–and that shouldn’t be tolerated from adults, either.

    It’s not about mollycoddling–it’s about acknowledging that, like it or not, we all have to live together. If atheopagans want to claim our place in the broader Pagan tent, we have to accept that *other Pagans* will also be there, and that they will believe differently. In the end, unless the thing the god/ess wants that other Pagan to do will do harm to you, to them, to others, or to the Earth, why get *your* knickers in a twist over it? We may not be Wiccans, but “An it harm none, do as ye will” seems like fairly sound advice.

    “…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…”

    Even without your aside, I could’ve guessed you’re not gay, because only a straight person would utter this sentence. Because only a straight person has never had to confront their straight privilege. As an actual live queer person, I can tell you that gay (bi, ace/aro, demi, trans, genderqueer, and agender) people choose not to come out for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s a safety concern–sometimes my wife and I don’t hold hands because we worry we might be attacked. Sometimes it’s legal–I’m not going to tell anyone about my same-sex partner if I think it’s going to lose me my job, my apartment, or my kids. And, yeah, sometimes it’s–well, what *you* would call mollycoddling, but I tend to call “acknowledging that I would like to continue spending Thanksgiving with my family and therefore choose not to antagonize my cousins over pie.” You can’t say for sure what you would or wouldn’t do until you find yourself in the situation. You have the privilege of using the closet as an analogy. For others, it’s our lives.

    I’m so excited about the *potentials* of nondeistic Paganism, whether we call it atheopaganism, Humanistic Paganism, Naturalistic Paganism, or something else entirely. I crave community, as do most adherents to *any* religion. But the movement as a whole has an overabundance of cishet white American men suddenly finding they’re not the loudest, most privileged voices in the room of Paganism and reacting poorly. Is there any place in this movement for those of us who don’t ascribe to the confrontational model of New Atheism, and who let other people’s beliefs go unchallenged not because we’re “mollycoddling” anyone but because we honestly believe that a world with diverse beliefs and practices is a rich and interesting one? If not, let me know now, and I’ll see myself out.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. As I mentioned in comments to Halstead’s post, I’ve done hundreds of rituals with various kinds of theists and it’s never been a problem–it’s their party, so their rules.

      But in non-ritual contexts, it is not “confrontational” to question the basis for extraordinary claims. Nor is it rude, except under rules designed to, yes, mollycoddle those whose basis for such claims lacks substance beyond simple credulity.

      I stand by the closet analogy, and you are talking through your hat when you suggest that I do not understand that experience. That’s as much as I care to say about it, and your attempt to use my identity against me is a pretty low road, frankly.

      I have clearly pushed buttons for you which lead you into extensive projections onto my words of your own issues. I have at no time advocated Dawkins-like scorn and ridicule of the credulous. What I insist on, however, is that there be room to question them. If the rules of “rudeness” are rigged to prevent this, the problem is the rules, not the questioning.


      1. One more thing: I have not at any time encouraged “confrontation”. But I’m with John Halstead when he suggests that the first Pagan commandment is “thou shalt not question another’s experience”, and that this is an inevitable path to a steady decline of Paganism into the aforementioned pit of woo. It should NOT be considered “confrontation” to ask someone why s/he believes something.


      2. There are a lot of common practices among Pagans & New Agers that I am quite skeptical of, but I’m selective about when and with whom I challenge them. For example I have friends who are Reiki practicioners. I just smile and leave it alone. But when a friend or associate wants to try out Reiki, I’d try to convince them to save their money. At some point I’ll probably end up telling one of the Reiki people that I don’t buy into their schtick (possibly after several “no thank yous”) but I think I can still do so politely. I don’t see discussing atheism to be necessarily rude, pushy or inappropriate. As for the closet issue- I’m bisexual, and I’m fine with “sharing” the word closet with both Pagans and atheists. I think the problem was once again, context- feeling the need to be in the closet as atheist Pagan within the Pagan community, and risking social ostracism from Pagans when coming out is very different than the discrimination one might face as a religious/theological minority in broader society.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh! Sorry! One thing I forgot: “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.”

    Again, big difference between *talking about how you view the world* and *being adversarial toward the worldview of others.*

    OK, that’s it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is not adversarial to ask questions. It IS oppressive to be required not to ask questions in order to be characterized as “not rude”. What part of social-order-being-designed-to-maintain-mainstream-prejudices don’t you get?


  4. Hey dude, I don’t have a problem with your beliefs, or lack thereof. I kind of have a problem with atheists and Atheopagans who go around proudly inserting themselves into other people’s spiritual experiences to proclaim how wrong and misguided they are, so if that’s not what you want to do, then we should be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I may, however, say that I don’t believe a given person’s interpretation of their experiences. I’m no more required to do so than a believer is required NOT to do so. I’m glad we can agree on this.


  5. Erin Lund Johnson

    “I believe” is a very different statement than, “I experienced,” or even, “I engage spiritually with.” I don’t, as a devotional polytheist, even use the term, “I believe,” because it isn’t directly relevant to my experiences and relationships, unless it is used as, “I believe in the value and worth of my relationship with my gods.”

    Also, my spiritual relationships are also practical, as my gods aren’t invisible– they are rivers, Ocean, Sun, Moon, Fire, Cow, Grain, mountains, even Civilization, and so my relationships with them are very real, and polyvalent, meaningful on many levels. Our ancestors didn’t engage with invisible gods, and neither do I. I do engage with the consciousness of these persons, from the space of my own consciousness, and do admit that consciousness is invisible, yet it is very real all the same. I don’t think the certainty of consciousness is a dangerous thing. I also think the world could potentially be a better place if more people engaged in sacred relationship with the consciousnesses of the beings with whom they lived, in mutually-beneficial ways, even if they didn’t hold to the factual existence of those consciousnesses– I think engaging *as though* they were empirically present could potentially help to keep people honest, anyway. I call this Nature, as the All That Is, since nothing that Is can lie outside of it; in that sense, the term supernatural doesn’t hold much meaning for me. Supporting our world’s life-enhancing systems which work for the benefit of all beings can be honored as a process and readily engaged in whether one wishes to acknowledge or engage with consciousnesses or not. Hopefully this is a place where devotional and atheistic pagans can find common ground.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. you realize that atheopaganism or pagan humanism or a pagan atheist is self-contradictory, don’t you? how can you celebrate something without any belief or a negative point of view about spirits, entities and Gods?


    1. You’re simply wrong about that. There are plenty of us who don’t believe in any of that who are practicing Pagan religion. In fact, some Big Name Pagans are (or were, if now deceased) among them.


  7. “there a re a lot of x…” isn’t an good argument. it’s called vox populy fallacy. there is a lot of persons who is christian, therefore their claims [abou science, for instance] it’s true?


    1. Again, you miss the mark. Showing that there are a lot of “x” proves that the argument that there are NO “x” is false. It is not a bandwagon argument. Betoquintas, you clearly don’t belong here–why don’t you go somewhere else?


  8. Nicholas

    Well-stated. I think a big obstacle in atheist/theist conversations like this is that religious beliefs are usually based on emotionally-charged personal experiences. Calling the validity of these beliefs into question, then, even if it’s simply stating that you don’t share these beliefs, is akin to a personal attack for many theists. So, there’s a knee-jerk reaction that puts a lot of theists on the defensive right out of the gate.


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