For thousands of years, since the very advent of human existence, there has been an evolving trajectory of religious history in Western societies.
The story passes from the earliest animism and ancestor worship to the rise of belief in gods, the consolidation of authoritarian power under monotheisms, and the complete domination of Western societies by Christianity. It continues through the Enlightenment, the steady gains of science shattering the cosmological monopoly of the Abrahamic monotheisms, the increasing tension between orthodoxy and individuality splintering these monotheisms into thousands of sects, and finally, most recently, to the rise of the Nones: those who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation at all, which is well established in most of the rest of the developed world and advancing quickly in the United States.
There is an arc there: a vector. It tells a story of steadily increasing individual choice about religious belief and expression, and as a result, steadily decreasing subscription to old religious systems that clash with both modern values and humanity’s growing body of accumulated knowledge.
Recently in the Pagan blogosphere, there has been discussion of whether or not Paganism is dying, or whether it deserves to do so. Personally, I think much of this is a tempest in a crockpot. Pagan institutions don’t seem to be doing very well, but that seems to me to be more a reflection of the fact that most of us don’t do well with institutions, not of some more dire “death” in progress.
However, I will say this: that arc is still ongoing. The general trend towards individuation and modernization of spiritual practice continues.
Despite the overall pattern, there are backlashes, of course: eddies in the current of history. The extremes of the evangelical right wing in the US, for example, seem to me clearly to be the death throes of a belief system that is on the wane. And I suspect that the rise of the devotional polytheists in Paganism is something similar: a hardening of insistence in the face of available evidence that wished-for supernatural beings are, in fact, real persons, as well as a strategy for insisting that the recently constituted phenomenon of modern Paganism is “serious religion” like (Abrahamic) others…and not some lightweight, risible trifle.
Some, I’m sure, will howl with anger at these suggestions. But I truly believe they describe what is happening. Maybe I’m wrong.
But looking backward to imagined golden eras or long-extinct societies and hoping to reconstruct their values and practices in a modern context doesn’t strike me as making much sense when compared with starting from where we are now, with the knowledge and tools and modern values we now possess, and charting a course forward that embraces and is informed by them. And it seems to me that more and more people are drawing the same conclusion.
I should be clear here: I do not see nontheist Paganism as in competition with theism. I think theism is on its way out all on its own. I don’t in any way want to rush that process, and if people find meaning and happiness in theism, good for them. But a generation from now, if I had to put money on it, I would bet there will be proportionately fewer of them than there are now.
And there will be more nontheists of every stripe, including Pagans.
As far as I can see, the trajectory of human history bends towards disbelief in that for which there is only disputable and ephemeral evidence. This is why the evangelical right in the U.S. is making war on science education: because the only way their worldview can survive is in an ignorant population.
Since the advent of science, tension has only grown between knowledge and belief. Science has steadily claimed more and more territory from the supernatural, leaving an ever-smaller realm claimed for the domain of gods and spirits.
And not once in all that time has the discovered explanation for the cause of a phenomenon proved to be supernatural. Not once has gods or spirits or magic turned out to be the actual reason why something happens in our Universe.
Science brings us knowledge, cures our diseases, explores the Universe, builds our technology, catalogues the wonders of our planet and others. It is even revealing to us the ways in which religious experiences are created in the brain.
Religion, as it has been couched by those who insist on Belief?
Well, not so much.
What religion excels at is creating community, inculcating values, and creating a sense of meaning in life, a feeling of being connected to that which is greater and Sacred. At inspiring works of beauty. At fostering the deep sense of joy and presence and holiness that effective rituals can bring.
And this is why I believe nontheist Paganism, including Atheopaganism, to be so very important. Because it settles the long-standing conflict between science and religion, acknowledging the very real human importance of the latter while in no way denying the power of the former to identify, measure and model all the phenomena of the Universe.
Atheopaganism is post-Belief religion. It is evidence-based spirituality rooted in real-world, positive, life-affirming values. It gives us what religion is good at giving us, and avoids trying to do what science can clearly do better.
I believe it is in broad strokes what succeeding generations will practice in growing numbers. It is what will give meaning and build community for people who have left behind the ideas of gods and magic.
I don’t know if I believe we will ever move out in significant numbers to other planets, or to the stars. But if we do, I’d bet we will celebrate the life-giving wonders of the worlds where we live with joy. I’d bet we do it in circles, as we have since at least the domestication of fire.
And I’d bet that while we may celebrate ancestors and heroes as a part of this, we will have left gods far behind. For we will know that this Universe is wonder enough without them.
We’re building something, folks. Something with staying power and potential. Credulity in gods is dying out, but the need for what religion provides—meaning, community, awe, reverence, a sense of connectedness to Something Larger—is inherent in the human organism.
We’re onto something here. And I am committed to continuing to work to foster this tiny flame as it catches, spreads, and burns ever brighter.