What is a religion?
Is a religion what you believe?
Is that what people in churches and temples and mosques throughout the world do on their appointed sabbath days? Believe?
I found myself pondering this question after I fell out of love with Paganism , in 2004, following a series of experiences wherein dysfunctional and unethical behavior on the part of leaders in my Pagan community was excused as having been “directed by the gods”.
This was simply intolerable to me. It flew in the face of science, of reason, and of ethics. It was wrong.
I grew up an atheist. I believe in science and reason. In facts, and critical thinking. And I passionately love the natural world. This has driven my career in environmental activism and land conservation.
Though I became a Pagan in 1987, I have never believed in literal gods. Rather, I have seen them as metaphorical stories and archetypes.
Until about 2000, I felt I was in good company. Until then, in the Pagan community what you believed was private. People rarely even talked about their cosmologies; it was generally understood that everyone had a different way of looking at the world, but it didn’t matter: we could all circle together and be a community.
Several prominent voices in the community at that time were clearly in the gods-as-metaphors camp, and I had no reason to feel that my membership therein was strange. I found deep meaning and joy in celebrating the changing of the seasons, in the ritual circles I shared with community and loved ones, and in the egalitarian and environmental values that were the community norms. I was a devout Pagan: an atheistic one.
But as I said, around 2000 something changed. A new brand of Paganism that insisted on the literal reality of its gods arose: the folk who now call themselves devotional polytheists. Within a few short years, believing became a hot and contentious subject in the broader community.
And with this, the suggestion that you had to believe in order to be a “real” Pagan, combined with the events referenced above, I quit. I stepped back from the community and abandoned my practices. It was a spiritual crisis and it coincided with the reelection of George W. Bush. I fell into a deep depression.
But it didn’t take long before I realized how deeply I missed my Pagan practice and community. My life felt flat and empty, meaningless, colorless.
I didn’t believe. I had never believed. Yet somehow, I had achieved deep pleasure and abiding sense of connectedness and meaning through Pagan religion.
So what is a religion, really?
I think the answer to that question has been perverted by centuries of Abrahamic religions’ obsession with faith, belief and theology.
Because clearly, religion isn’t about belief. Or not only so, anyway.
I thought long and hard about it. I read a lot. And I concluded that religion isn’t one thing: it’s three.
A religion, yes, does contain a description of the world: a cosmology. It explains where things come from and what the purpose is in life. For theists, that typically includes an invisible, ephemerally tangible dimension wherein reside gods, spirits, and so forth. For naturalists, it is limited to the Universe we can see and verify through science.
But a religion also describes a value set: a description of what is important in life, and instructions for how to live a moral life according to the religion.
And finally, it includes practices: Observances. Holy days. Sabbaths. Rituals. Contemplative practices. Rites of passage. Sacred music and recited liturgy. All the things that people do in the course of belonging to a particular religion.
Understanding this, it became clear to me that atheism and religion were not the opposite ends of a spectrum. That atheistic religion was a possibility. That science could provide the cosmology, Pagan values the moral framework, and Pagan rituals and observances the praxis.
And that is when I began to craft the path that I now call Atheopaganism.
I’m back to my practices, though they have evolved such that I no longer use the names and concepts of gods even as metaphors. I’m celebrating holy days around the wheel of the year. My Focus (a word I use instead of “altar”, which to me implies worship and sacrifice) is an actively maintained presence in my home.
I also moved into a segment of the Pagan community which exhibited very high integrity, humanity and love, and didn’t demand that I believe anything in particular: the Fire Family community. That made a big difference.
And I discovered that on my own, I had invented something very much like what others like Jon Cleland Host and John Halstead and Rua Lupa did before me: naturalistic Paganism. I discovered that there are more like me. A lot more.
And so I’ve begun to foster that community, with writing and resources at atheopaganism.wordpress.com and a forum where we can meet and discuss our religion on Facebook. We have an aggregated blog site at NaturalPagans.com.
Naturalistic Paganism isn’t new. It’s been here since the beginning of the Neopagan revival in the 1960s (and arguably earlier). But we didn’t feel a need to talk about it until what you believe became an important topic of discussion, with the advent of an element in the community who insist that believing in gods as literal persons is important.
We’ve been circling with theists and a part of the community from the outset. The only difference now is that many of us are stepping forward to publicly declare that the equation of Belief with “real Paganism” on the part of some devotional polytheists is a mischaracterization.
We are not believers, and we are Pagans.
There are leaders in the community who are among us. They invoke gods as metaphors, not as literal persons. I won’t name them here because they may not want their names dragged into this discussion, but an example would be the late Margot Adler, author of the groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon.
We’re not here to tell people they shouldn’t believe in literal gods…although we will bristle if it is taken as a matter of course that Pagans naturally do so. We’re not here to convert anyone. We just want our space in the Pagan tent, and to be allowed there to express our cosmology as readily as may any other sector of our diverse community.
Our values are as sacred to us as are the values of any other Pagan path. We are every bit as fervent in our devotion to what we revere, which is the mighty Cosmos itself: the natural world in all its wonder and awe-inspiring beauty.
It doesn’t matter to us that the Universe is not listening. We are here, emergent manifestations of the properties of matter, energy and the laws of physics. The world feeds, shelters and nurtures us. It is worthy of reverence: of love, and care, and service.
Praise to the wide spinning world
Unfolding each of all the destined tales compressed
In the moment of your catastrophic birth
Wide to the fluid expanse, blowing outward
Kindling in stars and galaxies, in bright pools
Of Christmas-colored gas; cohering in marbles hot
And cold, ringed, round, gray and red and gold and dun
Pure blue, the eye of a child, spinning in a veil of air,
Warm island, home to us, kind beyond measure: the stones
And trees, the round river flowing sky to deepest chasm, salt
Praise to Time, enormous and precious,
And we with so little, seeing our world go as it will
Ruing, cheering, the treasured fading, precious arriving,
Fear and wonder,
Fear and wonder always.
Praise O black expanse of mostly nothing
Though you do not hear, you have no ear nor mind to hear
Praise O inevitable, O mysterious,
Praise and thanks be a wave
Expanding from this tiny temporary mouth this tiny dot
Of world a bubble
Going out forever meeting everything as it goes
All the great and infinitesimal
Gracious and terrible
All the works of blessed Being.
May it be so.
May it be so.
May our hearts sing to say it is so.