It’s a sadly familiar tale in the Pagan community: the coven or local organization that is run by a charismatic “high priestess” or “high priest” (or both), doling out “training” and “degrees of advancement” based on how well the subject toes the line, fawns over the “priest/ess”, and, in some particularly sad cases, provides them with sexual favors as a part of the “initiatory process”.
Or…the narcissistic Pagan “leader” who works to cultivate a young and pretty entourage of on-tap adorers as a part of imparting their “wisdom” to followers…and for whom those not so young or pretty never quite seem to make the grade for advancement.
Or…the dirty secret that eventually comes out about some bright and innocent aspiring newby who ends up being harassed until driven away by such a “leader”.
But wait…isn’t that essentially the sad and common story in pretty much every religious community?
I’ll cut to the chase: that entire model—of heirarchy in power, respect and even obedience in spiritual community—is rotten to its core. It is a guaranteed formula for abuse. It is the same as when bosses have power over employees, when teachers have power over students, and when adults have power over children. And while those power gradients may be inevitable, we don’t have to have them in religion.
We see it in the Christians, we see it in the Buddhists, we see it in the Pagans. Doesn’t matter the cosmology and practice. Having some people who are considered “more advanced and important” in a religious context just doesn’t keep people safe.
I don’t know how many times I have heard from bright, creative, interesting, wise people that they gave up on their local Pagan community because of some would-be guru abusing the trust that others placed in them: socially, financially, sexually.
I’ve seen it myself, close up.
And as far as I’m concerned, in Atheopaganism we ain’t doing that.
Yes, I’m the primary voice here at the blog (which reminds me: I welcome guest posts! Please send me your submissions!) And mine is the name most associated with this path, because I started it and I’m devoting a significant chunk of my life to helping to build and raise the visibility of its vision and practices.
But I am NOT the high priest of the Atheopagans. We have no clergy*, no advancement levels. I’m just a guy with ideas who cares, devoting what skills and wisdom he has to making a path. Others seem to find it valuable, and that’s really gratifying to me: it makes me feel committed to this community, to feel love and inspiration that these ideas and practices are of value in the lives of others.
YOU, fellow Atheopagan reading this, are the “high priest/ess” of your life. You are the ultimate moral authority in relation to you. Given learning of ritual skills and a desire to do so, you can be the leader of a ritual just as well as anyone. And you have as much standing to contribute lore, philosophy, and suggested practices to Atheopaganism as anyone else.
If you find something in what I write objectionable, I hope you will say so, directly to me. Let’s talk about it. Maybe I got something wrong, or have a blind spot. Or maybe you just have a better idea for how to handle a particular situation or ritual technique. Bring it forth! We are collaborating in building this path together.
Some of the stories that have come forward in the wake of the abuse accusation against Isaac Bonewits on Facebook and in comment threads have nearly brought me to tears, because they are from good people who were driven out of Pagan community by the sheer dysfunction of those who claimed to be its leading exponents. I’ve seen it myself, in the Church of All Worlds, where grounded and sensible and functional people would come in, look around, and run screaming…but crazy and creepy settled in and stayed for years.
One of the truly wonderful things about creating a new tradition is that we can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us. And in Atheopaganism, I’m doing my best not to introduce any element that can be distorted or abused to enable the kinds of shenanigans described above.
There is an anarchist slogan: No gods. No masters. This has been adapted by some theistic Pagans to Many gods. No masters.
Well, I’m here to tell you, folks, if you have a priesthood standing at a level between you and your gods—if you really think that someone who calls themselves a “priestess of Goddess X” has a closer relationship with that aspect of the Sacred than you do—you’ve got masters, whether you want them or not. And some of them will inevitably betray you.
So I say No gods. No masters. No priests. No priestesses.
Just we critters, equal and humble under the gaze of the Sun, working together to make our way.
*As of 2020, with the founding of the Atheopagan Society, we are ordaining “clerics” now, but they are not higher-status within the community than non-clerics: theirs is a service role they choose in order to provide services to humanity at large, so it’s more like a vow than anything else. We don’t even capitalize “cleric”.
If you embrace the Atheopagan Principles and path and would like to be ordained online–free–please visit TheAPSociety.org