No Gods. No Masters. No Priesthood.

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.

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40 thoughts on “No Gods. No Masters. No Priesthood.

  1. This is a very important point. And as you’ve already hinted at, the inclusion of the supernatural gives a clear path for abuse, where the leader/priest need only to say that whatever sexual/financial requirement they are asking for is what this or that supernatural source told them, and one can have no rational rebuttal to prove it’s false. – Jon Cleland Host

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark,
    I agree completely that religions have, for millennia, used the concept of the supernatural as a way to coerce and control members. My late husband was a 40 year Scientologist who died because of their abuses – so I get it. I’m well versed in mind control, undue influence, coercion, …. you get the picture.

    I’ve seen the dynamics of coercion at play in Paganism as well. I was kicked out of covens for not toeing the line. Friendships were broken beyond repair in each case.

    I think, though, the same dynamic can, and will, occur in any group. I was going to add ‘where there is leadership’ but I don’t know that it’s possible to remove leadership from group dynamics. Some people simply are more charismatic, dynamic, and in charge and others are naturally more inclined to follow. Simply by virtue of the fact that a group with customs exists creates the possibility of abuse. “This is the tradition. The way it’s always been done. The way the founder(s) put it together.”

    It doesn’t automatically follow that there will be abuse but the potential still exists. At the same time, I believe one can have a theistic organization that does use a power over dynamic to coerce members. Maybe it’s lends itself more easily to abuse, I guess I don’t know. I wonder if there have been studies.

    Really enjoy your blog, btw.

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      • This is a topic I’m honestly interested in so I hope you take this in the vein it is meant, curious conversation, rather than antagonism.
        How do you see removing a power differential working within a group that has customs and traditions? Or a group whose individuals desire to teach/learn?

        So, if I want to belong to a group or tradition that wants to learn more about, I dunno let’s say astronomy and herbalism, and there are peeps who are well versed in those subjects, how do we keep that from creating a power differential?

        Or a group that was founded with equal input by all members but now has customs and traditions that new members weren’t part of. There’s a power differential built into that no matter how much we want to flatten it.

        I like the analogy Jeff makes, below, about Al-Anon (and I suppose by extension that could mean any of the 12 step groups) but these are not teaching arenas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think you can have teaching relationships without power differentials simply by not having benefits that the teacher can withhold…like a good grade, or admission to a “higher level” of some kind. Teaching is fine so long as it doesn’t set up the teacher as a gatekeeper of some kind.

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      • I agree that it’s really hard to transition a hierarchical group to a non-hierarchical status. It takes political will on the part of the group as a whole–including its current leaders–to embrace the new model. A willingness to do that is an indicator that authority currently isn’t being abused, actually.

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    • I so agree with your comment. This is a complex topic, with no easy answer.

      In my view, once you make someone else the “mediator” between you and God (whatever deity you believe in), you have just given them all of your power. And that’s great if you can trust that mediator, and that’s great if they are a good teacher.

      But that’s a huge problem when you can’t trust that mediator.

      And if you depend on someone else for your relationship with God, well, you’re going to want to trust that mediator so badly that you may miss red flags.

      This is my opinion, of course. I’ve sought a direct relationship with God ever since I was young and saw that my Catholic priest was but a normal man. I’ve never wanted to follow any person, or have any sort of “middle man” between me and God since. Thus, no more groups for me. No more leaders for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can understand how, as a theist, you would feel that way.

        For Atheopagans, since there IS no god, there is nothing to mediate between. And this makes it all the more sensible that we not have priesthood. We can belong to a group but know we are as high-status as anyone else there.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. If and when there comes a time when a nontheist crosses this line, it will be interesting to see how you still blame the problem on theism.

    Perhaps building your own tradition would be a more productive use of time than trying to blame all social ills on belief in gods. This tactic reminds me of Clinton running as not Trump, which worked out well.

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  4. Al-Anon, which has been around since the 1950s, has 12 steps and 12 traditions, in addition to 12 concepts. The steps are for individuals, the traditions are for the group and the concepts are for the areas. IF (and I capitalized that deliberately) you can get beyond the God word (Al-Anon is, despite its claims otherwise, a Christian fellowship), the steps, traditions and concepts can apply to any group. I know that there are Pagan interpretations of the 12 Steps but I’ve never read anything that delves deeply into the anarchistic values that Al-Anon embraces, however unwittingly. I’d suggest looking to Al-Anon for guidance in formulating rules for Atheopagan groups.

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    • I have experience of Al-Anon from when I was a kid. I am sure that the groups vary considerably in their culture, but the one I was in was heavily Christian and continually referred back to Christian ideas. So, there’s that: my impulse is not to move in that direction. But I will do some research on the traditions and concepts to see if there is anything to inspire some thought about Atheopaganism. Thank you for the suggestion.

      I don’t really feel I am in a position to propose “rules” for Atheopaganism. I’ve proposed principles and values; to truly embrace those will automatically lead to a person not being abusive. But as I’m not “the Atheopagan pope”, all I can do is write stuff and invite like-minded people to embrace or adapt it as they will.

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      • I am in no way promoting Al-Anon – that would be a violation of the 11th Tradition. IF (and again, I capitalize that word deliberately) you can get beyond the Sky God that underlies almost all of the writings in Al-Anon, you will find that the spiritual principles that the program is based on are universal. The program is a spiritual program, not a religious one. It is anarchistic, though 99.9% of participants do not realize it and, if so informed, would no doubt be greatly upset. The steps, traditions and concepts are written in such a way that all power rests with the individual. There is a deliberate effort in Al-Anon to turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down but it takes quite a long time for participants to realize that and even longer for them (if they do at all) to apply those ideas to the society that they live in. I struggled for two years with the Christian verbiage and I still do but I do a lot of translating, too. It gets tiresome listening to people talk about their gendered God (almost always male) and to hear them say that He is listening to them and guiding their lives. Barf!!!!!!

        It is very important to realize that the principles that underlie Al-Anon are not, in the least, meant to apply only to those who grew up in alcoholic families or have an alcoholic significant other. The principles apply to all types of addiction: eating, sex, shopping, power, drugs of various kinds, etc.

        I would dearly love to find a book authored by someone who applied the principles of Al-Anon to the beliefs I read here.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. My thought is that an entity showing up as a wanna-be god for anyone cannot happen until that one walks around with a glaring god-hole beacon piercing one’s inner being.

    What is a god-hole?

    When a child is born the physical body will grow larger if life continues as long as into the teen years; it can’t be stopped. However, the god-hole is an inner being condition that grows continuously through a lifetime.

    Continuous curiosity into research and meditation keeps the hole filled and well camouflaged, contented awareness. However, a laziness towards the necessary meditation and intentional knowledge acquisition allows the god-hole to grow larger until it as an attractive abode for a substitute self awareness.

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    • While a god might be an external entity eager to pose as one’s alternate awareness, a Master or a Priest places one in D-D status, Double-Danger. It could indicate that lazy persons not only are okay with a substitute awareness, but actually want a mediator to find the substitutes for them.

      In other words, perhaps they are people who have willfully breached all their own boundaries to Whatsoever May Come!

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  6. The problem is not, in my opinion, the existence or nonexistence of deities or leaders. We most often see the stories of the corrupt and abusive leaders but most leaders lead with some sense of morality. Although I am not convinced of the existence of deities, believing that we are better off without them would not negate their existence. Many people, all genders and races included, will abuse their power. This is simply something we must fight when it occurs. There will always be leaders and followers.

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    • There are circumstances that make it easier to harass or abuse people. The most common one is a differential in level of power. All I’m saying here is that keeping power levels roughly equivalent and not creating situations where one person can hold another hostage for a grade or a recommendation or an advancement will reduce opportunities for abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I would say that teachers are certainly necessary, and respect for those with more knowledge goes without saying. But those teachers should never imagine that they know everything, or that they have any control over the paths that their students take.

    A teacher in a formal classroom must have a form of control, but children need to have bad behaviour checked so they and the students around them who can actually learn. Alot of the teachers I had could have done with being firmer, instead of letting certain brats walk all over them and ruin class for the rest of us… *grumbles of a nerdy student* 😉

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  8. Very well said. This is an issue in any power dynamic, but I imagine it is especially relevant for covens that are skyclad, and for hierarchical covens in general.

    In my experience, neopagans are also very wary of being called prude, so that having any sort of sexual boundaries is looked upon with skepticism. So many neopagan videos on YT praise polygamy and completely ignore individual sexual needs.

    All of that, combined with power dynamics, really muddies the waters.

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