Let’s start by acknowledging that the definitions are fuzzy.
There is no universally agreed-to definition of what a “religion” even is.
“Spirituality” is just as indeterminate. So all we can do is look at religions of the world and try to identify the elements that compose them.
When I do that, I conclude that a religion, functionally, comes in three pieces: a cosmology, which is a description of the nature of the Universe which is subscribed to by adherents of the religion; a set of values which define what is Sacred, what is important, and how we should live; and a set of practices such as rites, holidays, traditions and other sacred activities which enact the religion in the culture which embraces it.
Much of the material available on this site is about the second and third elements: about Atheopagan values and principles and rituals and practices. But this post is about the first religious component: cosmology.
I don’t write about that much, and there is a reason for it: because Atheopagan cosmology is defined by the entire body of scientific knowledge, and stops right there.
When it comes to describing the nature of the objective Universe “out there” beyond our skins, what there is credible, verifiable evidence to believe, we believe. What there is only anecdotal, subjective, unverifiable, unrepeatable conjecture about, we do not.
This is not a radical proposal. It’s the natural conclusion of critical thinking and application of the scientific method. After all: in the entire history of humanity, no verifiable phenomena have ever—ever—turned out to be caused by supernatural causes like gods, spirits, fairies, prayer or magic, readily though we can imagine them. And science has again and again discovered their actual causes.
Ours is religion without faith. We don’t have faith because we don’t need it: we have evidence, and that’s enough. If new evidence comes along and the scientific consensus about the nature of the Universe changes, our beliefs about the Universe update accordingly.
Maybe someday there will be verifiable and credible evidence that invisible self-aware disembodied intelligent entities that are entirely undetectable by all the instrumentation of science nonetheless exist, and are influencing events here on Earth…even though there’s no evidence of any such influence, either.
I’m not holding my breath for it, but it could happen.
The point is that we have a standard for what we believe which accommodates new evidence, rather than having static beliefs in support of which we cherry-pick evidence in order to maintain those beliefs. Understanding that the human sensorium is easily fooled, we do not take subjective individual experiences, including our own, seriously enough to believe extraordinary claims on the sole basis of such experiences. Only scientific evidence-gathering, analysis and peer review.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better than any other system we have for determining what is most likely to be a true description of the nature of the Universe. Others lend more weight to their personal and subjective experiences, or simply believe tales of gods as literal history rather than metaphorical myth. That’s all right for them; we just don’t think it accurately describes reality.
Now, does that mean that to Atheopagans, personal experience isn’t important, or meaningful? Of course not. Atheopaganism is all about creating meaningful personal experiences! Our standard for what we believe merely states that we can’t rely on subjective experiences to tell us factual objective truth about the nature of the Universe.
Since around 2000, there has been a movement within the broader Pagan community to advocate that, just as in Christianity and Judaism and Islam, a Pagan “must have faith” in literal gods in order to be a “real Pagan”. While this is silly on its face—when it comes to definitions, they don’t get much fuzzier than “Pagan“—it also flies in the face of the decades of participation in Pagan community by people who have never believed in gods, but have viewed them as ideas: as poetic cultural expressions invented by humans to put human faces on insensate forces and phenomena.
To be clear, not all of the so-called “devotional polytheists” take the unreasonable position that being a Pagan “demands” that one believe in invisible intelligences with magical powers. There are plenty who do not, and I want to emphasize that.
But those who do—who claim, for example, that you are “doing it wrong” if you don’t believe in “divine energy”, or who argue that Nature-centered Paganism “isn’t Pagan“, or that “naturalistic Paganism is an oxymoron“—are, in my opinion, a threat to core Pagan values of diversity, tolerance and inclusion.
They are what we said could never happen, back in the 1980s when I first became a Pagan: they are Pagan fundamentalists.
We used to joke about it. But here it is.
Fundamentalism is dangerous. It does not belong in a diverse and creative community. It leads inevitably to purges, divisions, purity tests and social cruelty.
When I entered the Pagan world in 1987, one of the things I was impressed by early on was the level of tolerance for diversity of beliefs and practices. We were a weird and woolly bunch and we liked it that way. Some embraced every flavor of supernatural “woo” imaginable. Others like me were scientific rationalists celebrating the Sacred Earth. We got along, circled and shared community together. When we did have conflicts, they weren’t about someone “not belonging” for believing the “wrong thing”.
I am happy to share rituals with Pagan theists. Their thing isn’t my thing, and I’m not going to invoke their gods in my rituals, but we share far more in common than renders us distinct. It is more “Pagan” to accept that we are all making our ways on our own religious/spiritual paths according to what works best for us than it is to arbitrarily declare who may and may not wear the label “Pagan”.
In fact, I would argue that we should err on the side of inclusion. If someone wants to call themselves a Pagan and participate positively in our community, I say we should let them. There are certainly people in our broader community now, as in every religious community, who are there for fellowship and a sense of “belonging” with those whose values they share far more than they are for rituals or practices or worship. So long as those people are respectful, why NOT allow them to call themselves “Pagans”?
Where, exactly, is the harm in that?
It’s a cold enough world as it is. Surely we can be hospitable to those who find our community a good place to be…and in the process, inoculate ourselves against the pernicious nature of fundamentalist thinking.