In 1987, a friend invited me to an autumnal equinox circle with his Pagan coven.
I had been an atheist all my life: a rational, naturalistic believer in science and reason. But I went.
I still don’t entirely know why.
It was…odd. There was drumming. The standing-in-a-circle-holding-hands was a bit uncomfortable. There was talking to Invisible Presences, though that seemed much more like symbolic action than people actually believing they existed.
But on the other hand…it was the autumnal equinox. That’s a real thing, a real event in the natural world. When was the last time I had noticed that? How connected was I to the reality of what was happening on Planet Earth?
There was a lot to like about the Paganism I first encountered. Celebration of the turning of the seasons and of the natural world appealed to my dyed-in-the-wool environmentalism, lent meaning to the passing of time. The people were warm and friendly, bright and creative and interesting.
So I went to another gathering. And I began to befriend the community of people who held them. The rituals began to feel natural, and the consistent narrative of “ancient ways” helped me to believe that we were doing something that, if not exactly like what people had done long before civilization and monotheism, was in some way related to it in its values, its wildness and its love for the Earth that sustains us.
That resonated with me. A lot. It suddenly made sense to me, that this is a way we should live, aware of the rhythms of the Earth, honoring it and grateful for all it provides for us.
I set up an altar.
I attended a big public ritual. I attended an outdoor festival.
I put on a pentacle.
In the 1980s and 90s, we didn’t really talk much about what we believed in the Pagan community. We just circled together, and what you believed was your own business. For many of us, this was simply a metaphorical practice that felt good and brought us meaning and a sense of connection to the Earth. Others subscribed to various out-there and scientifically unsupported theories such as literally existing gods, astrology and even alien visitation.
Not my problem, so long as I was free to maintain a rational atheism beside my Pagan practice. I understood the psychological benefit of rituals, the community-building. Sure, there was talk of “magic” and “gods” and quite a lot of other…shall we say, less rationally rigorous stuff. But those were metaphors, right? We were all playing let’s-pretend in order to have richer, happier, more fulfilled, more meaningful lives.
And…I figured that at least most of us understood that.
Right? Because bright people. And because many—including major figures in the movement—described “gods” and “magic” in exactly those terms.
So I was involved. And I was happy. I made friends and celebrated life and had adventures and it was, overall, good. I felt more connected with the natural world and that I had finally found My People.
And this went on for nearly 20 years. I was a happy Pagan atheist.
And then, around 2000, Issues began to develop.
For one thing, people in the community started talking about the Seriousness of Believing in Gods. About how you “couldn’t really be a Pagan” if you didn’t. Then a bunch of them decided that they were so Serious about this that they didn’t want to be called Pagans any more if others using that label weren’t as Serious as they were.
They were now “devotional polytheists”, and as far as I could tell, they were Pagan fundamentalists: you either believed what they said you should, or you were an apostate: a fake, a “LARPer”, a Not-Real-Pagan.
Well, that didn’t square very well with my theory of personal theology in Paganism.
Caveat: It may well be that I just happened to come into the Pagan community through the wrong gateway. While there were many wonderful people there, the Church of All Worlds was not a grounded, nor high-integrity affair, fun and wild and experimental as it was*. Later, I was introduced to the Fire Circle community, where reality and integrity had a much more comfortable home.
In 2004 and 2005, I had a series of experiences which soured me on the Pagan community and made me realize just how literally many within it were taking this deity stuff. I heard excuses made for unethical and unacceptable behavior as “the gods’ will”. I saw frankly unbalanced behavior from people defended as inspired by their “gods”.
Finally, it was enough. I quit.
I took off my pentacle necklace, quit going to Pagan events, withdrew from the community, let my altar gather dust. I was through. I wasn’t going to be a part of something so divorced from reality and willing to excuse unethical behavior.
Whatever my future was going to be, it wasn’t going to be that.
But something funny happened about six months later. I was unhappy. I felt disconnected from the world, disconnected from myself. I missed my rituals and observances. I missed gatherings with my friends.
So I started mulling the question: why can’t I have them?
What is a religion, really? And by what rights or reasons did others have the ability to declare my beliefs and practices not to be one?
I spent about a year researching, reading, and thinking about them. The long version of that process is found in the essay I wrote at the end of it, “How I Became an Atheopagan“.
But the upshot is this: religion serves various systems of the human brain, which evolved subsequently to one another: the Reptilian Brain, the Limbic or Mammalian Brain, and the Neocortex or Thinking Brain. The rational or Thinking Brain is not the key driver of human behavior, nor happiness. So simply having a cosmology that conforms to what is most likely to be reality—as determined by the best system we have for determining that, which is the scientific method—is not enough to bring happiness or a sense of fulfillment.
This is why cosmology (what we believe) is only a part—and not the most important part—of a religion. The two other components are values, which tell us what is important and how best to live, and practices, which are the rituals and observances around which a religious community coheres and which provide the religious experience.
Every religion on Earth contains these three components.
Given this, I posited, why can’t you have a religion with a science-based cosmology? So long as you have values and observances as well which form a coherent practice, that’s a religion. Exactly as I had been practicing for more than 20 years.
I wrote the essay. I posted it online. I called the path I had defined, “Atheopaganism”.
I put back on a symbol—not a pentacle this time: too much cultural baggage, too much association with the “occult”. An acorn (since replaced with the Atheopaganism symbol, which I have begun to call a “suntree”).
I cleaned and resurrected my altar, which I began to call a Focus as a confirmation to myself that that is what it is for: not worship, not sacrifice.
And I returned to Pagan practice.
And then something amazing started to happen.
People in the community started coming up to me and confiding, “That’s what I believe, too.”
People started joining the Atheopaganism Facebook page: first in dozens, then in hundreds. Shortly, it became clear that posts and uploading files there was insufficient, and I launched this blog. Other Pagans took notice. Debate and discussion ensued.
And over and over, as newcomers arrived, I heard this:
Oh, thank goodness! I thought I was the only one.
This makes so much sense to me.
I’m an atheist, and my life has been feeling like it’s missing something. This intrigues me, and I’m going to give it a try.
I’m surrounded by literal theists in my coven. I’m a scientist, and I just can’t. Thank you for articulating what I believe and do.
I finally feel I have found my people.
I feel like I have come home.
It’s been so heartwarming, so confirming to hear these testimonials again and again. What we are building is something that is meeting deep human needs for many people in the world.
Of course, there was blow-back, particularly from devotional polytheists. No surprise: what we believe and do is the antithesis of what they insist Paganism must be.
I started organizing presentations at Pantheacon, the largest indoor gathering of Pagans in North America. Panels on nontheist Paganism were packed to the rafters, year after year.
In 2016, John Halstead published Godless Paganism, an anthology which incorporated several pieces of my writing, including the foreword. The book provided the experience and perspective of dozens of nontheist Pagans and stirred significant ripples in the conversation of the broader Pagan community. We began being recognized as a legitimate sector of the community after about a year of are-they-or-aren’t-they in the blogosphere.
The controversy died down. Except among the diehard fundamentalists, there appeared to be a general acknowledgement that we, too, are a part of that community.
And our numbers just continue to grow. As of this writing, nearly 1,200 people have joined our online community.
In 2017, we held our first Moon Meet gathering, In 2018, we held a second one.
In the meantime, I have devoted myself to publishing extensive resources for Atheopagans and those investigating the path to help them develop their practices: A ritual primer. An event planning guide. And more.
Supporting, encouraging and providing helpful resources for this community has become a significant part of my life.
We are a religious path. We’re small, but we’re real, and we’re not going away.
We are living a way of being that integrates reason and religion, that sees to the varied needs of our complex minds without requiring subscription to the imagined as literal truth.
To my mind, that’s a remarkable thing. I find great meaning in my practice and community, and joy in being a part of the greater community as well.
Onward we go!
*I understand there are efforts now underway to correct this, and I applaud them. They are long overdue.