The Point of Friction

Once upon a time in the mid-80s, few of the Pagans I knew ever even talked about what they believed. We just did rituals together and enjoyed one another’s company. Sure, there were shout-outs to various gods and goddesses in most of the rituals, but those were easily understood as metaphorical (as I did).

When the subject of beliefs did come up, they were all over the map: there were those who believed in everything, from gods and magic and fairies to alien abductions and Atlantis…and then there were those like me who saw our rituals as meaningful but ultimately symbolic and metaphorical practices.

And no one cared. We were friends and co-religionists and we got along fine, theologically speaking. When there was friction, it wasn’t over cosmologies.

But then, over the next ten or fifteen years, the number of us grew…by a LOT. And things changed.

Most of those newcomers were coming from Christianity. And they brought with them a core assumption about religion: that it is about what you believe, rather than your values and what you do.

Now we are in a very different Pagan community than the one I originally entered. Where people actually talk about “Pagan faith”.

And fortune help you if you try to inquire about the basis for such faith. The immediate and vehement response is invariably, “How dare you question my beliefs?”

Um…because I use the scientific method, which is to question everything?

But that really doesn’t fly among believers. Some are deeply insecure about their beliefs, evidently, because even a question about why they believe them or a statement of fact that others may not believe in them provokes many to fly into a rage.

Beliefs are ideas: they are concepts held in the mind and given weight and authority as being truthful through a decision process.

Ideas are fair game for critique and analysis. Anyone who says we have to respect all the ideas of others has never been confronted with someone who thinks they are subhuman and should be exterminated. We do not have to respect the ideas of Nazis and Klansmen, nor of climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers or incels or those panicked about chemtrails.

Within the Pagan community, however, there is a convention: an ethic that expects that we will all nod gravely at one another’s expressions of belief and reports of supernatural experiences, however improbable. That stipulates that it is rude to do otherwise.

Recently, I read an academic paper on how “authority” is conferred upon claims of spiritual experiences in the Neopagan community. You can read it here, but I can save you the trouble: the bottom line is that the community is an echo chamber which amplifies the credibility of claims to some degree because of the social status of the claimant, but mostly because the community itself is unwilling to question such claims.

This is a place where we are going to have to accept that we will chafe with other Pagans, my fellow Atheopagans. There’s really no way around it: ours is a path of analysis and sifting and weighing and testing and doubting; our fellows are instead Believing and trying not to ask any embarrassing questions that call Belief into doubt.

These approaches are diametrically opposed to one another. They cannot be reconciled.

So our solidarity with others under the Pagan umbrella must be the kind of solidarity that brings different political parties into coalition with one another in a parliamentary system: we don’t agree with one another on some profoundly important questions, but we agree to work together on issues of common interest. In this case, such common interest can include advocacy for separation of church and state and freedom of religious practice without fear of oppression or discrimination, opposing racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and other forms of bigotry, fighting abuse within our community, and–in some, but not all cases–we can make common cause around issues such as climate change and anticapitalism.

Recently, I have had interactions on the Reddit subreddit r/paganism (where I am one of the moderators) with theist Pagans who insist that Atheopagans cannot be members of the Pagan community unless they “respect and defend the cosmologies” of theists*. And I’m sorry: that is not a reasonable expectation. Nor do I expect theists to defend my ideas—that’s my job, not theirs.

We must respect theists as people. But it is not reasonable to expect us to respect their ideas. Because ideas, again, are fair game for critique in our world, and we have standards when it comes to ideas. Standards involving verifiable evidence…and the more extraordinary the claim, the more compelling must be the evidence.

There were things about those times back in the 80s that I miss. That lack of theological gatekeeping is certainly one of them.

 


*I also was told in a Facebook group that being an atheist Pagan is “abnormal”, which literally made me laugh out loud. Since when did “normality” have anything to do with being a Pagan?!

22 thoughts on “The Point of Friction

  1. Huh. My first response was that I don’t really care what a person believes; it’s what they do that matters to me. But, if I’m going to be honest, I do pay attention to another person’s beliefs, in and of themselves, and, yes: I do make what I hope are quiet, personal judgements about them.
    What I don’t do is try to argue with them about their beliefs- unless invited to, of course. Flying Spaghetti Monster or Fascism, people are entitled to believe any cockamamie thing they want. It’s when they start acting on their beliefs or, worse, insisting that I act in concert with them, that we’ve got a potential problem, depending on how their behavior affects me, or the larger society.

    Like

    • I agree, by and large. But I think the fantasied nature of so much that is held as belief in the Pagan community really undermines what can be a profound and reality-based set of paths. And when combined with suggestions that those of us who ARE reality-based don’t belong, that actually does harm to us.

      Like

  2. Oh hai, sceptical theist here, who questions and sifts and weighs my hypotheses of the nature of deities (and I know I’m not alone in this).

    I agree there are probably too many people who just believe in stuff and don’t question it. I can’t say I have actually met very many of them.

    I also hang out mainly in the Canadian and British Pagan and Wiccan communities — which may account for the difference, but I’m not sure.

    When beliefs are discussed, it’s all very hypothetical and conjectural.

    I definitely disagree with the person who expected atheist Pagans to defend Pagan theism. Why on earth should you? I’ve come across Heathens who object to Wiccans representing them in interfaith contexts (due to worry of being misrepresented).

    Since your view of theists is that we are all fixed in our beliefs, I’d prefer it if you didn’t try to defend us!

    I completely affirm that atheist Pagans are fully Pagan — I was happily atheist and Pagan for many many years and still harbour healthy scepticism, thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. All good points.

      I have never contended that theists are “fixed in their beliefs”, but I have yet to meet one who seriously considers the possibility that their theism is incorrect, and maintains this is an ongoing possibility.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I might very well be wrong about the existence of deities, but as I don’t let my hypotheses get in the way of putting my actions/money/attention where my mouth is on issues like climate change, LGBTQ+ rights etc., I’m not especially wedded to the idea that they exist; it’s not central to my Pagan practice.

        I’m still living in the paradigm where you can have atheists and polytheists and pantheists etc in the same circle. Most Wiccans are still happy in that paradigm.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m living in that paradigm, too, and I experience it frequently. It’s when bigotry and exclusionary behavior occurs–like hrafnblod, when he was a moderator of r/pagan on Reddit, automatically blocking all nontheist Pagans, which he did–that I get attitudinal.

        I still think we’re all Pagans, and we share much more in common in the sense of values and practices than differentiates us.

        Thank you for your investment in the issues that matter, and for your inclusiveness.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’d be great if we could occupy that paradigm and still be able to discuss this stuff. But I think the minute anybody takes the view that their position is the true one and any other position is deluded (and I’m not saying that you are taking that view), any possibility of dialogue goes out the window.

        The people who really get up my nose are duotheists (the “all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one Goddess” brigade), because that’s such a heterocentric and culturally tin-eared approach.

        And yeah, basically, why are we all distracting ourselves with theological arguments when our house is on fire?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Preach, sister. And pass another bucket of water.

        Things are changing on all kinds of fronts. I agree that doubling down on gender polarity in this day and age is a completely tonedeaf and context-ignoring way to go, but I’ve seen lots of it, too.

        And then there are those who roll all that up into a monotheistic “One”.

        Not my circus, but it seems to me that it might be better to grant people who say they share values with you the benefit of the doubt that they actually do, and make common cause rather than drive wedges. I see you trying to do that, and I appreciate it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I mean, consider this: “sifting and weighing…the nature of deities” still presumes that they exist. That’s not fully skeptical. It accepts as an axiom something for which there is not compelling evidence.

      Like

  3. Mark would probably find less friction in communities of believers if he actually ever engaged with them in a respectful or reasonable way. The reality is that he typically walks in, makes allusions to (or just outright states) his belief that everyone who believes in anything is a primitive, backwards moron, and then says “My, why are these brutish polytheists assailing me?”

    He’s every bit the atheist in the vein of Dawkins, of Sargon, of the Armored Skeptic. A thuggish, reactionary halfwit who considers his every position to be inherently rational, by virtue of his status as an atheist, and considers the position of any theist to be inherently flawed or unreasoned because they have made idols out of gods, rather than out of an abstracted, disassociated concept of capital-s Science. On the issue of Mauna Kea, and on other issues in the subreddit he mods he continually takes colonialist, bigoted positions; that the defense of holy (and stolen) land is primitive superstition, or (on said subreddit) that African spiritual practices are “backwards.” Like countless bigots before him, he cloaks his flagrantly racist and colonialist rhetoric in the language of “science” and “rationality,” when he’s really no more intellectually, scientifically, or ethically rigorous than a 19th century phrenologist.

    Mark isn’t wanted in these circles because he’s a bigoted pig. Not because he has the audacity to not believe in the gods; frankly, I don’t think most of us care that much about that. It’s the fact that he can’t even enter a space theists inhabit without making derogatory remarks about backwardness, superstition, and ‘imaginary friends.’ And it’s certainly not his job to defend theism; but neither are theists in any way obliged to put up with his contrary and pigheaded ass in their spaces, where he contributes nothing of value to their discussions and offers only snide, shallow and ultimately useless criticisms, mostly to try and elicit responses so he can run off and blog about how the theists were so mean to him. Since he mostly just gets told to fuck off, he instead comes back to his blog and argues against imaginary strawman theists, making the same tired and useless points, couched in tired and useless liberalism, year after year, hoping people will see how beleaguered and put upon he is.

    Like

    • Sigh.

      This is what we’re up against, folks: insults, smears, outright lies (in the case of the accusation of “colonialism” or having termed African indigenous cultures as “backwards”, which I have never done), and just more miserable and meanspirited nonsense.

      I have spent plenty of time in spaces theists inhabit without in any way denigrating their beliefs. Yet when I dare simply to point out that not all of us share them, all hell breaks loose, and particularly from this clearly deeply unhappy and angry person.

      Meanwhile, we’re building a movement. I don’t know what he’s doing, but it doesn’t appear to be that. I’ll take the emotional climate in our circles over the empty, rude, vicious, dishonest and ultimately futile mutterings of hrafnblod, thanks very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I mean I literally gave a link where it’s in context with the thing it’s replying to but go off I guess. We all know atheists are the most oppressed minority group, ofc

    Like

    • Something else I never said. LOL.

      I mean, I get that someone like you is more interested in gotcha points than reality, but you just do miserable you, I guess.

      Like

      • I’m mostly just tired of seeing these posts crop up time and again about how the few people to ever just be like nah we ain’t gotta put up with reactionary atheists mocking us are some existential threat to the soul of paganism or comparable to Nazis or whatever dumb fucking variation it ends up being. No one even gives a shit whether you believe in gods or not, they just aren’t gonna put up with your lazy jabs and provocations or your “that’s out of context” deflections when your own words are brought up. You may not say it in those words, but your endless whinging about having to exist in a community where theists are something you’re aware of, rather than something you can pretend we’ve all moved past, says enough about what you think. You’ve never contributed an original thought to this community’s discourse, so what movement are you building?

        Like

      • ::makes popcorn::
        ::watches hrafnblod descend into self-parody::

        Look, man: you’re swinging wildly and not landing with anything. Your effort to demonize me *doesn’t work because I’m not a demon*. I am not the things you accuse me of, nor do I do the things you accuse me of.

        Meanwhile, it is YOU who routinely bounced all atheist Pagans from r/pagan, stating in so many words that it was your intent to “drive us from the community”. That’s TEXTBOOK bigotry and chauvinism. You are in no position to point fingers in relation to those qualities.

        I’m sorry you’re threatened–yes, that’s the word, it’s abundantly obvious–by my statements and positioning. You can mock and accuse and wave your little sword, but the fact is that you are just a small man with anger issues.

        So go away now. You’re stinking up the joint.

        Like

Comments are closed.