(Please note that this article will use terms like “true” and “untrue” surrounding religion and various religious beliefs. I typically try to avoid words like those, but doing so is not an honest description of my experience, and I want to be perfectly honest here.)
I’m an atheist, a materialist, a determinist, a naturalist. I believe in the physical world and nothing else.
I was raised that way, chiefly by my loudly atheist father. I’ve always had the world figured out, always had the right answer, and was often confused by the fact that people kept asking questions that they thought were supposed to stump me. Questions like “what is the human soul?” and “what happens after we die?” that I thought had pretty clear answers to. I only realized in high school that there were people on this earth who believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I only realized in college that the very idea of there existing a single objective truth was not universally agreed-upon.
I’m not sure what first set me out to trying to find a spiritual path. I think it boils down to frustration. I saw so much potential in holidays and rituals; families who are religious together can achieve a level of seriousness and interpersonal depth that my family never had. We’re a bunch of friends who share loads of inside jokes, but we don’t share our personal journeys with one another, and rarely talk about subjects such as the meaning or purpose of life. We celebrate secularized Christian-American holidays, but not for any discernible reason.
And I’ve seen so much beauty associated with religion. Churches are like magical, otherworldly places that I’m not allowed into; the few times that I’ve participated in a Christian service I’ve felt like a liar or infiltrator. Why did religious people get to have this beauty and magic in their lives? Couldn’t there be a way for me to celebrate life and the world and the people I love without being forced to subscribe (or pay lip service) to untrue beliefs?
Feeling sort of silly, I began searching for “atheist spirituality” online. I eventually stumbled upon the Spiritual Naturalist Society and started listening to their podcast*.
Here’s the thing about being an atheist: you’re not allowed to have magic. You’re barely allowed to have beauty, and you’re certainly not allowed to have spirituality. It can be difficult to explain to someone who wasn’t raised atheist, but essentially there are certain words that set off an alarm response. The easiest ones to explain are words like holy, sacred, spiritual, religion, etc.; I think even people who have been raised in their religions can understand why these might put off an atheist. But there are other words on this list, too, ones that I think people might not expect. These ones can include wisdom, inspiration, traditions, flourishing, and walking a path.
You see, atheists aren’t wise; they’re intelligent. They aren’t inspired, they’re creative. And certainly tradition is a red flag, mired in the flagrant idea that ancient philosophies could have any bearing whatsoever on modern life.
The Spiritual Naturalism podcast and website were replete with not only the innocuous code words listed above, but the obvious ones, too. They carelessly threw around dangerously magical phrases, claiming that “existence is holy”, and that the universe is “natural and sacred”. I had my thumb hovering over the delete button for weeks. Nothing is holy! Nothing is sacred! Those are buzzwords made up by religious people who want to imbue nonexistent meaning onto random things! But the speakers kept peppering these phrases around such relievingly logical statements as “Naturalists’ conception of reality consists of the natural world as outlined by the latest scientific understanding”, and “we are careful to limit our claims about reality to what we can experience and measure, as well as reproduce and show to others.”
This was the first time that anyone who believed in science stood in front of me and described anything unironically as holy.
It’s scary for a lifelong atheist to use religious language. It’s difficult, and it feels wrong and silly, like we’re playing pretend. And that’s just the language, not even the practice.
It took me a while to get used to the parlance–the idea that the words sacred and holy don’t inherently imply the existence of a deity–but even feeling confident that I was still through-and-through atheist, I was not about to use words like that in front of anyone. I practiced in secret, although at that time my ‘practice’ was little more than listening to podcasts and giving gratuity in my head before some meals.
When I switched to Atheopaganism, it was chiefly for the holidays, but I’m not ashamed to admit it was also for the aesthetic. Paganism has always looked interesting to me, but was one of those groups that asked me to subscribe to too many new beliefs as a barrier to entry. Atheopaganism was the perfect combination: it was a way for me specifically to revere the earth (rather than the nebulous philosophical concepts that the SN Society liked to discuss) while also being able to re-embrace the Supremely Weird Kid that I had once been.
I’m still new to having a spiritual practice. It’s been roughly a year since I created my first Focus, and I’m finally at the point now where I seek out sacred moments for their own sake: things like embracing the sunlight, greeting the stars, and meditating in the fresh air. My path into ritual has been–and is going to be–slower than most people, and that’s okay. It’s more important that I feel the depth of my own love for the universe than it is for me to put on some wild performance.
The ritual state doesn’t come easily to me, and it makes me feel silly and vulnerable, and it’s going to be quite a while before I can do it in the same room as a single other person… but it is wonderful, and I’m glad I was able to find a completely honest way to experience it.
That’s the thing about Atheopaganism. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything about myself in order to express my gratitude for being alive, or to feel a wonder down to my bones for the complexity of the world around me. I didn’t have to qualify my beliefs in order to bring beauty and magic into my life, and I didn’t have to translate my experiences into metaphorical deism just to be able to share this beauty and magic with others.
I’m still an atheist, a materialist, a determinist, a naturalist; now, I’m also an Atheopagan. And I’m so relieved that I found my way here.
*SNS Today. You may also enjoy THE WONDER: Science-Based Paganism. Link in the sidebar at right.