What’s This Atheopaganism About, Exactly?

So, we’re doing this Atheopaganism thing.

What’s its purpose? What are its goals?

I think we talk around the edges of this question a lot, with discussions of Sacred values and Principles that clearly point their way to a vision. But it would be better to articulate that vision straight-out, so people are clear about where I come from, and so we can discuss and refine it if it doesn’t work for the Atheopagan community writ large.

My vision for Atheopaganism is a nested set of Russian matryoshkaIt exists on scales from the personal to the societal.

Personally, I pursue my Atheopagan practice as a modality for healing my inner wounds, navigating my life, and cultivating more wisdom and joy and awe and celebration. To be a better person.

Interpersonally, I hope my Atheopagan practice helps me to become more kind, less acerbic, and closer in my relationships, even if they don’t share my cosmology. Success is mixed on that one, but to some degree that’s because I don’t always succeed in bringing my best self forward. Working on it.

In the Atheopagan community—those who read this blog and/or belong to the Atheopagan Facebook groups, mostly—my goal is one of service. I provide resources, ideas, projects, personal reflections and lore meant to help others to develop their own practices, so they can enjoy the personal benefits I have and shape and adapt Atheopaganism to their own needs.

More broadly, in the Pagan and Atheist communities my goal is to hold up a lantern: to offer a pathway to those who may find value in it, and help to ease their entry to what may be unfamiliar and strange. My goal within those communities is not to convert anyone, but rather to ensure that this path is given room to exist, and to support those who are interested in it.

Finally, societally my goal is a better world. Where people are happier, and kinder, and more critically thinking, and more awe-struck, and more fulfilled, and more tolerant; where the human relationship with the Earth is resacralized; where diverse paths of religious expression are welcomed and allowed to flourish.

So that’s all: my vision is nothing short of total societal transformation. But it starts small, and quietly, in the heart.

For Pantheacon 2018,  I proposed a discussion group on the subject, What is Paganism FOR? Unfortunately, the proposal was declined. I think it could have been a fruitful and illuminating conversation. Because I think that when you strip away a lot of pomp and frippery, these are the goals of many, if not most of the Pagan community.

I have learned, however, that my proposed ritual, “Arming the Earth Warriors: A Ritual for Activists”, was accepted, so for the fourth year in a row, nontheist programming will be available there. I will also convene the annual Nontheist Pagan Mixer, so we can socialize with one another…news on that soon!

I’m really interested in the take of those who follow this blog on the vision articulated here. Please comment below, or on Facebook. Thanks!

Advertisements

Giving Voice: Public Speaking as a Core Ritual Skill

Speaking before an audience is terrifying for many people. In fact, surveys indicate that many fear public speaking more than death itself.

However, for ritualists, speaking confidently before a group of listeners is a core skill that enables clear communication, evocation of emotion, and establishment of leadership credibility which provokes a sense of safety and confidence in the ritual proceedings on the part of participants.

As a ritual leader—and remember, in Atheopaganism there is no priesthood, anyone can be a ritual leader—your spoken voice is perhaps your most powerful tool for moving participants into ritual space and common purpose. As a participant, it is sure to be called upon at times, to invoke the Qualities that you hope to bring into the circle, or to express your Gratitudes for good things in your life. And in community, in or out of circle, speaking your truth is essential: it is how we remain truly with one another. As feminist Maggie Kuhn has it, “speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

I am fortunate in that public speaking has always been easy for me; I know that for many, it is a tremendous challenge. Here are some pointers that I hope can help you to be a more effective ritual and community speaker:

    • If at all possible—that is, unless the wording has to be exact for some reason—do not attempt to memorize a speech. There is too much that can go wrong with a memorized speech; either you can lose track and forget the next part of what you are saying, or the presentation can appear wooden and lifeless because you are regurgitating something from memory and focusing on recall rather than connecting with your audience. Short passages are okay for memorization, but it is much better to work from a short set of talking points, and speaking spontaneously about each of these. The talking points can be memorized, or you can keep a small card in your hand listing them as a reminder. A poem or quotation may be read from paper.
    • If you have too much material to be summarized by a brief set of talking points, consider having more than one person deliver it. Variety helps listeners to maintain focus, anyway, and it’s much better to have two people speaking from talking points than one reading from pages.
    • Other than as noted above, don’t read a speech from paper or cue cards. This is the surest way to kill the energy of a ritual circle. Reading from a page can appear flat and devitalized, and under low light conditions, readers are sure to stumble over written text. The alternative is that you are juggling a flashlight along with pages of text, and the flow and confidence that are necessary for ritual leadership just become impossible. Staring at a page prevents connection with listeners, and is an immediate boredom cue for them. A key part of what establishes leadership is the sense on the part of participants that you are confident in yourself and what you are saying.
    • Practice. If you are not confident in your public speaking abilities, practice speaking from your talking points until you feel better about what you will present. The speech doesn’t have to come out the same way every time; after all, the listeners don’t even know what the talking points are. Practicing before a mirror will help you with confident posture and looking (yourself) in the eye while speaking.
    • Speak to your audience. Look them in the eye! Connecting with listeners is the surest way for them to know that your words are sincere and are meant for them. Think of your speech as a conversation: the attention and feedback you get from listeners is their “response”. And feel free to ask questions in case you’re explaining something that may not be clear.
    • If you make a mistake, carry on. Everyone makes mistakes. You can make a joke about it, or just keep going.
    • Do relaxing exercises before you need to speak. Take some deep breaths. Remind yourself that you know how to do this, that you have what it takes. Ground. Be in your body and ready to step forward in confidence.
    • Try to minimize dry, logistical details in circle speech. Ritual circle is for ritual, not telling people where the bathrooms are and other uninteresting details. To communicate such things, have greeters at your event that explain them, rather than leaving it to a ritual leader to communicate them.
    • Learn to project your voice. Particularly for women (as higher-pitched voices tend not to carry as far), this is essential for any but the smallest ritual contexts. Learn to tell the difference between projection (speaking from the diaphragm) and yelling (speaking loudly through the vocal chords, which strains the voice quickly). Here is a page with exercises to learn to project your voice.
    • Emotion is good. Listeners want to see your passion for the subject. Show them.
    • Remember: listeners in ritual circle are on your side! They’re not there to criticize you or find fault with your presentation; they want to go where you want to lead them. Think of yourself as among friends when speaking in circle.

 

The ritual circle is intended as a safe container. When we draw the circle around us, it is to say that what happens within happens in a context of trust, cooperation and amicability. Your speech does not have to be perfect to be great, and to be effective.

Our abilities with language are a major element of what makes us unique as humans. We are able to communicate complex and subtle ideas and emotions through the power of the voice. Claim yours as an essential component of your power: your rituals and your community will be the stronger for it.

What Makes a Ritual “Successful”?

John Halstead over at Humanistic Paganism has published a rather sharply-worded piece about “10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Ritual”. It’s well worth a read, and in general, he’s right: there is a lot of ho-hum ritual out there and many, if not most of us can do a better job of preparing and enacting our rites.

But I think there is something missing in John’s piece, and that is this: a discussion of what we mean by a “successful” ritual.

This is often a moving target. When you talk to someone who has come out of a successful ritual, more often than not what they will talk about is not the activities that took place within it, but about a feeling—and one that is hard to pin down, at that.

But I think that all of those feelings come down to a particular state of mind: one of focus, presence, sensory awareness, creative flow and fervent dedication to the activities at hand. It is what I have previously termed the Ritual State. Many Pagans also refer to it as trance.

Here at Atheopaganism, I’ve written somewhat extensively about the Ritual State (in fact, there is an Atheopagan Ritual Primer that is all about how to provoke and maintain it). I believe it is a particular brain state that is well known to artists and musicians, but may be less familiar to others, in which the prefrontal neocortical Talking/Thinking Brain relinquishes its usual driver’s-seat role in the operation of the brain to the limbic or Feeling/Creating Brain. The Thinking Brain is still present, and may chime in with recognition of metaphors and symbols that contribute to the Ritual State, but it is the Feeling Brain, which remains firmly in the present moment rather than going off into memories or speculations about the future, that is the primary system in charge.

The primary hallmark of a successful ritual is that it succeeds in bringing participants into that fervent, present, awe-inspired creative state, which can be intensely moving and joyful. Each person is different, of course, so some techniques which work for one person may not work for another, but there are approaches to induction of the Ritual State that have worked for most people for thousands of years: repeated rhythms, dancing, chanting or singing, low and flickering light conditions, and beautiful and colorful Focuses or altars, to give a few examples. See the Primer for more details.

Getting into the Ritual State is a learned skill for participants, too. Experienced ritualists are usually able to suspend the internal chatter and critical voice of the Thinking Mind more easily than newcomers to the art. As simple an act as lighting candles on a Focus and saying a brief word of gratitude and devotion can be enough, with practice.

But the key point is that a ritual is an inductive journey: a set of steps designed to bring participants into an experiential state of holy Presence. Succeed in that, work within it, and then ground it out so participants “land” back in an ordinary state of awareness, and your ritual will be a success.

Key ritual facilitation skills such as singing, public speaking, drumming and ritual movement are worth cultivating. They are deeply helpful in ritual leadership, as they can help lead participants along into the Ritual State.

Preparation can make a big difference, and John’s warnings are worth taking seriously. But in experienced hands, even impromptu ritual can be highly successful.

It isn’t just about having a map, and learning it. It’s about knowing where you intend to go in the first place.