On Becoming An Atheopagan

What is a religion?

Is a religion what you believe?

Is that what people in churches and temples and mosques throughout the world do on their appointed sabbath days? Believe?

I found myself pondering this question after I fell out of love with Paganism , in 2004, following a series of experiences wherein dysfunctional and unethical behavior on the part of leaders in my Pagan community was excused as having been “directed by the gods”.

This was simply intolerable to me. It flew in the face of science, of reason, and of ethics. It was wrong.

I grew up an atheist. I believe in science and reason. In facts, and critical thinking. And I passionately love the natural world. This has driven my career in environmental activism and land conservation.

Though I became a Pagan in 1987, I have never believed in literal gods. Rather, I have seen them as metaphorical stories and archetypes.

Until about 2000, I felt I was in good company. Until then, in the Pagan community what you believed was private. People rarely even talked about their cosmologies; it was generally understood that everyone had a different way of looking at the world, but it didn’t matter: we could all circle together and be a community.

Several prominent voices in the community at that time were clearly in the gods-as-metaphors camp, and I had no reason to feel that my membership therein was strange. I found deep meaning and joy in celebrating the changing of the seasons, in the ritual circles I shared with community and loved ones, and in the egalitarian and environmental values that were the community norms. I was a devout Pagan: an atheistic one.

But as I said, around 2000 something changed. A new brand of Paganism that insisted on the literal reality of its gods arose: the folk who now call themselves devotional polytheists. Within a few short years, believing became a hot and contentious subject in the broader community.

And with this, the suggestion that you had to believe in order to be a “real” Pagan, combined with the events referenced above, I quit. I stepped back from the community and abandoned my practices. It was a spiritual crisis and it coincided with the reelection of George W. Bush. I fell into a deep depression.

But it didn’t take long before I realized how deeply I missed my Pagan practice and community. My life felt flat and empty, meaningless, colorless.

I didn’t believe. I had never believed. Yet somehow, I had achieved deep pleasure and abiding sense of connectedness and meaning through Pagan religion.

So what is a religion, really?

I think the answer to that question has been perverted by centuries of Abrahamic religions’ obsession with faith, belief and theology.

Because clearly, religion isn’t about belief. Or not only so, anyway.

I thought long and hard about it. I read a lot. And I concluded that religion isn’t one thing: it’s three.

A religion, yes, does contain a description of the world: a cosmology. It explains where things come from and what the purpose is in life. For theists, that typically includes an invisible, ephemerally tangible dimension wherein reside gods, spirits, and so forth. For naturalists, it is limited to the Universe we can see and verify through science.

But a religion also describes a value set: a description of what is important in life, and instructions for how to live a moral life according to the religion.

And finally, it includes practices: Observances. Holy days. Sabbaths. Rituals. Contemplative practices. Rites of passage. Sacred music and recited liturgy. All the things that people do in the course of belonging to a particular religion.

Understanding this, it became clear to me that atheism and religion were not the opposite ends of a spectrum. That atheistic religion was a possibility. That science could provide the cosmology, Pagan values the moral framework, and Pagan rituals and observances the praxis.

And that is when I began to craft the path that I now call Atheopaganism.

I’m back to my practices, though they have evolved such that I no longer use the names and concepts of gods even as metaphors. I’m celebrating holy days around the wheel of the year. My Focus (a word I use instead of “altar”, which to me implies worship and sacrifice) is an actively maintained presence in my home.

I also moved into a segment of the Pagan community which exhibited very high integrity, humanity and love, and didn’t demand that I believe anything in particular: the Fire Family community. That made a big difference.

And I discovered that on my own, I had invented something very much like what others like Jon Cleland Host and John Halstead and Rua Lupa did before me: naturalistic Paganism. I discovered that there are more like me. A lot more.

And so I’ve begun to foster that community, with writing and resources at atheopaganism.wordpress.com and a forum where we can meet and discuss our religion on Facebook. We have an aggregated blog site at NaturalPagans.com.

Naturalistic Paganism isn’t new. It’s been here since the beginning of the Neopagan revival in the 1960s (and arguably earlier). But we didn’t feel a need to talk about it until what you believe became an important topic of discussion, with the advent of an element in the community who insist that believing in gods as literal persons is important.

We’ve been circling with theists and a part of the community from the outset. The only difference now is that many of us are stepping forward to publicly declare that the equation of Belief with “real Paganism” on the part of some devotional polytheists is a mischaracterization.

We are not believers, and we are Pagans.

There are leaders in the community who are among us. They invoke gods as metaphors, not as literal persons. I won’t name them here because they may not want their names dragged into this discussion, but an example would be the late Margot Adler, author of the groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon.

We’re not here to tell people they shouldn’t believe in literal gods…although we will bristle if it is taken as a matter of course that Pagans naturally do so. We’re not here to convert anyone. We just want our space in the Pagan tent, and to be allowed there to express our cosmology as readily as may any other sector of our diverse community.

Our values are as sacred to us as are the values of any other Pagan path. We are every bit as fervent in our devotion to what we revere, which is the mighty Cosmos itself: the natural world in all its wonder and awe-inspiring beauty.

It doesn’t matter to us that the Universe is not listening. We are here, emergent manifestations of the properties of matter, energy and the laws of physics. The world feeds, shelters and nurtures us. It is worthy of reverence: of love, and care, and service.

Even prayer…

Praise to the wide spinning world
Unfolding each of all the destined tales compressed
In the moment of your catastrophic birth
Wide to the fluid expanse, blowing outward
Kindling in stars and galaxies, in bright pools
Of Christmas-colored gas; cohering in marbles hot
And cold, ringed, round, gray and red and gold and dun
And blue
Pure blue, the eye of a child, spinning in a veil of air,
Warm island, home to us, kind beyond measure: the stones
And trees, the round river flowing sky to deepest chasm, salt
And sweet.

Praise to Time, enormous and precious,
And we with so little, seeing our world go as it will
Ruing, cheering, the treasured fading, precious arriving,
Fear and wonder,
Fear and wonder always.

Praise O black expanse of mostly nothing
Though you do not hear, you have no ear nor mind to hear
Praise O inevitable, O mysterious,
Praise and thanks be a wave
Expanding from this tiny temporary mouth this tiny dot
Of world a bubble
Going out forever meeting everything as it goes
All the great and infinitesimal
Gracious and terrible
All the works of blessed Being.

May it be so.

May it be so.

May our hearts sing to say it is so.

What’s Wrong With Joy? A Rant.

You can ask me what is wrong with Trump voters, with the manbaby himself, with the terrifying sociopaths in the Congressional majority.

You can ask me what the hole is in the world.

And if you have the patience, you will hear me go on, for an hour perhaps, about every wrong policy position, every cruelty, every coldness and dismissiveness, every bigotry.

But that won’t answer the question.

I have been watching Sense8 on Netflix. I just finished the beginning of the second season, a two-hour episode.

And after crying a lot, I come back to this most basic of conclusions about those who make war on their own people, on their world.

It is that they hate joy.

They actually hate happiness.

They are so lost, so damaged, so broken that their only pleasure comes in cruelty.

That is who is running the United States of America.

If they did not so terrify me, I would pity them. I would weep for them.

But how is this possible? 

How can it be that a person can become so twisted as to be what Donald Trump, what Jeff Sessions, what Paul Ryan is, and still be able to walk and talk and pretend to be human?

It’s baffling to me. It fills me with sorrow and horror. It has done so from the days when I would howl to myself WHY????????? when bullied after school, when beaten and humiliated by my parents.

I don’t understand cruelty. I don’t understand it.

When I watch Sense8, I see diverse people whose sole commonality other than the plot device is that they just want to live, and to love.

That’s all.

They aren’t ambitious. They aren’t greedy.

They just want to love who they love, and live.

Like me.

Is that so much to ask, really?

Is it something that deserves hate and viciousness?

I don’t get it.

I just don’t.


The whole point of Atheopaganism is happiness and a better world. 

A world with room enough for love.

Love for the sky

Love for the water

Love for the land

Love for each other.

 

Is that so goddamned radical? Is that crazy talk?

 

I don’t get it.

I just don’t get it.

But I’m not going to stop.

Atheopaganism and the Future

For thousands of years, since the very advent of human existence, there has been an evolving trajectory of religious history in Western societies.

The story passes from the earliest animism and ancestor worship to the rise of belief in gods, the consolidation of authoritarian power under monotheisms, and the complete domination of Western societies by Christianity. It continues through the Enlightenment, the steady gains of science shattering the cosmological monopoly of the Abrahamic monotheisms, the increasing tension between orthodoxy and individuality splintering these monotheisms into thousands of sects, and finally, most recently, to the rise of the Nones: those who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation at all, which is well established in most of the rest of the developed world and advancing quickly in the United States.

There is an arc there: a vector. It tells a story of steadily increasing individual choice about religious belief and expression, and as a result, steadily decreasing subscription to old religious systems that clash with both modern values and humanity’s growing body of accumulated knowledge.

Recently in the Pagan blogosphere, there has been discussion of whether or not Paganism is dying, or whether it deserves to do so. Personally, I think much of this is a tempest in a crockpot. Pagan institutions don’t seem to be doing very well, but that seems to me to be more a reflection of the fact that most of us don’t do well with institutions, not of some more dire “death” in progress.

However, I will say this: that arc is still ongoing. The general trend towards individuation and modernization of spiritual practice continues.

Despite the overall pattern, there are backlashes, of course: eddies in the current of history. The extremes of the evangelical right wing in the US, for example, seem to me clearly to be the death throes of a belief system that is on the wane. And I suspect that the rise of the devotional polytheists in Paganism is something similar: a hardening of insistence in the face of available evidence that wished-for supernatural beings are, in fact, real persons, as well as a strategy for insisting that the  recently constituted phenomenon of modern Paganism is “serious religion” like (Abrahamic) others…and not some lightweight, risible trifle.

Some, I’m sure, will howl with anger at these suggestions. But I truly believe they describe what is happening. Maybe I’m wrong.

But looking backward to imagined golden eras or long-extinct societies and hoping to reconstruct their values and practices in a modern context doesn’t strike me as making much sense when compared with starting from where we are now, with the knowledge and tools and modern values we now possess, and charting a course forward that embraces and is informed by them. And it seems to me that more and more people are drawing the same conclusion.

I should be clear here: I do not see nontheist Paganism as in competition with theism. I think theism is on its way out all on its own. I don’t in any way want to rush that process, and if people find meaning and happiness in theism, good for them. But a generation from now, if I had to put money on it, I would bet there will be proportionately fewer of them than there are now.

And there will be more nontheists of every stripe, including Pagans.

As far as I can see, the trajectory of human history bends towards disbelief in that for which there is only disputable and ephemeral evidence. This is why the evangelical right in the U.S. is making war on science education: because the only way their worldview can survive is in an ignorant population.

Since the advent of science, tension has only grown between knowledge and belief. Science has steadily claimed more and more territory from the supernatural, leaving an ever-smaller realm claimed for the domain of gods and spirits.

And not once in all that time has the discovered explanation for the cause of a phenomenon proved to be supernatural. Not once has gods or spirits or magic turned out to be the actual reason why something happens in our Universe.

Science brings us knowledge, cures our diseases, explores the Universe, builds our technology, catalogues the wonders of our planet and others. It is even revealing to us the ways in which religious experiences are created in the brain.

Religion, as it has been couched by those who insist on Belief?

Well, not so much.

What religion excels at is creating community, inculcating values, and creating a sense of meaning in life, a feeling of being connected to that which is greater and Sacred. At inspiring works of beauty. At fostering the deep sense of joy and presence and holiness that effective rituals can bring.

And this is why I believe nontheist Paganism, including Atheopaganism, to be so very important. Because it settles the long-standing conflict between science and religion, acknowledging the very real human importance of the latter while in no way denying the power of the former to identify, measure and model all the phenomena of the Universe.

Atheopaganism is post-Belief religion. It is evidence-based spirituality rooted in real-world, positive, life-affirming values. It gives us what religion is good at giving us, and avoids trying to do what science can clearly do better.

I believe it is in broad strokes what succeeding generations will practice in growing numbers. It is what will give meaning and build community for people who have left behind the ideas of gods and magic.

I don’t know if I believe we will ever move out in significant numbers to other planets, or to the stars. But if we do, I’d bet we will celebrate the life-giving wonders of the worlds where we live with joy. I’d bet we do it in circles, as we have since at least the domestication of fire.

And I’d bet that while we may celebrate ancestors and heroes as a part of this, we will have left gods far behind. For we will know that this Universe is wonder enough without them.

We’re building something, folks. Something with staying power and potential. Credulity in gods is dying out, but the need for what religion provides—meaning, community, awe, reverence, a sense of connectedness to Something Larger—is inherent in the human organism.

We’re onto something here. And I am committed to continuing to work to foster this tiny flame as it catches, spreads, and burns ever brighter.