Why Atheopagan Principles?

I am excited to announce that a new Facebook group has arisen for Atheopagans in the UK! Congratulations to Debi Gregory for starting the group.

Those applying to join the group are asked to answer a short questionnaire, which originally asked for a commitment to abide by the 13 Atheopagan Principles. Some were puzzled by this, or felt they are too restrictive. So I thought I would unpack the issue a bit and discuss why ethical principles are a necessary part of a functioning religion.

Obviously, everyone has their own moral compass. We act according to what we view as right and proper; even when we are breaking our own supposed values, there is always a rationalization for why this action meets some higher good (even if it’s just personal benefit). Atheopaganism isn’t trying to supplant the internal moral landscape of its adherents, nor to establish arbitrary “commandments” that supply an external moral dictum, as do the Abrahamic religions.

What the Principles are intended to do is to spell out the moral landscape within which Atheopaganism makes sense. If the four Sacred things are truly held as Sacred, if the Earth is revered and Love is honored and Truth is pursued and Beauty is cherished, the result is a set of principles for living very much like the 13 Principles as I have articulated them.

Atheists are often accused of having no morals, because the dominant culture is unable to conceive of morals and ethics that arise from the will of the individual, rather than enforced by threats by an external god. That accusation is nonsense, of course—atheist and stage magician Penn Gillette famously says “I rape exactly as much as I want to. And that amount is zero.” But it is a canard that persists in polling on public views on atheism, and one with which we must contend. The Atheopagan Values and Principles are a way of spelling out what most who love the Earth believe anyway: that we must be kind, that we must be people of integrity, that we must apply critical thinking in our assessments of what is likely to be true. They are meant to be stars to guide us along the way of our lives, to help us live as well and happily as we can.

That said, following or being a part of Atheopaganism doesn’t decree that you have to do anything. It is available to you as a path and a set of guidance and an opportunity to incorporate practices and observances into your life that will add richness, color and joy. Adapt and tailor it as you see fit, holding in mind that the path was created with the intention of holding Sacred those four Sacred Values.

For myself, I find that the Atheopagan Principles are qualities that help me when I feel uncentered or angry. I don’t always live up to them. But I’m glad that they’re there, and that the 13th Principle spells out that no one will meet all those qualities all the time, and we must be compassionate with ourselves and others when we don’t.

I hope that you find value in them, too. But if not, all anyone can ask is that you be a person of kindness and integrity by your own lights. Because it’s not about asserting “rules”. It’s about cultivating ways of living that increase happiness, both in yourself and those around you.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

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After the Fire

It isn’t really over, of course.

Two dozen have lost their lives. Thousands are without homes, their possessions rendered to gray ashes. The most vulnerable among them–renters, the uninsured–will almost certainly flee our expensive region, despite admirable community efforts to raise funds to support them. The acrid smell of burned lives lingers in the air, and driving past the devastation is still like a bad dream. On and on it goes: the gray, burned wreckage, the burned-out cars.

That said, people are getting on with it, as they must. The ground floor of our local daily newspaper has been let out as a disaster center with representatives of dozens of government agencies available to help, and insurance companies have set up tents in the parking lot where people can file and follow up on their claims. It’s a remarkable effort and those who organized it should be proud.

As things go, I was impacted only marginally. Other than a frightening last-minute evacuation with our cat and what we could carry, and a week away from home, we suffered little. Our loss was some out-of-pocket expenses and a refrigerator full of food, and our insurance covered even those.

In our back yard, two palm-sized embers of burning roof shingles landed, and burned themselves out. If I hadn’t whacked the weeds, if they had landed a little closer to the house, things would be very different.

But they weren’t. So I have no excuse, really.

Yet since the fires, I have been in a sort of daze. My sleep is still heavily disturbed and I don’t leave the house much. Work on the Atheopaganism book I began to outline has stalled for the moment; I can’t seem to focus on it.

I think I am still in some kind of shock.

I turn to my spirituality at such times: to the perspective and wisdom I find in the natural world and the values, principles and practices of Atheopaganism. But even that has seemed removed, far away. I couldn’t bring myself to light candles on my Focus for a period of more than a week, just not wanting to deal with or traffic in fire. So it sat cold and dark in the evenings when usually it has a merry glow; I added extra water as the fires still burned, but without light it seemed lifeless (I prefer not to use electric lights on my Focus, personally).

Similarly, any inspiration for writing for this site was stymied by the dark fog blurring my mind. I racked my brain and simply couldn’t find anything worth saying. And one day passed into another, and national news began to creep in around the edges of the all-encompassing and never-ending updates about the fires and their aftermath. None of which helped, of course.

A disaster is a community event. Every victim is an individual, of course, with a unique story, but it is something we also all go through together. Thousands here are mourning loved ones and pets and baby pictures and prized possessions and home; collectively, we are swept up in something larger than ourselves and our individual experiences.

Hallows will be particularly poignant for me this year. I attended a Reclaiming Samhain ritual last weekend, and of course there was much talk about the fires, but somehow, not enough, for me. Something was missing, some cathartic piece about the grief that was never really reached. I hope my circle gathering will provide that.

In any case, I’ve made myself sit down and write in an effort to break this spell. To renormalize being at the keyboard and in author’s mode. If this piece has relatively little to do with Atheopaganism, I’m sorry, but this is how I get back to creating content for the site again. Our religion is nothing if not personal; this is where I am.

May those who have been injured by these fires heal and be made whole. May all remembered losses be honored. May this community reknit stronger and happier than before. May the sacred land re-green with winter rains, and bring the heartbreaking beauty back.

The Elemental Enemy

My sacred places are burning.

Sonoma County, heart of my heart, is on fire, and its magnificent wildlands, its rolling oak woodland hills and grasslands are steadily being destroyed. Annadel and Sugarloaf Ridge State Parks, where I have lost myself in a steady wash of serotonin joy at the sheer beauty, the wildness, the richness of creation, are aflame; Annadel is mostly gone now.

It’s hard even to get my mind—much less my visceral understanding—around this fact. Things are moving quickly and every day of the past five has brought new alerts, new evacuation orders. The fire that dislodged me from my home stabbed deep into my home town of Santa Rosa, and came within a block of burning everything I own.

How can the magnificence of the Pony Gate Trail, or the North Burma Trail be lost? How can the bedrock of my spirituality—a love of place—be simply erased so suddenly, without warning?

Pagans often use the four classical elements—air, fire, water and earth—as metaphors for the various states of matter, for their associated correspondences in alchemical or occult systems of belief. Air is knowledge, communication, clarity, intellect; Fire is passion, transformation, will; Water emotion, depth, wisdom; Earth patience, memory, ancestry, groundedness. Many (perhaps even most) Pagans call on these as allies, invoke them as powerful supporters for the outcomes they seek in their rituals.

But what when these “elements” (and let me grant, this is a system I almost never use any longer, as it isn’t based in any scientific reality) become enemies? When Fire goes crazy and Air (in the form of driving winds) becomes its destructive facilitator and instrument? How are we to understand the forces of Nature when they kill what we love?

Well…

In fact, the forces of Nature will, given time, take all we love: friends, family, places, possessions. This is an iterative Universe, and the old is torn apart to make the new. It is the Way of Things.

But some things seem so solid, so dependable! They have been with us for all of our lives. I find I have fallen into that most human and dangerous foible: the idea that it can’t happen here.

Oh, my mountains. Oh, my meadows.

It seems we’ve had a lot of shocking news that we thought “couldn’t happen here” lately. And there will be more, as the deranged manchild in the Presidency colludes with his meanspirited and callous fellow party members to attack the disadvantaged and the environment.

So love it while you can, people. I have been telling myself for weeks that I was overdue for a hike in Annadel; now, those places I loved are forever lost. They will become something else, over time, but they will never be my familiar, beloved haunts again.

Yes, we must fight. Of course we must fight the fire.

But love the burning world before it burns.