GUEST POST: When in Rome: My Road to Roman Atheopaganism

Today we offer a guest post by Daughter of Neptune, who is creating her own nontheist Pagan practice focused on the archetypes of Greek and Roman deities.

All roads lead to Rome and it was on my intellectual journey to Ancient Rome that I became an atheist pagan. I love learning the history, culture, and language of the Republic-cum-Empire and often wonder what it was like to live under the Caesars and to fight in the legions for the Glory of Rome.  Last year, in reading a biography of Caesar Augustus, I was struck by an image of him capite velato (with his head veiled) to perform religious rites as the Pontifex Maximus and thought it would be interesting to practice the Roman religion – without animal sacrifice, of course.  However, as a lifelong atheist, I couldn’t make myself believe the Greco-Roman deities to be anything other than personifications of abstract concepts and natural phenomena.

I began to wonder if one could be an atheist and an adherent of the Roman Cultus Deorum.  More specifically, I wondered if there was away that I could worship Poseidon and Neptune (my favorite gods) and still be an atheist.  In my research I read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, a scholarly examination of prominent Greek and Roman nonbelievers.  Whitmarsh paraphrases Sextus Empiricus, a second century CE Roman skeptic, who found that “honoring the gods, in the sense of performing ritual activities, is not the same as believing that they exist.”  Satisfied that there is historical precedent for atheists to practice the Roman religion, I sought modern resources to inform my tradition and found Mark Green’s “Atheopaganism” and John Halstead’s “Humanistic Paganism” webpages.    

Drawing from Mark and John’s principles of atheist and humanist paganism and from various other sources, I drafted a document that I call “Five Articles of Reason” which codifies my beliefs, or lack thereof, as it were.  Succinctly, the Articles outline my commitment to agnostic atheism, philosophical naturalism, secular humanism, intellectual curiosity, and to joie de vivre.  Drawing from my military experience in naval applications of oceanography and meteorology and from my civilian experience in earthquake science, I crafted a secular understanding of Poseidon/Neptune, the god of the sea, storms at sea, and earthquakes.  For what it’s worth, I associate Greek civilization with basic science and intellectual pursuits so I think of Poseidon as the personification of oceanography, meteorology, and seismology; I associate Roman civilization with applied science and martial pursuits so I think of Neptune as the personification of environmental impacts on naval operations.     

With the tenets of my tradition established, the next step was to create my ritual.  Because I’ve never attended a pagan ritual, I modeled mine on the more familiar Protestant order of service.  It comprises 1) the illumination of the altar/Focus with a “sounds of the ocean” soundtrack playing in the background, 2) an invocation to both Poseidon and Neptune, 3) reading Homeric Hymn XXII to Poseidon and Orphic Hymn XVI to Neptune, 4) reading “scripture,” i.e. pertinent selections from the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid, 5) a “sermon,” i.e. reading articles about earth science, the Greco-Roman world, or famous naval battles, 6) a benediction, and 7) delumination of the altar/Focus.  It is my intention to perform this formal ritual on the equinoxes, the solstices, and on Neptunalia, the two-day Roman festival in honor of Neptune. 

On a daily basis, I honor Poseidon and Neptune in an informal way by wearing a necklace with a dolphin, seashell, or trident pendant, a blue article of clothing to remind me of the ocean, or my favorite nail polish, a sea-green color named “Neptunalia.”  I recently learned that modern pagan women sometimes cover their hair as part of their practices.  Because I was – and still am – so captivated by the image of Augustus capite velato, I occasionally veil with a small, ocean-colored kerchief not only out of devotion to Poseidon and Neptune, but also out of reverence for Rome and its role in the foundation of Western Civilization.

All roads lead to Rome and it was through Rome that I became an atheist pagan. 


You, too, can submit material about your Atheopagan practice to the blog! Email to atheopagan (at) Deadline is the first of each month.


Effective Atheopagan Leadership: a Curriculum

As I’ve written before, my conceptualization of Atheopaganism as a path and a tradition does not incorporate concepts of degrees of advancement or “clergy”. I just find these to be fraught with too many pitfalls, ranging from “higher-level” persons gatekeeping access to knowledge and training from lower-level ones, to those with “status” potentially being able to leverage that status in unhealthy ways ranging from minor pomposity all the way to harassment and abuse.

The whole idea of “initiations into secrets” is a holdover from secretive organizations like the Masons, with their roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no longer any legitimate reason why secrecy should apply to anything that has to do with religious practice…and in the era of the Internet, frankly, in practical terms it does not.

Atheopaganism doesn’t have “secret lore”. There is no mystical origin story, nor secret handshake, nor Super-Secret Sigil. Everything we are about is in the open and available to anyone interested in it.

Accordingly, I invite each of us to be “clergy”: to practice and learn the skills and knowledge, to confront their own spiritual and personal work. Any of us can step into that role at any time–if you need a credential, I suggest an Atheopagan symbol lapel pin for hospital and hospice visits or to conduct weddings, namings, funerals and other rites of passage*.

All that said, I was talking with a friend who is in the process of helping to retool the “advancement levels” process and criteria for a different Pagan tradition, and I can see how it would be useful to have, at least, a broadly identified “curriculum” describing the skill sets that an Atheopagan ritual and community leader will need and rely on in order to be successful.

So here is an overview of what I think is a minimal knowledge and skill grounding to be a consistently effective Atheopagan community and ritual leader. They are not in any priority order; all are essential.

  • A solid grounding in basic science and critical thinking;
  • Specifically, understanding of the basic systems of the brain and how their functions intersect with Atheopagan theory and practice (described in my founding essay for this path, found here);
  • Local natural history: life cycles of keystone species, ID of major species of trees, plants (including edible and useful plants), fungi and fauna;
  • Basic knowledge about any native cultures which may predate the current dominant culture in the leader’s area (and sensitivity to their concerns, if any, about cultural appropriation);
  • Familiarity with history, culture and mores of both the Freethought and Pagan communities;
  • Familiarity with and commitment to  the Atheopagan Principles and Values, including appropriate social and sexual boundaries;
  • Pastoral peer counseling skills, including understanding of when referral to a professional is indicated and of legal reporting requirements for reports of abuse;
  • Effective communication skills and conflict resolution skills;
  • A commitment to one’s own personal psychological work and evolution;
  • Skill with ritual organization and design per the Ritual Primer, as well as event planning and organizing, including being able to work well with a team;
  • Understanding how to create rituals for Rites of Passage;
  • Adequate competence in the core ritual skills: public speakingsinging, drumming and rhythm, and movement.

Someone with these attributes and skill sets is well-prepared to serve the community as a leader, exemplar and friend. It’s a high bar—I certainly don’t qualify in all areas—but a great one to aim for. 

Time permitting, perhaps at some point I will do videos on some of these. In the meantime, if you’d like to set a course of study for yourself, start with the blog posts linked and then augment with web searches—there’s a lot of stuff out there about most of these topics.

*If you really need a legal credential (as some states and counties require for solemnizing weddings), see this post for ways to be legally ordained.

Noble Ancestors

We have our real ancestors–blood relations, going all the way back to single-celled organisms if we go back far enough. 

But there are also those now dead whom we admire for their exemplary qualities: their courage, their intelligence, their wisdom. While they won’t have followed an Atheopagan path (as we’re just getting started), they still loom large in our memories.

I think of these “Noble Ancestors” as the equivalent of Atheopagan “saints”: they were once real people, and they exemplify various qualities we admire. In fact, I have been known to refer to “Saint Carl (Sagan)”, “Saint Galileo”, “Saint Nelson (Mandela)”, “Saint Stephen (Hawking)”, “Saint Charles (Darwin)” etc., with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but serious about the respect I feel for these historical figures.

Of course, who these figures are varies from person to person. We are certainly not going to have an Atheopagan pantheon of “saints”–you have to choose your own, if you so choose! But I know of a number of Atheopagans who honor such figures on their Focuses, and contemplate their examples as a part of their practices.

Reflecting on these “saints” helps us to understand: we CAN live exemplary lives. We can be brave, and kind, and honest, and curious, and joyous, and critically thinking, and committed to the truth. These extraordinary humans were, nonetheless, just human. Their examples reveal the extent of the possible, and illumine the way forward to a better world.

So think about it. If this concept resonates for you, consider putting an image of your Noble Ancestor(s) on your Focus. In fact, you can even buy Saints of Science Prayer Candles! (There are several sources for these, so shop around).