Atheism, Paganism, and Agreeing to Disagree

I’ve been thinking lately about the crossroads where Atheopaganism lives: straddling lines between atheism, Paganism, and activism.

In the atheistic world, skepticism is a given. There, when you propose something—a policy, a factual claim, a strategic approach to problem solving—it is assumed that you will have both material evidence and cogent argumentation to back your position. Others are welcomed to interrogate, prod at, and refute the position as best they are able. This is a process by which we can arrive at a position which is more likely to be correct than if we did not so critique the initial proposition. The process is central to the operation of science and has been deeply successful in identifying everything that we have learned with high degrees of certainly over the past five centuries or so.

In the Pagan community, it is generally considered to be bad form to interrogate the beliefs of others. It would be rude to ask someone why they believed in a given goddess, for example, and whether they had considered the possibility that the experiences which led to that belief had arisen from some other cause. Daring to suggest that supposed gods aren’t literal beings, for example—or that we should at least be up for discussing whether or not they are—is rejected by some as “non-Pagan”, or even “scientism”.

And yet Atheopaganism exists with a foot in each of these worlds. It is no surprise that we sometimes cause uneasiness in each of them.

When I communicate in atheist forums, on the other hand, I often get strong pushback from people who dismiss the desire for rituals and holiday observances as pointless and superstitious. Even after I pony up the science that shows the human benefits of these religious practices, their value is generally rejected: an example of how confirmation bias is a human characteristic even among those who are working hard not to be subject to such fallacies.

Too much reason for (some of) the Pagans, and too much ritual for (some of) the atheists.

But here’s the thing: I have spent more than 30 years circling with theists. Until the past ten years or so, they mostly haven’t known I was an atheist, but it didn’t make the rituals any less powerful one way or the other. And I stand with them when it comes to freedom of religion, and resistance to discrimination against ANY flavor of Paganism*.

And I have stood with other atheists as they rallied against the cultural discrimination we also suffer, and for rigid separation of church and state, and for science and critical thinking education…and the talismans in my pocket and the symbol around my neck didn’t cause any harm there, either.

Which brings me to that third country Atheopaganism lives in: activism.

I think about the above…and then I think about the vehemence, the vitriol of recrimination and mutual finger-pointing around political issues I see over differences among people who share 90% of values in common. The so-called “circular firing squad”.

The bitterness with which people who are agreed on so many important issues can attack one another is shocking and demoralizing.

It is the viciousness with which Hillary Clinton was attacked by people who agreed with nearly everything she stood for, for example: viciousness not only completely out of proportion to what would have been reasonable, but which was far less intense than the attacks the same people leveled at Donald Trump.

I have no patience for purity politics. No one is pure. No one is perfect.**

The political organizer in me says that we need ALL of us who care enough to act in the coalitions to help achieve goals like progress on climate change and social justice. That to refuse to ally with those we disagree with on one issue drags down the chances of success on many issues.

I have been trying to have conversations about this. They haven’t gone very well. The level of moral outrage displayed by people over points of disagreement clouds the deeper point, which is about all the ways we agree.

At times, I have made common cause in political struggles with people who make me grit my teeth. I’ve done so because my focus was on the goal at hand, rather than on the degree to which my comrades agreed with me on other issues.

And then, I have gone right out and fought those same people on the issues where we disagree…in exactly the same way I have celebrated theist rituals with theists, and then gone on to advocate for Atheopaganism as a valid Pagan path.

All of these issues are intensely personal. They have to do with whether or not we feel personally included, safe, respected, seen, listened to, acknowledged. As such, they stir powerful emotions.

And disagreements about some of them are at root unresolvable. People of good will can—and do— differ on them. In some cases, differences are simply about education: if everyone were operating under the same understanding of the facts, they would probably draw similar conclusions. But in some cases, they are genuine differences of opinion.

Plenty of good people are theists. Plenty of them are atheists.

If—as we say—diversity is a value in our communities, we will have to find ways to coexist alongside those with whom we disagree.

Atheopagans, as a minority within a minority culture, do it all the time.

I hope that in our passion for positions that define difference between us, we do not leap to the presumption that those who mostly agree with us but disagree on a particular issue—or who find themselves caught in the middle—are our enemies.

Being ‘right” is intoxicating. We’re all somewhat prone to its charms. We all want to be in the “correct” moral position.

But there is far more that should unite us than should divide us. And I hope we can remember this as we debate those issues where we disagree.


 

*With the notable exception of racist “folkish” Heathenism, for which I will not lift any finger save my middle ones. There are positions that are just too extreme to make common cause with.

**I don’t have any patience for those who make no effort on behalf of the causes that define our times, either. They might be in our community, but I don’t consider those “allies”—I consider them dead weight. Particularly when they have high visibility and large audiences and could, if they wished, use them for good instead of mere self-promotion.

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Children of the Earth Tribe, WAKE UP

Back in September of 2015, I asked, is Atheopaganism political?

Go ahead, read it. It lays out why I believe that any religious path that is truly about this Earth—any path of integritymust, in days such as these, be one of activism.

Since, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider the Pagan community generally through this lens. And I am sorry to say that I have been sorely disappointed.

Most of the visible voices, most of the “Big Name Pagans”, are anything but political. At best, they may voice the occasional political opinion in passing, but mostly they’re about rituals and magical tools and cultural traditions and “mysteries”.

Oh, and selling stuff. Books, tools, tokens, clothes, workshops, statues. Stuff.

There are exceptions, of course. But they’re kinda rare. And it turns out that nearly all of them are women, people of color, and people who are LGBTQ. Those folks know what time it is. They know this is not the time to be silent.

A year ago, two dozen writers left the Pagan Channel at Patheos.com, the foremost religious discussion site on the Internet. They left because the site had been purchased by companies run by far-right Christian evangelicals associated with racist and anti-LGBT hate groups, and the terms of the writers’ new contract prevented them from criticizing this (or anything else about Patheos). And it allowed Patheos to edit or censor anything it found objectionable in the writing of its writers.

Oh, and it banned them from using too much dirty language.

There’s a lot to be said about this. A year on, John Beckett (who stayed at Patheos) has one very strong view.  John Halstead (who is definitely in the activist camp) has quite another.

Tempers are hot and each side probably has scored a point or two. But I want to focus on one, very specific thing: Beckett’s triumphalism over having not been censored over the past year.

To which I say: that’s the problem, John

In a whole year, you haven’t said one damned thing of substance that brought out the Patreon ownership with a red pen. And looking over your posts of the last year, it is quite clear that you never tried.

Why aren’t you pushing that boundary? Why aren’t you challenging on the issues that are most important today?

You’re a white middle class straight cis man with a megaphone. YOU don’t have to contend with what the owners of Patheos are promoting all over the world. And in your privilege, it apparently doesn’t even cross your mind to speak out on behalf of your fellows who aren’t so privileged, does it?

No. You just keep on going on about gods and fairies and rituals, in a very comfortable bubble, and rationalize your service of the likes of the Family Research Council as “getting out your message”.

As if the world weren’t burning.

As if people aren’t being murdered and deported and abused and shunned for being different.

That’s not “proof” that Patheos is benign. It’s evidence that, willfully or not, you are complicit in their agenda. Which includes the agendas of their owners.

(Beckett’s just an example. Others can look in the mirror and decide for themselves whether or not this critique applies.)

So I look at all this, and the content of the vast substance of Pagan content being published online every day, and I say NO: Modern Paganism isn’t political.

But it bloody well should be.

Aren’t we supposed to be about a better world? Haven’t we “resacralized” living on Earth? Aren’t we about diversity and tolerance?

Paganism isn’t just playing dress-up and being “witchy cool” and holding hands in circles and partying. And it isn’t JUST religious practices.

It’s about walking responsibly in the world that gave rise to us, and in service to our people…all of them.

I hate saying these things. They’re grouchy and depressing and they are the farthest thing from honey (vs. vinegar). I’d much rather devote time to my own activism and my own religious practices and culture-building.

But for Earth’s sake, “Children of the Earth Tribe”, will you wake up?

Everything is not “just going to be okay”. Tragedies are happening every day, and enormous ones are looming.

If you’re not actively out there fighting for what is right, please.

Wake up.

Do something.

 

(To read many of the bloggers who left Patheos as a matter of conscience, visit paganbloggers.com)

Visions of the Future

As I’ve written before, Atheopaganism is inherently political. It isn’t possible to revere the Earth as Sacred, to hope for a world where love and kindness and justice are far more widespread without having a political agenda to match.

Many Pagans are political, in varying ways. While most lean to the left, some do not. And a significant number identify as anarchists, viewing the root cause of human suffering and strife as being institutions such as governments.

I am not one of them.

I simply do not see examples of anarchism having worked successfully in groups larger than a hundred or two. With the world’s population well over seven billion now, I do not see how basic functions such as provision of health care, food distribution, environmental, health and safety protections could possibly be achieved on the basis of collaborative voluntary agreements.

Anarchism operates on the assumption that humans are fundamentally of good will and intention. Many are; it’s true.

But some are not. Some are psychopaths, some are deeply damaged by poor upbringing or experience of discrimination and injustice. No magical invocation of universal equality can prevent such people from acting out their issues: be they in the form of greed, violence, or lust for power.

And let’s not forget: this world is completely awash in guns. Mostly in the hands of those who would use them to conquer and oppress, not to defend.

Most people are primarily focused on making do for themselves and their families. They go along to get along. Such folk are the natural prey of predatorial people. And once you have predator and prey, you need something to rebalance the scales: an intermediary.

The liberal democracy is that intermediary, in its ideal form.

Now, do I support the Empire?

No, I don’t. Among other things, I think human affairs work better when political units are small, so that their governance can be accountable to their members. I certainly do not endorse the militarized, world-spanning resource-grab and labor-exploitation that constitutes today’s neoliberal global capitalism.

The problem is that capitalism (greed) and population pressures, driving excessive consumption and exploitation of the Earth,  are killing us. Not the Earth—she’ll be fine in any case. Us. In the end, there are only three things that will save us: consuming considerably less, reproducing considerably less, and shifting to carbon-minimal energy production.

Is the regulatory state a perfect solution to the issues I have mentioned? No, it is not. And there is a legitimate argument to be made that current systems are too slow and too compromised to be able to save us.

But I’m willing to venture that there are no perfect solutions. There is no utopia when it comes to human beings. We are born selfish, and though this (usually) moderates, it doesn’t disappear. While government is also not a perfect solution, it has a higher likelihood of leading to desirable outcomes than does its elimination.

I have chosen not to have children due to these very issues. I didn’t drive until my mid-20s and didn’t own a car until I was 31, at the point when I needed one in order to work. I do what I can (as an American, which is challenging) to keep my footprint small.

Just because government is broken now doesn’t mean it always was, nor that it must be. What advances we have seen in civil liberties and rights for people of color, for women, for LGBTQ people, for workers have been achieved through the intercession of state institutions in the social contract following political organizing efforts. Likewise what advances we have seen in environmental protection. The results have been far from perfect, but they have been much closer to perfect than were conditions prior to implementation of those laws and jurisprudential rulings. Where the state imposes on individual liberty for stupid and senseless reasons (as in the “Drug War”), it is in the wrong, and must be fought. But that doesn’t mean that government itself is wrong.

Without institutions to stand between the selfish man with a gun (and it will, generally, be a man) and the person who has none, humanity descends rather quickly into the chaos of places like Somalia and South Sudan. Kindness and generosity do not bloom in such places. War, enslavement and cruelty do.

Yes, humanity has a better nature, but it is not our only nature. Not by a far sight. A collectively, democratically chosen interlocutor in the form of a liberal democracy is the best system yet devised for refereeing the conflicts that inevitably arise between self-interested humans.

So I believe.

Your mileage may vary, and to some degree it probably does. That’s fine. So long as we are acting to bring about our visions of a better world, the details of the ideal matter far less than that the fact that we are working towards greater ecological responsibility, greater equality, greater kindness.

We have so far to go that arguing about the ideal outcome is rather pointless, in my opinion. We have certain tools at our disposal—our voices, our votes, our strategic sense—and we can apply them as we see best. We don’t all have to be in lockstep, nor do we have to agree on “perfect” political systems that are highly unlikely ever to develop. Debate over such utopian visions is often more rooted in how people want to view themselves than it is in actual movement forward, and I’m a pragmatist: when it comes to politics, all I care about is outcomes.

Nothing humanity does is perfect. All we can do is seek improvement, and we have seen that improvement is possible.

Perhaps there isn’t enough time to avoid a crash. That’s very possible.

But we can try. And while we are trying, we can create a culture of science-rooted, Earth-revering spirituality as a new value frame for the future, to inspire and sustain us as we advocate for a better world.

Let’s focus on that.