Rituals Are Important. But They Aren’t Activism.

In times like these, those of us who are of sound mind and values know: we must do something.

In Atheopaganism, we believe in the power and necessity of human ritual. We understand the science about why rituals work, and why they are important to us. We celebrate the turning of the seasons and personal and familial milestones in life, and we conduct rituals to focus our attention, our intention, and our future activity in pursuit of our goals.

It’s important and meaningful stuff.

However, we also understand that ritual’s effect is the transformation of consciousness: more specifically, the transformation of the consciousnesses of the ritual’s participants. It is powerful and effective at that, but that is the limit of its effect.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of postings in Pagan groups on Facebook in which posters advocate for “spellwork”, “hexes”, “bindings” and other so-called “spiritual activism”, with the goal that these will influence the current state of public affairs, such as the many disastrous policies of the U.S. Trump administration.

Sorry, folks, but that’s not activism. It may make you feel as though you are doing something, but you’re not. And therein lies its danger.

Now, I think that rituals for activists are great. They can help to support, motivate, focus and encourage us as we work to create a better world. At this year’s Pantheacon, I was a presenter of “Arming the Warriors of the Earth: An Activist’s Ritual”, which was all about empowering those who commit themselves to public benefit advocacy.

But that doesn’t mean that holding a ritual is going to affect things all by itself.

Our values as Atheopagans advocate for a better, kinder, more ecologically responsible world. And for that world to come requires physical, material-world action…and not just symbolic, ritual action.

We must communicate with decision makers—often, politely, and with clarity about what we want. We must vote, and volunteer to organize voters. We must write letters to the editor, and talk with our friends. We must speak out against bigotry and injustice. We must run for office ourselves. We must support the organizations that are doing the heavy lifting in advocating for our values. We must march. We must spend our money where it does good, or at least less harm.

We must be voices for what we want to see in the world.

So certainly: light that candle and speak that invocation for peace and kindness. But then get on the phone and let your representatives know exactly what you expect from them. Write a letter. Join a phone bank. Volunteer for a weekend canvass.

And vote. Vote, vote, vote.

Do something real and tangible to advocate for a better world.

You’ll be surprised at how good it feels. And as millions upon millions act, how much change can be made.

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The Pitfall of Consumer Paganism

I don’t buy “pagan stuff”.

No crystals (mined destructively from the Earth), no chalices or blades or wands or new Tarot decks.

Sometimes I’m tempted, but I don’t do it.

Well, other than candles. I already have enough incense to last the rest of my life, stored carefully so as to remain fresh and pungent.

I don’t take great pride in this, because the fact is that 25-30 years ago, I DID accumulate some of that stuff. I have enough “things” to dress a Focus (altar) and to symbolize all the various qualities and attributes I might wish to include in a ritual. I’m a bit short on ritual clothing, but it’s quite rare that I might need it, and I make do (I have plenty of other costuming, some of which can be adapted in a pinch).

But mostly, now, I simply work with what I have. Or I make stuff from found materials.

And I’m a little torn about this, because I have friends who make their livings selling “pagan stuff”: masks and headdresses and ritual tools and costuming…yes, and candles and incense and statuettes and all that witchy occult stuff that the ritualist may desire.

But I have become a radically minimalist consumer. I have more than enough “stuff”, and feeding the machine that grinds the Sacred natural world into money is not consistent with my values.

The machine named capitalism.

Talking about capitalism and its impacts is complex. None of us alive has even handed-down memories of a time when we did not live under some variant of this system*, so it is hard to imagine how things would work under any other. But as income inequality continues to rise and it becomes clear that all of us but the very rich are to some degree in harness to serve those very rich, it is past time for us as activists, as Pagans, to talk about what it is, how it affects ourselves and our world, and what possible alternatives there could be to this terribly destructive, imminently environmentally catastrophic system.

There are things we need to think about. Like the ideology of constant growth on a planet with finite resources. While the world does create energy and biomass and so forth every year, we strip more than twice as much out of it than it generates annually.

This cannot continue. Whatever you think about the merits of capitalism, it is a fact that it cannot continue indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the desire to consume more by humans across the globe drives spiking energy production and atmospheric carbon emissions, and brings the day that the Greenland ice shelf slides into the ocean and sea levels rise by dozens of feet that much closer.

My point in writing about this is probably already in practice by many Atheopagans, but I’ll spell it out anyway: consume less.

Buy less. Drive less. Travel less.

I know it’s a sacrifice. We are indoctrinated to believe that we “deserve” the “rewards” we can afford with our money.

But it’s not about what you can afford. It’s about what we, collectively, can afford.

As to creating new ways of relating to the Earth and economics, my approach has been to support new models, such as cooperatives and employee-owned enterprises and shareholder rebellions against destructive corporate actions. ALWAYS to support the small local enterprise instead of the corporate monster (no Starbucks for me, thank you). And, as an activist, to fight the destruction locally. Trump has proposed reopening the entire West Coast of the United States to offshore oil drilling, for example, and any implementation of that idea will take place over my literal dead body.

Unlike many in the Pagan community, I am not an anarchist. I do not believe that anarchy squares with fundamental, biological human nature, which is to look up to leaders and create hierarchies. That’s lizard-brain stuff: it’s wired in. All primates do it, and we are primates.

Short term, I am a democratic socialist: I believe that policies and programs should be put in place which ensure that people have access to health care, food, shelter and education, no matter what their economic circumstances. And that funding should flow from those who are most affluent to pay for these services. But I understand that whatever supports we implement for the common people, the MACHINE will keep gnawing away at the Earth for so long as endless growth and profit are the core ideologies of our economic system.

Maybe that’s wired in, too. Maybe the desire for more is just an animal thing, too.

I don’t know whether there is anything that can break the hold that capitalism has on the world. Honestly, it may have to grow until it collapses under its own weight.

But we should do what we can. We should refuse to participate to as great an extent as we are able.

We should resist.

ADDENDUM: I should be clear that I am calling for less consumption generally, not singling out Pagan businesses for not being patronized. I think it is good to support our community with commerce when we can, and with a few questions (“Where was this made? By whom? How were the materials sourced?”) we can identify true local-community artisans’ products, made sustainably, and can avoid mass-produced, imported products which feed the corporate machine. 

It isn’t that I don’t want Pagan businesses to make money. It’s that I avoid playing the consumption game as much as I can, period.

 

*Except for those who have lived under authoritarian state economies such as the former Soviet Union, which were in competition with capitalism and therefore reflected most of its destructive impacts, as well as oppressing their citizens.

 

 

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.