Talking with Atheists Who Dismiss Your Atheopagan Practice

Existing in both the atheist world and in the Pagan, Atheopagans have the unique “good fortune” of fielding criticism from extreme elements of both.

I’ve written before about Pagan fundamentalists who dismiss our religion as “not real Paganism. ” Today, we take a look at the atheist community’s counterpart: the so-called “anti-theists”.

A vocal subset of atheists, the anti-theists start with the position that there are no literal gods. So far, so good.

But…

From there, many of them overreach, arguing not only that theism is destructive and irrational, but that all religion and spirituality are fraudulent, pointless and harmful behaviors that humanity would be better off without.

Anti-theists can be found throughout the Internet, where they gleefully set to arguing with theists, and also include authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.

They contend that faith-based belief is inherently dangerous and destructive: that it supplants critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, and therefore makes people malleable, controllable, and susceptible to rationalization of selfish, destructive and cruel acts in the name of their beliefs.

Honestly, I don’t disagree with them about any of that, either. Credulity in unlikely phenomena such as gods and spirits apropos of nothing more than “faith” or personal experiences is strong lubricant on the slippery slope to a fantasied worldview at best…and fanaticism in relation to that worldview at worst.

But in their broad-brush declarations, anti-theists also posit that all religions are inherently destructive. No matter what they do or do not demand of one in the way of belief.

And that simply isn’t true.

In my experience, anti-theists more often than not present as angry people. Sometimes they are angry about abusive behavior they experienced in religions they have left behind; sometimes they are angry that reason and science are not the primary drivers of decision making in this world, and at the many negatives, past and present, which can be laid at the feet of the major organized religions, particularly in the West.

Those are reasonable grounds to be angry.

But the problem with anger is that it tends to encourage black-and-white thinking. It leads to communication styles that inevitably result in polarization. And it tends not to consider special cases in the sweeping assessment it makes of the target of its anger.

I don’t think any student of history can deny that the major Abrahamic religions have caused a lot of negative impacts.

I’m certainly not going to dispute it. The “religions of the Book” encourage subscription to cruel ideas such as “original sin”, the threat of an afterlife of everlasting torment, hatred of LGBTQ people, subjugation of women and the idea that only believers can be “chosen” or “saved”.

But does that mean that Zen Buddhism is pernicious? Or Jainism? Taoism? Wicca?

Or Atheopaganism?

Hardly.*

 

My concern with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins et al is that in their broad-brush demonization of religion, they make two fundamental errors:

  1. They ignore that there are religious traditions which do not have the negative impacts caused by the Abrahamic monotheisms; and
  2. They do not in any way address religious paths the beliefs of which are consistent with our scientific understanding of the Universe.

These are circular and mutually reinforcing. “What about religions that are peaceful, or which aren’t filled with expectation of faith in highly improbable events and realities?”, one might ask.

Well, those aren’t religions according to my definition, replies the anti-theist.

It’s a straw man argument: All religions involve faith in the supernatural, goes the claim, and are therefore irrational and harmful. A religious tradition that doesn’t require such faith?

That’s not really a religion, so my argument still holds, says the anti-theist. Who will often then go on to atheist-splain that such religions are philosophies, or cultural traditions…anything but religions.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So as I see it, the fundamental problems with the anti-theist argument are that:

  1. There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a religion in the first place, so the narrow definition asserted by the anti-theists is simply an opinion. It is not a fact;
  2. There are demonstrably religious traditions which require no supernatural belief, including our own; and
  3. There are religious traditions which do not have violent, bigoted or xenophobic values and are without history of the kinds of destructive impacts that can so easily be ascribed to the Abrahamic religions.

Among those equality-and-peace-valued religions, there happens to be the bulk of modern Neo-Paganism.

So…how do you talk to an anti-theist?

Well, it’s hard. In my experience, when confronted with anything labeled “religion” or “spirituality”, a significant portion of anti-theists simply leap into insults or sweeping characterizations. There’s not much one can do with that.

But if someone is willing to have an actual conversation, start by granting the places where you agree.

We can agree that science is the best system we have for determining what is likely to be true, and that, therefore, we don’t have persuasive grounds for believing in gods, spirits or souls.

We can agree that the decline of faith and the rise of the “Nones” is a good thing.

We can agree that the big monotheisms have been disastrous for the planet and for millions of people throughout the world.

We can agree that extremists of every stripe are a serious problem and that faith-based belief makes it easier for people to follow ideas which would fall to pieces if addressed with reason.

This establishes a common value basis for the discussion. The most vigorous arguments of anti-theists are things we can mostly agree with.

And then, ask them where the social harm has been from religions like Zen Buddhism or Quakerism. Emphasize that a single example is proof that the problem isn’t “religion”: it’s certain kinds of religion. Religions which dictate that one must believe in things for which there is little or no evidence. Religions which require following rules the implementation of which lead to cruelty or violence or bigotry. Religions that identify outsiders as objects of hatred, or fear, or pity, or contempt, or which demand that they must be converted in order to be “saved”. Religions which define gender roles that assert dominance of men over women, and hatred for gay people. Religions that are humorless and can’t laugh at themselves.

Those are the problem, and on that we can agree.

But where, we can ask, is the harm in someone following a religious path that hews to the cosmology of science, and encourages kindness and happiness? That celebrates the wonder of life as a precious gift? That builds community around those values and that perspective?

That’s the key question: where is the harm in religious practices that aren’t rooted in faith-based belief and lousy values?

If you can get to that question, I think you can start to move an anti-theist away from their absolutist thinking. You can help them to become open to the possibility that something like Atheopaganism can exist and have value for its practitioners.

And that, really, is all we can ask for.


 

*Further, is anti-theists’ analysis of the problem of violent and repressive religious extremism—from which the most egregious of negative impacts of problematic religions stem—accurate at all? Is that problem really about religion, or is it about toxic masculinity…given that the overwhelming majority of such extremists are men? (As, interestingly enough, are the bulk of vocal anti-theists online and in print.)

If not for religious frames, would not such angry, fanatical men settle on others, such as political philosophies?

The Khmer Rouge weren’t religious, after all. They were atheists.

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Why Naturalism? Because This.

Yet another example of a Pagan in a leadership position using that position for sexual misconduct, citing woo-woo “spiritual” reasons involving disembodied entities and “magical bonds” as “explanations” for his abuse.

How far would such hokum fly in a naturalistic Pagan community?

Not.

At all.

Willingness to take someone’s word about supposed supernatural processes and invisible beings is a formula for being abused. Healthy skepticism would have tossed this creep out on his ear long ago, but the conventions of many Pagan communities which take at face value highly improbable assertions about the nature of reality create safe contexts within which abusers can operate.

Say what you like about naturalistic Paganism, one thing is clear: a naturalist thinker isn’t going to be lured or cajoled or strongarmed into being abused with “magical” explanations.

This happens too much in the Pagan community. A healthy dose of skepticism is the cure for the problem.

And here’s a rule of thumb: any time a “leader” or “teacher” of any kind suggests that to “advance” you need to do something sexual: RUN.

 

Why is Naturalism Radical?

One of the hottest points of contention between Atheopagans and both theists and hard-antitheist atheists has to do with naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophical position which holds that there is nothing which is not of the physical Universe: that there is nothing which is supernatural, and that such claimed supernatural phenomena as gods, spirits, souls, ghosts, and magic are fictitious.

Theists dispute this out of hand, of course. It makes sense that nontheist Pagans have friction with theists over this point.

But adamant antitheists like David Dennett and Richard Dawkins have conflict with it, too–because they insist that if you are a naturalistic tradition, you’re not really a religion.

This is frankly silly. The only reason that we assume you must believe in the supernatural in order to be religious is because our society unthinkingly adopts the paradigm of religious traditions for whom Belief is a Big Big Deal.

Think about it. If you were going to create a religion today*, there is no way you would start from the standpoint that much of what science tells us is untrue and that instead, fantastical and completely unverifiable anecdotes are the true accounting of the nature of the Universe.

The only reason such anecdotes and beliefs are sewn into the fabric of Bronze Age religions is because they didn’t know any better back then. They were grasping for answers and they made up stories to fit their cultural values and what little they could verify for themselves.

Clearly, cultural inertia is a thing.

I grow frustrated with the likes of Dawkins and Dennett because their arguments against Religion writ large are always REALLY arguments against supernaturalism.

But religion doesn’t have to be supernaturalistic. So their arguments “against religion”—entire books’ worth—come down to straw man fallacies.

Why is it considered so wild an idea that religion need not contain a supernatural component? The only answer I have is that it is because the religions we see around us have not been doing it that way. For centuries.

The insistence that Belief in that which requires Faith is a necessary prerequisite for a religious tradition is basically a monotheistic holdover from the Abrahamic religions, in my opinion. We’ve been steeping in the assumptions of the Judeo-Christian worldview for so long we can’t even see how they have stained us.

Religion isn’t just what you believe about the Universe. It’s also about your values, and your morals, and your religious practices and observances.

And that really isn’t such a radical idea.

 

*And if you’re an Atheopagan, you actually are, by the way.