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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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.

Unpopular Ideas

On this day in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years later, he would publish “On the Origin of Species”, which pretty well blew the doors off the scientific world, outraged the contemporary religious culture, and established the key scientific foundation of the field of biology for all time.

Darwin knew what he was doing. He sat on “Origin” for years, aware that the core implication of his work—that no God was necessary to explain the diversity of life on Earth—would bring him a deluge of hatred and ridicule. He was right.

159 years on, Christian fundamentalists still rail against Darwin’s discovery. Their entire worldview is threatened by his simple suggestion that a far simpler and more elegant mechanic is responsible for the diversification of life on Earth. Not to mention by the fact that this mechanic—natural selection—has been demonstrated over and over to be, yes, the actual explanation for speciation.

Atheopagans know something about being the bearers of unpopular ideas. In both the atheist and Pagan communities, we’re viewed somewhat askance, either because of our religious practices or because we aren’t religious (as in, credulous in gods) enough.

But what if what we are about is actually the more elegant answer to long-posed questions, just as Darwin’s theory was?

What if reconciling the spiritual and the scientific really is a matter of understanding religion as not about the nature of the Universe, but the nature of us, as humans? If it is our needs, as evolved through the development of our brains, that are fed by religious behavior, and this has nothing to do with what is “out there” in the Cosmos?

What if we can meet those needs while contemplating the Universe as it truly is: dispassionate and godless?

As the proportion of non-believers continues to rise, these are going to be increasingly important questions. We have something to offer those non-believers: practices verified by science to be beneficial in their lives, to help them to build community and to feel connected to the greater whole of Nature and the Cosmos. Principles with which to live lives of integrity. And thoughtful celebration of the magnificent Universe through a lens of both joyful embrace and critical analysis.

Theism is waning—in the developed world, at least, and precipitously in the Americas. There is a great deal that Paganism has to offer, but if it comes bound up with theism, it will increasingly find fewer and fewer prospective takers.

So take heart, Atheopagans, when you get grief for your beliefs and practices.

Darwin was on the right track. So are we.

Happy birthday, Charles.