Reflections on the FFRF Conference 2018

So…the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference was…interesting.

It’s a great organization. Lobbying and legal work to prevent religious incursion into governmental and public spaces. Very important stuff.

I got the sense that most of the attendees felt a deep relief at being in a place where they could admit their atheism. And that seemed to be the end-all-and be-all of the conference’s message: we’re atheists, and that’s good.

Presenters were stellar (Salman Rushdie!) And their points about the deep wrong of theocracy and enforced religiosity–even to the tragic murders and forcible exilings of nonreligious people in the Islamic world–were powerful.

That said, it seemed so passive: people sitting in chairs, listening.

I couldn’t help but compare to Pantheacon, with its interactive workshops and participatory rituals, its parties and laughter.

The Freethought (atheist) community is good at thinking. It’s good at being rational and thoughtful and liberal-minded. At being serious.

But it’s not very good at creating community.

The Pagan community writ large often isn’t very good at thinking, frankly. It draws conclusions about the nature of reality based on wishful thinking, confirmation bias and purely subjective experience, and then doesn’t interrogate those conclusions, choosing instead to protect and defend them.

But it is great at creating shared love. At bringing people together in a sense of broadly shared values and causes.

Here, we’re working to wed those strengths: to create rich spiritual practices rooted in life-affirming values, contextualized in a solidly reality-based understanding of the nature of the Universe.

It’s quite strange, having a foot in each world, viewed a little askance by both. But as I experience each, I can tell that each has something powerful and essential to offer.

Thank you for being a part of our collective efforts to bring them together.

 

Thanks to anonymous donors for the opportunity to attend the 2018 Freedom From Religion Foundation conference!

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I’m Off to See the Atheists!

This weekend, I will attend the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s annual conference, held this year in San Francisco.

FFRF is the largest freethinker/atheist organization in the U.S. It advocates for strict separation of church and state, and for atheists’ rights where they have been violated. This year’s conference will include speeches and presentations by such luminaries as my Congressman and friend, Jared Huffman, who founded the Freethought Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the eminent novelist Salman Rushdie. Regrettably, Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” withdrew due to a family emergency.

I’m able to attend the conference because of the generous support of two members of our community, and I’m deeply grateful. It will be interesting to spend time with activists of the atheist community and engage in conversations about Atheopaganism with those who are interested. I’m sure that—as in the Pagan community—there will be those who vehemently reject the idea of atheistic religion. But there will be others, I’m sure, who are more open-minded, curious and exploratory of mind.

If any of you happen to be going, look out for me! I’m have a short beard right now and I’ll be wearing my Atheopagan symbol pin on my lapel. I hope to see you there!

 

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.