Starting Fresh: Imagining a New Paganism

What if we were starting today? If, here, 18 years into the 21st century CE, we were to invent a new, Earth-loving, progressive, reality-based religion?

Imagine a practice, a cosmology, a set of values rooted in what we now know about the Cosmos, about Nature, about ourselves. If we were starting just today.

What would it look like?

What would draw people in, make them want to be a part of it?

Well, I have some ideas.

To begin with, I’d think we would start with a cosmology that doesn’t fly in the face of what we’ve learned through science over the past few hundred years. Our sources would not be Agrippa and Paracelsus and Gardner, but rather Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Curie, Sagan. Our myth, the Great Story of cosmic and biological and technological evolution. We would overflow with love for the green and generous Earth, for the powerful and life-giving Sun, such that our joy would be infectious.

We would not ask people to sustain belief in that which strains credulity, and we would encourage critical thinking and critical inquiry.

We would start, as a foundation, with being sensible and realistic and connected to our Earth, the demonstrable reality of our existence.

We would be beautiful. Our religion would be filled with the aesthetics and symbolis m and imagery of magnificent Nature: of leaves and trees and animals and mountains and stars. It would root us in the reality of our interdependence with Earth and Sun.

We would be embodied. We would celebrate, rather than shun, our animal natures, understanding eating and food production, sexuality and childrearing and aging and death as natural and sacred processes.

We would honor ancestry not simply in the form of recent cultures of origin, but all the way back to the first organisms, to the pre-human ancestors that first innovated with art, with cooking, with toolmaking.

We’d stand for sterling values. For a better, kinder, more just and more sustainable world. For integrity, and truthfulness, and wonder and reason and love. Our politics would be that of generosity and inclusion and humble service to the Earth. We would seek and value wisdom and compassion.

And we’d offer experiences that were rich with meaning and personal growth: heartfelt, ecstatic experiences, in community with good-hearted people. Because that is what people—particularly young people—are gravitating towards now. It’s why they flock to all-night dance events and music festivals and Burning Man. They want the ecstatic, and they want to be connected, to feel like part of a tribe.

So we would draw on all that has been learned about ritual and transformation of consciousness, about psychology and the human heart. About poetry, and music, and rhythm and dance and art.

We would look around, and gather all the things that help people not just to survive, but to thrive. We would draw our knowledge and technology forward to help us.

And we wouldn’t need for our practices to have antiquity. We would understand that the tenacity of ideas has nothing to do with their worthiness. We’d know that while we drew forward old and beloved traditions, we were creating something new, vital, rich with all humanity has learned.

Our religion would be firmly grounded in reality, and cast its love and wonder to surrounding humanity, Earth and Cosmos.

Without stretching credulity, or demanding belief in the unprovable. Rich with pleasures and textures and scents and joymaking. And love.

It wouldn’t be steeped in a fantasy of some idyllic long-ago-and-far-away place that never existed. It wouldn’t need fairies and elves and dragons and unicorns, nor wizards and sorceresses and their occult lore.

Just this world, here, in all its utter, knockout magnificence, and beautiful people to celebrate it.

Imagine that.

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Naturalism, Monism, and the Philosophy of Atheopaganism

Atheopaganism is a naturalistic religion: that is, we believe that all that exists is a part of the natural, material Universe, and is subject to its laws. We revere this material Universe—the Cosmos—as Sacred and magnificent.

As naturalistic Pagans, we do not subscribe to the idea that there is an Otherworld within which reside magical and/or disembodied entities such as gods, spirits, ghosts or fairies. We expect scientifically credible evidence in order to support a proposed idea with our belief, and there simply is none for this Otherworld and its supposed residents.

A part of this naturalistic approach is monism: the idea that the body and the consciousness are not distinct, that there is no “ghost in the machine”. Our selves, our personalities arise from the physicality of our bodies (most particularly, our brains). There is no “soul” that exists separately from the body; when the body dies, the information pattern in the body’s neural net that comprises the mind dissolves forever, radiating away from the body as simple heat.

There is no afterlife. Our lives are a blessed, extraordinary, one-way trip.

This view is in marked contrast to the Abrahamic religions’ dualistic idea of a “mind” or “soul” existing independently of the body. Religions such as Christianity and Islam believe that the body is only a vessel, vulgar and profane, while the soul is the important bit. This has caused suffering on mass scales throughout history, as people have been tortured, enslaved and slaughtered in order to “save their souls”. And it informs the hostility these religions evince towards sexuality and bodily pleasures (and, arguably, towards women).

Ours is a religion that embraces the experience of life as material, bodied creatures. We celebrate, rather than morally condemning (consenting) sexuality; we live in the aliveness of knowing that we are thinking animals, but we are still animals. We celebrate and seek wisdom, yes, and growth, and all the subtlety and grace that a human mind may aspire to, but we know these occur and reside in the oneness of our bodied selves.

Other Pagan paths seem confused on this score. On the one hand, they, too, will say they see that they see the self as an integrated whole, with “the divine” manifest in material reality (immanence).  Yet they will also say they believe in reincarnation or in some kind of afterlife, which necessarily requires that at some point, body and “soul” are separated so that one may “go on” while the other decays.

It’s not a conundrum I have ever heard a good rationale to explain. But…not my path, so not my problem, either.

I don’t write about this sort of “atheology” very often. To me, it’s much more important to develop the practices and implementation of the path than it is to spend a lot of time on its philosophical underpinnings. But Atheopaganism does have those underpinnings, and for those of us who are practicing it, it is useful to be able to articulate where we stand on Big Questions about the nature of the Universe and our place in it.

Innovation Versus Tradition in Paganism

The mainstream current of modern Paganism has made much of celebrating “Ancient Ways” and “Old Gods”. This creates an inherent tension between old (or putatively old) practices and beliefs and the innovations and achievements of modernity.

Elements of the broad Pagan umbrella range widely across this expanse. At one pole, you have Reconstructionists, for whom ancient ideas and practices are pretty much everything, and those of other paths who choose to continue to believe (despite much scholarship to the contrary) that today’s Paganism derives from an unbroken lineage of tradition stemming from medieval times or earlier.

At the other, there is Atheopaganism, which draws forward some traditional activities, but contextualizes them in new framings of cosmology, holidays and ritual observances, in an explicitly forward-looking orientation to religious creation, values and practice.

We humans like our traditions. We like to remember how our families did things when we were children, and to feel that our ritual activities are rooted in long histories that reach back into our imagined impressions of olden times.

The danger, however, is that we begin to see the way “things have always been done” or as they “were done long ago” as inherently of virtue…as if antiquity itself conducts value, or legitimacy.

This is particularly true of Abrahamic religions, which view their age as credentialing: as conducting of authority. The Old Texts, the Old Words, the Old Practices are viewed as somehow more important than new words, new practices. “Old” is equated with “genuine”.

When you think about it, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Humans are learning beings. Our understanding evolves.

We don’t insist on using vacuum tubes in our computers because that’s the way Marconi did it. We don’t refuse to listen to music that isn’t centuries old, or demand that our doctors perform bloodletting and trepanning, or dress in animal skins and woven grass because that’s the way Dear Old Homo Erectus did it.

We learned. Innovation brought us to new and better ways of doing things, and ideas that better reflected the discernible facts about our world. And that can be true of religious ideas and ritual practices, as well.

Now, I’m a sucker for the idea of Olde Traditions, too. I love the antiquity of the decorated Yule tree, the dance about the Maypole, the quaff of John Barleycorn, the old recipes and songs. When I’m dancing around a fire in the woods, I feel primal, and I love it. It’s one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place; that, and a deep connection to the cycles, pleasures and wonders of the living Earth.

But I don’t particularly want to strangle a Year King, nor burn an ox sacrifice, or cling to xenophobic tribal values that promote racism and expectations of conformity, either.

I believe that Paganism, like everything else human, benefits by what we have learned since olden days. We have had the Enlightenment, we have learned reason and developed the scientific method, we have learned tremendous amounts about our Universe and world, we have come to entertain, at least, the principle that humans are equal and beautiful in their diversities of gender, color, preferences and creed.

And this is why I call Atheopaganism a forward-looking religion. Obsessing about the ancient and believing in a supernatural “Otherworld” is in my opinion a lingering remnant of old stuff that we no longer need nor benefit from. As it contributes to superstition and susceptibility to credulity in pseudoscience and fringe belief, it undermines our societies’ and communities’ capacities to deal rationally and effectively with their problems. At worst, it dovetails with conspiracy theories and beliefs which fly in the face of both evidence and reason.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We can have the benefits of ritual, of traditions, of meaningful values and community without it. We can be filled with awe and reverence and joy and purpose without it. We can draw forward those traditions which still speak to us without the dross of those which no longer make sense in our modern context. And we can do it all within the framework of tested models of reality provided by science.

Now, do credulous beliefs work for many Pagans at a personal level? Yes, indeed they do. Those folks find deep meaning in their beliefs and practices, and I have no interest in denying them those benefits.

So where’s the harm?

Well, in a broader context, we are seeing our world tilt more and more to belief-in-the-face-of-expertise. To ideology trumping (hah) reason, fact, and knowledge. And credulity such as I describe is a part of that problem. To the degree large numbers of people are believing that the whims and wishes of invisible powers are influencing world events, they are taking their eyes off of the ball of what is actually going on. And that means that when we need all hands on deck to avert some of the worst crises humanity has ever faced, instead we have many who are simply spinning their wheels.

Can you do both? Yes, you can do both: you can believe in all that invisible stuff, and also act in material reality to achieve social and political change. And more power to those who do!

But honestly, I don’t see a lot of people in the Pagan community doing that. Because if you believe your ritual for world peace is actually accomplishing something, you probably won’t also take tangible actions that help to advance that goal.

Moving into the modern is good. It empowers us with tools and knowledge, and focuses us on the real. And while traditions can be charming and heartwarming and edifying and life-enhancing, there is a real baby-and-bathwater problem with overemphasis on the old relative to the current.

Ours is a 21st-century religion built on a foundation of all that has gone before: all the trial and error, all the false starts, all the discoveries, all the effort. What the 18th-20th centuries have to teach us has no less pertinence to us than what Greeks or Romans or Celts or Egyptians thought centuries prior.

We start from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, and build from there. Why should our approach to religion be different than that toward any other human discipline?