Happiness, Ecstasy, and Threading the Needle

I stumbled out from the trees atop the mountain, Matagalls—the second-highest in Catalonia.

I was teaching at a children’s language camp, and at the end of the camp we had taken a day to lead the students on an expedition to climb the peak. Cold weather had moved in and many of them had remained in a meadow at lower elevation with the rest of the adults. But I and a handful of kids pressed on.

It was steep at the end, and my legs were burning as I climbed the forested trail to the summit. The scent of rain-dampened earth filled my nostrils, the cool air pumped smoothly in and out of my lungs, my heart beat in my temples and chest. I was alive.

I could feel that something was happening. Something was opening within me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my long time in Spain was coming to a close: that soon I would hit the road again, eventually to land back in California. Perhaps it was just that smell, the adrenaline, the gorgeous landscape of Catalonia.

I moved ahead of the children. I knew I’d have only a minute or two atop the summit by myself if I pushed on now, but it would have to be enough. I was swelling with joy; I could feel tears starting.

When I stepped out of the trees to the clearing atop Matagalls, I could see the whole world spread before me: a ragged blanket of clouds far below, peaks emerging like islands, the glint of a river through a hole in the clouds. Everything.

Everything.

And something grew to bursting within me. I began to sob and laugh at the same time. YES. 

YES!

All this, and me alive to experience it, in this little moment I am given. The blessed, Sacred world.


Recently, Rua Lupa and John Halstead have written about the ecstatic religious experience. John has written about its value; Rua cautions about pleasure-seeking for its own sake, warning of hedonism and suggesting that pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is wrong.

The thing is, they’re both right to a degree. Pleasure-seeking without regard to consequences is clearly unhealthy and destructive. And seeking the ecstatic religious experience is moving, transformative, and deeply pleasurable.

I disagree with Rua when she suggests that pleasure-seeking for its own sake is somehow wrong. There are plenty of pleasurable experiences that can be had which cause no harm to anyone else, nor to the Earth. What’s wrong with those? Why must pleasure-seeking have a “purpose”?

That said, I’d say that Rua puts her finger on one of the two major points to religion when she speaks of  contentment. Contentment is a baseline of happiness: a satisfactory level of felt wellbeing that leads to a sense of living as worthwhile and fulfilling. That baseline, however, is only a mean–in order for life to feel lived, you need some lows and highs by way of contrast. And among the highest of those highs are the experiences of religious ecstasy John cites.

Which brings me back to the basic question:  “why Atheopaganism?” The answer being, because it can help us to be happier, and because it provides a framework of values within which life can be meaningful and service to the Sacred may be inspired.

Do I think people who are constantly chasing the high of a peak experience are ungrounded and lost? Yes, I do.

Do I think that people who never seek such experiences are muted and kind of sad? Yes, that, too.

Mainstream values in the Pagan community tend towards the hedonistic. We value pleasure as a good in and of itself, so long as none are harmed. And while I think a bit more self-reflection would be a positive addition to that cheerful pleasure-seeking, at root I agree. I have no use for Calvinistic, greyfaced disapproval of fun and enjoyment. I want to grab life with both hands. I want the story of my having been here to be one filled with color.

That said, I’m not just here for me. My peak spiritual experiences have led me to deepen my commitment to the biosphere of the Earth and to redouble my efforts on its behalf. The two are not at loggerheads; they compliment and reinforce one another.

I understand John’s point about religious ecstasy reinforcing a sense of connection with and commitment to That Which Is Larger Than The Self: The Earth, the Cosmos. And I understand Rua’s point about the kinds of practical religious experiences which can bring us more into harmony with reality, such as the fact that we are going to die.

But must pleasure always serve a purpose? Is there something wrong with pleasure that’s just…pleasurable?

I say there is not. If no one is harmed, if the Earth itself is not harmed, I say pursue happiness. Seek joy.

As Rua puts it, pleasure should not be the pinnacle, the sum total goal of religious experience. But that doesn’t mean that pleasure can’t be one of the goals thereof.

Pleasure is great, and I recommend you find as much as you can, within the constraints of care for others and for the Earth. And of the pleasures there are, few are greater than religious ecstasy, for it is not merely a cascade of serotonin and dopamine: it is a moment of profound understanding of life’s purposes, of what is important, of what is Sacred.

Which is what I found, weeping atop a mountain in Spain, with children coming up the trail behind me.

Shown: Matagalls, Catalunya.

What About Those Who Insist Their Gods Are Real? A Policy Statement.

Though I generally try to avoid engaging with them, there are those in the broader Pagan community who are quite adamant that their gods are real and that anyone who doesn’t think so isn’t a Pagan. Some of them feel the need to rail at people like Atheopagans and call for our expulsion from Pagan community. So I thought I would spell out my exact orientation to such folk, so my position is clear.

Primarily, my inclination is to ignore them. They’re wrong, but they’re entitled to their opinions. If their beliefs make them happy, great. Though given the sour and caustic tone of some of them, there is reason to doubt this is the case.

I don’t care that other Pagans believe in gods. They’re welcome to do so, in my book, even though I believe that is in the process of dying out.

When it comes to the bigotry factor, however—the suggestion that there is something wrong with us because of what we believe and practice, or that it’s “not a real religion”— I will stick up strongly for our rights both to what we do and believe and to belong in both Pagan and atheistic communities. My only reason for engagement with strident god-believers who refuse to live and let live is in insisting that mine is a religion as well, and I have a right both to call it one and to a place in community. I have never argued that they have no place there, and this is a fundamental difference in values between us: inclusivity vs. exclusivity on the basis of cosmology and/or praxis.

I do not feel the need to try to establish that at some level, we are all talking about the same thing using different labels. We aren’t. We have a fundamental cosmological disagreement. “Real” for purposes of my writing means “existing in some sense external to the mind”. The memory of my mother, therefore, is not “real”, while, when she was alive, my mother was real.

Rocks are real. Gods are not. So the evidence suggests, and so I believe.

Do ideas “exist” in some sense? Well, certainly. But certain ideas are not privileged with “reality” more than any others. Zeus has exactly the same amount of real existence as does Wilbur the Pig or Gandalf. They are memes, not things or persons.

There are those who disagree with these ideas and will be angered to read them. My suggestion for them is simple: go away. Read something else. I don’t write this blog for you; I write it for those of largely similar views, so that together, we can develop and explore our Atheopagan spirituality.

I hope this clarifies where I stand.

On Becoming An Atheopagan

What is a religion?

Is a religion what you believe?

Is that what people in churches and temples and mosques throughout the world do on their appointed sabbath days? Believe?

I found myself pondering this question after I fell out of love with Paganism , in 2004, following a series of experiences wherein dysfunctional and unethical behavior on the part of leaders in my Pagan community was excused as having been “directed by the gods”.

This was simply intolerable to me. It flew in the face of science, of reason, and of ethics. It was wrong.

I grew up an atheist. I believe in science and reason. In facts, and critical thinking. And I passionately love the natural world. This has driven my career in environmental activism and land conservation.

Though I became a Pagan in 1987, I have never believed in literal gods. Rather, I have seen them as metaphorical stories and archetypes.

Until about 2000, I felt I was in good company. Until then, in the Pagan community what you believed was private. People rarely even talked about their cosmologies; it was generally understood that everyone had a different way of looking at the world, but it didn’t matter: we could all circle together and be a community.

Several prominent voices in the community at that time were clearly in the gods-as-metaphors camp, and I had no reason to feel that my membership therein was strange. I found deep meaning and joy in celebrating the changing of the seasons, in the ritual circles I shared with community and loved ones, and in the egalitarian and environmental values that were the community norms. I was a devout Pagan: an atheistic one.

But as I said, around 2000 something changed. A new brand of Paganism that insisted on the literal reality of its gods arose: the folk who now call themselves devotional polytheists. Within a few short years, believing became a hot and contentious subject in the broader community.

And with this, the suggestion that you had to believe in order to be a “real” Pagan, combined with the events referenced above, I quit. I stepped back from the community and abandoned my practices. It was a spiritual crisis and it coincided with the reelection of George W. Bush. I fell into a deep depression.

But it didn’t take long before I realized how deeply I missed my Pagan practice and community. My life felt flat and empty, meaningless, colorless.

I didn’t believe. I had never believed. Yet somehow, I had achieved deep pleasure and abiding sense of connectedness and meaning through Pagan religion.

So what is a religion, really?

I think the answer to that question has been perverted by centuries of Abrahamic religions’ obsession with faith, belief and theology.

Because clearly, religion isn’t about belief. Or not only so, anyway.

I thought long and hard about it. I read a lot. And I concluded that religion isn’t one thing: it’s three.

A religion, yes, does contain a description of the world: a cosmology. It explains where things come from and what the purpose is in life. For theists, that typically includes an invisible, ephemerally tangible dimension wherein reside gods, spirits, and so forth. For naturalists, it is limited to the Universe we can see and verify through science.

But a religion also describes a value set: a description of what is important in life, and instructions for how to live a moral life according to the religion.

And finally, it includes practices: Observances. Holy days. Sabbaths. Rituals. Contemplative practices. Rites of passage. Sacred music and recited liturgy. All the things that people do in the course of belonging to a particular religion.

Understanding this, it became clear to me that atheism and religion were not the opposite ends of a spectrum. That atheistic religion was a possibility. That science could provide the cosmology, Pagan values the moral framework, and Pagan rituals and observances the praxis.

And that is when I began to craft the path that I now call Atheopaganism.

I’m back to my practices, though they have evolved such that I no longer use the names and concepts of gods even as metaphors. I’m celebrating holy days around the wheel of the year. My Focus (a word I use instead of “altar”, which to me implies worship and sacrifice) is an actively maintained presence in my home.

I also moved into a segment of the Pagan community which exhibited very high integrity, humanity and love, and didn’t demand that I believe anything in particular: the Fire Family community. That made a big difference.

And I discovered that on my own, I had invented something very much like what others like Jon Cleland Host and John Halstead and Rua Lupa did before me: naturalistic Paganism. I discovered that there are more like me. A lot more.

And so I’ve begun to foster that community, with writing and resources at atheopaganism.wordpress.com and a forum where we can meet and discuss our religion on Facebook. We have an aggregated blog site at NaturalPagans.com.

Naturalistic Paganism isn’t new. It’s been here since the beginning of the Neopagan revival in the 1960s (and arguably earlier). But we didn’t feel a need to talk about it until what you believe became an important topic of discussion, with the advent of an element in the community who insist that believing in gods as literal persons is important.

We’ve been circling with theists and a part of the community from the outset. The only difference now is that many of us are stepping forward to publicly declare that the equation of Belief with “real Paganism” on the part of some devotional polytheists is a mischaracterization.

We are not believers, and we are Pagans.

There are leaders in the community who are among us. They invoke gods as metaphors, not as literal persons. I won’t name them here because they may not want their names dragged into this discussion, but an example would be the late Margot Adler, author of the groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon.

We’re not here to tell people they shouldn’t believe in literal gods…although we will bristle if it is taken as a matter of course that Pagans naturally do so. We’re not here to convert anyone. We just want our space in the Pagan tent, and to be allowed there to express our cosmology as readily as may any other sector of our diverse community.

Our values are as sacred to us as are the values of any other Pagan path. We are every bit as fervent in our devotion to what we revere, which is the mighty Cosmos itself: the natural world in all its wonder and awe-inspiring beauty.

It doesn’t matter to us that the Universe is not listening. We are here, emergent manifestations of the properties of matter, energy and the laws of physics. The world feeds, shelters and nurtures us. It is worthy of reverence: of love, and care, and service.

Even prayer…

Praise to the wide spinning world
Unfolding each of all the destined tales compressed
In the moment of your catastrophic birth
Wide to the fluid expanse, blowing outward
Kindling in stars and galaxies, in bright pools
Of Christmas-colored gas; cohering in marbles hot
And cold, ringed, round, gray and red and gold and dun
And blue
Pure blue, the eye of a child, spinning in a veil of air,
Warm island, home to us, kind beyond measure: the stones
And trees, the round river flowing sky to deepest chasm, salt
And sweet.

Praise to Time, enormous and precious,
And we with so little, seeing our world go as it will
Ruing, cheering, the treasured fading, precious arriving,
Fear and wonder,
Fear and wonder always.

Praise O black expanse of mostly nothing
Though you do not hear, you have no ear nor mind to hear
Praise O inevitable, O mysterious,
Praise and thanks be a wave
Expanding from this tiny temporary mouth this tiny dot
Of world a bubble
Going out forever meeting everything as it goes
All the great and infinitesimal
Gracious and terrible
All the works of blessed Being.

May it be so.

May it be so.

May our hearts sing to say it is so.