The Big Questions

We had a great conversation in the Atheopaganism U. video conference today, in which it arose that for many participants, there simply hasn’t been a place in their lives for asking Big Questions like, what is my highest vision for my life? What makes me happiest?

They are the very sorts of questions I pondered when I was first conceptualizing what became Atheopaganism, and at the time, I didn’t really have opportunity in my life to mull them over much, either. But circumstances forced them upon me; I had left the Pagan community over issues of unethical behavior and nonsensical cosmologies, and found my life barren without the rituals and community. I was diving into study of religion and the brain, and finding that at root, religious behavior is about how both individuals and societies create a sense of safety, offer aspiration, inculcate values, pursue connection, and foster contentment and happiness through experiences of awe, gratitude and profound meaning.

So I had to ask myself: what, exactly, was I missing from my time in Pagan circles? Why, as an atheist, had I gravitated to them in the first place?

And my answers surprised me. Some were obvious, like desire for friends and community, but some were things like sacralizing the passage of time and being in touch with the Earth’s seasonal rhythms and feeling connected to the rest of the Universe and experiencing that Glowing Present Meaningful Kind of Mental State I Don’t Have a Name For, But Which Feels Really Good.

And then there were things I wanted that I hadn’t really found in Paganism, except in very limited forms: an articulation of values and ethics, of principles for living.

I wanted all that stuff, and some, at least, had felt like they were happening when I was circling with Pagans, but were no longer around when I stopped. My life was poorer as a result.

So as I began to think about what a “rational religion” would look like, I began to zero in on what its ultimate goals would be. Big goals, like greater personal happiness. Connection in community. Personal integrity. Better personal effectiveness. Contribution to a better, more environmentally and socially responsible and, ultimately, a happier world.

Big goals, for certain. But shouldn’t religion be aspirational?

Others are: they offer “salvation” (from a mythical flaw they claim everyone carries) and heaven or Paradise or nirvana or what have you.

Big goals to strive for throughout life.

I don’t believe in that stuff. But I believe in moments of happiness. I believe in community and living with integrity and activism for social and environmental responsibility.

So that’s where Atheopaganism came from. It isn’t just a scientific cosmology, and it isn’t just reverence for nature. It’s one set of answers to a series of really Big Questions that are about living well and happily and helping others and the planet to do so as well. That are about a life filled with meaning, purpose, celebration and service.

Because after all, if we can achieve that, life will be good. We will reflect at the end of it and know, I had a good life. I lived well and honorably. I was of service. I helped. I had beautiful experiences.

That, I can believe in.

 

 

 

The Problem of Suffering

It’s a big conundrum for many theists, particularly monotheists like Christians, Jews and Muslims: if God is good, why is there suffering in the world?

Such folk will go through incredible gyrations to try to resolve this dilemma. Thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of pages have been written in attempts to address it. Everything from blaming a demigod “devil” to chalking it up to bad choices made through human free will has been put forward as an explanation for tragedy and hardship.

Polytheists may not think their gods are necessarily “good”, which solves the suffering problem but raises another: then why worship them?

As Atheopagans, we have a much easier and more sensible approach: in a naturalistic Universe, there is no invisible force which “wants” things to be “good” or “just”. There is only the unfolding of the insensate Universe through the laws of physics. It doesn’t think, doesn’t feel, doesn’t care one way or the other.

Living in this context presents its own challenges. We must come to grips with the idea that the Universe does not care about us and that justice or progress are not inevitable long-term outcomes of history. If justice is to be achieved, if suffering is to be reduced, it is we who must do the work of making them so.

How to orient to the nature of reality is an important philosophical question in every religion. Some simply punt: “It’s God’s will,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” Others, like many Buddhist traditions, have elaborate cosmologies in which all suffering is supposedly balanced out in the end.

My approach is simpler—and, I believe, much better grounded in factual truth. I have three elements in my personal orientation to reality, which I call “The Big OK,” “The Big Thank You,” and “The Big Wow”.

The Big OK is acceptance of the Universe as it is. It simply is that way. There is nothing right or wrong about it. It is as it manifests itself, and that’s all there is to say about it. Hard though losses and tragedies are to embrace, they are a part of the fabric of reality, and we must accept this without resistance. If we want what we see as good to flourish in the world, it is on us to create it.

The Big Thank You is gratitude. This is embodied in Atheopagan Principle #3. It is a humble thankfulness for life itself, for the experiences of living and the many blessings that it brings upon us daily, from air to water to food to sleep to love to beauty.

Finally, The Big Wow is about awe at the magnificence of the world as it is. Hard though some aspects of it are to swallow, the Universe is simply, unimaginably beautiful. That humble sense of reverent awe is a major driver of my spirituality and a feeling I seek to cultivate.

Within these three simple concepts, a peaceful and joyous orientation to living can be found. At least, it has been so for me.

To the Universe—to Life itself— I say,

OK.

Thank you.

Wow.

 

Doubt

It’s the Enemy Voice in our heads: you’re stupid. You’re crazy. You’re weak. You’re sinful. You’re damaged.

You’re wrong. About everything.

That voice is the Enemy. It is the soul-killer.

We inherit it from parents and teachers and classmates, from religious leaders. We internalize it, make it our own, until it almost seems it is there to help us.

To protect us from harm.

And so we start to listen to it.

Stop.

Stop stop stop stop stop.

That voice is a LIAR.

That voice is malicious and it is not on your side.

HERE IS THE TRUTH: You are luminous and beautiful and creative and full of stars.

That is reality. That is the fact of this world.

I sat down to write this piece about doubt. About how doubt is a useful thing for us.

Because doubt, combined with critical thinking, is the best way to figure out what is most likely to be true. Ye Olde Razore of William of Ockham, right?

But somehow what came out as I started to type was about self-doubt. And that is entirely a different thing.

We must ask ourselves hard questions now and again, just to keep ourselves honest. We must ask ourselves about our conclusions, our beliefs, our philosophies.

But we must separate that process from the vicious, vindictive, cruel voice whose only purpose is to make us small and afraid and self-questioning.

Go forth, Atheopagans. Love yourselves. Ask hard questions, and answer them.

But remember always: you are, each one of you, a unique miracle of the Universe’s manifestation.

You shine.

Never doubt it, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.