No Gods. No Masters. No Priesthood.

It’s a sadly familiar tale in the Pagan community: the coven or local organization that is run by a charismatic “high priestess” or “high priest” (or both), doling out “training” and “degrees of advancement” based on how well the subject toes the line, fawns over the “priest/ess”, and, in some particularly sad cases, provides them with sexual favors as a part of the “initiatory process”.

Or…the narcissistic Pagan “leader” who works to cultivate a young and pretty entourage of on-tap adorers as a part of imparting their “wisdom” to followers…and for whom those not so young or pretty never quite seem to make the grade for advancement.

Or…the dirty secret that eventually comes out about some bright and innocent aspiring newby who ends up being harassed until driven away by such a “leader”.

But wait…isn’t that essentially the sad and common story in pretty much every religious community?

I’ll cut to the chase: that entire model—of heirarchy in power, respect and even obedience in spiritual community—is rotten to its core. It is a guaranteed formula for abuse. It is the same as when bosses have power over employees, when teachers have power over students, and when adults have power over children. And while those power gradients may be inevitable, we don’t have to have them in religion.

We see it in the Christians, we see it in the Buddhists, we see it in the Pagans. Doesn’t matter the cosmology and practice. Having some people who are considered “more advanced and important” in a religious context just doesn’t keep people safe.

I don’t know how many times I have heard from bright, creative, interesting, wise people that they gave up on their local Pagan community because of some would-be guru abusing the trust that others placed in them: socially, financially, sexually.

I’ve seen it myself, close up.

And as far as I’m concerned, in Atheopaganism we ain’t doing that.

Yes, I’m the primary voice here at the blog (which reminds me: I welcome guest posts! Please send me your submissions!) And mine is the name most associated with this path, because I started it and I’m devoting a significant chunk of my life to helping to build and raise the visibility of its vision and practices.

But I am NOT the high priest of the Atheopagans. We have no clergy, no advancement levels. I’m just a guy with ideas who cares, devoting what skills and wisdom he has to making a path. Others seem to find it valuable, and that’s really gratifying to me: it makes me feel committed to this community, to feel love and inspiration that these ideas and practices are of value in the lives of others.

YOU, fellow Atheopagan reading this, are the “high priest/ess” of your life. You are the ultimate moral authority in relation to you. Given learning of ritual skills and a desire to do so, you can be the leader of a ritual just as well as anyone. And you have as much standing to contribute lore, philosophy, and suggested practices to Atheopaganism as anyone else.

If you find something in what I write objectionable, I hope you will say so, directly to me. Let’s talk about it. Maybe I got something wrong, or have a blind spot. Or maybe you just have a better idea for how to handle a particular situation or ritual technique. Bring it forth! We are collaborating in building this path together.

Some of the stories that have come forward in the wake of the abuse accusation against Isaac Bonewits on Facebook and in comment threads have nearly brought me to tears, because they are from good people who were driven out of Pagan community by the sheer dysfunction of those who claimed to be its leading exponents. I’ve seen it myself, in the Church of All Worlds, where grounded and sensible and functional people would come in, look around, and run screaming…but crazy and creepy settled in and stayed for years.

One of the truly wonderful things about creating a new tradition is that we can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us. And in Atheopaganism, I’m doing my best not to introduce any element that can be distorted or abused to enable the kinds of shenanigans described above.

There is an anarchist slogan: No gods. No masters. This has been adapted by some theistic Pagans to Many gods. No masters.

Well, I’m here to tell you, folks, if you have a priesthood standing at a level between you and your gods—if you really think that someone who calls themselves a “priestess of Goddess X” has a closer relationship with that aspect of the Sacred than you do—you’ve got masters, whether you want them or not. And some of them will inevitably betray you.

So I say No gods. No masters. No priests. No priestesses. 

Just we critters, equal and humble under the gaze of the Sun, working together to make our way.

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Crunch Time: Pagan Priorities and the Otherworld

The fundamental difference between theistic Pagans and Atheopagans is that the former propose that there exists an “Otherworld”: a parallel dimension of reality in which reside gods, spirits, fairies and other such beings. Atheopagans, having a naturalistic worldview, don’t subscribe to this idea.

As I look around the community, I think there are questions about this kind of belief that haven’t been asked, and really ought to be.

They are:

  1. Is such a belief useful? In other words what, exactly, is the point of supposed interaction with an Otherworld of gods, fairies and suchlike?
  2. In a time of cultural and environmental crisis, is prioritization of this theory healthy, both individual and globally?

I think John Halstead makes a persuasive argument in his response to the John Beckett article linked above: that dragons and fairies were never a part of Earth’s history, but rather, that they are a part of a nostalgic cultural myth about bygone Days of Magic and Wonder. And, he continues, to the degree we persist in chasing the dream of such “good old days” with their supernatural characters and creatures, we are not reenchanting the real world, this world, with an imbued sense of the sacred and the responsible ethic of stewardship that healthy human civilization will require.

But I would go farther. I would argue that whether or not an Otherworld exists, we conduct ourselves at our peril if we focus our practices on it, rather on this, material world.

I see a lot of people in our community who are, for want of a better term, excessively focused on what they believe are their interactions with the Otherworld. They are constantly on the lookout for signs and portents, making offerings and prayers and observances to what they believe are Beings resident therein. Such folk often conclude that their homes are haunted by spirits, and their first interpretation of an unusual event is typically not that it has ordinary causality or is a coincidence, but rather that it is Someone trying to Tell Them Something.

They are the sort of folks who, when in need of money, spend far more effort on “prosperity spells” than on trying to get a job.

I don’t write this to judge anyone. We all have ways we’re not healthy, ways we could improve, and things we do that may not make sense. But this preoccupation with the postulated Otherworld doesn’t seem to serve a lot of the people I see doing it. Their lives appear to be constant struggles. And that raises the questions above.

Meanwhile, we have bigger fish to fry here in so-called “mundane” reality. We have an ecology on the verge of collapse, and a civilization not far behind it. Accordingly, I suggest that pouring time and energy into attempts at trafficking with Beings who are so nebulous that we debate their very existence is a distraction, when we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting to work for the demonstrably real.

Now, some will argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, and may even be complementary, and I agree that can be true for Pagan activist theists…but it isn’t what I see in the broad community. Many voices in the Pagan sphere are so occupied with their devotionals and teachings and spells—and, dare I say, their Pagan merchandizing—that they don’t appear to devote much if any time to material-world efforts on behalf of a better future.

When I go lobbying at my state Capitol, I don’t run into other Pagans working the offices on behalf of the environment. I don’t meet fellow witchy travelers when working or volunteering for political campaigns. I live in an area with a far higher proportion of Pagans than any other I am aware of in the United States—the San Francisco Bay Area—but I don’t see the “people of the Earth” engaging with the women and men who are actually making the decisions that impact the Earth’s fate, nor that of its people.

So if nothing else, some rebalancing seems to be appropriate: more attention to this world, less to the Other. My critique here is not of theism per se; it is of the prioritization of the Otherworld relative to the material world in the practices and efforts of most of the Pagans I see around me.

We have heavy lifting to do. Speaking practically, we must turn to our own industry, our own resources, our own strengths if we hope for the story of humanity not to spiral into catastrophe. If we really love the Earth, I say let’s put our eye on the (beautiful, blue) ball, and our efforts and attention where we can be sure they count.

So please: consider your practice. Is there any aspect of it that seeks to improve the world in a “non-magical” way? Do you contact elected officials, volunteer for a nonprofit or a campaign, attend direct actions, support agencies that are doing good work? Are you educating people to see the wonder and importance of the natural world, or to eschew racism or homophobia or misogyny, or to be more effective leaders?

If so, good for you. Carry on, and thank you!

If not, please consider incorporating such efforts into your practices.

It’s all hands on deck now, folks. Rituals and observances are important, but please put some elbow grease into this world, too.

“Harm None” Ain’t Good Enough: A Call to Action

There has always been something about the Wiccan Rede that has bothered me, and I’ve finally figured out what it is.

The Wiccan Rede, for those new to the community or coming into Atheopaganism from atheist/skeptic circles, is the only widely (though far from universally) adopted moral precept in the Pagan community. It reads: “An (if) it harm none, do what thou wilt.”

To start with, the Ye-Olde-Tyme-Englande language rubs me the wrong way, using “an” for “if”, and calling it a “rede” instead of a “rule”. The Wiccan Rede is a 20th century creation, not bloody Shakespeare.

But that’s a small point.

The primary bone I have to pick with the Rede is that unlike many of the world’s religions, the only widely embraced ethic of Paganism doesn’t contain any expectation that its followers should be promulgators of good. Only that we shouldn’t do harm.

If you’re not hurting anyone, do what you like, says the Wiccan Rede. Echoes Crowley’s famous Thelemite creed, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Hate to say it, folks, but that’s pretty weak tea. It’s selfish and it contains not a whisper of a suggestion that we should be responsible to any but ourselves. It is a teenager’s libertarian fantasy, not a formula for a respectful and healthy community nor a better, healthier world.

People sometimes wonder why Pagans don’t have charities to support the environment or the disadvantaged. I would suggest that this is at least a contributing factor: because of an excessive emphasis on individual liberty to the exclusion of social responsibility.

Now, Paganism is a broad spectrum of practices and paths. Many do not adopt the Rede as a guideline for their own behavior. But I have not yet heard of a major flavor of Paganism that formally expects its adherents to, say, feed the hungry or house the homeless or even actively work to resist and reverse humanity’s degradation of the biosphere. Those who choose to act thus do so not because they are following their religion’s principles, but in spite of the lack of them.

The Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions have one up on us in this vein; particularly, traditions like Quakerism and Sufism and Unitarian Universalism and reform Judaism. Say what you like about them, every day many charities associated with Abrahamic traditions do a great deal of good in relation to some of the ills that confront humanity. (Others do harm, such as to LGBTQ folks, because their values are bigoted. But that’s really beside the point).

Of course, many self-described followers of those religions don’t lift a finger to do what their religions tell them to do for the disadvantaged. But at least they are told that they should. The key takeaway is that despite broad adoption of liberal and tolerant and environmentalist values within the Pagan community, our paths don’t demand anything of us but to try not to hurt anything. Not the faintest whisper of a suggestion that being a good Pagan necessarily means an expectation that we will try to make things better for our fellow humans and our fellow creatures.

Compounding this, I believe, is the propensity on the part of some Pagans to view non-Pagans with condescension. Why would we feel the need to care for “Muggles”, for squares and straights and…worst of all…Christians?

I understand that minorities sometimes compensate for feeling like outsiders and subject to discrimination by expressing similar sentiments about the majority. It’s human, and probably to some degree inevitable.

But we are all here on this Sacred Earth together. As humans, we have responsibility for one another. And our moral precepts should tell us so.

I wrote awhile back on why I believe Atheopaganism is inherently political.  I believe that the times we live in and our values as naturalistic Earth-reverers naturally and inevitably obligate us to do what we can to make our world a better place. To promulgate kindness and environmental responsibility, and to practice it ourselves.

Pagans tend not to want to be told what to do. Even more so than most folks. In fact, many of them are so vehemently opposed to it that the very idea of a community ethic of good works would be viewed as authoritarian and “oppressive”.

To that I say: please look around you, and then step up.

Everyone on this planet has both a social and an environmental impact. If ours is truly a better way, it is not unreasonable that we expect ourselves pro-actively to see our values made manifest in the world, whether that be sexual, racial, ethnic and gender egalitarianism or care for and uplifting of the downtrodden or biological diversity and reduction of pollution.

Let us make the world as we wish for it to be, not merely try to minimize the damage we cause. Let us be seen for how we conduct ourselves in the world, with how we treat the most vulnerable among us. The Abrahamic obsession with what adherents believe is not ours; let us rather assess ourselves on the basis of what we do.

And let us do much, more more than simply try to avoid causing harm. Because in days like these, that is not nearly enough.