Our Story Thus Far

In 1987, a friend invited me to an autumnal equinox circle with his Pagan coven.

I had been an atheist all my life: a rational, naturalistic believer in science and reason. But I went.

I still don’t entirely know why.

It was…odd. There was drumming. The standing-in-a-circle-holding-hands was a bit uncomfortable. There was talking to Invisible Presences, though that seemed much more like symbolic action than people actually believing they existed.

But on the other hand…it was the autumnal equinox. That’s a real thing, a real event in the natural world. When was the last time I had noticed that? How connected was I to the reality of what was happening on Planet Earth?

There was a lot to like about the Paganism I first encountered. Celebration of the turning of the seasons and of the natural world appealed to my dyed-in-the-wool environmentalism, lent meaning to the passing of time. The people were warm and friendly, bright and creative and interesting.

So I went to another gathering. And I began to befriend the community of people who held them. The rituals began to feel natural, and the consistent narrative of “ancient ways” helped me to believe that we were doing something that, if not exactly like what people had done long before civilization and monotheism, was in some way related to it in its values, its wildness and its love for the Earth that sustains us.

That resonated with me. A lot. It suddenly made sense to me, that this is a way we should live, aware of the rhythms of the Earth, honoring it and grateful for all it provides for us.

I set up an altar.

I attended a big public ritual. I attended an outdoor festival.

I put on a pentacle.

In the 1980s and 90s, we didn’t really talk much about what we believed in the Pagan community. We just circled together, and what you believed was your own business. For many of us, this was simply a metaphorical practice that felt good and brought us meaning and a sense of connection to the Earth. Others subscribed to various out-there and scientifically unsupported theories such as literally existing gods, astrology and even alien visitation.

Not my problem, so long as I was free to maintain a rational atheism beside my Pagan practice. I understood the psychological benefit of rituals, the community-building. Sure, there was talk of “magic” and “gods” and quite a lot of other…shall we say, less rationally rigorous stuff. But those were metaphors, right? We were all playing let’s-pretend in order to have richer, happier, more fulfilled, more meaningful lives.

And…I figured that at least most of us understood that.

Right? Because bright people. And because many—including major figures in the movement—described “gods” and “magic” in exactly those terms.

Right?

So I was involved. And I was happy. I made friends and celebrated life and had adventures and it was, overall, good. I felt more connected with the natural world and that I had finally found My People.

And this went on for nearly 20 years. I was a happy Pagan atheist.

And then, around 2000, Issues began to develop.

For one thing, people in the community started talking about the Seriousness of Believing in Gods. About how you “couldn’t really be a Pagan” if you didn’t. Then a bunch of them decided that they were so Serious about this that they didn’t want to be called Pagans any more if others using that label weren’t as Serious as they were.

They were now “devotional polytheists”, and as far as I could tell, they were Pagan fundamentalists: you either believed what they said you should, or you were an apostate: a fake, a “LARPer”, a Not-Real-Pagan.

Or whatever.

Hmm.

Well, that didn’t square very well with my theory of personal theology in Paganism.

Caveat: It may well be that I just happened to come into the Pagan community through the wrong gateway. While there were many wonderful people there, the Church of All Worlds was not a grounded, nor high-integrity affair, fun and wild and experimental as it was*. Later, I was introduced to the Fire Circle community, where reality and integrity had a much more comfortable home.

In 2004 and 2005, I had a series of experiences which soured me on the Pagan community and made me realize just how literally many within it were taking this deity stuff. I heard excuses made for unethical and unacceptable behavior as “the gods’ will”. I saw frankly unbalanced behavior from people defended as inspired by their “gods”.

Finally, it was enough. I quit.

I took off my pentacle necklace, quit going to Pagan events, withdrew from the community, let my altar gather dust. I was through. I wasn’t going to be a part of something so divorced from reality and willing to excuse unethical behavior.

Whatever my future was going to be, it wasn’t going to be that.

But something funny happened about six months later. I was unhappy. I felt disconnected from the world, disconnected from myself. I missed my rituals and observances. I missed gatherings with my friends.

So I started mulling the question: why can’t I have them?

What is a religion, really? And by what rights or reasons did others have the ability to declare my beliefs and practices not to be one?

Good questions.

I spent about a year researching, reading, and thinking about them. The long version of that process is found in the essay I wrote at the end of it, “How I Became an Atheopagan“.

But the upshot is this: religion serves various systems of the human brain, which evolved subsequently to one another: the Reptilian Brain, the Limbic or Mammalian Brain, and the Neocortex or Thinking Brain. The rational or Thinking Brain is not the key driver of human behavior, nor happiness. So simply having a cosmology that conforms to what is most likely to be reality—as determined by the best system we have for determining that, which is the scientific method—is not enough to bring happiness or a sense of fulfillment.

This is why cosmology (what we believe) is only a part—and not the most important part—of a religion. The two other components are values, which tell us what is important and how best to live, and practices, which are the rituals and observances around which a religious community coheres and which provide the religious experience.

Every religion on Earth contains these three components.

Given this, I posited, why can’t you have a religion with a science-based cosmology? So long as you have values and observances as well which form a coherent practice, that’s a religion. Exactly as I had been practicing for more than 20 years.

I wrote the essay. I posted it online. I called the path I had defined, “Atheopaganism”.

I put back on a symbol—not a pentacle this time: too much cultural baggage, too much association with the “occult”. An acorn (since replaced with the Atheopaganism symbol, which I have begun to call a “suntree”).

I cleaned and resurrected my altar, which I began to call a Focus as a confirmation to myself that that is what it is for: not worship, not sacrifice.

And I returned to Pagan practice.

And then something amazing started to happen.

People in the community started coming up to me and confiding, “That’s what I believe, too.”

People started joining the Atheopaganism Facebook page: first in dozens, then in hundreds. Shortly, it became clear that posts and uploading files there was insufficient, and I launched this blog. Other Pagans took notice. Debate and discussion ensued.

I discovered that there were others who were living in nontheist Paganism, too, under names like humanistic Paganism or naturalistic Paganism.

And over and over, as newcomers arrived, I heard this:

Oh, thank goodness! I thought I was the only one.

This makes so much sense to me.

I’m an atheist, and my life has been feeling like it’s missing something. This intrigues me, and I’m going to give it a try.

I’m surrounded by literal theists in my coven. I’m a scientist, and I just can’t. Thank you for articulating what I believe and do.

I finally feel I have found my people.

I feel like I have come home.

It’s been so heartwarming, so confirming to hear these testimonials again and again. What we are building is something that is meeting deep human needs for many people in the world.

Of course, there was blow-back, particularly from devotional polytheists. No surprise: what we believe and do is the antithesis of what they insist Paganism must be.

I started organizing presentations at Pantheacon, the largest indoor gathering of Pagans in North America. Panels on nontheist Paganism were packed to the rafters, year after year.

In 2016, John Halstead published Godless Paganism, an anthology which incorporated several pieces of my writing, including the foreword. The book provided the experience and perspective of dozens of nontheist Pagans and stirred significant ripples in the conversation of the broader Pagan community. We began being recognized as a legitimate sector of the community after about a year of are-they-or-aren’t-they in the blogosphere.

The controversy died down. Except among the diehard fundamentalists, there appeared to be a general acknowledgement that we, too, are a part of that community.

And our numbers just continue to grow. As of this writing, nearly 1,200 people have joined our online community.

In 2017, we held our first Moon Meet gathering, In 2018, we held a second one.

In the meantime, I have devoted myself to publishing extensive resources for Atheopagans and those investigating the path to help them develop their practices: A ritual primer. An event planning guide. And more.

Supporting, encouraging and providing helpful resources for this community has become a significant part of my life.

So here we are: 2018. Like somanyothers, I have come back to Pagan practice in full flower of atheism. Our community continues to grow.

We are a religious path. We’re small, but we’re real, and we’re not going away.

We are living a way of being that integrates reason and religion, that sees to the varied needs of our complex minds without requiring subscription to the imagined as literal truth.

To my mind, that’s a remarkable thing. I find great meaning in my practice and community, and joy in being a part of the greater community as well.

Onward we go!


*I understand there are efforts now underway to correct this, and I applaud them. They are long overdue.

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Walking Our Talk: Modeling a Vision for the Future

As I have written before, Atheopaganism is a forward-looking religious path. We envision a time when humanity lives in balance with the natural systems of the biosphere and when all people are treated fairly and equally in human society.

Those are tall orders, but that’s what a vision is for, right?

Especially in these times, it is clear that we have far to go to approach these visionary goals. And so as we create our “microcosms” of human society in our Pagan circles, it is that much more important that we model for ourselves and others the world we hope to create.

In my experience, Pagans don’t do nearly so well in this regard as they tell themselves they are doing. Just look at the sheer mess left behind after a night of Pagan partying and you see the signs of people who aren’t considering their responsibility for their impact. Pantheacon takes place at a convention hotel that doesn’t even do recycling; I can’t speak to other conventions but imagine they may be similar.

Obviously, this is not an ideal world. Sometimes we would like for practices to be in place when they simply aren’t, and we can’t change this (as with the operation of a hotel). But here are some considerations/aspirations for Atheopagan gatherings so we can emulate to as great a degree as possible the world we are seeking to build.

1)  Anti-discrimination policies and conduct standards. Ensuring that all participants are safe and treated equally, and articulating in writing that bigotry or harassment of any kind are not acceptable at your event is a critically important thing to do. Consent culture is learned, not assumed.

Recently, I published the Atheopagan Event Organizing Guide. In it are sample policies that will set clear expectations for both attendees and organizers.

2)  No disposables. Other than toilet paper, just don’t have them available. Require attendees to bring their own plate, bowl, cup, utensils, napkin and towel, and have some extras available in case someone forgets. Ask that food be brought in reusable containers.

3)  Minimal plastic. Try to minimize the usage of plastic, and certainly do not provide any kinds of trinkets, ID markers or keepsakes that aren’t naturally degradable (paper, wood, natural fiber textile, stone or ferrous metal).

4)  Recycling. Make recycling and minimization of waste a priority for your event, and explain clearly to attendees where they should put recyclables, compostables and landfill garbage. Explain to all attendees that the goal is to minimize landfill.

5)  Sustainable and responsible sourcing. When buying supplies and food, consider where they come from. What is the behavioral profile of that company? How far must the material be transported? Is there a local source?

6)  Carbon footprint. This is a tough one, because every gathering wants as much attendance as possible and particularly for leaders and presenters to come, even if from a far distance. But the truth is that fuel consumption for travel is a tremendous burden on our planet. We have arrived in a time when it is important for us to stay locally as much as possible, and consider alternatives to distance travel whenever feasible.

Here is language I am including in the invitation for an event this summer:

Carbon footprint and climate impact.  This event is intended to be conducted in accordance with sustainability principles to as great a degree as possible. We would love to see you. but if you are considering attending from more than ~100 miles away, please ask yourself, ‘How important is this to me really? Is there some other way I can get my need for this event met without the energy and pollution impact, such as by organizing my own local event or attending something closer by?’ If not, we encourage you to carpool or take transit to our event, and will arrange to pick you up if you do the latter. Just being conscious of the impacts of our actions is an important part of being an Atheopagan.”

7)  Another thing we can do at our events is to incorporate some kind of concrete political action as a part of the event itself. Taking a half-hour to write postcards to elected officials or swing-state voters feels good and can really make a difference.

No one can be “perfect”, and that’s not the point of considering such issues. But all of us can do what we can to minimize our impacts on the Earth, and to develop the habit of thinking about them. Baking this awareness into our culture is a step towards being more connected with our world and our impacts on it: the flip side, one might say, of the reenchantment of the world that Paganism is all about.

May we build our culture with our eyes wide both to the glories and the challenges before us. May our joy and pleasure be leavened by responsibility and right action. And may our communities grow as people who treat one another—and the Sacred Earth—with respect, kindness and consideration.

“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.