The term ‘Atheopagan’ I first learned from this blog: Atheopaganism, but the basis and principles had been growing in me before I realised there could be a name for it. It was just an idea, a notion of loving mythology and ancient cultures, absorbing the lessons they teach. It was knowing the importance of the planet and power of the cosmos, but seeing it from an entirely scientific and physical- as opposed to supernatural– point of view.
Where it began.
I never needed a creation story to make the universe wonderful. A deity making a universe in seven days made no impact on how immense and superb the stars, black holes and dark matter of the cosmos are. When I stopped believing in the Bible, the Big Bang theory and billions of years of change were more marvellous to be than any myth, no matter how peculiar they were. I grew up Baptist and until ten years old I’m pretty sure I believed the Eden story, but then I made the right kind of friend and had my eyes wedged open, and the ‘faith switch’- as I term it- in my brain was permanently switched off.
Mythology is every religion.
Most of us begin with fairy tales. Stories about supernatural trickery and adventure are just a natural part of growing up. We realise it’s just fantasy, and move past these childish tales. But at age nine I picked up a book on Greek mythology and fell down the gods-and-monsters rabbit hole. Still down there, but the light of that old cliche- ‘Science’- is the light at the top of the tunnel. Before I was twelve I realised that the religion I was raised with was just another mythology and set of fables. I saw the god of the Bible in the same light I saw Zeus and Athena, and thought of the stories of Jericho, Jonah etc. in the same way as the fall of Troy: As myths, possible real events embellished by the storytellers, as all historic events are changed in the minds of those who can’t know the reality because it is lost in time.
My first questioning of God was the age old ‘why does he let bad things happen?’ And that same question has evolved over the years. I’ve had that argument about the ‘loving god’ who slaughters people left and right so many times with my very Christian sister, but it’s liking two brick heads slamming into each other: Never going to be resolved without breaking both of us apart.
Trying to turn the ‘faith switch’ back on.
There’s a thing about high school and Wicca. Students with overflowing creativity and a love of the magical, often with unhappiness hidden deep- turn to this wonderful spells-and-rituals, candles-and-roses New Age spiritualism that offers pretty moments and escape from real life. That was me, anyway. I was never sure if I truly believed in it, because I saw its real origins as a mashup of myths. But I kept going- hiding it from my religious family- because it was the only escape in a hellish home life. But by middle college, even my ‘wish-it-could-be-true’ switch was turned off. It was parts cold logic, cynicism and absolute misery that smashed the switch and cut the wiring. Not sure I even realised that back then. Funny what you realise when you start typing. I tried it all again a couple of years later, but it was too late.
The Dead Years
University failed in two months. Jobless and down deep in depression. Home still hell. Self harm and all that jazz. Had a job for a year and a half, came out a nervous wreck bouncing off the walls with anxiety. Call centres will do that to you. Unemployed, temp jobs failed. I will add, purely to make myself feel better, that I NEVER got in trouble in that time. Still living at home but paying rent with what little benefits I had, I got a little help with groceries from my mum so I never had to ask my dad for help- he definitely couldn’t afford it- I never took drugs, never stole, never made life hell for other people just because I was unhappy. I can hold my head up high on that one. But all the while, the misery took over. I stockpiled pills in those days. Just in case. Contingency plan. And I always wished I’d had the guts to take them. Still hovering over that one, on my bad days. But the stockpile is gone. I can say that much, now.
All that time I lived in my fantasies, including an unrelenting Tolkien LOTR/Silmarillion obsession, reruns of Star Trek and all the distraction that TV and PlayStation could offer. But I forgot my first love. Mythology dropped away, a dead weight in books I never read. So far removed from the magic that my faux-belief in Wicca had provided, whatever spiritualism I had turned cold, an ice-vein in my brain. False fantasy overtook ancient lore, and in the end I hated even that because it could never be real. Real life almost killed me. It still does. Maybe I just read too many fairy tales as a child, never grew up. Never wanted to. No reason to, if you only hope to find the courage to die.
Debate sparks a nerve
Oh, the wonderful years of endless YouTube Atheist vs Theist debate. The flame wars and endless DMCA flagging and comment-shouting matches. Small fry and an electron-sized drop in the great debate ocean but, personally speaking, I found something greater than myself and my own problems to be angry at again. On the atheist side, naturally, but I hope never behaving like an ill-mannered dick to the opposition, even when they were being like that themselves. The point was that for the first time in years, I had something to do, to think about, something outside my little world, an electric shock to the brain and breath of air. In ‘The Bell Jar,’ Plath describes electroshock as someone lifting the lid off the bell jar and letting in a new breeze, instead of sitting in her own sour air inside the jar. That’s what the discovery of debate- real, important worldwide discussion- was: A release from the suffocation of my own little world. I still spent most of my time online and that wasn’t good for me, I’ll admit, but it was a start.
New start, basic but better.
Got an interview. Basic stuff, call centre again. I can do this. No problem. Anxiety levels shot through the roof but, four years later and I’m still here, so must be doing something right, right? If they can deal with my anxiety and tearful moments, I’ve gotta be doing a good job, if they let me teach the newbies? Either way, surrounded by people again. Not alone all the time. Ups and downs, but compared to the dead years, I’ll take this, thank you. I hate it, it’s okay, there’s still a whole lot of hell in my head and outside it. But a salary relieves some worries, and the load is lightened, even if dark thoughts like tiny savages hack at my brain still.
Re-emergence, a pilgrimage by torchlight.
Welcome my old friend fantasy, discoveries of new forms, books and film, sinking back into a genuine enjoyment of the otherworldly and not simply using it to run away. The old myth-loving demi-pagan began to creep out of her ice-cave hiding place, and started to believe again. In the power of fable, anyway. Still science-minded, and turning into a workplace eco-warrior. (“Hey! When are we gonna get proper recycling here?”)
It builds, then someone tells you about a pagan celebration just within travelling distance: Butser Ancient Farm Beltain Festival. You go, you listen to the storyteller weave the webs of King Arthur. You watch the wicker stag-man burn and take the paper wish you tied to its massive leg with it to wherever the wicker men go, and you turn around, and you see the procession of silhouettes up the hill in the fading light. You join the procession, walking only by fiery torches up the ancient hill, sparks flying before and behind you, and the night feels old, and you are not in this time, this life, but in a moment before this place knew what it is to doubt. You arrive home, smelling of wood smoke and the beginnings of summer, and you sleep, happier than you have been in so many years…
And now, the dual-mind reigns.
Somehow, there is balance. You exist in a place where earth and fire are still only and yet more than simple connections of atoms or explosive combustion. There is reverence, but curiosity; awe, but understanding. I will never believe that the thunder is Thor racing across the heavens in his chariot, or that the planet has personality with the name of Gaia. But these tales lend a power to the forces we study today, they tell the story of how we view the universe we live in, the ways we have sought to understand since we first sought the ‘why’ behind the event.
It is a wild, dangerous and infinitely wondrous cosmos we inhabit, and I need no gods to make it so. But I have learned to stand in awe of it all over again- from the scientific immensity of it all, and through the bewildered eyes of the child who sees gods and stories in the stars.
The following poem is entitled, “To Nature”, and it was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late 18th century. Though Coleridge was a devout Christian and transcendentalist who saw Nature as an expression of his God, he greatly revered Nature as the pinnacle of that God’s expression, his words ringing just as poetical and true when we substitute the idea of “Nature” for gods altogether. It closely aligns with what I feel when I, as a part of Nature myself, am immersed in the abundance of Nature’s awesome presence. Besides, I’m not going to deprive myself of beautiful poetry simply because it was penned by a theist.
It may indeed be fantasy when I Essay to draw from all created things Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings; And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie Lessons of love and earnest piety. So let it be; and if the wide world rings In mock of this belief, it brings Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity. So will I build my altar in the fields, And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be, And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee, Thee only God! and thou shalt not despise Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798
I am a tree hugging dirt worshipper and if my saying that that offends anyone, then sorry, not sorry. I know what I mean when I say worship as I understand the word: I mean to venerate, admire, cherish, love, and respect, and to show these emotions outwardly towards the object(s) of my affection, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of the word. In this case it is our beloved Mother Nature which includes our Planet Earth, along with all the beautiful and majestic tall green beings that grow from her soil and all the other things that fly and walk and crawl and slither upon and within her, all those who share our life space here with us. The word “worship” is not peculiar to any god or belief system, and I will not allow it to be. Because it is overused in rituals and belief systems that we do not follow and thus carries with it those strong theist connotations (you might think of them as “charms” put on the word, or you might call it baggage), there may be a tendency to eschew the “w” word altogether and declare it wholly inappropriate for good atheists to use in polite company. As is the same with good poetry however, for myself I think I do not wish to give up a perfectly good word to people with whom I fundamentally differ, simply because I differ with them. Besides, to worship something tangible and real is the better use of the term in my estimation.
It is easier for me just to think that Everything is Sacred. There is nothing profane that did not originate with humans or because of humans. Nature knows no such peculiar distinctions. Only humans took the sacred and divided off a little piece of it to call secular, perhaps because we were ashamed to think there could be any divinity within ourselves, or at least maybe we realised in our hearts there could be no divinity in those acts we performed which led to all that profanity we created. We have allowed this idea of secular to take a bigger and bigger piece until the sacred is only left for us in little bits here and there, whenever we might spare the time from our too busy lives to address it. But secular is only another word. Unlike worship, this word is easy to abandon because it creates what I consider a false dichotomy, and I diligently try not to use it. It is a weasel word too often employed by those who wish to separate themselves from the sacred and put their overlord god on a transcendental throne, whatever profane thing that god may happen to be.
If I say I worship the earth and profess nature as my religion, declaring that “the blue sky my fretted dome shall be”, it means not only that this is entirely sufficient for me, but that in my eyes the beauty and majesty of Nature’s reality surpasses anything that any false invisible gods could ever hope to conjure up. In this view, to attribute it all to the work of some outside deity takes away from the unimaginable wonder and infinite complexity of it somehow. This is what we ourselves are a part of, the dust from whence we came and to which we shall return, the very real swirling energy of the cosmos congealed over unimaginable aeons inside the hearts of stars into minuscule nuggets of matter which are further distilled into human beings by the relentless driving force of this thing we call evolution. If I give up a part of myself and declare it secular then I place an artificial barrier between myself and the source of my being. It then becomes too easy to keep building those barriers until we have mentally divorced ourselves from Nature altogether as something aside and apart, and we are left to see the world in only two colours: as sacred and secular, natural and man-made, immanent and transcendent, good, and perhaps not so good after all.
It is easy to see where this dichotomy might come from. The great religions have claimed that God “Himself” (don’t even get me started) is wholly outside of Nature, governing as a harsh taskmaster ready to throw a temper tantrum and possibly kill things at the slightest insult or infraction of his arbitrary rules (these to be determined individually by whichever of the myriad interpretations you care to buy into). Such a god is only a cardboard cut-out deity, more convenient for lending itself to nefarious, all too human agendas rather than anything real. This hierarchical mode of thinking created a God separate from humankind and separate from all of Nature, with us lowly human beings cursed forever more during one of this God’s tantrums early on, and so as hopeless and unlikely of ever attaining the divine as some naked guy and an old man on a ceiling in Rome are of ever holding hands.
We need not go far; the object of our veneration is all around us in a million places. The blood of gods runs in our veins and goddesses look outward from our ephemeral eyes, even as they internally construct the cells that give us sight. Our “gods” emerge from the ground and reach for the sky, while others soar through that sky on wings made of that same earth. They swim with fins in the seas and the rivers and streams, they move on two legs and four legs and no legs at all. They twinkle and gleam at us at night from so very far away, yet they live right down here in the dirt with the rest of us too, where proper gods should be. When there is nobody left here but us gods, the concept of secular has no more meaning. Ironically, the idea of our own divinity as a part of divine Nature does not make us arrogantly proud, for to whom then shall we boast of our divinity? Rather it gives us great humility and comfort to realise that our own little molecular swirls are but patterns and harmonies within this great Song, this cycle of life, death, and eventual resurrection of our constituent parts into ever new patterns, now and forever more, until the end of time.