A Pagan Opportunity to Reflect

Recently, John Beckett wrote on “A Pagan Crisis of Faith“.

Beckett’s central premise in this piece is that from time to time, and especially when confronted with extreme circumstances, some theistic Pagans will come to a point where they question their beliefs in gods. However, he argues, what they should really be doing is doubling down on their credulity, seeing such major life events as reflecting the actions of gods or “fae” or what have you in the way of invisible, magical entities.

Unsurprisingly, I have a different take.

I think that when crises arise in life, it is an opportunity for us to shed comforting illusions: to realize that there are no Big Powers pulling strings around us nor “guiding” us to some apparently desired outcome.

Terrible things happen for no reason but chance. It happens all the time. Good things, too. Any meaning contained in their occurrence is meaning we invent.

Here in the bubble of mostly-safe America, surrounded by safety regulations and generalized domestic security, it is easy to think of Big Dangerous Events as being somehow freighted with meaning. But in other parts of the world—and some here as well, especially where there is poverty—they happen every day. They are simply the “normal” within which one must attempt to survive.

So my recommendation to those experiencing a Pagan crisis of faith is: step back and think. Really consider whether it makes any sense that a godlike being would make the effort to crash a tree into your car, or whether it’s more likely that it was a confluence of weather and soft soil. Does it really seem reasonable, when you look at the world around you, to believe that there are powerful invisible beings constantly meddling in terrestrial affairs? Is there any real basis for that other than occasional coincidences and the felt sense that “something is going on”…and is that enough basis for you to build a worldview around?

Many Atheopagans (and other nontheist Pagans) have come to that crisis point and have realized that what they had believed really didn’t hold up for them. They’re still practicing Pagans today, though many have taken a break to reconsider their beliefs and rework their practices.

So know that the stakes of this consideration are NOT that you might have to give up a community and way of living to which you have become accustomed and in which you find meaning and joy. You can be a Pagan and not believe in literal gods! Many of us don’t—in fact, some prominent names in the community don’t.

And you don’t even have to give up your gods, really. Gods can be powerful metaphors: ways to “put a face” on phenomena and elements of human experience so we may more easily interact with them in a ritual context. I personally do not use them, but many Atheopagans do. They just understand that what they are doing is a sort of “let’s-pretend” for purposes of religious practice, rather than a literal belief.

A “crisis of faith” is an opportunity to reflect. An opportunity to take stock and contemplate what you really think is going on in this world, and thereby to grow.

Now, if after such contemplation, you continue to subscribe to the idea of an “Otherworld” and the gods and other supernatural creatures that supposedly inhabit it, well: it’s your life, so more power to you.

But at least take the time to consider other points of view. Rather than simply doubling down on what Beckett calls a “magical, animist, polytheist, experience-based worldview”, really contemplate what the available evidence and simple logic point towards. Occam’s Razor is your friend!

And if you find yourself no longer subscribing to what you once did, we welcome you with open arms! Join our Facebook group and become a part of developing Atheopaganism as a rich, meaningful Pagan path.

Returning to a Space of Our Own

Recently, Niki Whiting at Patheos advised her readers not to read the work of those who are “mean”, and specifically named me as one such writer.

It’s not hard to see why. A core truth of Atheopaganism clashes with a treasured precept of the hard theist. We don’t believe in literal gods. They do. So in the very articulation of my beliefs, I am—if you see it that way—”mean” to those whose are opposite.

And do I cushion my position much, so as not to offend?

No, I really don’t.

I don’t, because I don’t see many examples of those in the theist camp making the slightest accommodation in the other direction. In fact, when I suggested a simple way that a more open-minded means of expression might lead to better relations between the a- and the theists, John Beckett wrote an extensive argument for why he shouldn’t do so. There is no room in the talk of theists for the possibility that their gods don’t exist, but writers like me are apparently expected to take pains to qualify our language, to not speak definitively about gods’ fictitiousness, because this is characterized (or taken) as disrespect for those who believe in them.

I can respect people I think are flat wrong about important things. But just because I respect them doesn’t make me think any less that they are flat wrong about important things, and if that’s going to be taken as dismissive or insulting, we probably aren’t going to have much of a relationship.

To be mean in my book is to be sadistic: to wish to inflict pain on others. My motivation is far removed from that; it is simply to speak the truth as I see it. That is not a welcome perspective to those who must, at their core, at least sometimes wonder if their beliefs are erroneous. It cannot be comfortable to hear someone say out loud what that inner, niggling voice has been murmuring.

But is that my intent? Hardly. Nor is it to recruit, entice, or beset. I write my observations for those who get something out of reading them, and as a means of expressing my thoughts as Atheopaganism develops in my life. Based on site traffic and feedback on Facebook and elsewhere, there clearly are such folk, and I’m grateful to have their ear and their input.

This blog is for them: for the folks out there who are genuinely adopting parts or the entirety of Atheopaganism as I have described it into their own practices and principles.

It’s certainly not intended to offend anyone. But it’s also not going to bend over backwards to avoid offending someone. And for Whiting, that is apparently a bridge too far.

I’ve always said that what is true–or most likely to be true–really matters to me. For some others, that does not appear to be as high a priority as is validation of their personal interpretations of their experiences. And I can see how it may seem “mean” to question–and, indeed, simply to disbelieve–what is held so close by those who interpret their experiences as involving gods, but I frankly can’t help it: I don’t believe them. I see much more likely explanations that do not involve such extraordinary mechanisms.

Does that mean I “want to be right”?

Damned straight it does.

I want not to get it wrong. I want not to be fooled by my perceptions. I want the foibles of my brain not to paint a cosmological picture that isn’t likely to be what is, in this Universe, the actual case, because in my awe for the Universe I want to know that I am revering what actually is there. So when it comes to extraordinary claims, I’m completely open to evidence, but not, I’m sorry, to simply accepting “I felt it so I know it’s true.” It may be real to you, but that doesn’t mean it is real in any absolute sense, and that is an important distinction in my mind, whether or not it is in yours.

But here is where Whiting and I can agree: if it undermines your happiness, don’t do it. If your orientation to cosmology values skeptical critical thinking less than it does personal experience, you probably aren’t going to get much out of reading atheist Pagan material.

So don’t do it. Go forth and enjoy life.

Unless, that is, you’re unsure. Or curious. And able to tolerate reading ideas that clash completely with your own.

This latest arrival comes after a furious back-and-forth between John Halstead and John Beckett, which I have linked to and commented on previously. And a part of why I stepped back from further comment on this exchange is that I sense now that, like it or not, the Pagan community at large is recognizing that yes, in fact, there are atheist Pagans. In fact, that there are quite a few of them, and always have been.

While some continue to argue that such a combination is impossible and/or should not be considered a part of the Pagan community, I don’t hear those arguments very much any more. We had tremendous support at Pantheacon this year for Atheopagan events and a panel on atheism/agnosticism in Paganism. For better or for worse, we are here. We are a part of the landscape.

So rather than butt heads with theists in an endlessly recursive and largely unproductive exchange of mutually exclusive views, perhaps the thing now is for me to go back for awhile to addressing topics inside the wheelhouse of Atheopaganism, and not bothering with mixing it up in the context of the broader Pagan blogosphere. It’s enough to me to simply note that if someone thinks the Earth is sacred, they’re probably pretty cool overall, even if I can’t get behind their supernatural (or transnatural, or invisible-dimensional) understanding of their world.

There is a reason why evangelical and progressive Christians need completely different forums, groups and communities. They may both be putatively Christian, but their definitions of what that means vary so widely that they share only a limited set of shared experiences in common. It may be the same with the Atheopagans and the polytheists.

We have our own communities to weave and our own knitting to do as our path evolves. I’m going to focus on that for the next while. You’re welcome to come along if you wish; if not, there’s a great big Internet out there for you.

And I wish you the best. Really.