Once upon a time in the mid-80s, few of the Pagans I knew ever even talked about what they believed. We just did rituals together and enjoyed one another’s company. Sure, there were shout-outs to various gods and goddesses in most of the rituals, but those were easily understood as metaphorical (as I did).
When the subject of beliefs did come up, they were all over the map: there were those who believed in everything, from gods and magic and fairies to alien abductions and Atlantis…and then there were those like me who saw our rituals as meaningful but ultimately symbolic and metaphorical practices.
And no one cared. We were friends and co-religionists and we got along fine, theologically speaking. When there was friction, it wasn’t over cosmologies.
But then, over the next ten or fifteen years, the number of us grew…by a LOT. And things changed.
Most of those newcomers were coming from Christianity. And they brought with them a core assumption about religion: that it is about what you believe, rather than your values and what you do.
Now we are in a very different Pagan community than the one I originally entered. Where people actually talk about “Pagan faith”.
And fortune help you if you try to inquire about the basis for such faith. The immediate and vehement response is invariably, “How dare you question my beliefs?”
Um…because I use the scientific method, which is to question everything?
But that really doesn’t fly among believers. Some are deeply insecure about their beliefs, evidently, because even a question about why they believe them or a statement of fact that others may not believe in them provokes many to fly into a rage.
Beliefs are ideas: they are concepts held in the mind and given weight and authority as being truthful through a decision process.
Ideas are fair game for critique and analysis. Anyone who says we have to respect all the ideas of others has never been confronted with someone who thinks they are subhuman and should be exterminated. We do not have to respect the ideas of Nazis and Klansmen, nor of climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers or incels or those panicked about chemtrails.
Within the Pagan community, however, there is a convention: an ethic that expects that we will all nod gravely at one another’s expressions of belief and reports of supernatural experiences, however improbable. That stipulates that it is rude to do otherwise.
Recently, I read an academic paper on how “authority” is conferred upon claims of spiritual experiences in the Neopagan community. You can read it here, but I can save you the trouble: the bottom line is that the community is an echo chamber which amplifies the credibility of claims to some degree because of the social status of the claimant, but mostly because the community itself is unwilling to question such claims.
This is a place where we are going to have to accept that we will chafe with other Pagans, my fellow Atheopagans. There’s really no way around it: ours is a path of analysis and sifting and weighing and testing and doubting; our fellows are instead Believing and trying not to ask any embarrassing questions that call Belief into doubt.
These approaches are diametrically opposed to one another. They cannot be reconciled.
So our solidarity with others under the Pagan umbrella must be the kind of solidarity that brings different political parties into coalition with one another in a parliamentary system: we don’t agree with one another on some profoundly important questions, but we agree to work together on issues of common interest. In this case, such common interest can include advocacy for separation of church and state and freedom of religious practice without fear of oppression or discrimination, opposing racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and other forms of bigotry, fighting abuse within our community, and–in some, but not all cases–we can make common cause around issues such as climate change and anticapitalism.
Recently, I have had interactions on the Reddit subreddit r/paganism (where I am one of the moderators) with theist Pagans who insist that Atheopagans cannot be members of the Pagan community unless they “respect and defend the cosmologies” of theists*. And I’m sorry: that is not a reasonable expectation. Nor do I expect theists to defend my ideas—that’s my job, not theirs.
We must respect theists as people. But it is not reasonable to expect us to respect their ideas. Because ideas, again, are fair game for critique in our world, and we have standards when it comes to ideas. Standards involving verifiable evidence…and the more extraordinary the claim, the more compelling must be the evidence.
There were things about those times back in the 80s that I miss. That lack of theological gatekeeping is certainly one of them.
*I also was told in a Facebook group that being an atheist Pagan is “abnormal”, which literally made me laugh out loud. Since when did “normality” have anything to do with being a Pagan?!