Unpopular Ideas

On this day in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years later, he would publish “On the Origin of Species”, which pretty well blew the doors off the scientific world, outraged the contemporary religious culture, and established the key scientific foundation of the field of biology for all time.

Darwin knew what he was doing. He sat on “Origin” for years, aware that the core implication of his work—that no God was necessary to explain the diversity of life on Earth—would bring him a deluge of hatred and ridicule. He was right.

159 years on, Christian fundamentalists still rail against Darwin’s discovery. Their entire worldview is threatened by his simple suggestion that a far simpler and more elegant mechanic is responsible for the diversification of life on Earth. Not to mention by the fact that this mechanic—natural selection—has been demonstrated over and over to be, yes, the actual explanation for speciation.

Atheopagans know something about being the bearers of unpopular ideas. In both the atheist and Pagan communities, we’re viewed somewhat askance, either because of our religious practices or because we aren’t religious (as in, credulous in gods) enough.

But what if what we are about is actually the more elegant answer to long-posed questions, just as Darwin’s theory was?

What if reconciling the spiritual and the scientific really is a matter of understanding religion as not about the nature of the Universe, but the nature of us, as humans? If it is our needs, as evolved through the development of our brains, that are fed by religious behavior, and this has nothing to do with what is “out there” in the Cosmos?

What if we can meet those needs while contemplating the Universe as it truly is: dispassionate and godless?

As the proportion of non-believers continues to rise, these are going to be increasingly important questions. We have something to offer those non-believers: practices verified by science to be beneficial in their lives, to help them to build community and to feel connected to the greater whole of Nature and the Cosmos. Principles with which to live lives of integrity. And thoughtful celebration of the magnificent Universe through a lens of both joyful embrace and critical analysis.

Theism is waning—in the developed world, at least, and precipitously in the Americas. There is a great deal that Paganism has to offer, but if it comes bound up with theism, it will increasingly find fewer and fewer prospective takers.

So take heart, Atheopagans, when you get grief for your beliefs and practices.

Darwin was on the right track. So are we.

Happy birthday, Charles.

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On the Other Hand…(A Love Letter)

So, I’ve been a little hard on the Pagan community lately.

I’ve decried abuses and hierarchieslack of political engagement, and the leftovers of the sexual culture of the 1960s that still thrive in many corners of it.

Those things are true, in my opinion, and I stand by them.

So why, one might ask, do I continue to be a part of a community of people who I find so problematic?

Well, let me tell you: because it’s wonderful.

In all my experience, no cohort of people has ever been so smart, interesting, creative, unique and, by and large, genuinely good-hearted. Weird, yes—but isn’t that just a synonym for creative?

Despite blind spots, Pagans are generally kind and well-meaning, and wish the best for the Earth and their fellow humans. They are fiercely independent and egalitarian (sometimes to a fault). And the vast majority of them are adamantly opposed to bigotry and injustice.

They are masters of arts, like brewing and distilling, leathercraft, weaving, jewelry making, sewing. They are musicians and poets. They throw a great party, and many of them know how to create a powerful, life-transforming ritual.

Being a part of the Pagan community adds LIFE to my life. Life lived large, out loud, with unashamed exuberance. Life filled with rich flavors and sensuous textures, life full of music and dancing. Life of exploration and adventure.

Life the way I always hoped life could be before I found them.

Does it drive me crazy with its frequent dysfunction? Certainly.

Does it sometimes disappoint me with its too-human failings to live up to the vision of what it could be? Of course.

But when I withdrew from the Pagan community in 2005, following some very dysfunctional experiences, I found quickly that my life had become pale and wan. The color had simply run out of it.

Yes, there was the richness of the natural world. And as I began exploring my thoughts and researching the nature of religion (the explorations which would lead to my publication of the “How I Became an Atheopagan” essay), I certainly savored the richness of Nature.

But we are social apes, we humans. We need one another. And every social group I found myself in after leaving the Pagan community seemed so constrained, so denatured. So straight.

And maybe it’s just because I’m a weirdo, too. But the culture of suburban white middle-class America not only bores me senseless, it fills me with a kind of panic. A desperate desire to escape. I can play the game for awhile, but it’s not where I want to live.

No. Give me the woolly musky randy brilliance of a full-on human in contact with the complexity of this world, someone who thinks and feels and knows they are an animal. Give me people who laugh loudly and cry bitterly, who wring the joy from living.

For truly, they are my people. They are blessed.

Blessed

For my people—you know who you are

I am among the blessed.

I am of the kind who leaves the glaring tube, remembering

And goes to watch the moon rise silver through the trees

Breathing purple and chill, stinging pine.  I am

Among the blessed:  I know the acacia, the first daffodil,

The irises unsheathing cream and violet labia in the green wet of May.

I tune for the new music on the radio:  I turn it up.

I am among the blessed:  I drink wine by firelight, clothes rank with smoke,

Bright silver twisted through my lobes.  I know secrets;

They are tattooed on my body where the sleeves can cover them,

They read

Blessed, and only if we are lucky enough, you and I, courageous enough

To shed our clothes together will you read them.  Seeing scarlet leaves drift down,

Perhaps, with ice around the moon, or the steel bones of the oaks against Orion,

Knowing we are among the blessed, that we miss nothing, that we will eat this life

Like a chocolate mango, like Beethoven ice cream,

Moaning our joy with each sweet bite.

We Are All Connected: On Atheopagan Counseling

We are all connected: to each other, biologically,
to the Earth, chemically,
to the rest of the Universe atomically.
—Neil deGrasse Tyson

So, I’ve written about our responsibility to the Earth. About how being who we are—Atheopagans—implies a necessary requirement that we stand up, in whatever great and small ways we can, for a better world.

And I’ve written about Atheopaganism as a path to greater happiness: an individual path of growth and wisdom. A way to open into the joy of the magnificent Universe, into celebrating the extraordinary beauty of noble, flawed, gorgeous humanity.

And those are true things.

But there is a point between the global and the individual: the social. The role of a person in a culture, in a society, in a community.

In a circle of friends.

You see, the Neil deGrasse Tyson quote above is a wonderful, inspiring statement, but it’s also insufficient. We are connected with the Earth ecologically, not just chemically. And we are connected with one another socially: as communal animals who need to belong and to feel loved and supported.

Which brings me to Terence Ward’s excellent post up at the Wild Hunt,”The Limits of Ministry”, about the question of Pagan counseling.

Is that a thing? Is it something our communities should expect from us? Or is that just an Abrahamic-religion hangover, leaving our only real responsibilities as our own ritual and activist work?

Waaaaaall…this is going to shock y’all, but: I have an opinion.

I believe that being an Atheopagan is about being the fullest, wisest, kindest, most complete, most empowered, most considered, most alive person you can be.

That includes fulfilling responsibilities, such as to the broader world…and to your friends and associates. Especially when—as will happen, inevitably—they are in extremis. When they are suffering.

Do we have an obligation to develop the basic skills to be a counselor, a confidante, an advisor?

I say yes: we do. Not because—as Ward’s article suggests—this is a part of the skill set of a “minister”—as we have no clergy—but because we are human. And this is something we should be able to offer to our loved ones and fellows, just because.

When, exactly, did we surrender the right and power to be counsel and support to our fellow humans to a professional and “ministerial” class?

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for professionals. There is. But psychological/ psychiatric professionals aren’t required for many of the challenging situations that just need a friend to have another friend’s back.

Often, all that is required is a willingness to listen. And kindness. And discernment; if someone has a serious psychological issue, it’s important to know when it’s time to encourage them to seek professional help.

Yes, Atheopagans. It’s a serious undertaking, being a complete human, here in the real world, under the cold, uncaring yet so-beautiful stars. It asks a lot of us, but the rewards are so rich.

So let us be kind with one another. Let us learn to support one another.

Beside the individual striving and the efforts at social change, we can make a better world, one interaction at a time.

It is a part of the Joyous Work to cultivate the skills of the listener, the compassion of the wise counsel. Let’s do it for our friends and loved ones, and again—always—to make the world a better place.