The Point of Friction

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?!

An Appreciation

It’s Summer’s End weekend—or Lammas, or Lughansadh, if you prefer—and we are busily baking bread and baking in our sweltering home.

I’ve written before about what this Sabbath means to me, but I’m putting together the final lesson of Atheopaganism U., and I have many feelings now that I thought I’d capture while they’re fresh.

First, I’m struck by how interesting, thoughtful, and committed to their own growth and process this first class of students has been. They come from wildly different backgrounds and circumstances, but all are explorers, curious, looking for how a spiritual practice consistent with their values can best integrate into their lives.

Secondly, this process has been really rewarding. I never meant to set myself up as a “teacher” and I’m really uncomfortable with that sort of framing—especially when I see so many self-described “Pagan teachers” out there huckstering like mad—but it feels more as though with Atheopaganism U., I have entered a shared journey with this cohort of people and we have explored ideas and practices together. I have learned much from them, and felt a warm sense of shared humanity as we moved forward through the course.

Ironically, I also feel grateful to Facebook, because it was their new “mentorship” function for groups that got me to thinking about how best to organize and communicate the material on the Atheopaganism blog: that led to my decision to create a class.

So I feel grateful today, as well as sweaty. What began as an experiment has resulted in new friendships, shared good times, and a vehicle for people who want to dive deeper into Atheopaganism to do so in a structured and supportive manner.

I thank each and every member of the Atheopaganism U. inaugural class, and all the readers and followers and Facebook group members who make up this kind and thoughtful community.

You folks rock!

 

 

 

Towards a Culture of Happiness

Yes, the world presents us with tremendous challenges.

Yes, there are many reasons for sadness and anger and grief.

Yes, there is urgency in addressing crises that threaten our very existence.

So why, then, does Atheopaganism put a premium not only on being activists, but on being happy people? On having lives that are fulfilling adventures of growth and discovery?

Well, I’ll tell you why.

First of all, there is inherent justification in it. As Atheopagans, we know that an afterlife is highly unlikely. This is a one-time, one-way trip for each of us. Surely we should enjoy that journey as much as is reasonably possible. Pleasure is our birthright, as the tenth Atheopagan Principle so explicitly tells us.

But secondly, happy people are effective people. As psychologist Shawn Achor explains in the (very funny) video below, people who are affirmed, engaged, and appreciated are also more motivated, more productive, and perform at a higher level.

Now, Achor’s TED talk is rooted in some pretty capitalistic biases (such as “higher productivity = good”). But for our own purposes, we can learn from what he has to say when it comes to our sacred charge to work to make the world a better place, as articulated in Atheopagan Principles 2, 8, and 9: Reverence for the Earth, Legacy, and Social Responsibility.

Being demoralized and hopeless isn’t conducive to the kind of effort we’re going to need to transform our societies and economies. Wallowing in the horrors of the world not only makes us miserable…it makes us helpless. And that is the farthest thing from what is demanded of us in these times.

No, we shouldn’t be Pollyannas who insist on “always looking on the bright side”. There is horror in the world, and we must confront it. But that doesn’t mean we need to be morose, or dejected. Rather, let us do what we can also to see what there is to be celebrated, and to draw continual joy and uplifting from the beauty of our spectacular world.

Our cultures are deeply prejudiced against this. “The news” is always, overwhelmingly bad news. Good news just isn’t seen as that important.

In my new job, I have been fortunate enough to come into an organization which is just at the beginning point of formally developing systems of leadership and culture which are explicitly about the happiness and affirmation of every person involved with the organization: staff, volunteers and clients. While the culture there has already been kind and compassionate, we have now grown to the point where it is necessary to enshrine such values in our policies and procedures, and in how we manage meetings, performance reviews, and supervision. We are starting to emphasize celebration of accomplishment as much as problem solving.

I’m learning a lot, and I’m glad to have arrived at this transitional moment. The potential feels almost unlimited.

As Atheopagans, I think we are uniquely positioned to embrace happiness and its effectiveness-boosting nature in the course of our religious practices. Each of us has things to be grateful for, things to celebrate, things to be proud of. We don’t have to be shackled by some leftover Abrahamic urge to shy away from tooting our own horns when we deserve it: better to say, “I did that WELL!”, and bask in the good feeling for a moment before moving on with your day. And to tell others what you appreciate about them, as well.

Much has been made about the scale of the challenges before us, and this site’s assessment has been no exception. Yet we are mighty. We are resourceful, strategic, kind, and committed.

Lasting revolutions are joyous ones.  So be of good cheer and stout heart, and go forward into the world, sharing the light we know belongs to all of us.