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.

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FACING FORWARD: A talk on nontheist Paganism

This talk was originally delivered at Pantheacon 2019.

Let’s start with a question: what’s happening with religion today?

It’s an amazing time to be involved with religion, because in the developed world, the Abrahamic religions are collapsing. As philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart says, this may be the most exciting time to be studying religion in two thousand years.

According to the Pew Research Center in 2014, fully 24% of Americans now identify as “nones”–having no religious identity. Some of these still describe themselves as “spiritual”, but they do not identify as a part of any religious movement or sect.

Nones are the fastest growing religious sector in the country, growing faster than any religion.

This is a huge leap of change from the prior survey in 2007, in which only 16% of Americans were “nones”. And a corresponding drop in self-identification as Christian is the primary driver of this change.

The numbers are even more remarkable when looking at the young. Only 14% of members of “Generation Z” describe themselves as being religious. Even in evangelical Christian households, only 1 in 3 children will remain an active Christian in adulthood.

Though it might not seem like it yet, Christianity in America is dying. And what is supplanting it, more than anything else, is nonaffiliation with any established religious tradition.

Pew drilled down into the motivations of the “nones” in a 2015 survey, and learned that for fully 60% of them, disagreement with religious teachings was the reason for their status. Other major reasons were not believing in God (or any gods), distrust of religious leaders and institutions, and finding religion irrelevant.

Six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated Americans – adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – say the questioning of religious teachings due to conflict with scientific knowledge is a very important reason for their lack of affiliation. The second-most-common reason is opposition to the positions taken by churches on social and political issues, cited by 49% of respondents (the survey asked about each of the six options separately). Smaller, but still substantial, shares say they dislike religious organizations (41%), don’t believe in God (37%), consider religion irrelevant to them (36%) or dislike religious leaders (34%).

And as I have already mentioned, these figures are even more dramatic among the  young. And they continue an accelerating climb: now, four years later, we can expect them to be even higher than they were in 2015.

Meanwhile, in England, fewer than 14% of the population regularly attends church services. The majority of British citizens describe themselves as secular.

In Europe generally–even in places like Italy and Spain–self-identification as Christian and attendance of church services is plummeting, and among the young, the percentage of people self-identifying as religious is in the teens, while the number who self identify as “no religion”, “spiritual but not religious”, atheistic or agnostic is close to sixty percent, and climbing.

Nontheism is on the move.

But does that mean that the religious impulse is dying?

It most certainly does not.

The findings of the studies I’ve cited show that people are still interested in a variety of religious behaviors and beliefs; they just aren’t interested in the religions of centuries long gone by and their values.

The pattern appears to be that young people are not subscribing to the edicts of religious institutions any longer, but are instead developing their own, individualized spiritualities, drawing from many sources.

And this fact has profound implications for the Pagan community.

At the moment, it may appear to be good news. Paganism and witchcraft are enjoying a bit of a “moment” in popular culture right now, with the “witchy” aesthetic and media programs stimulating a lot of interest, particularly among the young. Tarot cards, crystals, “spells” and other Paganesque interests are on the rise. And Pew’s current estimate is that there may be as many as 1.5 million Pagans and witches in the United States.

But at the same time, what young people clearly do not want at this time is to subscribe to someone else’s program. Traditions with levels of initiation and hierarchical leadership structures are not seeing many new prospects and aren’t likely to fare well in terms of numbers going forward. Traditions that rely on faith in “truth” from ancient sources rather than on what science tells us are similarly unlikely to gain much traction with the youth of today, given that the nones report so clearly that it is religious teaching against such facts as evolution and anthropogenic climate change that is driving them out of Christianity.

Which brings me to nontheist paganism.

Imagine, for a moment, that you were tasked with designing a religion today. You would have to come up with a cosmology, or description of the nature of the Universe; a set of values; and a practice of observances, rituals, holidays, etc.

This, after all, is exactly how every religion has begun: with a conjectural story about the way the world works, a set of moral and ethical principles followers are expected to embrace–often embedded in the teaching stories of the cosmological description–and a set of observances such as holidays and rituals. Most of them have accumulated over time, but some–like Mormonism, for example–were created at a particular time and place, and by one or more particular people.

If I were creating a religious path today–and I am– I would make its cosmology that which science teaches us. I wouldn’t ask people to believe in unlikely and unsupported theories like gods and afterlives and cosmic battles of good versus evil and the like. I would ask them only to believe what we know with high degrees of confidence to be true: that the Universe is made of matter and energy, that everything in it obeys physical laws, that intelligence is found only in complex biological neural nets. I would ask that people think critically and skeptically, and take nothing on faith. I would ask them to see the wonder and majesty of the Cosmos as it is, without gilding the lily with unlikely additions.

I would present as the values of this new religion the moral framework of progressive modernity. Not poisonous old ideas like patriarchy and “original sin” and bigotry and sex phobia and authoritarian, militaristic violence, but equality, love, kindness, justice, and ecological sensibility. I would present no authorities, no priests, no popes, no “high muckity-mucks”.

I would make no claims of presenting “ancient wisdom” or “the Old Ways”, because I understand that just because ideas are tenacious does not mean they are worthy. We don’t use bloodletting in our medical care or rotary telephones any longer because we figured out more effective ways to solve those needs. Likewise with many religious beliefs and practices –indeed, arguably MOST religious beliefs and practices–from long ago. A modern religion will better fit a modern age.

Finally, I would present a practice of joy, meaning, wisdom, reflection, healing…and mirth. Joyous holidays, deep and meaningful rituals, community connection through shared service and commitment to one another’s wellbeing, fun activities. Practices that promote happiness and contribute to the building of a better world, and are individually crafted to be what each particular practitioner needs and wants.The kind of thing the Pagan community is really good at.

That’s what I would do.

In fact, it’s what I did, in crafting the Pagan path of Atheopaganism.

And what I have learned since then is that there are many other Pagans who share my atheism. We’ve been circling with theists for decades, all the while believing that gods are metaphors and archetypes, not real beings. Every week online and every year at Pantheacon, people come up to me to tell me how gratifying it is that they are not alone in not believing in literal gods.

Nontheist paganism is a natural place for the “nones” who nonetheless want traditions, rituals, celebrations and a path of meaning and heart. We can see that as established religions spiral downward, people in the areas where they have largely died are still responding to a religious impulse, but they want to make their own choices about what to believe, what to care about, and what to do in pursuit of religious fulfillment.

Let me be clear: there have been atheistic and agnostic Pagans for as long as there have been Pagans. We were there in ancient Greece, and we were there in the Sixties and Seventies. There are many flavors of nontheist Paganism, such as Humanistic Paganism, Naturalistic Paganism, Atheopaganism and PaGaianism. All are available courses for today’s science-informed, critically thinking “nones” to pursue. And none of them expects or demands that these folk believe in things for which there is little to no evidence.

So…what makes nontheist Paganism truly different from theistic paths?

To start with, we are not subject to crises of faith, because we have no faith. Ours is a cosmology rooted in evidence, analysis and the scientific method. This means we believe in that for which sufficient, corroborated scientific evidence has been identified. Accordingly, we don’t believe in gods or fairies or souls or afterlives or literal magic other than the psychological effects that rituals can have on their participants. We are grounded in life in the material Universe, and satisfied that that is enough.

When it comes to so-called Otherworldly phenomena, our standard is simple: Occam’s Razor, which contends that the simplest explanation for something is the most probable. In every case, it is far more likely that our fallible brains have simply hiccuped than that there are actual invisible beings with supernatural powers.

That said, ours is a path of joy and discovery. The Universe is marvelous, and life offers many opportunity for laughter and pleasure and meaning and happiness! We don’t need the supernatural or Otherworldly in order to have rich inner and outer lives.

Secondly, we have a more extensive and proactive ethical framework than many Pagan paths. For us, “harm none” is a poor ethical yardstick. We believe that we are responsible to actively make the world a better place: to do good. Many Pagan paths are so obsessed with individual liberty and sovereignty that they completely miss out on the fact that we are social beings with responsibility to one another and to the Sacred Earth. Atheopaganism’s Four Sacred Pillars and Thirteen Principles provide an ethical framework for living that is about more than just personal happiness and freedom–it is about service, responsibility and humility as well.

Today’s younger generation is deeply invested in social responsibility, egalitarianism and environmentalism, and not only as held values but as obligations to activism. We share this ethic. For example, the Atheopagan community voted this year to identify an Earth conservation organization as a focus for our charitable giving, and we will do so every year going forward.

Thirdly–at least in my path of Atheopaganism–we actively encourage people to tailor their own observances and Sabbaths to fit the climate where they live and the symbol systems that work for them. We have no arbitrary “tables of correspondences” or prescribed metaphors (or even names!) for the holidays; rather, we develop these ourselves in personally tailored practices, exactly as it appears the “spiritual nones” are seeking.

In the process, we discard a lot of baggage that got baked into modern Paganism as it evolved from roots in the Romantic movement, Freemasonry and Western occultism. Things like the nonexistent “four elements” and discredited pseudosciences like astrology and alchemy.

Facing forward and knowing what we do about up and coming generations, those outdated belief systems are going to make it hard for young newcomers to enter Paganism if they are generally indulged by the community as being “true”. Asking scientifically literate people simply to take such stuff on faith–or to pretend to do so in order to get along–is a non-starter.

I believe that religion is undergoing a fundamental transformation right now, and that if Paganism doesn’t transform with it, it will become yet another historical footnote: a little blip that swelled up for a few decades and then shrank into insignificance, like the Shakers.

But we are fortunate, in that we’re not chained to some ancient book full of errors. We need not draw forward the faith-based mistakes of the past into the present; rather, we now have an opportunity to shape our religious practices and beliefs to be consistent with real, evidence-based human knowledge: with what physics tells us about the Universe, with what biology tells us about Life, and with what psychology tells us about our minds and how to work with them.

Now, this transition doesn’t mean that anyone has to give up what they believe or practice now. All I am saying is that as the next generations take over from this one, it is likely that they are not going to embrace theism at nearly the rate this one does.

The community should be ready for this reality. It’s coming.

In fact, it’s already here.

Looking forward, we can see that secular and atheistic religious practices are on the rise. Movements like Oasis and the Sunday Assembly are catching on all over the world. People are figuring out that they can have the benefits of religion without having to take improbable claims on faith. Nontheist Paganism is here as a place for such folk to land in a creative, positive, life-affirming community and practice.

For more information about Atheopaganism, you can visit our website at atheopaganism.org, where there are extensive materials and resources. We’re also on YouTube and Twitter and GoodReads.

We welcome you if you’re interested, and wish you well if you’re not. In any case, as a part of the larger Pagan community, we’ll see you around the circle!

 

Talking Paganism in the Mainstream

Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, has stirred some Pagan feathers with a column arguing that rather than becoming fully secular, the US may be moving away from a transcendentalist religiosity (such as that of Christianity and Judaism) and towards “paganism”, which he describes as a religion of “this world” as opposed to one focused on some other world or afterlife. He followed up with this piece, further expanding on these ideas and suggesting that the “civic religion” of the United States may be moving away from Christianity and its paradigms.

Douthat is clearly unenthused at the prospect that his theory is correct, but I think he is onto something. He almost puts his finger on what is happening in the US as support for mainstream religion fades.

Meanwhile, there have been Pagan responses. John Beckett makes some good points in the linked piece.

My take on all of this is that Douthat’s analysis is fundamentally flawed. He is extropolating trends that are real, but his worldview prevents him from being able to understand what he is seeing.

Yes, the US is abandoning Christianity, and it’s doing it rapidly. That doesn’t eliminate the religious impulses of Americans–the desire for meaning, sense of place in the Universe, connectedness with others of like mind, tutelary principles, and ritual observances. It just means that they aren’t getting those itches scratched by a tradition created by preliterate Bronze Age goatherds and laden with horrific history and values.

I think that what is happening is that Americans are moving away from old institutional religions that do not work for them, and are gravitating to individual religious practices that are life-affirming, optimistic, kind, inclusive and fun. In the process, they don’t want to have to pretend that they believe a lot of hokum that clearly doesn’t pass rational muster.

With skepticism on the rise, I don’t think that Paganism as it is widely practiced in the community is likely to hit the sweet spot for such folk. It is unlikely that Americans will give up on resurrection from the dead and talking shrubbery to instead subscribe to astrology and literal magic and not one, but thousands of invisible, supernaturally powerful People.

I think, in fact, that the culture is moving directly towards what we Atheopagans are already doing: accepting the cosmology of science as real, and developing practices and observances that bring meaning, connection and principles to a person’s life while understanding that gods, spirits, and magic are found in stories, not reality.

So it’s not a surprise that we are growing rapidly.

Personally, I doubt that the “civic religion” used in public ceremonies is going to become what Douthat calls “pagan”. What I think is more likely is that it will become more diverse, as court rulings affirm that Christian-prayer-only invocations to start public meetings are illegal and public expectation of more inclusiveness grows. And it will transcend the fundamental meanness and judgment of the Christianity it supplants.

These are good things. Watching the trend lines, we can only be encouraged.

As I and others have noted before, Paganism and “witchcraft” are having a moment. That means that throughout the nation, people–particularly young people–are exploring the trappings of Pagan religious practice, at least, and discovering that building an altar, lighting candles, burning incense, etc. feels good. They are discovering experientially what we know to be true: ritual is healthy for us. Presumably, some portion of those who are now in this experimental phase will learn more, read books, etc. Their spirituality will be shaped and informed by core axioms such as I can do this myself–I don’t need someone to do it for me; these symbolic actions feel meaningful and important; my spirituality is mine to create as I see fit.

These are fundamentally Pagan principles in my opinion. While there are Pagan paths that require initiation by more experienced followers and which expect all followers to do things a particular way, these traditions are not seeing the kinds of mounting interest that is showing up for the do-it-yourselfers right now.

We have entered a moment where the follow-your-own-spiritual-path ethos of the Sixties counterculture has reached a tipping point in the mainstream culture with the do-as-religious-leaders-say-you-must model of the Abrahamic religions, and the latter is (finally!) giving way to the former. This is an unmitigated good: religious institutions which lean heavily on obedience are generally authoritarian, bigoted, exploitative and corrupt.

Freedom of religion isn’t just freedom to sign onto some institution’s program of instruction and control; it is freedom truly to seek and find the religious path that fulfills, inspires, moves and motivates the seeker. What we are seeing now is a long-overdue transition to a society in which the spiritual “norm” is shifting from one of institutional obedience to one of individual fulfillment.

This can only be a positive development. Much as the Abrahamic religions wish for us to be “a flock of sheep”, we are not that: we are complex and unique individuals for whom one-size-fits-all conformity is not a natural spiritual state.

Douthat fears that the transcendent religions (those that seek to transcend this world for another “better” one) are being supplanted by immanentism (which holds that this world IS the sacred place). I hope he’s right about that, because it’s a far healthier way of looking at things.

But he misses the larger point that conformity in general is simply on the wane in the religious sphere. The nation is diversifying, and that includes its religious behavior and spirituality. We aren’t going to have a single “civic religion” any more.

Can’t happen quickly enough, if you ask me.