Reflections on the FFRF Conference 2018

So…the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference was…interesting.

It’s a great organization. Lobbying and legal work to prevent religious incursion into governmental and public spaces. Very important stuff.

I got the sense that most of the attendees felt a deep relief at being in a place where they could admit their atheism. And that seemed to be the end-all-and be-all of the conference’s message: we’re atheists, and that’s good.

Presenters were stellar (Salman Rushdie!) And their points about the deep wrong of theocracy and enforced religiosity–even to the tragic murders and forcible exilings of nonreligious people in the Islamic world–were powerful.

That said, it seemed so passive: people sitting in chairs, listening.

I couldn’t help but compare to Pantheacon, with its interactive workshops and participatory rituals, its parties and laughter.

The Freethought (atheist) community is good at thinking. It’s good at being rational and thoughtful and liberal-minded. At being serious.

But it’s not very good at creating community.

The Pagan community writ large often isn’t very good at thinking, frankly. It draws conclusions about the nature of reality based on wishful thinking, confirmation bias and purely subjective experience, and then doesn’t interrogate those conclusions, choosing instead to protect and defend them.

But it is great at creating shared love. At bringing people together in a sense of broadly shared values and causes.

Here, we’re working to wed those strengths: to create rich spiritual practices rooted in life-affirming values, contextualized in a solidly reality-based understanding of the nature of the Universe.

It’s quite strange, having a foot in each world, viewed a little askance by both. But as I experience each, I can tell that each has something powerful and essential to offer.

Thank you for being a part of our collective efforts to bring them together.

 

Thanks to anonymous donors for the opportunity to attend the 2018 Freedom From Religion Foundation conference!

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Woodland Dreaming: Missing Ancient Ways

I’m back from Pantheacon, and had a wonderful festival again. I was involved in three conference offerings—a ritual for activists (“Arming the Earth Warriors”), a mixer for non-theists, and the annual ritual by the Spark Collective, of which I sit on the Core group—and all were well-attended and received. Our non-theist ritual had nearly twice as many attendees as did last year, so things are growing.

As for the conference itself, it was a flurry of reconnecting with friends I rarely get to see, late-night parties (followed by early-morning work shifts), resultant sleep deprivation and diligent efforts to make sure I remained fed, hydrated and grounded. It’s an otherworldly environment where there is always a lot going on, and there is no possible way to be everywhere you would like to be at any given time.

I’m glad to be on staff at Pantheacon, which allows me to attend and have a room for free in exchange for hours of labor, and to be a part of producing it for the greater community. People come from all over the world to attend.

There used to be another gathering produced by the same people who put on Pantheacon. It was an outdoor festival that took place in the summer, and it was called Ancient Ways. I found myself thinking about it this weekend.

Ancient Ways had, in many ways, a similar format to Pantheacon: there were a schedule of workshops held in various gathering places, some large scheduled rituals, and an area where vendors set up pavilions to sell their wares.

That said, the atmosphere was completely different. Attendees camped in tents,  throughout a broad meadow or in the mixed oak/bay laurel/madrone woods surrounding it. A central building housed a space for workshops, a commercial kitchen and space where those who needed indoor accommodations could stay. And there were hot and warm pools for swimming and lounging, trails with magnificent vistas of the California coastal mountains, showers and bathrooms with flush toilets. It was a beautiful place, and it was clothing optional, so if you wished you could truly be out under the sun as Nature produced you.

All these places are gone or radically changed. Harbin Hot Springs, the venue, burned in the Valley fire that ravaged Lake County in 2016. It is rebuilding, but it will not be the same.

But that’s not why Ancient Ways is no longer held. It shut down long before that, with declining attendance even as Pantheacon, at an urban convention hotel, continued to grow. Ancient Ways ran from 1983 to 2008, and then, it was over.

What this says about the Pagan community is…complex. I believe that a part of what killed Ancient Ways was simply that many habitual attendees were aging. They were no longer comfortable camping on the ground, or they needed a place to plug in C-PAP machines, or the long windy drive to Harbin became too much for them. And what I have observed is that overall, Pagans—to their credit—have fewer children than non-Pagans, so a “replacement population” wasn’t really coming up.

The organizers, too, were getting older. They might not have wanted to camp, either. Or maybe it just didn’t make enough money to seem worth it.

But oh, to walk naked under a full moon, with the shadows of the trees dappling the ground! To loll in the warm water with friends, murmuring and laughing. To dance around a ritual fire in the wild, and not around electric candles in a hotel ballroom.

To my knowledge, there is no longer a Pagan festival on the West Coast in a natural setting which accommodates 300-500 people, as did Ancient Ways. We are in fire country, and it is exceedingly difficult to find a place where you can safely have a bonfire in California summer. The closest thing I have found is Ignite, a delightful Fire Circle community event, in July in the Santa Cruz mountains. Its capacity is about 75 attendees. (If you have a chance, I strongly urge you to join us for this joyous, meaningful, beautiful gathering.)

But Ancient Ways rituals were awe-inspiring. The sheer number of people involved in the rituals made for a primordial power, lit by the dancing flames, our feet in the good Earth’s dirt, tree branches arching into the light at the periphery. Together in our diversity, in our tribal sameness, under the winking stars.

It felt like what Paganism is supposed to be.

I miss it.

Come Join Us at Pantheacon!

For the fourth year in a row, Atheopagan events will take place at Pantheacon, the largest indoor gathering of Pagans in the United States. Pantheacon 2018 will be held February 16-19, at the Doubletree convention hotel in San Jose, California.

Pantheacon is an adventure: there is wide-ranging content on all sorts of Pagan paths, and the attendees include many memorable, wonderful, and colorful folks. Much of the material isn’t really germane to Atheopaganism, but I always find useful and thought-provoking presentations to attend, and the experience of seeing in person friends I rarely get to experience other than online is a real treat.

This year, I am involved in three offerings at Pantheacon. They are:

  • Arming the Earth Warriors: An Activists’ Ritual. This ritual is for those who are actively working on issues of environmental and social justice concerns, to help them in their efforts.  1:30 pm Friday the 16th, in the Silicon Valley Room.
  • Non-Theist Pagan Mixer. Immediately after the ritual will be an informal gathering for non-theist Pagans and those curious about non-theist Paganism. Come by, have a glass of wine and a snack, and enjoy great conversation! 3:30 pm Friday the 16th, in the Fire Family Suite, Room 241.
  • Spark Collective Ritual. This annual offering is always a favorite. I serve on the Core committee of the Spark Collective; their ritual format is deity-free and based in the Fire Circle Tradition11 pm Saturday the 17th, Fir Room.

Pantheacon is an opportunity to meet new friends, hang out with old ones, learn about the very disparate paths of Pagans from throughout the world, and have a great time! I hope to see and/or meet many of you there this year!

If you are at Pantheacon and looking for me, most of the time other than at the events above I will be working in the Green Room, which is where presenters go to check in. Come find me!