Atheism, Paganism, and Agreeing to Disagree

I’ve been thinking lately about the crossroads where Atheopaganism lives: straddling lines between atheism, Paganism, and activism.

In the atheistic world, skepticism is a given. There, when you propose something—a policy, a factual claim, a strategic approach to problem solving—it is assumed that you will have both material evidence and cogent argumentation to back your position. Others are welcomed to interrogate, prod at, and refute the position as best they are able. This is a process by which we can arrive at a position which is more likely to be correct than if we did not so critique the initial proposition. The process is central to the operation of science and has been deeply successful in identifying everything that we have learned with high degrees of certainly over the past five centuries or so.

In the Pagan community, it is generally considered to be bad form to interrogate the beliefs of others. It would be rude to ask someone why they believed in a given goddess, for example, and whether they had considered the possibility that the experiences which led to that belief had arisen from some other cause. Daring to suggest that supposed gods aren’t literal beings, for example—or that we should at least be up for discussing whether or not they are—is rejected by some as “non-Pagan”, or even “scientism”.

And yet Atheopaganism exists with a foot in each of these worlds. It is no surprise that we sometimes cause uneasiness in each of them.

When I communicate in atheist forums, on the other hand, I often get strong pushback from people who dismiss the desire for rituals and holiday observances as pointless and superstitious. Even after I pony up the science that shows the human benefits of these religious practices, their value is generally rejected: an example of how confirmation bias is a human characteristic even among those who are working hard not to be subject to such fallacies.

Too much reason for (some of) the Pagans, and too much ritual for (some of) the atheists.

But here’s the thing: I have spent more than 30 years circling with theists. Until the past ten years or so, they mostly haven’t known I was an atheist, but it didn’t make the rituals any less powerful one way or the other. And I stand with them when it comes to freedom of religion, and resistance to discrimination against ANY flavor of Paganism*.

And I have stood with other atheists as they rallied against the cultural discrimination we also suffer, and for rigid separation of church and state, and for science and critical thinking education…and the talismans in my pocket and the symbol around my neck didn’t cause any harm there, either.

Which brings me to that third country Atheopaganism lives in: activism.

I think about the above…and then I think about the vehemence, the vitriol of recrimination and mutual finger-pointing around political issues I see over differences among people who share 90% of values in common. The so-called “circular firing squad”.

The bitterness with which people who are agreed on so many important issues can attack one another is shocking and demoralizing.

It is the viciousness with which Hillary Clinton was attacked by people who agreed with nearly everything she stood for, for example: viciousness not only completely out of proportion to what would have been reasonable, but which was far less intense than the attacks the same people leveled at Donald Trump.

I have no patience for purity politics. No one is pure. No one is perfect.**

The political organizer in me says that we need ALL of us who care enough to act in the coalitions to help achieve goals like progress on climate change and social justice. That to refuse to ally with those we disagree with on one issue drags down the chances of success on many issues.

I have been trying to have conversations about this. They haven’t gone very well. The level of moral outrage displayed by people over points of disagreement clouds the deeper point, which is about all the ways we agree.

At times, I have made common cause in political struggles with people who make me grit my teeth. I’ve done so because my focus was on the goal at hand, rather than on the degree to which my comrades agreed with me on other issues.

And then, I have gone right out and fought those same people on the issues where we disagree…in exactly the same way I have celebrated theist rituals with theists, and then gone on to advocate for Atheopaganism as a valid Pagan path.

All of these issues are intensely personal. They have to do with whether or not we feel personally included, safe, respected, seen, listened to, acknowledged. As such, they stir powerful emotions.

And disagreements about some of them are at root unresolvable. People of good will can—and do— differ on them. In some cases, differences are simply about education: if everyone were operating under the same understanding of the facts, they would probably draw similar conclusions. But in some cases, they are genuine differences of opinion.

Plenty of good people are theists. Plenty of them are atheists.

If—as we say—diversity is a value in our communities, we will have to find ways to coexist alongside those with whom we disagree.

Atheopagans, as a minority within a minority culture, do it all the time.

I hope that in our passion for positions that define difference between us, we do not leap to the presumption that those who mostly agree with us but disagree on a particular issue—or who find themselves caught in the middle—are our enemies.

Being ‘right” is intoxicating. We’re all somewhat prone to its charms. We all want to be in the “correct” moral position.

But there is far more that should unite us than should divide us. And I hope we can remember this as we debate those issues where we disagree.


 

*With the notable exception of racist “folkish” Heathenism, for which I will not lift any finger save my middle ones. There are positions that are just too extreme to make common cause with.

**I don’t have any patience for those who make no effort on behalf of the causes that define our times, either. They might be in our community, but I don’t consider those “allies”—I consider them dead weight. Particularly when they have high visibility and large audiences and could, if they wished, use them for good instead of mere self-promotion.

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Children of the Earth Tribe, WAKE UP

Back in September of 2015, I asked, is Atheopaganism political?

Go ahead, read it. It lays out why I believe that any religious path that is truly about this Earth—any path of integritymust, in days such as these, be one of activism.

Since, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider the Pagan community generally through this lens. And I am sorry to say that I have been sorely disappointed.

Most of the visible voices, most of the “Big Name Pagans”, are anything but political. At best, they may voice the occasional political opinion in passing, but mostly they’re about rituals and magical tools and cultural traditions and “mysteries”.

Oh, and selling stuff. Books, tools, tokens, clothes, workshops, statues. Stuff.

There are exceptions, of course. But they’re kinda rare. And it turns out that nearly all of them are women, people of color, and people who are LGBTQ. Those folks know what time it is. They know this is not the time to be silent.

A year ago, two dozen writers left the Pagan Channel at Patheos.com, the foremost religious discussion site on the Internet. They left because the site had been purchased by companies run by far-right Christian evangelicals associated with racist and anti-LGBT hate groups, and the terms of the writers’ new contract prevented them from criticizing this (or anything else about Patheos). And it allowed Patheos to edit or censor anything it found objectionable in the writing of its writers.

Oh, and it banned them from using too much dirty language.

There’s a lot to be said about this. A year on, John Beckett (who stayed at Patheos) has one very strong view.  John Halstead (who is definitely in the activist camp) has quite another.

Tempers are hot and each side probably has scored a point or two. But I want to focus on one, very specific thing: Beckett’s triumphalism over having not been censored over the past year.

To which I say: that’s the problem, John

In a whole year, you haven’t said one damned thing of substance that brought out the Patreon ownership with a red pen. And looking over your posts of the last year, it is quite clear that you never tried.

Why aren’t you pushing that boundary? Why aren’t you challenging on the issues that are most important today?

You’re a white middle class straight cis man with a megaphone. YOU don’t have to contend with what the owners of Patheos are promoting all over the world. And in your privilege, it apparently doesn’t even cross your mind to speak out on behalf of your fellows who aren’t so privileged, does it?

No. You just keep on going on about gods and fairies and rituals, in a very comfortable bubble, and rationalize your service of the likes of the Family Research Council as “getting out your message”.

As if the world weren’t burning.

As if people aren’t being murdered and deported and abused and shunned for being different.

That’s not “proof” that Patheos is benign. It’s evidence that, willfully or not, you are complicit in their agenda. Which includes the agendas of their owners.

(Beckett’s just an example. Others can look in the mirror and decide for themselves whether or not this critique applies.)

So I look at all this, and the content of the vast substance of Pagan content being published online every day, and I say NO: Modern Paganism isn’t political.

But it bloody well should be.

Aren’t we supposed to be about a better world? Haven’t we “resacralized” living on Earth? Aren’t we about diversity and tolerance?

Paganism isn’t just playing dress-up and being “witchy cool” and holding hands in circles and partying. And it isn’t JUST religious practices.

It’s about walking responsibly in the world that gave rise to us, and in service to our people…all of them.

I hate saying these things. They’re grouchy and depressing and they are the farthest thing from honey (vs. vinegar). I’d much rather devote time to my own activism and my own religious practices and culture-building.

But for Earth’s sake, “Children of the Earth Tribe”, will you wake up?

Everything is not “just going to be okay”. Tragedies are happening every day, and enormous ones are looming.

If you’re not actively out there fighting for what is right, please.

Wake up.

Do something.

 

(To read many of the bloggers who left Patheos as a matter of conscience, visit paganbloggers.com)

“Harm None” Ain’t Good Enough: A Call to Action

There has always been something about the Wiccan Rede that has bothered me, and I’ve finally figured out what it is.

The Wiccan Rede, for those new to the community or coming into Atheopaganism from atheist/skeptic circles, is the only widely (though far from universally) adopted moral precept in the Pagan community. It reads: “An (if) it harm none, do what thou wilt.”

To start with, the Ye-Olde-Tyme-Englande language rubs me the wrong way, using “an” for “if”, and calling it a “rede” instead of a “rule”. The Wiccan Rede is a 20th century creation, not bloody Shakespeare.

But that’s a small point.

The primary bone I have to pick with the Rede is that unlike many of the world’s religions, the only widely embraced ethic of Paganism doesn’t contain any expectation that its followers should be promulgators of good. Only that we shouldn’t do harm.

If you’re not hurting anyone, do what you like, says the Wiccan Rede. Echoes Crowley’s famous Thelemite creed, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Hate to say it, folks, but that’s pretty weak tea. It’s selfish and it contains not a whisper of a suggestion that we should be responsible to any but ourselves. It is a teenager’s libertarian fantasy, not a formula for a respectful and healthy community nor a better, healthier world.

People sometimes wonder why Pagans don’t have charities to support the environment or the disadvantaged. I would suggest that this is at least a contributing factor: because of an excessive emphasis on individual liberty to the exclusion of social responsibility.

Now, Paganism is a broad spectrum of practices and paths. Many do not adopt the Rede as a guideline for their own behavior. But I have not yet heard of a major flavor of Paganism that formally expects its adherents to, say, feed the hungry or house the homeless or even actively work to resist and reverse humanity’s degradation of the biosphere. Those who choose to act thus do so not because they are following their religion’s principles, but in spite of the lack of them.

The Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions have one up on us in this vein; particularly, traditions like Quakerism and Sufism and Unitarian Universalism and reform Judaism. Say what you like about them, every day many charities associated with Abrahamic traditions do a great deal of good in relation to some of the ills that confront humanity. (Others do harm, such as to LGBTQ folks, because their values are bigoted. But that’s really beside the point).

Of course, many self-described followers of those religions don’t lift a finger to do what their religions tell them to do for the disadvantaged. But at least they are told that they should. The key takeaway is that despite broad adoption of liberal and tolerant and environmentalist values within the Pagan community, our paths don’t demand anything of us but to try not to hurt anything. Not the faintest whisper of a suggestion that being a good Pagan necessarily means an expectation that we will try to make things better for our fellow humans and our fellow creatures.

Compounding this, I believe, is the propensity on the part of some Pagans to view non-Pagans with condescension. Why would we feel the need to care for “Muggles”, for squares and straights and…worst of all…Christians?

I understand that minorities sometimes compensate for feeling like outsiders and subject to discrimination by expressing similar sentiments about the majority. It’s human, and probably to some degree inevitable.

But we are all here on this Sacred Earth together. As humans, we have responsibility for one another. And our moral precepts should tell us so.

I wrote awhile back on why I believe Atheopaganism is inherently political.  I believe that the times we live in and our values as naturalistic Earth-reverers naturally and inevitably obligate us to do what we can to make our world a better place. To promulgate kindness and environmental responsibility, and to practice it ourselves.

Pagans tend not to want to be told what to do. Even more so than most folks. In fact, many of them are so vehemently opposed to it that the very idea of a community ethic of good works would be viewed as authoritarian and “oppressive”.

To that I say: please look around you, and then step up.

Everyone on this planet has both a social and an environmental impact. If ours is truly a better way, it is not unreasonable that we expect ourselves pro-actively to see our values made manifest in the world, whether that be sexual, racial, ethnic and gender egalitarianism or care for and uplifting of the downtrodden or biological diversity and reduction of pollution.

Let us make the world as we wish for it to be, not merely try to minimize the damage we cause. Let us be seen for how we conduct ourselves in the world, with how we treat the most vulnerable among us. The Abrahamic obsession with what adherents believe is not ours; let us rather assess ourselves on the basis of what we do.

And let us do much, more more than simply try to avoid causing harm. Because in days like these, that is not nearly enough.