Talking with Atheists Who Dismiss Your Atheopagan Practice

Existing in both the atheist world and in the Pagan, Atheopagans have the unique “good fortune” of fielding criticism from extreme elements of both.

I’ve written before about Pagan fundamentalists who dismiss our religion as “not real Paganism. ” Today, we take a look at the atheist community’s counterpart: the so-called “anti-theists”.

A vocal subset of atheists, the anti-theists start with the position that there are no literal gods. So far, so good.

But…

From there, many of them overreach, arguing not only that theism is destructive and irrational, but that all religion and spirituality are fraudulent, pointless and harmful behaviors that humanity would be better off without.

Anti-theists can be found throughout the Internet, where they gleefully set to arguing with theists, and also include authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.

They contend that faith-based belief is inherently dangerous and destructive: that it supplants critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, and therefore makes people malleable, controllable, and susceptible to rationalization of selfish, destructive and cruel acts in the name of their beliefs.

Honestly, I don’t disagree with them about any of that, either. Credulity in unlikely phenomena such as gods and spirits apropos of nothing more than “faith” or personal experiences is strong lubricant on the slippery slope to a fantasied worldview at best…and fanaticism in relation to that worldview at worst.

But in their broad-brush declarations, anti-theists also posit that all religions are inherently destructive. No matter what they do or do not demand of one in the way of belief.

And that simply isn’t true.

In my experience, anti-theists more often than not present as angry people. Sometimes they are angry about abusive behavior they experienced in religions they have left behind; sometimes they are angry that reason and science are not the primary drivers of decision making in this world, and at the many negatives, past and present, which can be laid at the feet of the major organized religions, particularly in the West.

Those are reasonable grounds to be angry.

But the problem with anger is that it tends to encourage black-and-white thinking. It leads to communication styles that inevitably result in polarization. And it tends not to consider special cases in the sweeping assessment it makes of the target of its anger.

I don’t think any student of history can deny that the major Abrahamic religions have caused a lot of negative impacts.

I’m certainly not going to dispute it. The “religions of the Book” encourage subscription to cruel ideas such as “original sin”, the threat of an afterlife of everlasting torment, hatred of LGBTQ people, subjugation of women and the idea that only believers can be “chosen” or “saved”.

But does that mean that Zen Buddhism is pernicious? Or Jainism? Taoism? Wicca?

Or Atheopaganism?

Hardly.*

 

My concern with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins et al is that in their broad-brush demonization of religion, they make two fundamental errors:

  1. They ignore that there are religious traditions which do not have the negative impacts caused by the Abrahamic monotheisms; and
  2. They do not in any way address religious paths the beliefs of which are consistent with our scientific understanding of the Universe.

These are circular and mutually reinforcing. “What about religions that are peaceful, or which aren’t filled with expectation of faith in highly improbable events and realities?”, one might ask.

Well, those aren’t religions according to my definition, replies the anti-theist.

It’s a straw man argument: All religions involve faith in the supernatural, goes the claim, and are therefore irrational and harmful. A religious tradition that doesn’t require such faith?

That’s not really a religion, so my argument still holds, says the anti-theist. Who will often then go on to atheist-splain that such religions are philosophies, or cultural traditions…anything but religions.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So as I see it, the fundamental problems with the anti-theist argument are that:

  1. There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a religion in the first place, so the narrow definition asserted by the anti-theists is simply an opinion. It is not a fact;
  2. There are demonstrably religious traditions which require no supernatural belief, including our own; and
  3. There are religious traditions which do not have violent, bigoted or xenophobic values and are without history of the kinds of destructive impacts that can so easily be ascribed to the Abrahamic religions.

Among those equality-and-peace-valued religions, there happens to be the bulk of modern Neo-Paganism.

So…how do you talk to an anti-theist?

Well, it’s hard. In my experience, when confronted with anything labeled “religion” or “spirituality”, a significant portion of anti-theists simply leap into insults or sweeping characterizations. There’s not much one can do with that.

But if someone is willing to have an actual conversation, start by granting the places where you agree.

We can agree that science is the best system we have for determining what is likely to be true, and that, therefore, we don’t have persuasive grounds for believing in gods, spirits or souls.

We can agree that the decline of faith and the rise of the “Nones” is a good thing.

We can agree that the big monotheisms have been disastrous for the planet and for millions of people throughout the world.

We can agree that extremists of every stripe are a serious problem and that faith-based belief makes it easier for people to follow ideas which would fall to pieces if addressed with reason.

This establishes a common value basis for the discussion. The most vigorous arguments of anti-theists are things we can mostly agree with.

And then, ask them where the social harm has been from religions like Zen Buddhism or Quakerism. Emphasize that a single example is proof that the problem isn’t “religion”: it’s certain kinds of religion. Religions which dictate that one must believe in things for which there is little or no evidence. Religions which require following rules the implementation of which lead to cruelty or violence or bigotry. Religions that identify outsiders as objects of hatred, or fear, or pity, or contempt, or which demand that they must be converted in order to be “saved”. Religions which define gender roles that assert dominance of men over women, and hatred for gay people. Religions that are humorless and can’t laugh at themselves.

Those are the problem, and on that we can agree.

But where, we can ask, is the harm in someone following a religious path that hews to the cosmology of science, and encourages kindness and happiness? That celebrates the wonder of life as a precious gift? That builds community around those values and that perspective?

That’s the key question: where is the harm in religious practices that aren’t rooted in faith-based belief and lousy values?

If you can get to that question, I think you can start to move an anti-theist away from their absolutist thinking. You can help them to become open to the possibility that something like Atheopaganism can exist and have value for its practitioners.

And that, really, is all we can ask for.


 

*Further, is anti-theists’ analysis of the problem of violent and repressive religious extremism—from which the most egregious of negative impacts of problematic religions stem—accurate at all? Is that problem really about religion, or is it about toxic masculinity…given that the overwhelming majority of such extremists are men? (As, interestingly enough, are the bulk of vocal anti-theists online and in print.)

If not for religious frames, would not such angry, fanatical men settle on others, such as political philosophies?

The Khmer Rouge weren’t religious, after all. They were atheists.

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Atheopaganism and the Future

For thousands of years, since the very advent of human existence, there has been an evolving trajectory of religious history in Western societies.

The story passes from the earliest animism and ancestor worship to the rise of belief in gods, the consolidation of authoritarian power under monotheisms, and the complete domination of Western societies by Christianity. It continues through the Enlightenment, the steady gains of science shattering the cosmological monopoly of the Abrahamic monotheisms, the increasing tension between orthodoxy and individuality splintering these monotheisms into thousands of sects, and finally, most recently, to the rise of the Nones: those who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation at all, which is well established in most of the rest of the developed world and advancing quickly in the United States.

There is an arc there: a vector. It tells a story of steadily increasing individual choice about religious belief and expression, and as a result, steadily decreasing subscription to old religious systems that clash with both modern values and humanity’s growing body of accumulated knowledge.

Recently in the Pagan blogosphere, there has been discussion of whether or not Paganism is dying, or whether it deserves to do so. Personally, I think much of this is a tempest in a crockpot. Pagan institutions don’t seem to be doing very well, but that seems to me to be more a reflection of the fact that most of us don’t do well with institutions, not of some more dire “death” in progress.

However, I will say this: that arc is still ongoing. The general trend towards individuation and modernization of spiritual practice continues.

Despite the overall pattern, there are backlashes, of course: eddies in the current of history. The extremes of the evangelical right wing in the US, for example, seem to me clearly to be the death throes of a belief system that is on the wane. And I suspect that the rise of the devotional polytheists in Paganism is something similar: a hardening of insistence in the face of available evidence that wished-for supernatural beings are, in fact, real persons, as well as a strategy for insisting that the  recently constituted phenomenon of modern Paganism is “serious religion” like (Abrahamic) others…and not some lightweight, risible trifle.

Some, I’m sure, will howl with anger at these suggestions. But I truly believe they describe what is happening. Maybe I’m wrong.

But looking backward to imagined golden eras or long-extinct societies and hoping to reconstruct their values and practices in a modern context doesn’t strike me as making much sense when compared with starting from where we are now, with the knowledge and tools and modern values we now possess, and charting a course forward that embraces and is informed by them. And it seems to me that more and more people are drawing the same conclusion.

I should be clear here: I do not see nontheist Paganism as in competition with theism. I think theism is on its way out all on its own. I don’t in any way want to rush that process, and if people find meaning and happiness in theism, good for them. But a generation from now, if I had to put money on it, I would bet there will be proportionately fewer of them than there are now.

And there will be more nontheists of every stripe, including Pagans.

As far as I can see, the trajectory of human history bends towards disbelief in that for which there is only disputable and ephemeral evidence. This is why the evangelical right in the U.S. is making war on science education: because the only way their worldview can survive is in an ignorant population.

Since the advent of science, tension has only grown between knowledge and belief. Science has steadily claimed more and more territory from the supernatural, leaving an ever-smaller realm claimed for the domain of gods and spirits.

And not once in all that time has the discovered explanation for the cause of a phenomenon proved to be supernatural. Not once has gods or spirits or magic turned out to be the actual reason why something happens in our Universe.

Science brings us knowledge, cures our diseases, explores the Universe, builds our technology, catalogues the wonders of our planet and others. It is even revealing to us the ways in which religious experiences are created in the brain.

Religion, as it has been couched by those who insist on Belief?

Well, not so much.

What religion excels at is creating community, inculcating values, and creating a sense of meaning in life, a feeling of being connected to that which is greater and Sacred. At inspiring works of beauty. At fostering the deep sense of joy and presence and holiness that effective rituals can bring.

And this is why I believe nontheist Paganism, including Atheopaganism, to be so very important. Because it settles the long-standing conflict between science and religion, acknowledging the very real human importance of the latter while in no way denying the power of the former to identify, measure and model all the phenomena of the Universe.

Atheopaganism is post-Belief religion. It is evidence-based spirituality rooted in real-world, positive, life-affirming values. It gives us what religion is good at giving us, and avoids trying to do what science can clearly do better.

I believe it is in broad strokes what succeeding generations will practice in growing numbers. It is what will give meaning and build community for people who have left behind the ideas of gods and magic.

I don’t know if I believe we will ever move out in significant numbers to other planets, or to the stars. But if we do, I’d bet we will celebrate the life-giving wonders of the worlds where we live with joy. I’d bet we do it in circles, as we have since at least the domestication of fire.

And I’d bet that while we may celebrate ancestors and heroes as a part of this, we will have left gods far behind. For we will know that this Universe is wonder enough without them.

We’re building something, folks. Something with staying power and potential. Credulity in gods is dying out, but the need for what religion provides—meaning, community, awe, reverence, a sense of connectedness to Something Larger—is inherent in the human organism.

We’re onto something here. And I am committed to continuing to work to foster this tiny flame as it catches, spreads, and burns ever brighter.

Why is Naturalism Radical?

One of the hottest points of contention between Atheopagans and both theists and hard-antitheist atheists has to do with naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophical position which holds that there is nothing which is not of the physical Universe: that there is nothing which is supernatural, and that such claimed supernatural phenomena as gods, spirits, souls, ghosts, and magic are fictitious.

Theists dispute this out of hand, of course. It makes sense that nontheist Pagans have friction with theists over this point.

But adamant antitheists like David Dennett and Richard Dawkins have conflict with it, too–because they insist that if you are a naturalistic tradition, you’re not really a religion.

This is frankly silly. The only reason that we assume you must believe in the supernatural in order to be religious is because our society unthinkingly adopts the paradigm of religious traditions for whom Belief is a Big Big Deal.

Think about it. If you were going to create a religion today*, there is no way you would start from the standpoint that much of what science tells us is untrue and that instead, fantastical and completely unverifiable anecdotes are the true accounting of the nature of the Universe.

The only reason such anecdotes and beliefs are sewn into the fabric of Bronze Age religions is because they didn’t know any better back then. They were grasping for answers and they made up stories to fit their cultural values and what little they could verify for themselves.

Clearly, cultural inertia is a thing.

I grow frustrated with the likes of Dawkins and Dennett because their arguments against Religion writ large are always REALLY arguments against supernaturalism.

But religion doesn’t have to be supernaturalistic. So their arguments “against religion”—entire books’ worth—come down to straw man fallacies.

Why is it considered so wild an idea that religion need not contain a supernatural component? The only answer I have is that it is because the religions we see around us have not been doing it that way. For centuries.

The insistence that Belief in that which requires Faith is a necessary prerequisite for a religious tradition is basically a monotheistic holdover from the Abrahamic religions, in my opinion. We’ve been steeping in the assumptions of the Judeo-Christian worldview for so long we can’t even see how they have stained us.

Religion isn’t just what you believe about the Universe. It’s also about your values, and your morals, and your religious practices and observances.

And that really isn’t such a radical idea.

 

*And if you’re an Atheopagan, you actually are, by the way.