Effective Atheopagan Leadership: a Curriculum

As I’ve written before, my conceptualization of Atheopaganism as a path and a tradition does not incorporate concepts of degrees of advancement or “clergy”. I just find these to be fraught with too many pitfalls, ranging from “higher-level” persons gatekeeping access to knowledge and training from lower-level ones, to those with “status” potentially being able to leverage that status in unhealthy ways ranging from minor pomposity all the way to harassment and abuse.

The whole idea of “initiations into secrets” is a holdover from secretive organizations like the Masons, with their roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no longer any legitimate reason why secrecy should apply to anything that has to do with religious practice…and in the era of the Internet, frankly, in practical terms it does not.

Atheopaganism doesn’t have “secret lore”. There is no mystical origin story, nor secret handshake, nor Super-Secret Sigil. Everything we are about is in the open and available to anyone interested in it.

Accordingly, I invite each of us to be “clergy”: to practice and learn the skills and knowledge, to confront their own spiritual and personal work. Any of us can step into that role at any time–if you need a credential, I suggest an Atheopagan symbol lapel pin for hospital and hospice visits or to conduct weddings, namings, funerals and other rites of passage*.

All that said, I was talking with a friend who is in the process of helping to retool the “advancement levels” process and criteria for a different Pagan tradition, and I can see how it would be useful to have, at least, a broadly identified “curriculum” describing the skill sets that an Atheopagan ritual and community leader will need and rely on in order to be successful.

So here is an overview of what I think is a minimal knowledge and skill grounding to be a consistently effective Atheopagan community and ritual leader. They are not in any priority order; all are essential.

  • A solid grounding in basic science and critical thinking;
  • Specifically, understanding of the basic systems of the brain and how their functions intersect with Atheopagan theory and practice (described in my founding essay for this path, found here);
  • Local natural history: life cycles of keystone species, ID of major species of trees, plants (including edible and useful plants), fungi and fauna;
  • Basic knowledge about any native cultures which may predate the current dominant culture in the leader’s area (and sensitivity to their concerns, if any, about cultural appropriation);
  • Familiarity with history, culture and mores of both the Freethought and Pagan communities;
  • Familiarity with and commitment to  the Atheopagan Principles and Values, including appropriate social and sexual boundaries;
  • Pastoral peer counseling skills, including understanding of when referral to a professional is indicated and of legal reporting requirements for reports of abuse;
  • Effective communication skills and conflict resolution skills;
  • A commitment to one’s own personal psychological work and evolution;
  • Skill with ritual organization and design per the Ritual Primer, as well as event planning and organizing, including being able to work well with a team;
  • Understanding how to create rituals for Rites of Passage;
  • Adequate competence in the core ritual skills: public speakingsinging, drumming and rhythm, and movement.

Someone with these attributes and skill sets is well-prepared to serve the community as a leader, exemplar and friend. It’s a high bar—I certainly don’t qualify in all areas—but a great one to aim for. 

Time permitting, perhaps at some point I will do videos on some of these. In the meantime, if you’d like to set a course of study for yourself, start with the blog posts linked and then augment with web searches—there’s a lot of stuff out there about most of these topics.

*If you really need a legal credential (as some states and counties require for solemnizing weddings), see this post for ways to be legally ordained.

Rites of Passage #5: Memorials

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about Atheopagan Rites of Passage. In it, I described life milestones that might be celebrated by an Atheopagan, and which we as Atheopagan “clergy” (we’re all clergy, since we have none) might be asked to officiate over.

On reflection, it occured to me that just talking about these rites of passage probably isn’t helpful enough: that having some guidelines for each such rite would be helpful to the community. So here is the final installment in the series: Rites of Passage.

Note that the structure outlined below isn’t a formula; it’s a set of guidelines. Feel free to change any or all of its elements to fit best with the community you are serving.

This rite of passage is structured more like a traditional memorial service because funerals typically have more attendees than can be accommodated in an Atheopagan circle. A smaller and more intimate Atheopagan circle might be conducted around the grave before burial (if the body is to be buried), but this post is focused on the memorial rite.

Of all the life passages described in this series, this is the only one that is guaranteed to all of us: we all die. Some of us do so even before we are born. This rite of passage is meant to comfort the living, to celebrate the dead, and to contextualize living and dying in the great story of Life on Earth.

When planning a memorial or funeral service, there are many considerations: what did the deceased feel were their greatest accomplishments in life? How did their atheist spirituality fit in with the rest of their family? What were their wishes for a memorial, if they left them? If for a stillbirth or miscarriage, what are the messages the parent(s) would like to give to the deceased?

Here is a general outline for an Atheopagan memorial service:

Gathering/Arrival: play music that was loved by the deceased during this period*. It doesn’t have to be sad music! A memorial is a celebration of a life.

Welcoming remarks by you, the officiant. Bid everyone welcome and ask them to be seated. Welcome the family in particular, and if there are any “dignitaries” or special friends to the family, welcome them, too. Have everyone take a deep breath, and blow it out: we are here, in this place today, in the presence of the profound reality that is death. In our sorrow, we come together today to celebrate the life of ________.

Poem or prose reading celebrating the magnificence of existence: This is where the “Pagan” part of the ritual comes in. It is a reminder of the beauty of Life on Earth, in this extraordinary Cosmos. That we live here, surrounded by wonders, for a brief time, and then dissolve back into the Cosmos from which we came.

Musical Interlude: A song or instrumental piece–guests may be invited to sing along if the organizers wish it.  Be sure to provide music sheets to guests if you choose this option.

Eulogy: A prepared speech to memorialize and celebrate the life of the deceased. Usually delivered by a family member or close friend. May include description of the deceased’s Atheopaganism and what it meant to them, and/or any final words the deceased left behind for their community.

Poem or prose reading: Some good nontheist choices are available here.

Officiant invites guests up to share personal memories

Personal Memories: spontaneous memories shared by guests

Musical Interlude: another song or instrumental piece, possibly with guests singing.

Benediction: (Literally, “saying a good word”): a closing statement by the officiant acknowledging the love and respect that has been expressed for the deceased, gratitude for the deceased’s life, with well-wishes for the family and loved ones, an adjuration to embrace our precious lives, and an invitation to the reception following the memorial (or burial service if that is to follow).

Restart gathering music as attendees stand and prepare to leave.



*Or as chosen by the parent(s), if this is a stillbirth or miscarriage memorial

Rites of Passage #4: Elderhood

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about Atheopagan Rites of Passage. In it, I described life milestones that might be celebrated by an Atheopagan, and which we as Atheopagan “clergy” (we’re all clergy, since we have none) might be asked to officiate over.

On reflection, it occured to me that just talking about these rites of passage probably isn’t enough: that having some guidelines for each such rite would be helpful to the community. So here is the fourth installment in the series: Rites of Passage.

The Passage to Elderhood occurs when the subject thereof feels ready to take on that identity. There is no hard and fast rule about an age at which a person is an “elder”; some may never feel that they are.

Personally, I have decided that when I turn 60, it’ll be time for mine.

This Rite is one of acknowledgement. In it, the achievements and efforts of the person along the way to becoming an Elder are recognized and celebrated. There is no “ordeal” involved; the subject has already lived many ordeals and survived them.

The passage into elderhood should be conducted by a circle of friends and family. The organizers may choose to include only those who have attained adulthood, or also to include younger members of the subject’s loved ones.

This ritual should be conducted in a comfortable, convivial environment. Age has privileges! Comfortable seats in a circle about the subject (also comfortably seated, perhaps in a swiveling chair so they can turn to face each speaker) are appropriate. This ritual doesn’t have a single “officiant”, but rather is a shared activity of all participants.

Arrival (Speaker 1): We are here, atop the accumulation of time. In their life, _________ has seen a, b, c, d, e, f… (list historical, cultural and technological changes). We come to this moment now filled with memories, with history. We arrive in this moment rich with hard-won knowledge. We are here, now, on Planet Earth at this very moment, the Now, to celebrate our kindred who is becoming Elder.

Qualities (Speaker 2): May we be imbued with kindness as we do this. May we be filled with courage and honesty. May we remember what is valuable to remember, and share what we have learned. May Love, and Truth, and Beauty, and the Sacred Cosmos inform our words and deeds.

Working: each segment taken by a different speaker.

We acknowledge your struggle: Speaker 3 invites the new Elder to tell a story involving personal emotional challenge.

We acknowledge your work: Speaker 4 invites the new Elder to tell a story about their career and creative efforts.

We acknowledge your wisdom: Speaker 5 states the ways they have seen the new Elder demonstrate wisdom.

We acknowledge the value you have to contribute going forward: All speakers state the ways they see the new Elder contributing to the world and the community. If gifts are to be given, they are given here.

New Elder speaks on their commitments to contribute going forward, their interests, and their passions.

Gratitude: While passing around food and drink, members of the circle express gratitude for the admirable qualities of the new Elder. When it is their turn, the new Elder expresses gratitude for the things in life that have brought it to the point of Elderhood.

Benediction (Speaker 1): We are grateful to the Cosmos for our lives, to the good Earth and human innovation for the longevity which has led us to reach this point in our lives. In the names of Love, and Life, and Beauty, and Truth, we welcome into the world the Elder ___________, our kindred. May we go forth in wisdom and joy!