Why the Doomsters are Completely Wrong

My friend John Halstead has published Die Early and Often: Being Attis in the  Anthropocene, recently reprinted in Medium. In it, he argues that the job of humanity now is to die gracefully: to accept that extinction is coming and work to leave a legacy that supports the Earth’s further evolution and biodiversity, and the memory of a remarkable and admirable species.

He spices this up with much Neopagan mythological stuff, such as the myth of the Dying God. But that’s in essence what he says.

It’s a thoughtful, well-documented piece, and it’s completely wrong.

It’s wrong for essentially four reasons:

1) It mistakes the very nature of the human organism. We are problem solvers by nature, and problem solvers are not defeatists. John and his fellows are simply selling something no one is going to buy.

Humans are aspirational. They seek betterment as they culturally understand it. What we need to do is to redefine betterment, not to try to abandon it for a graceful acceptance of impending death.

2) It ignores history. About 8,000 years ago at the end of the last major glaciation period, the human species experienced the Neolithic Pinch, in which the population dwindled to as few as 10,000 individuals. Scientists conjecture that this led to our establishment of rituals such as handshaking to enable us to connect with humans outside of our immediate group, as such cooperation was necessary for the species to survive.

But the key point is that under some of the harshest conditions imaginable, we survived. Now there are 7.5 billion of us.

There is no doubt that a serious crash is coming. Industrial capitalism cannot be sustained, and global climate change is increasingly severe and chaotic. The ability to generate food through agriculture is going to be severely curtailed as the weather becomes less and less predictable. Oceans will rise, displacing millions. Hundreds of millions–more likely, billions–will die or have their lives shortened as a direct result of this.

All these things are going to happen.

But humans can live in the Sahara and Gobi deserts. They can live in the Arctic. They can live at extremely high elevations. And they don’t forget what they have learned: instead, they adapt it to new conditions and carry on.

After this crash and societal collapse, there are still going to be humans, and those humans are still going to have some level of technology. It might be the technology of the mid-19th century, more or less, but technology it will be nonetheless. The work before us is to create, model and promulgate the values that will lead to right relationship with the Earth and with one another.

Dolefully digging the grave of humanity is not only premature, it is completely inappropriate. There will be an “after” the crash (which I hope will be a slow deflation rather than a precipitous fall), and humans will be in it.

3) It abandons responsibility, and, in fact, revels in irresponsibility as a part of its message. John has been a big promoter of Michael Moore’s highly slanted, error-laden and deceptive film Planet of the Humans, the subtext of which is that shouldn’t bother with renewable energy sources because they’re not better than fossil fuels and they’re not going to save us. Now, Halstead argues that that isn’t his position, but it is certainly Moore’s, and it is the takeaway from the film.

That’s irresponsible. Doing the work of the dirty energy industry to undermine cleaner energy is an act against the interests of the planet, as well as the future of humanity.

4) It’s psychological projection. John has been an activist, and saw that the form of activism he took part in (mostly mass protest actions) was ineffectual. That’s true: mass protest actions have been decreasingly effective for decades now.

But that isn’t the only kind of activism. And it’s certainly not the most effective kind.

I, too, have been an activist. I worked at it full time for a decade,  organizing grassroots, door-to-door campaigns for policies and candidates and lobbying officials. And I saw major environmental progress accomplished in my local area that I had a direct hand in achieving, despite being outspent and confronted with the bewildered fury of the Powers That Be in my county.

Positive change IS possible.

But if you deny this, then you’re off the hook, right? You’re no longer morally bound to fight for change if you’ve landed in the despairing space of giving up. And if you can get more people to give up, it reinforces your sense of the legitimacy of that position.

More than that, then you get to “know”. You don’t have to sit with the uncertainty of the future in these increasingly turbulent times.

Humans like to know. We fear not knowing.

I understand the attraction of throwing your hands in the air and saying “it can’t be done!”. Such a relief, not to have to try any longer! But it’s a false comfort, and a pernicious one if it spreads.

Defeatism is not a natural, healthy human condition (we also call it “depression”)–it is incumbent upon us not to succumb to its facile lure.

And the facts are on the side of that position. The facts are that renewable energy can and will aid tremendously in the human impact on the atmosphere and biosphere. That humans are tenacious, creative and adaptive creatures. And that it is far better and more natural for humanity to aspire to a thrilling vision of the future despite the challenges than to sag into a premature surrender to those challenges.

The Doomsters are wrong. We deserve a better message than they offer.

Yes, the crisis is here, and it will worsen. But we can help to frame the values and practices of a much healthier vision.

And we Atheopagans have one.





Love in the Time of the Coronavirus

Hello, Atheopagans.

By now, everyone knows about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It’s spreading rapidly and it has killed more than 3,800 people worldwide as of this writing.

It appears to have a mortality rate in excess of 2%. To put that in context, the 1918 “Spanish” (it wasn’t) flu pandemic had a mortality rate of 2%, and it killed 20 million people worldwide.

That’s more than died in World War I.

This is a serious thing, and we need to treat it seriously. You can follow the progress of the virus at the Johns Hopkins University dashboard here.

So please: do as public health officials ask that you will do. If that means staying at home and avoiding gatherings, do that. Wash your hands a lot. If you feel cold or flu-like symptoms, avoid contact with others. If you have a dry cough and a fever, call your doctor and get tested.

I write this because I’m concerned about you. I’m concerned about all of us but I feel a particular kinship and connection with this community, and I want for us to be well.

It’s hard to take a pandemic seriously until people all around are ill or dying. We’re skeptical that way. But this is the real thing. It is going to cause significant economic dislocation and it is killing people.

So again: please do the right thing. Take care of yourself and others. Remember Atheopagan Principle #9: Social responsibility. We’re here for one another and not just ourselves.

Thank you, be well, and good luck.


The Point of Friction

Once upon a time in the mid-80s, few of the Pagans I knew ever even talked about what they believed. We just did rituals together and enjoyed one another’s company. Sure, there were shout-outs to various gods and goddesses in most of the rituals, but those were easily understood as metaphorical (as I did).

When the subject of beliefs did come up, they were all over the map: there were those who believed in everything, from gods and magic and fairies to alien abductions and Atlantis…and then there were those like me who saw our rituals as meaningful but ultimately symbolic and metaphorical practices.

And no one cared. We were friends and co-religionists and we got along fine, theologically speaking. When there was friction, it wasn’t over cosmologies.

But then, over the next ten or fifteen years, the number of us grew…by a LOT. And things changed.

Most of those newcomers were coming from Christianity. And they brought with them a core assumption about religion: that it is about what you believe, rather than your values and what you do.

Now we are in a very different Pagan community than the one I originally entered. Where people actually talk about “Pagan faith”.

And fortune help you if you try to inquire about the basis for such faith. The immediate and vehement response is invariably, “How dare you question my beliefs?”

Um…because I use the scientific method, which is to question everything?

But that really doesn’t fly among believers. Some are deeply insecure about their beliefs, evidently, because even a question about why they believe them or a statement of fact that others may not believe in them provokes many to fly into a rage.

Beliefs are ideas: they are concepts held in the mind and given weight and authority as being truthful through a decision process.

Ideas are fair game for critique and analysis. Anyone who says we have to respect all the ideas of others has never been confronted with someone who thinks they are subhuman and should be exterminated. We do not have to respect the ideas of Nazis and Klansmen, nor of climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers or incels or those panicked about chemtrails.

Within the Pagan community, however, there is a convention: an ethic that expects that we will all nod gravely at one another’s expressions of belief and reports of supernatural experiences, however improbable. That stipulates that it is rude to do otherwise.

Recently, I read an academic paper on how “authority” is conferred upon claims of spiritual experiences in the Neopagan community. You can read it here, but I can save you the trouble: the bottom line is that the community is an echo chamber which amplifies the credibility of claims to some degree because of the social status of the claimant, but mostly because the community itself is unwilling to question such claims.

This is a place where we are going to have to accept that we will chafe with other Pagans, my fellow Atheopagans. There’s really no way around it: ours is a path of analysis and sifting and weighing and testing and doubting; our fellows are instead Believing and trying not to ask any embarrassing questions that call Belief into doubt.

These approaches are diametrically opposed to one another. They cannot be reconciled.

So our solidarity with others under the Pagan umbrella must be the kind of solidarity that brings different political parties into coalition with one another in a parliamentary system: we don’t agree with one another on some profoundly important questions, but we agree to work together on issues of common interest. In this case, such common interest can include advocacy for separation of church and state and freedom of religious practice without fear of oppression or discrimination, opposing racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and other forms of bigotry, fighting abuse within our community, and–in some, but not all cases–we can make common cause around issues such as climate change and anticapitalism.

Recently, I have had interactions on the Reddit subreddit r/paganism (where I am one of the moderators) with theist Pagans who insist that Atheopagans cannot be members of the Pagan community unless they “respect and defend the cosmologies” of theists*. And I’m sorry: that is not a reasonable expectation. Nor do I expect theists to defend my ideas—that’s my job, not theirs.

We must respect theists as people. But it is not reasonable to expect us to respect their ideas. Because ideas, again, are fair game for critique in our world, and we have standards when it comes to ideas. Standards involving verifiable evidence…and the more extraordinary the claim, the more compelling must be the evidence.

There were things about those times back in the 80s that I miss. That lack of theological gatekeeping is certainly one of them.


*I also was told in a Facebook group that being an atheist Pagan is “abnormal”, which literally made me laugh out loud. Since when did “normality” have anything to do with being a Pagan?!