Unpopular Ideas

On this day in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years later, he would publish “On the Origin of Species”, which pretty well blew the doors off the scientific world, outraged the contemporary religious culture, and established the key scientific foundation of the field of biology for all time.

Darwin knew what he was doing. He sat on “Origin” for years, aware that the core implication of his work—that no God was necessary to explain the diversity of life on Earth—would bring him a deluge of hatred and ridicule. He was right.

159 years on, Christian fundamentalists still rail against Darwin’s discovery. Their entire worldview is threatened by his simple suggestion that a far simpler and more elegant mechanic is responsible for the diversification of life on Earth. Not to mention by the fact that this mechanic—natural selection—has been demonstrated over and over to be, yes, the actual explanation for speciation.

Atheopagans know something about being the bearers of unpopular ideas. In both the atheist and Pagan communities, we’re viewed somewhat askance, either because of our religious practices or because we aren’t religious (as in, credulous in gods) enough.

But what if what we are about is actually the more elegant answer to long-posed questions, just as Darwin’s theory was?

What if reconciling the spiritual and the scientific really is a matter of understanding religion as not about the nature of the Universe, but the nature of us, as humans? If it is our needs, as evolved through the development of our brains, that are fed by religious behavior, and this has nothing to do with what is “out there” in the Cosmos?

What if we can meet those needs while contemplating the Universe as it truly is: dispassionate and godless?

As the proportion of non-believers continues to rise, these are going to be increasingly important questions. We have something to offer those non-believers: practices verified by science to be beneficial in their lives, to help them to build community and to feel connected to the greater whole of Nature and the Cosmos. Principles with which to live lives of integrity. And thoughtful celebration of the magnificent Universe through a lens of both joyful embrace and critical analysis.

Theism is waning—in the developed world, at least, and precipitously in the Americas. There is a great deal that Paganism has to offer, but if it comes bound up with theism, it will increasingly find fewer and fewer prospective takers.

So take heart, Atheopagans, when you get grief for your beliefs and practices.

Darwin was on the right track. So are we.

Happy birthday, Charles.


Miracles of Reality: Reflections on the Impending Solar Eclipse

It’s spectacular.

Seriously. When I was a little kid, my parents took me to North Carolina to view a total eclipse of the Sun. I couldn’t have been more than six, but I remember those 2-1/2 minutes of totality vividly, right down to the taste of the chives growing in the field where my father set up his camera tripod.

A total eclipse of the sun is one of the great astronomical experiences. Like viewing a comet, except that it only lasts for a couple of minutes.

When totality comes, an eerie darkness falls on the land. Animals are disturbed; I heard dogs howling throughout the total eclipse period. That flaming ring of light in the sky presides over a landscape suddenly alien: not night, not day, but something else.

Yes, it is spectacular.

But when you think about it, phenomena of the Universe that we see every day are just as spectacular…they’re just not as rare. An eclipse is fantastic because we almost never see them.

Is it as marvelous as a truly great sunset? As a slow cascade of fog pouring over a mountain ridge, or the dance of trees in a high wind, or the ripples on a lake as a first sprinkle of rain begins? The scent of fresh rain, or the sound of wind rushing through a forest, or the taste of a wild raspberry, or the feeling of submerging in a natural hot spring?

It’s debatable.

My point is that the miracles of Nature are omnipresent. It is only our busy lives and their commonplace nature that lets us gloss over them, ignore them as too unimportant to give the attention they deserve.

So let’s try a little harder, shall we? The glories of the world and the Cosmos are with us every day.

By all means, revel in the marvels of tomorrow’s solar eclipse. If you’re fortunate enough to see it in totality, you’ll treasure that memory forever. If not, still get out there and use a pinhole projector to see the shadow of the eclipsed moon, or observe directly with appropriate eye protection. I like to use a colander: it casts dozens of little images of the eclipsed sun on the ground or a sheet of paper (and besides, it’s Sacred to the Flying Spaghetti Monster!)

But see if you can take some time, going forward, to notice the many gifts of beauty and strangeness that the world serves up for us all the time. We don’t have to wait for a solar eclipse to roll around to know that we are blessed to live surrounded by miracles, by a Universe characterized by magnificence.

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.