Atheism

For this week’s installment of the Pagan Blog Project, I’ve decided to reflect a bit on atheism.

Last week I thought about how our autonomy makes us strong and keeps our community diverse.  An extension of this autonomy is the fact that we can all choose the best way to be Pagan for ourselves.  And more and more regularly, I’m encountering members of the community who have no belief in gods.  There are those that would tell you that to be Pagan requires that one believe in the gods, but frankly, there’s no rulebook for Paganism; there’s no way that one Pagan can tell another that they’re doing it wrong.  The “best” we have is the ability to tell another that they’re not doing it the way that we are.

What’s so wrong about atheism?

Frankly, I’m not sure I understand what’s so bad about atheism.  Granted, there are some atheists out there that bloviate regarding their convictions and attack theists for not agreeing with them, but the forceful sharing of ones convictions (to put it as politely as I can) is certainly not something unique to atheists!

Likely, it’s related to the fact that many theists attribute one’s morality to the specifics of the scriptural texts of their religion.  Which makes it even more troubling that some Pagans find it difficult to accept atheists into our community when they seek to be a part of it considering the general lack of any such scripture in the community.

On the other hand, I can understand why the membership of a specific tradition that requires faith in the gods would find an atheist in their midst troubling.  Consider a tradition rooted in the Delphic Maxims, the first and third of which specifically state that one must follow and worship the gods.  This tradition could rightly claim that atheists need not apply, but on the other hand, it’s doubtful that one would wish to do so.

But, the Pagan community at large has nothing other than prejudice (that I can see) keeping it from embracing those atheists who wish to join us.

Why would an atheist want to be a Pagan?

There’s a lot more in our community than our gods.  The ecological mindset of Pagans–both in reference to ecology as a synonym for environmentalism and as an interdependent and interconnected system–doesn’t require a belief in the gods.  Nor  does an exploration of virtue based on the heroic tales of the ancients.  And, being a minority is hard; some atheists might hang out with Pagans (even if they don’t claim that label for themselves personally) simply because we tend to be more tolerant than others they’ve encountered.

There’s something else, though, that I think may be attractive to the average atheist with respect to our community:  we tend to seek knowledge.  My experience with Pagans is that even the average one of us has a fairly solid grasp on some of the pertinent parts of world history and the interaction of various religions and cultures.  It might not be PhD level knowledge, but that doesn’t matter.  Even those of us who aren’t as knowledgeable generally aren’t willing to live in ignorance of something once we become aware of its existence.

This characteristic of our community seems compatible with the rationality so prized by the average atheist.

The one thing that the average atheist–Pagan or otherwise–would most likely have a problem with is the general lack of skepticism within our community.  Perhaps because we’re so tolerant of others’ beliefs, we have a hard time questioning their own personal gnosis.  I know I have covertly raised an eyebrow at the beliefs of my religious colleagues, but despite my incredulity, I bite my tongue and tell myself that their reality doesn’t have to be my reality and go on with my life.

Sometimes, this is hard to do.  You know you’ve thought that person telling you about the dream they had last night in which the queen of the faeries gave advice on their career or the experience they had with the ghost of their thrice removed grandmother who told them that Zeus had chosen them from Olympus to be extra awesome was a bit of a nut bag.  We’ve all been there.  Similarly, I’m sure some of the things that I hold to be true would like be nutbag-worthy to some atheists.

But, maybe not all of them.

Am I an Atheist?!

Sometimes I wonder.  I don’t have any personal experience with the gods.  I don’t recall ever having one when I was younger and still practicing Judaism either.

The most numinous experience that I recall having was actually during my teens at a Boy Scout summer camp.  Our troop had been assigned to set up in an area named Whispering Pines.  The camping spot itself was not too remarkable but go behind the tents and through a bit of brush and you find an area similar to the photo at the right.

The trees were tall, thin.  They swayed lightly in the breeze, their flexibility keeping them strong.  And, I realized that the name of the camp wasn’t simply a pretty turn of phrase:  the trees did seem to whisper as the wind moved through their needles.

I remember a sense of closeness with the space around me.  Knowing what I do now with respect to genius loci, I wonder what could be learned if I could return there today.

Regardless, nothing in my experience requires that the gods be present or even that they exist.  So why, then, do I believe in them?  Primarily, it’s because I trust the experiences that others.  These experiences have been described to me in such a way that I’m convinced that others have encountered something greater, wiser, and transcendent even if I have not.

Is that enough?  I’m not actually sure.  Sometimes it is, but other times I wonder what I’ve missed lacking that dimension to my spiritual practice.  Regardless, I remain a bit uncomfortable with my choice of theism when I have only the anecdotal evidence of others to go on.  I’m not ready, yet, to call myself an atheist, but I’m open to the possibility that one day I might.

 

  • VikingRunnerGirl

    I think you make some good calls here on what the appeal of Paganism can be to atheists. They’re all points that work for me – the ecological focus, the learning focus. And one key point with the minority issue is that it is very, very difficult to find any atheist organization (if organization is what you want) that will acknowledge that maybe you want something spiritually to replace the space the gods left behind.

    A philosopher named Eric Steinhart wrote a whole series of blog posts on Camels with Hammers about how Wicca could potentially be a substitute religion/philosophy for non-theists. Essentially he described a variant of Humanistic Paganism – and was absolutely shredded in the comments by atheists who think that anything associated with religion in any way, up to and including the letter ‘R’, should be vilified and burned and all those who disagree with them should be drummed out of The Atheist Universe.

    So, yeah, atheists as a group really aren’t the people to look for if you’re wanting to indulge what, for lack of a better term, you’re going to label “spirituality”, in spite of the fact that there ARE plenty of non-theists looking for a spiritual home, as you’re finding yourself.

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      Thank you for stopping by!

      It depends on the atheists (as always).

      People out there like Chris Stedman of the Harvard Humanist Community just wrote the book Fatheist (http://faitheistbook.com/) discussing his activism with various religions and I’ve hung out with him and others of that community a few times without any real dissonance. Hell, he organized a trip to a local gurdwara here in Massachusetts following the Oak Creek, WI shooting this past August.

      Sure, the so-called “new atheists” (e.g. Sam Harris) tend to take a dim view on anyone who has spiritual claims, but sometimes I wonder if their just the loudest voice of the moment.

  • mayarend

    Hello there!

    I just met your blog and I love it so far. First post I read was this one and then I knew it was for me hehe

    I just very recently (like, this month or so) finally settled on the Atheist Pagan label. I’ve used Pagan before and I’ve used Atheist more recently. But neither of those really fit, so Atheist Pagan is a good mix.

    I don’t believe in God or Gods. I simply don’t believe an entity or entities watching over us, above us, exist.

    But I believe the Universe is an organized thing, with rules and regulations and many things we can’t explain (yet. I believe science, one day, will be able to measure and explain everything, but millenia may pass before that). I just don’t believe they are part of some being’s plan.

    I believe witchcraft to use some of those unexplained things – energies and properties we don’t fully understand – and I believe tarot and some other things too. I’m Brazilian and we have a deep influence of African religions here, but all adapted to the Christian faith. My family has been taught to “benzer” which would be something like “bless the wounds away” for generations. Always as Christians, always in the name of the Christian God, which is ironic, since I see the obvious pagan ritual there. My family is originally germanic, so I’m guessing this goes way back, maybe centuries or millenia ago… Also, it works. Not as placebo, it simply works.

    I can predict the weather, I’m highly sensitive about that, and… I feel like I work with the wind. At least HERE I can say it… Most people would call me crazy. But I feel like I can work the wind and that it appeals to me, I love thunderstorms and I love anything “strong weather” related, it recharges me, works with something within me.

    So how could I just call myself an atheist and leave it at that? It doesn’t work. So that’s how I got to the Atheist Pagan “label”.

    I’m not a theist. But I’m not a skeptical either. And that’s that :P

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      Welcome! I’m glad that you found your way here. I think I’m very much like you except that I’ve decided, at least for the moment, to continue to believe in the gods despite my lac of personal evidence.

      On a different blog, someone tossed the term neo-agnostic my way meaning someone who doubts that there are gods, but sort of wants them to be there. Perhaps it’ll only be a matter of time before I decide to leave them behind, but I’m not there yet.

      Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoy my other posts as well!

  • http://twitter.com/WrenDoloro Wren

    Very interesting post!

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      Thank you!

  • Sherpa T

    Wow, something in this really stuck me. I love how you said that even though you have not been touched or experienced the gods, you are still willing to believe in them. I belong to a group that has several people who spend a lot of time with the Norse gods and some even have conversations with certain ones who speak to them.
    I have yet to encounter a god strong enough to really speak to me. Currently I found that I need to spend some time with Hecate, but she hasn’t spoken directly to me yet.
    My husband is an Atheist and it is nice that my friends still want him to come to our rituals, he feels that his energy would “Block” what we do, and everyone just sort of laughs at him and says – come anyway – we like you.
    So, thank you for this insight, I may have to make him read your post. (BTW- I Love the blog title- I have a friend who my husband calls the techno witch as she is very computer/gadget driven and he like to tease that I am too. I build computers sometimes, and help my friends with their gadgets- yeah I fit that term.)

  • Hannah

    Main problem with atheists is, they are closed minded to everything. I have met a lot of atheists and not one has had any time or respect for spiritual beliefs because they’re ‘factually inaccurate’. They have no interest or respect for learning about belief and even if they claim they do, they go in blinkered. Appropriating religion but taking away its spiritual aspects is downright offensive of atheists.