Atheism, Paganism, and Agreeing to Disagree
I’ve been thinking lately about the crossroads where Atheopaganism lives: straddling lines between atheism, Paganism, and activism.
In the atheistic world, skepticism is a given. There, when you propose something—a policy, a factual claim, a strategic approach to problem solving—it is assumed that you will have both material evidence and cogent argumentation to back your position. Others are welcomed to interrogate, prod at, and refute the position as best they are able. This is a process by which we can arrive at a position which is more likely to be correct than if we did not so critique the initial proposition. The process is central to the operation of science and has been deeply successful in identifying everything that we have learned with high degrees of certainly over the past five centuries or so.
In the Pagan community, it is generally considered to be bad form to interrogate the beliefs of others. It would be rude to ask someone why they believed in a given goddess, for example, and whether they had considered the possibility that the experiences which led to that belief had arisen from some other cause. Daring to suggest that supposed gods aren’t literal beings, for example—or that we should at least be up for discussing whether or not they are—is rejected by some as “non-Pagan”, or even “scientism”.
And yet Atheopaganism exists with a foot in each of these worlds. It is no surprise that we sometimes cause uneasiness in each of them.
When I communicate in atheist forums, on the other hand, I often get strong pushback from people who dismiss the desire for rituals and holiday observances as pointless and superstitious. Even after I pony up the science that shows the human benefits of these religious practices, their value is generally rejected: an example of how confirmation bias is a human characteristic even among those who are working hard not to be subject to such fallacies.
Too much reason for (some of) the Pagans, and too much ritual for (some of) the atheists.
But here’s the thing: I have spent more than 30 years circling with theists. Until the past ten years or so, they mostly haven’t known I was an atheist, but it didn’t make the rituals any less powerful one way or the other. And I stand with them when it comes to freedom of religion, and resistance to discrimination against ANY flavor of Paganism*.
And I have stood with other atheists as they rallied against the cultural discrimination we also suffer, and for rigid separation of church and state, and for science and critical thinking education…and the talismans in my pocket and the symbol around my neck didn’t cause any harm there, either.
Which brings me to that third country Atheopaganism lives in: activism.
I think about the above…and then I think about the vehemence, the vitriol of recrimination and mutual finger-pointing around political issues I see over differences among people who share 90% of values in common. The so-called “circular firing squad”.
The bitterness with which people who are agreed on so many important issues can attack one another is shocking and demoralizing.
It is the viciousness with which Hillary Clinton was attacked by people who agreed with nearly everything she stood for, for example: viciousness not only completely out of proportion to what would have been reasonable, but which was far less intense than the attacks the same people leveled at Donald Trump.
I have no patience for purity politics. No one is pure. No one is perfect.**
The political organizer in me says that we need ALL of us who care enough to act in the coalitions to help achieve goals like progress on climate change and social justice. That to refuse to ally with those we disagree with on one issue drags down the chances of success on many issues.
I have been trying to have conversations about this. They haven’t gone very well. The level of moral outrage displayed by people over points of disagreement clouds the deeper point, which is about all the ways we agree.
At times, I have made common cause in political struggles with people who make me grit my teeth. I’ve done so because my focus was on the goal at hand, rather than on the degree to which my comrades agreed with me on other issues.
And then, I have gone right out and fought those same people on the issues where we disagree…in exactly the same way I have celebrated theist rituals with theists, and then gone on to advocate for Atheopaganism as a valid Pagan path.
All of these issues are intensely personal. They have to do with whether or not we feel personally included, safe, respected, seen, listened to, acknowledged. As such, they stir powerful emotions.
And disagreements about some of them are at root unresolvable. People of good will can—and do— differ on them. In some cases, differences are simply about education: if everyone were operating under the same understanding of the facts, they would probably draw similar conclusions. But in some cases, they are genuine differences of opinion.
Plenty of good people are theists. Plenty of them are atheists.
If—as we say—diversity is a value in our communities, we will have to find ways to coexist alongside those with whom we disagree.
Atheopagans, as a minority within a minority culture, do it all the time.
I hope that in our passion for positions that define difference between us, we do not leap to the presumption that those who mostly agree with us but disagree on a particular issue—or who find themselves caught in the middle—are our enemies.
Being ‘right” is intoxicating. We’re all somewhat prone to its charms. We all want to be in the “correct” moral position.
But there is far more that should unite us than should divide us. And I hope we can remember this as we debate those issues where we disagree.
*With the notable exception of racist “folkish” Heathenism, for which I will not lift any finger save my middle ones. There are positions that are just too extreme to make common cause with.
**I don’t have any patience for those who make no effort on behalf of the causes that define our times, either. They might be in our community, but I don’t consider those “allies”—I consider them dead weight. Particularly when they have high visibility and large audiences and could, if they wished, use them for good instead of mere self-promotion.
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Dragon, you’ve put your finger- as usual- on the critical issue facing us, as we approach the coming, vitally important, elections: can we come together in support of the “best” people, or will we, once again, insist on a “perfection” test that will render us impotent in the face of the Right’s certainty?
Hilary Clinton’s loss, in 2016, was one of the most demoralizing experiences of my life, and not just because of what that loss allowed to happen. I seem to see us shaping up to continue that self-defeating behavior this year, as the “radical” and “moderate” branches of the Democratic Party spar for control of the narrative. My fear is that, once again, that will be the story: that we will scream accusations at one another, while our enemies (and the enemies of our country’s precious ideals) laugh at us and encourage our self-destruction in the many ways they can.
I’ll be speaking out in any way I can, and I appreciate your voice in this vitally important conversation. Gandhi told us to not let the fact that we can’t do everything, keep us from doing something. Speaking reason, when and where we can is something we can do. Thanks for doing it.
I have a GF who is a pagan and I’m an atheist. Lest we forget, the word “pagan” was a catch-all bin for anything outside the Judeo-Christian (and presumably Muslim) bubble. Naturally, atheists and witches alike got relegated to this label. While some pagans have rituals and odd spiritual beliefs, I see them as not unlike atheists who go to Sunday services at their local UU congregation because humans tend to be ritualistic and social in the first place. But with pagans, it’s much more fun, because they’re very accepting, for the most part, and non-judgmental. As my GF puts it, “We like to eat and we like to fuck.” It’s all about enjoying our very brief lives to the fullest.
Yes…and also to contributing to a better world, as I’ve written elsewhere on the blog. Thanks for your comment!