FACING FORWARD: A talk on nontheist Paganism
This talk was originally delivered at Pantheacon 2019.
Let’s start with a question: what’s happening with religion today?
It’s an amazing time to be involved with religion, because in the developed world, the Abrahamic religions are collapsing. As philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart says, this may be the most exciting time to be studying religion in two thousand years.
According to the Pew Research Center in 2014, fully 24% of Americans now identify as “nones”–having no religious identity. Some of these still describe themselves as “spiritual”, but they do not identify as a part of any religious movement or sect.
Nones are the fastest growing religious sector in the country, growing faster than any religion.
This is a huge leap of change from the prior survey in 2007, in which only 16% of Americans were “nones”. And a corresponding drop in self-identification as Christian is the primary driver of this change.
The numbers are even more remarkable when looking at the young. Only 14% of members of “Generation Z” describe themselves as being religious. Even in evangelical Christian households, only 1 in 3 children will remain an active Christian in adulthood.
Though it might not seem like it yet, Christianity in America is dying. And what is supplanting it, more than anything else, is nonaffiliation with any established religious tradition.
Pew drilled down into the motivations of the “nones” in a 2015 survey, and learned that for fully 60% of them, disagreement with religious teachings was the reason for their status. Other major reasons were not believing in God (or any gods), distrust of religious leaders and institutions, and finding religion irrelevant.
Six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated Americans – adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – say the questioning of religious teachings due to conflict with scientific knowledge is a very important reason for their lack of affiliation. The second-most-common reason is opposition to the positions taken by churches on social and political issues, cited by 49% of respondents (the survey asked about each of the six options separately). Smaller, but still substantial, shares say they dislike religious organizations (41%), don’t believe in God (37%), consider religion irrelevant to them (36%) or dislike religious leaders (34%).
And as I have already mentioned, these figures are even more dramatic among the young. And they continue an accelerating climb: now, four years later, we can expect them to be even higher than they were in 2015.
Meanwhile, in England, fewer than 14% of the population regularly attends church services. The majority of British citizens describe themselves as secular.
In Europe generally–even in places like Italy and Spain–self-identification as Christian and attendance of church services is plummeting, and among the young, the percentage of people self-identifying as religious is in the teens, while the number who self identify as “no religion”, “spiritual but not religious”, atheistic or agnostic is close to sixty percent, and climbing.
Nontheism is on the move.
But does that mean that the religious impulse is dying?
It most certainly does not.
The findings of the studies I’ve cited show that people are still interested in a variety of religious behaviors and beliefs; they just aren’t interested in the religions of centuries long gone by and their values.
The pattern appears to be that young people are not subscribing to the edicts of religious institutions any longer, but are instead developing their own, individualized spiritualities, drawing from many sources.
And this fact has profound implications for the Pagan community.
At the moment, it may appear to be good news. Paganism and witchcraft are enjoying a bit of a “moment” in popular culture right now, with the “witchy” aesthetic and media programs stimulating a lot of interest, particularly among the young. Tarot cards, crystals, “spells” and other Paganesque interests are on the rise. And Pew’s current estimate is that there may be as many as 1.5 million Pagans and witches in the United States.
But at the same time, what young people clearly do not want at this time is to subscribe to someone else’s program. Traditions with levels of initiation and hierarchical leadership structures are not seeing many new prospects and aren’t likely to fare well in terms of numbers going forward. Traditions that rely on faith in “truth” from ancient sources rather than on what science tells us are similarly unlikely to gain much traction with the youth of today, given that the nones report so clearly that it is religious teaching against such facts as evolution and anthropogenic climate change that is driving them out of Christianity.
Which brings me to nontheist paganism.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were tasked with designing a religion today. You would have to come up with a cosmology, or description of the nature of the Universe; a set of values; and a practice of observances, rituals, holidays, etc.
This, after all, is exactly how every religion has begun: with a conjectural story about the way the world works, a set of moral and ethical principles followers are expected to embrace–often embedded in the teaching stories of the cosmological description–and a set of observances such as holidays and rituals. Most of them have accumulated over time, but some–like Mormonism, for example–were created at a particular time and place, and by one or more particular people.
If I were creating a religious path today–and I am– I would make its cosmology that which science teaches us. I wouldn’t ask people to believe in unlikely and unsupported theories like gods and afterlives and cosmic battles of good versus evil and the like. I would ask them only to believe what we know with high degrees of confidence to be true: that the Universe is made of matter and energy, that everything in it obeys physical laws, that intelligence is found only in complex biological neural nets. I would ask that people think critically and skeptically, and take nothing on faith. I would ask them to see the wonder and majesty of the Cosmos as it is, without gilding the lily with unlikely additions.
I would present as the values of this new religion the moral framework of progressive modernity. Not poisonous old ideas like patriarchy and “original sin” and bigotry and sex phobia and authoritarian, militaristic violence, but equality, love, kindness, justice, and ecological sensibility. I would present no authorities, no priests, no popes, no “high muckity-mucks”.
I would make no claims of presenting “ancient wisdom” or “the Old Ways”, because I understand that just because ideas are tenacious does not mean they are worthy. We don’t use bloodletting in our medical care or rotary telephones any longer because we figured out more effective ways to solve those needs. Likewise with many religious beliefs and practices –indeed, arguably MOST religious beliefs and practices–from long ago. A modern religion will better fit a modern age.
Finally, I would present a practice of joy, meaning, wisdom, reflection, healing…and mirth. Joyous holidays, deep and meaningful rituals, community connection through shared service and commitment to one another’s wellbeing, fun activities. Practices that promote happiness and contribute to the building of a better world, and are individually crafted to be what each particular practitioner needs and wants.The kind of thing the Pagan community is really good at.
That’s what I would do.
In fact, it’s what I did, in crafting the Pagan path of Atheopaganism.
And what I have learned since then is that there are many other Pagans who share my atheism. We’ve been circling with theists for decades, all the while believing that gods are metaphors and archetypes, not real beings. Every week online and every year at Pantheacon, people come up to me to tell me how gratifying it is that they are not alone in not believing in literal gods.
Nontheist paganism is a natural place for the “nones” who nonetheless want traditions, rituals, celebrations and a path of meaning and heart. We can see that as established religions spiral downward, people in the areas where they have largely died are still responding to a religious impulse, but they want to make their own choices about what to believe, what to care about, and what to do in pursuit of religious fulfillment.
Let me be clear: there have been atheistic and agnostic Pagans for as long as there have been Pagans. We were there in ancient Greece, and we were there in the Sixties and Seventies. There are many flavors of nontheist Paganism, such as Humanistic Paganism, Naturalistic Paganism, Atheopaganism and PaGaianism. All are available courses for today’s science-informed, critically thinking “nones” to pursue. And none of them expects or demands that these folk believe in things for which there is little to no evidence.
So…what makes nontheist Paganism truly different from theistic paths?
To start with, we are not subject to crises of faith, because we have no faith. Ours is a cosmology rooted in evidence, analysis and the scientific method. This means we believe in that for which sufficient, corroborated scientific evidence has been identified. Accordingly, we don’t believe in gods or fairies or souls or afterlives or literal magic other than the psychological effects that rituals can have on their participants. We are grounded in life in the material Universe, and satisfied that that is enough.
When it comes to so-called Otherworldly phenomena, our standard is simple: Occam’s Razor, which contends that the simplest explanation for something is the most probable. In every case, it is far more likely that our fallible brains have simply hiccuped than that there are actual invisible beings with supernatural powers.
That said, ours is a path of joy and discovery. The Universe is marvelous, and life offers many opportunity for laughter and pleasure and meaning and happiness! We don’t need the supernatural or Otherworldly in order to have rich inner and outer lives.
Secondly, we have a more extensive and proactive ethical framework than many Pagan paths. For us, “harm none” is a poor ethical yardstick. We believe that we are responsible to actively make the world a better place: to do good. Many Pagan paths are so obsessed with individual liberty and sovereignty that they completely miss out on the fact that we are social beings with responsibility to one another and to the Sacred Earth. Atheopaganism’s Four Sacred Pillars and Thirteen Principles provide an ethical framework for living that is about more than just personal happiness and freedom–it is about service, responsibility and humility as well.
Today’s younger generation is deeply invested in social responsibility, egalitarianism and environmentalism, and not only as held values but as obligations to activism. We share this ethic. For example, the Atheopagan community voted this year to identify an Earth conservation organization as a focus for our charitable giving, and we will do so every year going forward.
Thirdly–at least in my path of Atheopaganism–we actively encourage people to tailor their own observances and Sabbaths to fit the climate where they live and the symbol systems that work for them. We have no arbitrary “tables of correspondences” or prescribed metaphors (or even names!) for the holidays; rather, we develop these ourselves in personally tailored practices, exactly as it appears the “spiritual nones” are seeking.
In the process, we discard a lot of baggage that got baked into modern Paganism as it evolved from roots in the Romantic movement, Freemasonry and Western occultism. Things like the nonexistent “four elements” and discredited pseudosciences like astrology and alchemy.
Facing forward and knowing what we do about up and coming generations, those outdated belief systems are going to make it hard for young newcomers to enter Paganism if they are generally indulged by the community as being “true”. Asking scientifically literate people simply to take such stuff on faith–or to pretend to do so in order to get along–is a non-starter.
I believe that religion is undergoing a fundamental transformation right now, and that if Paganism doesn’t transform with it, it will become yet another historical footnote: a little blip that swelled up for a few decades and then shrank into insignificance, like the Shakers.
But we are fortunate, in that we’re not chained to some ancient book full of errors. We need not draw forward the faith-based mistakes of the past into the present; rather, we now have an opportunity to shape our religious practices and beliefs to be consistent with real, evidence-based human knowledge: with what physics tells us about the Universe, with what biology tells us about Life, and with what psychology tells us about our minds and how to work with them.
Now, this transition doesn’t mean that anyone has to give up what they believe or practice now. All I am saying is that as the next generations take over from this one, it is likely that they are not going to embrace theism at nearly the rate this one does.
The community should be ready for this reality. It’s coming.
In fact, it’s already here.
Looking forward, we can see that secular and atheistic religious practices are on the rise. Movements like Oasis and the Sunday Assembly are catching on all over the world. People are figuring out that they can have the benefits of religion without having to take improbable claims on faith. Nontheist Paganism is here as a place for such folk to land in a creative, positive, life-affirming community and practice.
For more information about Atheopaganism, you can visit our website at atheopaganism.org, where there are extensive materials and resources. We’re also on YouTube and Twitter and GoodReads.
We welcome you if you’re interested, and wish you well if you’re not. In any case, as a part of the larger Pagan community, we’ll see you around the circle!
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This is excellent Mark! I am always slightly in awe of the sheer amount of work you do to demonstrate and advocate for non-theistic Pagans and Atheopaganism as a path, and to push for inclusion within the (sometimes deeply hostile) wider Pagan community. Keep up the good work, my friend!
Thank you, Ryan!
There’s much I agree with in your talk.
The four elements are obviously metaphors for solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. I wrote some “science quarters” addressing solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. They’re in the chapter on Wicca and science in All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca. A book that also points out that yes, theists and atheists can and do circle together.
Thanks so much for your support and kind words!