Imagining a Brand-New, Cringe-Free Paganism
Bear with me here, because I am probably going to piss some people off. Just keep an open mind, and listen.
Atheopaganism is a modern path.
Created beginning in 2005, the essay describing it was first published in 2009. The online community launched in 2012. The book was published in 2019. The podcast began in 2020, and the nonprofit Atheopagan Society was organized later that same year. We have grown to thousands, but realistically speaking, our community is 15 years old, give or take.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Everything starts sometime. What matters is the content of the path’s values and the character of its members.
Atheopaganism is a modern path because it makes no claim to derive from any ancient sources or lineages. What little it brings forward from before its founding—the 8-station wheel of the year, mostly— was invented in the mid-20th century by the founders of Wicca, and it’s basically a set of astronomical facts, anyway, which belong to everyone.
Some old European folk traditions we have adopted (optionally) for our rituals: Yule trees, Maypoles. But none of these is from a closed religious tradition. We deliberately and explicitly avoid cultural misappropriation of closed traditions from living cultures as colonialist and harmful.
This is deliberate. We choose to identify as a modern tradition rooted in modern values like environmentalism, egalitarianism, feminism, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism.
Why does this matter?
Well, it matters because much of Pagandom struggles with having incorporated stuff that is offensive, or embarrassing, or both.
On the offensive side, I’m talking about appropriation of closed-traditional indigenous symbols, rituals and traditions—sometimes without meaning any harm, sometimes in the name of awful, racist ideologies, and sometimes just for plain, crass old money. Fortunately, most of us seem to have agreed that these are bad things.
I’m also talking about the heteronormativity and gender essentialism of the “Goddess and God” dyad. This is somewhat tougher to dispense with, but it really needs to go. As a non-theist, it’s not really my department, but I’m just sayin’.
As for the embarrassing, I mean behaviors that may be less harmful, but undermine the credibility of our religious paths with the general public, like the heavy flavoring of modern Paganism with swords-and-sorcery fantasy tropes and aesthetics.
This reflects on all of us.
The interbreeding of Paganism with Renaissance Faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism and The Lord of the Rings since the late-Sixties counterculture has gone on for well beyond long enough. There is nothing about a Nature religion—nor polytheism—that has anything to do with an imagined Golden Age in Jollye Olde Englande. Nor with dressing up like Robin Hood, Gandalf, a Pre-Rafaelite Lady of Shalott, a Viking or a stereotypical pirate or witch.
Now, I say this as a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, and as a longtime performer at Renaissance Faires. As someone who very much enjoys dressing up in costume outfits and playing a character. I love my velvets and satins and leather. Sometimes I wear them for rituals, where their pomp and elegance feel like they belong.
Fantasy and imagination are wonderful. And playing let’s-pretend is an essential skill for ritual making and story telling.
But living in a fantasy is not wonderful.
If ours is to be a relevant constellation of religious paths for today—and for tomorrow—surely it needs to look forward, rather than appearing to be stuck in the past (whether it’s 500 years ago or 50).
Atheopaganism has modern values: our Four Sacred Pillars and 13 Principles. This matters because these modern, progressive values and ethics are decidedly different than those that have persisted for many centuries. Some modern values are unique to modernity. And rather than try to shoehorn our modern sensibilities into some long-extinct culture—or worse, to ignore them—we can simply say, “we’re modern, we’re not trying to be something old,” and move on.
There’s nothing magical about being ancient. We don’t use medieval medical technology or Stone Age tools, and there is no particular reason why we should use Bronze Age or Iron Age religious tenets, either. As musician/comedian Tim Minchin says, “I have never believed that just because ideas are tenacious, they are worthy.”
I’m not saying that those who choose a wild or colorful personal style shouldn’t do that. People should be who they are, and these days that can mean purple hair, tats and piercings, and all but the most conservative (who are unreachable anyway) will take it all in stride.
But every year at Halloween (in the UK, at summer solstice), when the press goes looking for The Witches and Pagans, we get coverage supposedly representing us of people like this guy.
Now, some of that is the media’s fault. They want wild and outlandish stuff–it sells.
But we don’t have any control over that. We have control over us.
So maybe, especially when engaging with the general public, we should read the room and consider our audiences a bit? Think about what is likely to help them to find us accessible and credible?
Look at what happened to the self-styled “Q-Anon Shaman”. He was pilloried in the press not for what he did (which, let’s be clear, was appalling) but for how he presented himself. He is the ONLY January 6th insurrectionist of whom this is true.
Now, is this “fair”? Hell, no. Do you have a right to dress however you like? Yes, generally barring nudity (which is too bad, for all sorts of reasons, as nudity would certainly be more comfortable in summer).
But fairness has nothing to do with it. It is what it is, and diplomacy is the better part of valor. People who present like Robin Hood, a Viking, Gandalf and/or The Lady of Shalott—or whatever the hell that dude is—become automatic objects of amusement, no matter their path, scholarship, values or goals.
I would prefer that my religion will spur curiosity in those who don’t follow it, rather than mockery.
If we want our Pagan values to percolate into the culture, it’s going to be a lot easier if we’re seen as reasonable people who just have a different way of looking at things.
We’re actually great people! We have good things to say: empowering things, positive things, and in some cases radical things about important topics like sex and gender and power and capitalism that really need saying—and hearing. But as the old communications rule of thumb has it, people perceive 50% how you look, 30% how you say it, and 20% what you say. We can’t get past the prejudices of the Overculture if we undercut ourselves by playing dress-up as wizards and fairies when presenting to the public.
So in my Paganism, I let go of the past. I let go of any romantic notion that I am carrying forward Traditions of Yore, and I let go of decorating myself in styles reminiscent of past times, unless its when I’m among like-minded friends.
As I have said before, Atheopaganism is Paganism for today—and tomorrow. I’m not satisfied to huddle in a subcultural bubble and play. I want our values—our better, kinder, more egalitarian, more just, more inclusive, more loving of the Earth values—to gain traction in the world, and I want to be a part of that.
Main image: “The Lady of Shalott” by J.W. Waterhouse (1888)
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“or whatever the hell that dude is” lol, well, he’s a shaman, of course. Isn’t it obvious? Don’t you see the spirituality shining out from him in all directions? 😀
I met a lot of different pagans in the last 20 years. Some were more fluffy, and some were less fluffy, but they all have more in common than they have things that separate them. Cameras will always follow the flashy ones with shiny new robes and rituals rooted in Gnostic heritage. Those who dress normally are not “media-worthy.”
I get what you’re saying, and I understand where you’re going with it. It’s a good cause and a just goal. Just don’t forget that people will always be people, unique and diverse in their spiritual path, and there will always be those who mock them. Sure, we can work on bringing the mockery down, but it will never come down to zero no matter how hard I wish it to be so. I have a belief that it all goes by education, but you can’t educate people unless they want to be educated.
It was a pure pleasure reading your views on this 💚
Thank you! I completely get that people are individuals and will make individual choices. I’m just asking that, when engaging with the broader public (like the media, especially), Pagans ask themselves, “how does this appear from the outside?”
Starhawk was once interviewed by a reporter clearly trying to get a sensationalist quote the reporter could blow up. They asked, “If you could curse the Republicans, what would be the curse?”
And Star said, “Scientific curiosity.”
More of that, please.
That is the Starhawk we all know and love. Yes, I agree. More of that!
This is partially the reason why embracing paganism was a long road for me. I was raised in an atheist household and it was difficult for me to suspend my disbelief when reading about paths that embrace the supernatural and woo elements, particularly when that information was being given out by someone wearing a cloak and claiming that their path was passed down through countless generations when I had already learned that it was created in the mid 20th century.
Most religions make factual claims that are demonstrably untrue, unfortunately. It’s frustrating that virgin births and resurrections get a pass while the woo and colorful, fantasied personal style of many Pagans do not, but that’s life in a minority culture.