Atheopaganism

An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

What Do We Mean by “Revering Nature”? A Reality Check

Life is one of the Sacred four pillars of Atheopaganism. And it is often said of Pagans generally that we revere or even “worship” Nature.

So…what do we mean by that?

To explore that, we have to go back about 250 years to a major wellspring of modern Paganism, which is Romanticism.

Starting in the late 18th century, as more and more Europeans began to live in cities rather than in small villages or on farms, the Romantic movement arose, which, well, romanticized the idea of “noble Nature”. Romantic ideas of “untamed wilderness” and “the magnificent wild” persist in cultures derived from Europe to this day, including the idea that because something is “natural” it is harmless or “innocent”/naive (cue racist stereotypes of indigenous people by European colonists).

In my experience, this Romantic idea of Nature as properly pristine, untouched, benign and idealized is quite common in Pagan circles today…extending to widespread embrace of “natural medicine” (up to and including outright quackery such as homeopathy) as somehow superior to “man-made” or science-based medicine, and creating a false dichotomy between “natural” (“good”) and “artificial” (“bad”).

But in Atheopaganism, we make a point of understanding the nature of the Universe through the critical analysis of evidence, so…where does that leave us in relation to revering Nature?

Well, first of all, there is the awestruck WOW that comes with the spectacular experience of nature’s beauty: the amazing sunset, Moon rise, landscape. The mountains, the ocean, the many wonders.

That’s real. The spiritual experience of joy and awe is one of the greatest pleasures of living–and it can come from human sources, too, like an urban skyline, a magnificent cathedral or an inspiring piece of music.

But when it comes to understanding the Life of Earth, even as we honor our exquisite home planet it is important that we not romanticize nature to the degree that we stop paying attention to what it really is…and what it demands from us.

Life is made up of ecosystems. And ecosystems are networks cycling food and carbon and nutrients and water and reproductive relationships, folding composition, life, death and decomposition into a magnificent interpenetrated wholeness. They include cities and human-developed areas, where wildlife and Life’s cycles also extend. Matter cycles, energy flows.

Humanity’s works, too, are nature.

To honor it, we must honor all of it…including the fact that death is an essential part of the process. All life of Earth relies on death of prior organisms in order to live, and we are no different. In time, we die and our component parts go back into the system as food for other organisms. It’s an elegant system and it has evolved for billions of years. The very soil from which our food springs is made up of the broken-down components of millions of dead animals, plants and microorganisms.

Today, science helps us to understand that humans are a part of every ecosystem on Earth. Even areas that seem very remote and wild are affected by species eradication, by pollution and climate change. And so the Romantic idea of “pristine, innocent Nature” doesn’t have a basis in reality, if it ever did.

One of the greatest fallacies of the nature-is-romantic lens is that it suggests that the best thing humans can do for any given natural area is to leave it alone. But in the case of most places on Earth at this point, nothing could be farther from the truth. Humans have had so much impact throughout the planet that it has become both ecologically and morally necessary that we actively manage ecosystems to keep them from being outcompeted by invasive species, and crashing in biodiversity.

Take, for example, the plant communities of the arid western United States’ grasslands and chaparral, which evolved together with elk, antelope, deer and bison that grazed them. They, in turn, were prey to wolves, bears, mountain lions, humans and other predators.

If we somehow just threw a fence around these lands and “let nature take its course”, they would become thickets of invasive non-native species like tumbleweed and star thistle, neither of which is useful to local wildlife at all, and with impoverished and lifeless soil. We know this because well-meaning people have tried it, and the results have been disastrous.

As it turns out, the introduction of another grazing animal–cattle–effectively filled the niche of the largely eradicated American Bison. When not overgrazed and managed in a way that mimics their larger cousins’ behavior, cattle can actually be beneficial to these ecosystems, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem health. A lucky break.

But less lucky, given that today most of those predators I listed have been extirpated or radically reduced in population, is that unless native populations of elk, deer, etc. are artificially controlled through human intervention they will overpopulate, eat everything right down to bare dirt and trees stripped of bark in desperation (leading to deforestation, erosion and destruction of waterways and native fisheries, among other impacts), and then starve en masse, suffering a miserable death.

Ask any range ecologist, and that is what they will tell you.

Local to my area is a great example of this general issue. Know where the great wildlife habitat is in my region? On beef and dairy cattle grazing lands. Absolutely full of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, coyote, mountain lions, bobcat and ungulates like deer.

Know where the WORST wildlife habitat is (even worse than cities)? Crop agricultural lands, where farmers do everything in their power to exclude or kill those same birds, small mammals, ungulates and so forth, including use of poison and traps. This is true of “organic” farm lands as well, which simply use “natural” poisons (there’s that word again), traps, and strategies like deafening noise cannons to scare animals away.

As a result, it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand that supporting those pastured beef and dairy operations by eating the beef and dairy products they produce is directly beneficial to wildlife in my area. And in the case of deer, which are plentiful and always on the verge of overpopulating where I live, helping to control the population through hunting and eating wild venison (as well as supporting conservation of predators like bears, lions, bobcat and coyote) is similarly beneficial.

Surprising, eh? Not the conclusion you would draw with a romantic ideal of “nature”, but rather, one absolutely based in the reality of nature.

Now, we’re not talking about hunting for trophies, or killing predators or endangered species, or out of the sadistic desire to kill something. There is no reason for such destructive behavior, and I do not endorse it. But I can support acting in accordance with what the ecosystems concerned will best benefit from, and that includes hunters harvesting animals which evolved to be prey species, and eating them.

Humans and their predecessors have hunted for millions of years, and this is something which can be approached as a sacred activity, as many, if not all indigenous people do. Ritually honoring the animal that is taken and taking care to use every part of its body is a way to be responsible in so doing, and to know not to take too much.

I should be clear: I’m not a hunter, and I’m not encouraging you to be a hunter, either, unless you want to be.

But loving nature means loving what is good for nature. And that happens to include a healthy predator/prey balance, whether by the teeth and claws of animal predators or by the bows or rifles of human ones.

The truth about our world and how to care for it is just more complicated than any simple, one-step solution like a dietary regime or a decision to buy (or not to buy) some particular product.

I have to recognize the debt I owe to the ecologists and land managers who study and plan for management of healthy ecosystems, and for those who hunt wildlife populations that threaten to overpopulate in my area. These species include deer, wild turkeys, and wild pigs, all of which can be incredibly destructive if not limited in numbers (and the latter two of which are invasive European species introduced by settlers and shouldn’t be here at all). These hunters include, of course, Native people who have been hunting these lands for thousands of years and for whom it is a sacred activity.

What I suggest with this post is that we step away from the Romantic idea of “noble nature” and look at what is really going on on planet Earth. It is more complex, more nuanced, more exciting, interesting, and beautiful, actually, than the romantic ideal. And it should both humble us and open our minds to be aware of nature in its entirety: the bloodthirsty parts as well as the graceful, amazing, inspiring parts. It’s all true–it’s all a part of our planet’s reality.

The truth about our world and how to care for it is just more complicated than any simple, one-step solution like a dietary regime or a decision to buy (or not to buy) some particular product.

When I talk about Life as Sacred, I mean the system, the fabric of food and cycling nutrients and reproductive relationships of planet Earth. That’s what’s Sacred. That’s what we have to fight for. Not the individual life of every deer and bunny in the wild. They are going to die, regardless, as will we all, with time.

But if the system persists, more like them–and us–will flourish in future generations. The magic of Life on Earth will persist robustly and in abundance.

So let us be aware of the nature of Life as it is, and fulfill the responsibilities of our place in it.

Let us embrace the Earth’s ongoing miracle. As it is.

Welcome home to Sacred planet Earth, where Death is the way of Life.

And vice versa.

October

In the arc of the Pagan wheel of the year, October is the time leading up to Samhain or Hallows (the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). It is, of course, the time when we all go a little crazy with spooky décor and witchy aesthetic, leading up to Halloween night, although the actual midpoint is around Nov. 7.

October is a time when we contemplate mortality and memory, remembering those who have died and our ancestors leading back into the mists of time. The skulls and bones and spider webs remind us that we are here only for a limited time, and will also one day be only memories in the minds of those who survive us.

This is important, because on Planet Earth, death is the means to life. Every organism is created through a genetic split or combination, and then grows and survives by taking into itself component parts which were once something else alive. It is the very miracle of Life on Earth, this death, and though we fear our own endings we understand that in the end, the ride is worth the price of the ticket.

We Pagans understand that death is a natural process and prefer to look squarely at it, rather than avoiding it as so many in mainstream culture do. As the year ages and the leaves begin to fall, many of us find it an appropriate time to do the work to make our deaths as easy for our loved ones as possible: to complete wills, health directives, wishes for disposal of our bodies and so forth. Having all of this information in a readily accessible place is a great gift we can give to our loved ones, so they don’t have to scramble around looking for it while mourning. If this is something that appeals to you, there is a workbook you can download at https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2018/10/07/a-gift-from-the-dying/

For many Pagans, honoring of ancestors is a big part of their spiritual practice, not only at this time of the year, but throughout it. Others may struggle with embracing ancestors whose deeds weren’t very worthy, but there is always more ancestry to point to: that very first finned fish that “walked” up on land to escape a predator or seek food, or that first homo erectus that figured out how to manage fire. Our heritage is filled with remarkable accomplishments; there is always something to celebrate, for each of us.

May the eerie month of October bless you with reflection and memory!

Atheopaganism, Cultural Appropriation and Creating New Culture

Atheopaganism as I initially described it in my essay and book was intended to create new culture: a modern Earth-revering Paganism. Rather than drawing on existing cultures or ancient ones, the oldest element directly incorporated into Atheopaganism is the “Wheel of the Year”, which has global and ancient roots for some of the holidays (like the winter solstice), but was set forth as a package in the mid-20th century by an Englishman. No cultural appropriation there.

This was deliberate. I wanted to avoid the wholesale cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures from Africa, Southern Asia and the Americas that I have seen in Pagan and New Age spaces and practices. Rather, the idea was to simply start from modern times, with a clean slate, and create healthier, happier, kinder, more inclusive and more environmentally sustainable culture with which to go forward.

I also wanted to avoid any contribution to the culture of the Empire: domineering, racist, colonialist, patriarchal, heteronormative, environmentally exploitative, and cruel beyond measure. What is termed the Overculture.

The intention was to create a modern, Earth-revering and counter-cultural Paganism without appropriatively mining the myths, symbols and traditions of other cultures, ancient or contemporary.

Bear in mind that when I was creating Atheopaganism, it was as a mapping-out of a spiritual path for myself. I never expected that it would be embraced by others, and so I didn’t consider others who aren’t like me as I thought about integrating preexisting cultural traditions into its practice.

As a result, I missed something. I made a mistake.

It’s not a surprise that I missed it. I’m a straight, white American man and that means I see the world through lenses filled with blind spots. I’m learning, and will be learning all my life, but many such blind spots persist.

What I missed is that if you’re not–like me–descended from, steeped in and trying to get free of a culture of white privilege, individualism, greed and colonialism–you might not want that blank slate. You might instead very well want to proclaim and reclaim your native culture from the abuses and erasure they have suffered at the hands of colonialism and settler mentality.

So, first: I’m sorry. The fact that this never crossed my mind reflects limitations on my understanding due to my privileges and the way I was raised. I humbly apologize for any negative effect or impression this may have caused.

But let me be very clear:

I have always believed that if you are raised in an indigenous culture, and practice the traditions of your culture, that’s great. It’s essential for these traditions to survive.

Or, if you derive from a culture which was displaced, subjected to genocidal oppression, nearly erased or subjugated by European colonialism, and you seek to re-establish your relationship with that culture in your practice–again, great. Essential work.

That’s not cultural appropriation. It’s cultural persistence.

And if, in addition, you adopt the naturalistic Atheopagan worldview, Principles and/or practices into your spiritual practice, well, I’m honored. Delighted to have you in the community.

In any case, I hope that you will carry on with your path and help to bring its wisdom into the world. You are welcome in any ritual circle I convene.

Atheopaganism welcomes all who choose to embrace it, and that includes integration of other, preexisting traditions with its precepts. The “blank slate” of creating new culture applies only to those who choose it, who seek to find and create meaningful practices to supplant the directives of the Overculture.

Now, does this mean that if you choose Atheopaganism, you’re off the hook for the responsibility to work to dismantle the bigoted legacies of the past? No, it most certainly does not. That is work that all of us have to do, even those who are directly oppressed by said legacies. Internalized self-hatred is a thing, as is blithe assumption of privilege by people who look like me.

We need to learn to recognize the deep wrongs of the Overculture in defining, framing, and building a poisonous social contract around bigotry. And then to struggle to wring them out of ourselves and our world, one painful twist at a time.

It ain’t fun. It ain’t triumphalist and glorious, and we shouldn’t expect gratitude for doing it. It’s hard, gritty work that simply must be done if there is ever to be justice.

We’re all on this planet together, and we’re all fundamentally equal in worth and deserving of respect, dignity and community support. Nothing removes our fundamental obligation to work for the liberation of ourselves and our oppressed kin.

The Post I Never Wanted to Write

The US Supreme Court overturned the 50-year-old precedent Roe v. Wade this morning, erasing the Constitutional right to an abortion.

And they’re not done. “Justice” Thomas, in his concurrence, encouraged the Court to overturn the precedents establishing the right to access to birth control, to private consenting behavior among adults (in other words, preventing government from regulating your sex life), and to same-sex marriage.

Just to be clear about where we stand as a community, here are planks 8-11 of our 13-point Statement of Political Values, approved by the Council of The Atheopagan Society:

VIII.    Body sovereignty is paramount, particularly with respect to reproductive choices. Only the individual can make choices for their health and body except in the most extreme cases such as to protect public health (e.g. control of infectious diseases) or that individual’s safety (e.g. in a mental health crisis).

IX.       Sex, gender and gender roles are independent of one another and to force them into the rigidly distinct categories to which they have been misattributed by many of our forebearers is harmful.

X.        It is morally necessary to condemn ‘white supremacy’, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, fascism and all other forms of bigotry and hatred, and to reject all claims of ‘natural law’ used to defend or support ideologies of bigotry and hatred-supporting pseudoscience, such as ‘eugenics’.

XI.        It is our duty to stand with the marginalized and oppressed, as well as with allies who seek to tear down the structures and institutionalization of oppression, in order to create a more just, kind and egalitarian world.

This spells out pretty clearly where we as Atheopagans see ourselves on these questions. And what is happening at the Supreme Court is terrifying.

I am furious. I am scared for my fellow citizens whose rights are being stripped away.

I am sickened and saddened and appalled.

Wisdom

It’s a word that makes some of us cringe a little: wisdom.

Because pretty much anyone who claims to have it is automatically suspicious, right?

It’s those who don’t claim to have it who very often do.

My contention is this: if you are living in a manner open to growth and change, the trade-off for the physical infirmities that come with age is the accumulation of wisdom: of internal tools so that you are able to contend calmly with adversity, of a big-picture perspective that helps you not to sweat the small stuff. And the recognition that nearly all of it is, in the end, small stuff.

Wisdom comes with experience: experience in relating with others, in navigating life’s challenges, in learning how to find happiness and contentment in the course of living. Wisdom brings a deep understanding of priorities, with love and kindness outweighing such things as acquisition of wealth. And it teaches us patience.

It is, like all things, not perfect. And we don’t always live in our wisdom: when triggered, when angry, when defensive we may do or say things that our wisdom knows will be counterproductive. But we do them anyway, and thus accumulate a little more experience that may help us to be wiser the next time.

Atheopaganism is a path about joy, connection and wisdom. It encourages us to know ourselves, to cultivate wise values, to celebrate love and the many pleasures of this life.

So don’t undersell your own wisdom. It’s there, whether or not you can access it at any given time. With experience, it will come more readily to hand.

It’s growing as you do. Cultivate it. Listen to that calm, experienced voice in your head, however weak it may seem.

Grow to be wiser. At the end of the day, it will bring you deeper contentment than any material pleasures. It will add to the lives of those around you.

It will contribute to the creation of a better, kinder world.

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