Atheopaganism

An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

A Pagan in a Christianized Society

We discussed many of the ideas in this post in this week’s episode of THE WONDER podcast–check it out!

Being a Pagan often isn’t easy–and especially being a naturalistic Pagan, in a world dominated by an Overculture that flies in the face of one’s values.

I live in the United States: a country deeply steeped in conservative Christianity and in which, as belief in more traditional religions wanes, the most reactionary of Christians–including a majority of our Supreme Court–are scrambling to enshrine their beliefs into laws we must all follow. On issues like sexual morality, gender equality, bodily autonomy, racial equality, environmental protection and reproductive rights, these Christians could not be more wrong-headed. They are harming people, and the most marginalized and vulnerable are suffering the most.

It’s all terribly backwards and wrong.

I should say: the critiques I am making here are not unique to Christianity, and they aren’t all true of every sect of Christianity. Generalizations are always somewhat inaccurate. But particularly, conservative flavors of other religions like Islam and Judaism share many of these elements as well. The global religions originating the Middle East all seem to spring from the same well.

Take, for example, the general posture of the Christian to their divinity: supplication and obedience. Even fear.

I find this unfathomable. I revere the Sacred (though I don’t imagine it as a personified god), find awe and wonder and beauty in it. My spirituality is one of agency, not cowed obedience. I have pride rather than shame, because I am a part of the Sacred. I am an extension of the Universe which is, itself, the Sacred.

Next: patriarchy. Christianity is a male-dominated religion with a domineering male god and tons of religious text directing men to rule and women to be meek and obedient.

Likewise racism. (White) American conservative Christianity and white supremacy are two sides of the same coin. Biblical verses are used to justify the enslaving of Africans to this day. Slavery, colonialism and genocide are the greatest of human evils, and all have been rationalized by Christians in the name of their “moral superiority”.

Now, the Black evangelical churches are something else: that is complicated and I don’t claim to understand it. But the internalized shame, homophobia and so forth that I call out here are present there, too.

These attitudes are utterly contrary to my values. As a naturalist Pagan, I see all humans as equal in value, no matter what their gender, color, sexual orientation, ability, body shape or ethnicity.

Even more pernicious, possibly, than the arrant bigotry is the Christian idea that humanity is “stained by sin” and needs “salvation”. What a horrible thing to inflict on people! I see people as worthy and each as uniquely beautiful: not perfect, but not inherently evil, either.

Specifically, the Christian characterization of the body as inherently “sinful” and of sexuality as “dirty” unless performed under the narrow set of rules they prescribe is simply appalling. It is the sine qua non of the miserable joylessness that characterizes the dominant religious model.

We Pagans disagree. We believe pleasure is good for us, and is our birthright. Our work in this life is to celebrate life and to be the best people we can be, not to mope about feeling broken and crawling on our knees to beg forgiveness from an imaginary potentate that evidently has ego problems. And that includes enthusiastic enjoyment of consensual sex of any kind the participants choose.

Ironically, even when they do wrong, it appears Christians don’t believe they are really responsible for it. It must be either a) a part of God’s plan; or b) the work of “the devil”, who plays the villain in their cosmology’s melodrama. And they can get out of any responsibility for their actions by bending a knee and asking their god’s forgiveness.

Convenient, eh? So Stalin and Hitler could be in the Christian heaven if they sought Jesus’ forgiveness on their deathbeds. Nice.

The extortionary racket that enforces the need for this salvation–heaven and hell–rather speaks for itself.

We Pagans don’t need to be threatened with eternal torture or offered cosmic sweeties in order to be good people. We live for this incredible life, not some imaginary afterlife of judgement and consequences. That means that if we do wrong, it’s on us to take responsibility and make amends NOW to those we have wronged, not to “pray the guilt away”.

Now, having said all this, let me say: in the abstract, I really don’t care what other people believe.

But I care about how they behave. And when people are being hurt, THEN I care plenty. And millions of people are being hurt by conservative Christianity in this country. By bigoted parents kicking their teenaged gay or trans kids onto the streets; by pregnant people who don’t want a child being denied abortion care; by the vast ranks of those suffering guilt and self-abuse over imaginary “sins”; by those oppressed by racism, homophobia and contempt for the poor. It is a poisonous worldview and its works in the world are not beneficial.

Finally, and most importantly, is the Christian relationship to nature. To “subdue the Earth and rule over the living” and grind it into money is the ideology that dominates my country.

I am so ashamed at how we relate to this world from which we spring and of which we are each a part. The idea that our creation and sustenance is credited to an ephemeral figure in the sky rather than to the obvious fact of our Earthly nature (that is, we survive by dint of food coming from the ground, oxygen coming from plants, etc.) is utterly, utterly wrong.

It is not easy to be a round peg in a landscape of square holes, and that is what the main of American Christian-informed culture offers us Pagans–particularly those Pagans who don’t believe in a supernatural dimension to existence at all. We don’t mind being nonconformists, but in some parts of this country it is becoming dangerous not to be Christian. Particularly if you have some fanatical preacher in your local community banging on about the evils of “witches”.

As a Pagan, I envision so much kinder, easier, and gentler a world. An affirming world where love matters and greed is a pathology. Where we lift one another up, help each other to heal and grow and thrive, and we understand our reciprocal, responsible relationship to the good planet Earth. And, as a naturalist Pagan, a world in which we are sensible, rational, and critically thinking: where we make decisions based on evidence and good, progressive values.

I walk through the world in this country, loving the fabric of Life despite the dour and miserable cultural context, joyous at the very fact of my existence, trying every day to wash more of the Overculture from me: to incorporate more openness, growth and kindness as I grow older. My rituals help me. My contemplation helps me. My community helps me.

We can be so much better than this. But honestly, the dominant model–the Christian model–has got to go in order for that to happen.

It can’t die off quickly enough, in my opinion.

We all deserve so much better than this.

Knowledge, Understanding, and Anti-Colonialism

I am an anti-colonialist and anti-racist. This is a life commitment I have made and, though as for all people raised in a culture steeped in white supremacy and racism it is hard work to try to get beyond them, it is joyful work, even when it is hard.

If you view the world through an Atheopagan lens, it becomes pretty evident that colonialism, capitalism and their resultant white supremacy and genocidal engagements with other cultures have been disasters for both the Earth and for its so-successful species, humanity, and have created tremendous suffering for those colonial empire has not valued.

As such, I take listening to marginalized voices very seriously, which has led me on a growth journey that I value deeply. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

I recently attended a fantastic workshop at The Gathering Paths conference in San Jose, California, about de-colonizing Pagan traditions of the European diaspora (in other words, Euro-Paganism, which is what most members of the Pagan communities of the US and Europe practice). The workshop was led by Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods and Liam Harwyn.

A guidance sheet developed by the presenters that captures the content of the workshop was distributed, and I will reproduce it here, and then discuss the two places where I diverge from what it recommends.

Here are images of the sheet (I don’t have a scanner, sorry–open images in new tabs for larger type):

This is a terrific set of guidelines and I am truly grateful to Kanyon and Liam for their labor in creating them. They give me much to think about and work to assimilate.

There are, however, a couple of places where I think they are incomplete in their thinking.

The first is around industrialization (in Pt. 3). While industrial capitalism is unquestionably the factor in creating the ecological disasters we are currently struggling to reverse, as someone who relies on medications which can only be created through industrial processes, I think it is short-sighted and ableist to simply dismiss industrialization entirely. Disabled and unwell people throughout the world rely on medications, equipment and procedures which can only arise through industrial processes, and I think this needs to be recognized and considered. The enemy isn’t industry; it is the failure of capitalism to either acknowledge value in anything other than money or to embrace a reciprocal relationship with the Earth such that industry does not do harm.

The second quibble I have with the guidance relates to Pt. 5: “We respect and embrace uncolonial ways of knowing. Ways of thinking, beliefs and practices that are not approved by ‘western science’ are numerous, diverse and valid and may include concepts that directly challenge ‘western’ assumptions and beliefs.”

As a naturalist Pagan, I feel this fails to recognize that there is an objective Universe which exists whether or not we have opinions or beliefs about it. The Earth does go about the Sun, and not vice-versa; nor is the Sun a flaming chariot, nor were mountains thrown up by gods or riven by their smiting power.

The philosophical movement postmodernism, which has deeply informed much anti-colonial theory, tends to go overboard with the idea that there can be no certainty: that “all beliefs” or “all knowledge” are valid. But just as white supremacy is not valid, so the idea that there are no facts or that it is impossible to know them is a fallacious suggestion which is demonstrably untrue.

I think that drawing a distinction between knowing and understanding would be helpful here. Knowing relates to facts, and the scientific method of experimentation and trial and error–which has been used by indigenous people all over the world for hundreds of thousands of years, not just by western colonial powers–has proved to be the best way we have found for learning facts about our world and Universe.

What is known is not the same as what is believed, however fervently. Just as when theists say they “know” that their gods are real, what they are really saying is that they want and believe them to be real very strongly.

Knowing requires more: it requires evidence.

But understanding is about meaning and wisdom, not facts: it IS, in fact, about belief. From the standpoint of understanding, we can learn volumes about how to relate to the Sacred and to those physical phenomena of the Universe from indigenous and non-colonial perspectives. Science does nothing to assess or address meaning, nor values or wisdom–which is why it has been possible for biased and poorly-methoded science sometimes to be used to harm marginalized people.

The perspectives of the marginalized have much to teach us, and we must listen.

For an excellent exploration of integrating indigenous and scientific perspectives, I recommend the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass.

Anti-racism and anti-colonialism are lifelong journeys. We learn, we try, we make mistakes, we acknowledge them, apologize and learn some more, and we carry on. These are complex and chewy questions and we must grapple with them. I am deeply grateful to Liam and Kanyon for their work, for the workshop and for the opportunity to learn from them.

Welcome to the Resistance (US)

With the leak of a draft opinion overturning the pivotal Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed all people with uteruses the right to an abortion through the first trimester of pregnancy, shock waves are rippling across the United States.

It won’t stop here. This Court has revealed its radical, reactionary and activist nature. It is highly likely that the right to access contraception, the right to privacy in consenting conduct between adults (which legalized same-sex sexual acts but also has implications for people in alternative relationship configurations like BDSM relationships and polyamory), and even the right to same-sex marriage are on the chopping block.

Unless some unforeseen change like the addition of more Justices to the Court takes place, we are moving into a time when in large swathes of the United States, the values of Christian dominionism are going to become the law of the land.

The horror I feel at typing this cannot be understated. So much pain, so much oppression, so much completely unnecessary suffering is going to come–mostly to marginalized people–as a result of these draconian, patriarchal policies.

We’re Atheopagans. We’re here for the magnificent Earth and to help our societies grow more kind, more inclusive and more sustainable. But for folks who live in the “red” areas where these mean-spirited supposed Christians dominate, I say: welcome to the Resistance.

The Resistance is a noble calling in American history. It was Resistance that smuggled escaped enslaved people to freedom. It was Resistance that organized workers and gained the right to unionize, creating things like the 40-hour work week and the weekend. It was Resistance that spread as a sub rosa culture of LGBTQ folks throughout the country, until the Stonewall riot finally brought it above the surface.

Pretty much every social and civil rights advance in US history has come from the Resistance .

And the watchwords of the Resistance are: Be careful, but REFUSE TO COMPLY. And never forget solidarity.

Even just by being kind, compassionate and inclusive, as the Atheopagan Principles would have us be, can sometimes feel like swimming upstream in many parts of this country. But as atheists? As Pagans? We are definitely forces counter to the Overculture.

We must resist, simply in order to be ourselves.

But these times demand yet more of us: they demand that we help others who need abortion services to reach them. That we actively include and stand with those of marginalized communities. That we refuse to tolerate bigotry. It requires that we share information that the authoritarian right tries to suppress, and understand that people with uteruses are just the leading edge of all the groups of people whose rights will be under assault by this Court.

These rulings will not last. They are morally wrong and most of the public opposes them. That can’t stand.

In the meantime, though, we need to understand that we are the Resistance: the beacon of kind righteousness through dark, dark times.

Courage, friends. And especially, friends who are being targeted by this campaign of cruelty: have strength. We’ve got your back.

Persist.

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.

This guy doesn’t mind Renaissance clothing

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.

It’s sad.

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).

Right?

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?

Jacob Chansley, the “Q-Anon Shaman”

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)

My Top Ten from 2021

The year is drawing down, and it’s time to take a look back at what we’ve published and pick some favorites! Here, in no particular order, are my favorite ten blog posts of 2021. If you have a favorite that isn’t on the list, please comment below!

You Have Permission to be Witchy

When Life is Hard

Riffs on a Meme: Enchanting the Mundane

Playing with the Senses During Ritual (Guest Post)

Deep Paganism

The Deep Secret of Emergent Complexity

Why Paganism hasn’t Failed…Yet

Doing the Work

The Sacred Rite of Composting

Imagining Ancestors

I invite you to revisit these, or, if you missed them the first time, to take a look. Enjoy!

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