An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

Talking with Atheists Who Dismiss Your Atheopagan Practice

Existing in both the atheist world and in the Pagan, Atheopagans have the unique “good fortune” of fielding criticism from extreme elements of both.

I’ve written before about Pagan fundamentalists who dismiss our religion as “not real Paganism. ” Today, we take a look at the atheist community’s counterpart: the so-called “anti-theists”.

A vocal subset of atheists, the anti-theists start with the position that there are no literal gods. So far, so good.


From there, many of them overreach, arguing not only that theism is destructive and irrational, but that all religion and spirituality are fraudulent, pointless and harmful behaviors that humanity would be better off without.

Anti-theists can be found throughout the Internet, where they gleefully set to arguing with theists, and also include authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.

They contend that faith-based belief is inherently dangerous and destructive: that it supplants critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, and therefore makes people malleable, controllable, and susceptible to rationalization of selfish, destructive and cruel acts in the name of their beliefs.

Honestly, I don’t disagree with them about any of that, either. Credulity in unlikely phenomena such as gods and spirits apropos of nothing more than “faith” or personal experiences is strong lubricant on the slippery slope to a fantasied worldview at best…and fanaticism in relation to that worldview at worst.

But in their broad-brush declarations, anti-theists also posit that all religions are inherently destructive. No matter what they do or do not demand of one in the way of belief.

And that simply isn’t true.

In my experience, anti-theists more often than not present as angry people. Sometimes they are angry about abusive behavior they experienced in religions they have left behind; sometimes they are angry that reason and science are not the primary drivers of decision making in this world, and at the many negatives, past and present, which can be laid at the feet of the major organized religions, particularly in the West.

Those are reasonable grounds to be angry.

But the problem with anger is that it tends to encourage black-and-white thinking. It leads to communication styles that inevitably result in polarization. And it tends not to consider special cases in the sweeping assessment it makes of the target of its anger.

I don’t think any student of history can deny that the major Abrahamic religions have caused a lot of negative impacts.

I’m certainly not going to dispute it. The “religions of the Book” encourage subscription to cruel ideas such as “original sin”, the threat of an afterlife of everlasting torment, hatred of LGBTQ people, subjugation of women and the idea that only believers can be “chosen” or “saved”.

But does that mean that Zen Buddhism is pernicious? Or Jainism? Taoism? Wicca?

Or Atheopaganism?



My concern with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins et al is that in their broad-brush demonization of religion, they make two fundamental errors:

  1. They ignore that there are religious traditions which do not have the negative impacts caused by the Abrahamic monotheisms; and
  2. They do not in any way address religious paths the beliefs of which are consistent with our scientific understanding of the Universe.

These are circular and mutually reinforcing. “What about religions that are peaceful, or which aren’t filled with expectation of faith in highly improbable events and realities?”, one might ask.

Well, those aren’t religions according to my definition, replies the anti-theist.

It’s a straw man argument: All religions involve faith in the supernatural, goes the claim, and are therefore irrational and harmful. A religious tradition that doesn’t require such faith?

That’s not really a religion, so my argument still holds, says the anti-theist. Who will often then go on to atheist-splain that such religions are philosophies, or cultural traditions…anything but religions.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So as I see it, the fundamental problems with the anti-theist argument are that:

  1. There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a religion in the first place, so the narrow definition asserted by the anti-theists is simply an opinion. It is not a fact;
  2. There are demonstrably religious traditions which require no supernatural belief, including our own; and
  3. There are religious traditions which do not have violent, bigoted or xenophobic values and are without history of the kinds of destructive impacts that can so easily be ascribed to the Abrahamic religions.

Among those equality-and-peace-valued religions, there happens to be the bulk of modern Neo-Paganism.

So…how do you talk to an anti-theist?

Well, it’s hard. In my experience, when confronted with anything labeled “religion” or “spirituality”, a significant portion of anti-theists simply leap into insults or sweeping characterizations. There’s not much one can do with that.

But if someone is willing to have an actual conversation, start by granting the places where you agree.

We can agree that science is the best system we have for determining what is likely to be true, and that, therefore, we don’t have persuasive grounds for believing in gods, spirits or souls.

We can agree that the decline of faith and the rise of the “Nones” is a good thing.

We can agree that the big monotheisms have been disastrous for the planet and for millions of people throughout the world.

We can agree that extremists of every stripe are a serious problem and that faith-based belief makes it easier for people to follow ideas which would fall to pieces if addressed with reason.

This establishes a common value basis for the discussion. The most vigorous arguments of anti-theists are things we can mostly agree with.

And then, ask them where the social harm has been from religions like Zen Buddhism or Quakerism. Emphasize that a single example is proof that the problem isn’t “religion”: it’s certain kinds of religion. Religions which dictate that one must believe in things for which there is little or no evidence. Religions which require following rules the implementation of which lead to cruelty or violence or bigotry. Religions that identify outsiders as objects of hatred, or fear, or pity, or contempt, or which demand that they must be converted in order to be “saved”. Religions which define gender roles that assert dominance of men over women, and hatred for gay people. Religions that are humorless and can’t laugh at themselves.

Those are the problem, and on that we can agree.

But where, we can ask, is the harm in someone following a religious path that hews to the cosmology of science, and encourages kindness and happiness? That celebrates the wonder of life as a precious gift? That builds community around those values and that perspective?

That’s the key question: where is the harm in religious practices that aren’t rooted in faith-based belief and lousy values?

If you can get to that question, I think you can start to move an anti-theist away from their absolutist thinking. You can help them to become open to the possibility that something like Atheopaganism can exist and have value for its practitioners.

And that, really, is all we can ask for.


*Further, is anti-theists’ analysis of the problem of violent and repressive religious extremism—from which the most egregious of negative impacts of problematic religions stem—accurate at all? Is that problem really about religion, or is it about toxic masculinity…given that the overwhelming majority of such extremists are men? (As, interestingly enough, are the bulk of vocal anti-theists online and in print.)

If not for religious frames, would not such angry, fanatical men settle on others, such as political philosophies?

The Khmer Rouge weren’t religious, after all. They were atheists.

Why Naturalism? Because This.

Yet another example of a Pagan in a leadership position using that position for sexual misconduct, citing woo-woo “spiritual” reasons involving disembodied entities and “magical bonds” as “explanations” for his abuse.

How far would such hokum fly in a naturalistic Pagan community?


At all.

Willingness to take someone’s word about supposed supernatural processes and invisible beings is a formula for being abused. Healthy skepticism would have tossed this creep out on his ear long ago, but the conventions of many Pagan communities which take at face value highly improbable assertions about the nature of reality create safe contexts within which abusers can operate.

Say what you like about naturalistic Paganism, one thing is clear: a naturalist thinker isn’t going to be lured or cajoled or strongarmed into being abused with “magical” explanations.

This happens too much in the Pagan community. A healthy dose of skepticism is the cure for the problem.

And here’s a rule of thumb: any time a “leader” or “teacher” of any kind suggests that to “advance” you need to do something sexual: RUN.


Why is Naturalism Radical?

One of the hottest points of contention between Atheopagans and both theists and hard-antitheist atheists has to do with naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophical position which holds that there is nothing which is not of the physical Universe: that there is nothing which is supernatural, and that such claimed supernatural phenomena as gods, spirits, souls, ghosts, and magic are fictitious.

Theists dispute this out of hand, of course. It makes sense that nontheist Pagans have friction with theists over this point.

But adamant antitheists like David Dennett and Richard Dawkins have conflict with it, too–because they insist that if you are a naturalistic tradition, you’re not really a religion.

This is frankly silly. The only reason that we assume you must believe in the supernatural in order to be religious is because our society unthinkingly adopts the paradigm of religious traditions for whom Belief is a Big Big Deal.

Think about it. If you were going to create a religion today*, there is no way you would start from the standpoint that much of what science tells us is untrue and that instead, fantastical and completely unverifiable anecdotes are the true accounting of the nature of the Universe.

The only reason such anecdotes and beliefs are sewn into the fabric of Bronze Age religions is because they didn’t know any better back then. They were grasping for answers and they made up stories to fit their cultural values and what little they could verify for themselves.

Clearly, cultural inertia is a thing.

I grow frustrated with the likes of Dawkins and Dennett because their arguments against Religion writ large are always REALLY arguments against supernaturalism.

But religion doesn’t have to be supernaturalistic. So their arguments “against religion”—entire books’ worth—come down to straw man fallacies.

Why is it considered so wild an idea that religion need not contain a supernatural component? The only answer I have is that it is because the religions we see around us have not been doing it that way. For centuries.

The insistence that Belief in that which requires Faith is a necessary prerequisite for a religious tradition is basically a monotheistic holdover from the Abrahamic religions, in my opinion. We’ve been steeping in the assumptions of the Judeo-Christian worldview for so long we can’t even see how they have stained us.

Religion isn’t just what you believe about the Universe. It’s also about your values, and your morals, and your religious practices and observances.

And that really isn’t such a radical idea.


*And if you’re an Atheopagan, you actually are, by the way.


Looking Forward

So, Gavin Frost died.

And several writers I respect have weighed in on his shameful legacy.

I can’t say any better what they have, and my rule-of-blog is not to repeat what’s already out there.

What I can say, though, is that the death of this awful human is an opportunity to speak about what it is that makes Atheopaganism different. Or potentially so.

Atheopaganism is a forward-looking religion. We don’t claim to derive from a lineage or tradition, and as such, we are neither beholden to nor reverent towards so-called elders.

Did those who helped to create Paganism help to pave the way for where we are here? Yes.

Did those who helped to shape modern Atheism help to pave the way for where we are here? Yes.

Are prominent figures in both camps kinda…screwed up?


So to those of us who are Atheists becoming Atheopagans, yes: some of the people who started the modern Pagan movement were loony, and a few were delusional to the point of evil.

We learned from that. We’re getting better.

And to those who are Pagans embracing their Atheism, yes: the dogmatism of the New Atheists moved them from speakers of truth to evangelistic zealotry. They over-generalize about religion and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Still, their assertion of naturalism as the most reasonable cosmology for a thinking human is absolutely compelling.

We are fortunate in that we have no “high priest/esses”, no hierarchs, no cult leaders. We’re just a group of people working together to create something that works for us.

My hope for Atheopaganism is that we can draw forward elements of value from what has been in the past, while firmly leaving behind the dysfunction through a firm commitment to our values and Principles. And then, from there, to build our own culture, our own shared traditions sprung from our own creativity.

Let us enshrine history and legacy in the form of actions of integrity, rather than the lionizing of problematic people. If that is the practice, the likes of Gavin Frost will be forgotten soon enough.



Building Atheopagan Community

As I referenced earlier, Atheopaganism as a named path is new. That means that those of us who are a part of it are rare, and far-flung (the Facebook group has members from across the globe). That said, Atheopaganism has something precious to offer both atheists and Pagans, and those are quite a bit more common. Atheopagan community is therefore likely to be ecumenical community: at first, at least, we will gather with both those who share our worldview and those whose cosmologies differ.

Pagans are rare enough in most places; expecting to find a broad community of atheist Pagans may be unrealistic. However, most Pagans are pretty tolerant–they will joyfully be a part of your community so long as you will be a part of theirs, and they will participate in your rituals if you, in turn, join in theirs. And the point of ritual is the doing, anyway, not the philosophical underpinnings of it. Atheist Pagans have been circling with theist Pagans since the Neo-Pagan revival began, and there is no reason for us to stop doing so just because we have now come forward to declare our way of believing to be a legitimate alternative to theism.

In the atheist community, as well, there are those who are seeking ways to make their lives more meaningful. If you know such people, you can invite them to a celebration, hold a short ritual and see how it sits with them.

Unitarian Universalists and liberal Christians and Jews may also enjoy Atheopagan ritual; don’t rule them out if you know some. UU “churches” are good places to advertise for atheists/agnostics looking for meaningful celebration of the seasons, as well. If you are inviting strangers, you may want to hold your first ritual at a park rather than at your home—that’s up to you.

My encouragement, as always, is just to do it. The best times of the year to hold an “introductory” Atheopagan ritual are at the solstices and equinoxes, as these are objective astronomical events which even the staunchest atheist must recognize as real. Have your friends over for a solstice or equinox meal and tell them that you would like to do a short ceremony to celebrate the season. Be sure to include that in the invitation: inviting people over and then “springing” it on them will not go over well.

Say a brief gratitude prior to the meal (my usual one is, “This food, swelling from the Earth by the breath of the Sun, is brought to us by many hands. May all be honored.”)

Focus your ritual (the Atheopagan ritual primer will help you to design one) on the metaphorical meanings of the season passed and the one arriving, and on connection to the broader processes of the Universe: that we are a part of all this, and are grateful for all the many ways in which the biosphere and the broader Cosmos enable us to live.

These are themes which are pertinent to all humans. They have—or should have—meaning for all of us.

Keep the ceremony short. Make it participatory: each celebrant can say what she is hoping for in the coming season, for example, or what he is grateful for. You may want to have some sort of takeaway: a token of having been a part of the ritual, a symbol of what the coming season means. You would be surprised at how meaningful such objects can become for people; for some, the item may become the beginning of a Focus.

Feel free to tell your guests that you are exploring something called Atheopaganism: a science-based, god-free, woo-free practice to enrich your life by celebrating the seasons, life events, and personal transformation. Don’t keep it a “secret” from them—that’s always going to be counterproductive in the longer term. If they’re curious, point them to this website and let them find out more for themselves.

When the next Sabbath rolls around, invite the same folks again, and any others who seem like they might enjoy or find meaning in what we do.

It’s in this way that community begins: with a few friends sharing something wonderful.

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