For this week’s installment of the Pagan Blog Project, I’ve decided to reflect a bit on atheism.
Last week I thought about how our autonomy makes us strong and keeps our community diverse. An extension of this autonomy is the fact that we can all choose the best way to be Pagan for ourselves. And more and more regularly, I’m encountering members of the community who have no belief in gods. There are those that would tell you that to be Pagan requires that one believe in the gods, but frankly, there’s no rulebook for Paganism; there’s no way that one Pagan can tell another that they’re doing it wrong. The “best” we have is the ability to tell another that they’re not doing it the way that we are.
What’s so wrong about atheism?
Frankly, I’m not sure I understand what’s so bad about atheism. Granted, there are some atheists out there that bloviate regarding their convictions and attack theists for not agreeing with them, but the forceful sharing of ones convictions (to put it as politely as I can) is certainly not something unique to atheists!
Likely, it’s related to the fact that many theists attribute one’s morality to the specifics of the scriptural texts of their religion. Which makes it even more troubling that some Pagans find it difficult to accept atheists into our community when they seek to be a part of it considering the general lack of any such scripture in the community.
On the other hand, I can understand why the membership of a specific tradition that requires faith in the gods would find an atheist in their midst troubling. Consider a tradition rooted in the Delphic Maxims, the first and third of which specifically state that one must follow and worship the gods. This tradition could rightly claim that atheists need not apply, but on the other hand, it’s doubtful that one would wish to do so.
But, the Pagan community at large has nothing other than prejudice (that I can see) keeping it from embracing those atheists who wish to join us.
Why would an atheist want to be a Pagan?
There’s a lot more in our community than our gods. The ecological mindset of Pagans–both in reference to ecology as a synonym for environmentalism and as an interdependent and interconnected system–doesn’t require a belief in the gods. Nor does an exploration of virtue based on the heroic tales of the ancients. And, being a minority is hard; some atheists might hang out with Pagans (even if they don’t claim that label for themselves personally) simply because we tend to be more tolerant than others they’ve encountered.
There’s something else, though, that I think may be attractive to the average atheist with respect to our community: we tend to seek knowledge. My experience with Pagans is that even the average one of us has a fairly solid grasp on some of the pertinent parts of world history and the interaction of various religions and cultures. It might not be PhD level knowledge, but that doesn’t matter. Even those of us who aren’t as knowledgeable generally aren’t willing to live in ignorance of something once we become aware of its existence.
This characteristic of our community seems compatible with the rationality so prized by the average atheist.
The one thing that the average atheist–Pagan or otherwise–would most likely have a problem with is the general lack of skepticism within our community. Perhaps because we’re so tolerant of others’ beliefs, we have a hard time questioning their own personal gnosis. I know I have covertly raised an eyebrow at the beliefs of my religious colleagues, but despite my incredulity, I bite my tongue and tell myself that their reality doesn’t have to be my reality and go on with my life.
Sometimes, this is hard to do. You know you’ve thought that person telling you about the dream they had last night in which the queen of the faeries gave advice on their career or the experience they had with the ghost of their thrice removed grandmother who told them that Zeus had chosen them from Olympus to be extra awesome was a bit of a nut bag. We’ve all been there. Similarly, I’m sure some of the things that I hold to be true would like be nutbag-worthy to some atheists.
But, maybe not all of them.
Am I an Atheist?!
Sometimes I wonder. I don’t have any personal experience with the gods. I don’t recall ever having one when I was younger and still practicing Judaism either.
The most numinous experience that I recall having was actually during my teens at a Boy Scout summer camp. Our troop had been assigned to set up in an area named Whispering Pines. The camping spot itself was not too remarkable but go behind the tents and through a bit of brush and you find an area similar to the photo at the right.
The trees were tall, thin. They swayed lightly in the breeze, their flexibility keeping them strong. And, I realized that the name of the camp wasn’t simply a pretty turn of phrase: the trees did seem to whisper as the wind moved through their needles.
I remember a sense of closeness with the space around me. Knowing what I do now with respect to genius loci, I wonder what could be learned if I could return there today.
Regardless, nothing in my experience requires that the gods be present or even that they exist. So why, then, do I believe in them? Primarily, it’s because I trust the experiences that others. These experiences have been described to me in such a way that I’m convinced that others have encountered something greater, wiser, and transcendent even if I have not.
Is that enough? I’m not actually sure. Sometimes it is, but other times I wonder what I’ve missed lacking that dimension to my spiritual practice. Regardless, I remain a bit uncomfortable with my choice of theism when I have only the anecdotal evidence of others to go on. I’m not ready, yet, to call myself an atheist, but I’m open to the possibility that one day I might.