Care and feeding of your atheist Pagan, by Rhett Aultman
I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and in my mind, I’ve done it under a number of different titles. It started life as “What is an Atheist Pagan, Anyway?” Over time, though, I’ve realized that’s really not the most satisfying tack for such an article. Nobody elected me Emperor of Atheist Pagans, so I can’t make statements about what we all are. Finally, a series of email exchanges with one of my fellow mystic friends brought the structure of this article to its forefront, because I’ve noticed that there is a predictable mutual confusion in our interactions. The reason why I feel something of a “care and feeding” style article is better is that the theme is a bit more fun, casual, and personal. I can’t speak for others, but I don’t require actual care and feeding, though I do sometimes enjoy being a pet.
So, let’s start back at the beginning. If you’re reading this, and if you’re Pagan, and if you’re associated with a somewhat diverse Pagan community, there is a distinct possibility that someone you know through that community is an atheist. This may or may not come as a surprise to you. Amidst the vast diversity of people working with different pantheons, with the God and Goddess, with the divine intelligences of Qabalah, the hordes of spirits in Goetia…there are a few of us who went up to the smorgasbord of divinity and actually concluded our plates were beautiful when empty. We are among you, we know your gods and your spirits and all the rest, and we might even engage with them, but we don’t identify with them as being our gods. We might not even consider divinity to exist “out there.” But we still find a deep, powerful connection to the practices, to the blending of ideas and thoughts, to the experiences we gain, and from the community we keep. We might even engage with some of those gods you do, but just think about them differently. I’m one of them, and I use the term “atheist Pagan” to describe myself and the others like me I’ve met on the way.
And I think there’s one thing I think we could agree on (other than agreeing that we’re atheists), and that’s this– other Pagans don’t always know what to do with us. There are a number of very good reasons why this happens, and I’m not going to hash them out too much here. Instead, I’d like to just focus on some things that you, my dear reader, can do that could mean a lot to any of the atheist Pagans in your community. Please keep in mind that you might have some atheists in your community right now and not know it. I’ve met more than a few who don’t speak very loudly about their atheism.
So, without further ado, care and feeding of the atheist Pagan in your life.
Do not challenge your atheist Pagan about why he or she doesn’t believe in your gods/deities/spirits/etc.
I know it may seem really strange to have a conversation with someone who’s a Pagan and an atheist. You might also genuinely want to know how this person came to reach his or her particular perspective. It’s totally fair to ask in a warm and friendly way, the way you might ask your Asatru friend what attracts him or her to the Norse pantheon. It’s very important, though, that you not ask your atheist Pagan as if you’re demanding he or she defend his or her choices. Don’t ask like you’ve encountered something weird. Go back in time a bit to when you to identify yourself as Pagan to others. No doubt you remember some people in your life treating you like you were full of strange ideas because you wanted to believe in many gods (or in some all-encompassing deity of nature, or some other non-mainstream theology). It sure must have felt exhausting to have to explain and defend yourself over what was, quite honestly, your truth. Atheist Pagans go through this, too. We often get it from Pagans over our atheism, from other atheists for our Paganism, and from mainstream people over both. Beyond that, consider this– Pagans want the tolerance of diversity. This means monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and atheists, too.
Don’t tell your atheist Pagan that he or she isn’t “really” an atheist or “really” a Pagan.
This actually comes up more than you might think, usually in the nicer version of “you’re not really an atheist.” It’s almost meant as a compliment, often from someone who’s taken crap from particularly adversarial atheists in the past. There’s a stereotype about atheists that we’re all loudmouths who won’t rest until we’ve destroyed everyone’s favorite spiritual beliefs and paved the entire noosphere over with a fresh coating of empirical materialism. Atheism is actually a very, very simple standpoint– you become an atheist when you have no deity, and that’s it. The definition itself is very, very general, and throughout history, there have been many, many different ways to arrive at that state. An atheist might believe that deity does not exist, that the metaphysics of the universe simply does not define a place for deity, that deities exist but should not be treated in the customs one gives deities, or any of a number of other positions. Most of the atheist Pagans I’ve had the pleasure to meet do tend to have a pretty strong materialistic streak to their worldviews (and, honestly, most Pagans do, in general), but not many of them are not out to constantly openly criticize every religious belief or superstition they come across.
On the other hand is the assertion that atheist Pagans aren’t “really Pagan.” While atheism and Paganism may seem, to some, irreconcilable, there isn’t a theological test associated with being Pagan. Generally, Pagans are respectful of one another’s pantheons while focusing on their own. This doesn’t actually preclude having a personal pantheon with zero gods in it. Atheist Pagans are like any others who don’t necessarily share your personal pantheon.
Don’t presume your atheist Pagan is less spiritually capable or fulfilled.
How I got to be an atheist is a fairly long and winding story, so I’ll give you the “tl;dr” version– I was finally honest about myself that “the gods” just “weren’t there.” I spent several years trying very hard with a number of practices, and had a lot of very interesting experiences along the way, but I just never really felt anything that really left me feeling strongly driven to the reality of deity. This is the opposite experience of most Pagans, but it’s just as real and credible. It actually takes a lot, in a community that takes its spirituality so personally, to admit that. I just don’t feel the same connections others do, and it’s inauthentic and painful for me to make myself try to be any other way about it. The first thing Pagan theists tend to inject into this is that I’m “just blind.” This is basically an assault on my own sense of authenticity, and the only authority to that position is that the theism is seen as the default. If atheism were the default position, theists would be accused of hallucinating their deities. So, no, I’m not “just blind,” and neither is any other atheist. Because the theistic position is the default one, pretty much all atheists have explored it and explored what it might mean to them, and they ultimately reject it.
Don’t assume that our lack of gods means we’re ignorant, stubborn, or magickally handicapped. It’s easy to think that, because you see or hear spirits or deities or whatever, that we must be “blind” or “deaf” to them. The metaphor is a problematic one, especially since it actually claims that anyone with a different experience (a Buddhist, perhaps) is just as “blind” to your reality. An atheist Pagan may not experience the same things you do, but in the incredible mess of subjectivity that makes up human perception, remember that it’s really hard to hold claim to having the objective opinion. Also, remember Christians used to claim the default position and ascribe madness to those who talked to ghosts or received messages from old gods.
Don’t presume that being an atheist means rejecting all magick, all religion, or all new age thought.
This is yet another stereotype. Certainly, some atheists are just like that. That sort of atheist, though, is also probably not going to get a lot of joy out of also wanting to be part of the Pagan community. Again, atheism is mostly a position about the existence of deity, and that particular question can be addressed in many ways. The question of deity has little to do with the question of the soul, of an afterlife, of the existence of magickal “energy,” of the mechanism and efficacy of astrology or other means of divination, or really any other subject that’s applicable to most magick, mysticism, or other Pagan practices. On these subjects, atheist Pagans have just as much philosophical, cosmological, and practical diversity as anyone. Your atheist Pagan may enjoy taking part in many of the “conventionally Pagan” practices out there, and may do so for reasons very much like your own or ones very different from you. You can’t conclude a person’s complete magickal identity based solely on their perspectives about divinity.
Do understand that your atheist Pagan is attracted to Paganism.
That may seem really strange to you, but there is probably a lot more going on in your own flavor of Paganism than you realize. There can be all sorts of wonderful reasons an atheist may continue to choose a path mostly regarded as Pagan. Your atheist Pagan may feel very strongly acculturated to Pagans and their ways. He or she might follow a path that doesn’t include the worship of deities but which is heavily built from the fabric of contemporary Paganism. He or she may work with a “sacred non-entity” much like Tilich’s “ground of being.” He or she may actually still work with deities but see them as emotionally moving fictional characters or symbols. The reasons are myriad, but there is one thing for certain– your atheist Pagan hangs around you because he or she wants to. There is something in the connection you share that’s important. That goes for your common community, too. It may seem strange because an atheist Pagan seems at odds with stereotypes about atheists, but there are already many fine atheist communities out there, and yet there are many atheists who’d rather be with the Pagans.
Do invite your atheist Pagan to your rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.
Have you ever gone with one of your Christian friends to a church, or perhaps to a temple with a Jewish friend or to a mosque with a Muslim friend? Maybe you went along to a Buddhist temple once or to…oh, I don’t know. Maybe you even hung out in a Scientology center or drummed with some Hare Krishnas because someone you knew and liked asked you along. No doubt, you were respectful of your hosts and possibly participated a little. Maybe you even learned something. Many, if not most, atheists are just as capable of joining in a religious service at a level somewhere between respectful detachment and enthusiasm. One of the most wonderful things about the Pagan community is its diversity of ideas and experiences available for those of cosmopolitan mindset to enjoy. Just because someone doesn’t experience your closest deity doesn’t mean he or she won’t enjoy experiencing your expression of that divine connection. Rituals are stimulating and fascinating things to be a part of. Anyone who’s going to proselytize about gods not existing at a ritual is a real jerk, and since you probably don’t have jerks for friends, your atheist Pagan is probably not a jerk, either.
Let’s say that your atheist Pagan passed up on coming to your big Freya working. That doesn’t mean the invitation wasn’t welcome! It’s nice to be invited to things. It’s a sign of friendship. It shows you’re thinking about that person and wanting to see them happy. That alone is worth it.
Do ask your atheist Pagan about his or her story, and be open to sharing yours.
It’s not a fast or straight path to an atheistic position, let alone one that still carries the Pagan flavor. Like many Pagans, your atheist Pagan is probably very happy to talk about his or her path. It’s probably one that’s very personal, idiosyncratic, and heterodox, and since atheist Paganism, unlike Wicca or Golden Dawn or other paths, doesn’t really have any manuals, your atheist Pagan has been finding his or her way alone for quite some time. We like sharing our truth, just like other people do.
At the same time, there’s a good chance an atheist Pagan you know wants to know about your own path, your own history, and your own truth. Most Pagans I have known geek out on spirituality, even if it’s from an informally anthropological point of view. Empathy and friendship carry an aspect of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Don’t be afraid to lend yours.
Do feel free to compliment your atheist Pagan from your own worldview.
I don’t mean to sound like a braggart, but I do get compliments on the way I comport myself in ritual. When I feel a connection to a working, I am absolutely voracious for it. I just want to take it and make every last little bit of it become part of me until performing that working is as natural to me as making a cup of tea. I want to live in the working. I want to blur the lines of where I end and where my performance begins. In my own little cosmology, I don’t really consider (or, despite years of working on it, even experience) common magickal concepts like “energy.” In fact, my adopting a paradigm that doesn’t really focus much on energy is due to my own lack of experience for it…or at least in my not experiencing it in the way so many others around me have. But, when someone comes up to me after ritual and says I was working the energy well, does it bother me? Of course not. I know those people are speaking their truth, and that they ultimately are trying to tell me how my own work made them feel moved. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. Of course, not all people are the same, and I’m sure you’ll find some atheist Pagan out there who will get uncomfortable or try to correct you, but it’s still a far better thing to try to share yourself with others than to not; the latter means not making an important personal connection with someone in your community.
Conversely, a compliment from an atheist might not share your own spiritual vocabulary. Remember, though, that the compliment is still genuine and meant with love, and it is not a dismissal of your own experiences simply because it doesn’t reflect your experiences. You may genuinely feel you’re “running the energy,” while another person might think you’re “a talented performer.”
Recognize atheism as a philosophy that shapes, rather than contradicts, spirituality.
Ultimately, this is what all the other things come down to. There have been atheists who’ve strongly contributed to every major religion of the world. Yes, even Christianity. If you haven’t read of the existentialist Christianity of Paul Tilich, you should check it out. Atheism has, over the past century or so, seen a very serious restriction in its definition. There are many reasons for it, not the least of which are religious interests in America using politics to attempt to restrict science and science education. In a broad historical perspective, though, there have been atheist philosophies within every religious tradition and several religious traditions that classify the cosmos in such a way that there’s simply no room for deities to exist. Your atheist Pagan might take a highly psychological viewpoint on divinity, or may believe that divinity isn’t an entity and thus not subject to existence, or may think divinity is simply “the absolute,” or may simply not really feel concerned with questions about divinity. Much as atheist philosophers have shaped the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and various aspects of Christianity, atheists in the Pagan community are there, keeping things from becoming ossified into some canonical form of religiosity. Our lack of commitment to existential divinity is a feature, not a bug, and there’s a good chance that we were quite welcome to the discussion before we brought up that whole atheism thing. Let us hang out. Tell us if we’re telling you what your spiritual reality should be; let us have our spiritual reality and speak from it. We’ll get along fabulously. I promise.
This article was first published at Rhett Aultman: Engineer, Athlete, and atheist Pagan.
J. Rhett Aultman is a software engineer from Oakland, CA by way of Florida. A Pagan with over 18 years of experience, Rhett has worked with a diverse group of traditions including Wicca, traditionalist witchcraft, chaos magick, and Golden Dawn. Rhett is also a lover of Japanese tea ceremony, which strongly informs his ritual sensibilities, and he has demonstrated Pagan forms of ceremonial tea at Pantheacon 2012. Rhett writes about his experiences, often including essays on atheistic Paganism, at his blog, Rhett Aultman: Engineer, Athlete, and Atheist Pagan.