Yes, Virginia, I’m a Pagan Atheist, by James Rhett Aultman
Note from the editor: As always, the views and opinions expressed by individual authors on this site do not necessarily reflect those of HumanisticPaganism.com or of all Naturalistic Pagans. Please remember that this site is for constructive expression and dialogue. Comments of a harassing or inflammatory nature will be deleted.
Pagan. ‘Nuf said?
I’m an atheist. I’m also Pagan. It’s actually not that hard to reconcile.
At the very beginning, it’s worth making something quite clear — there is really no rulebook for what makes a Pagan. It’s a term that seems to encompass a rather wide and diverse set of people. Generally speaking, Thelemites and Wiccans and Heathens all seemingly share a common set of social concerns and social infrastructure, even if they don’t share cosmology or practices. The reasons for hanging together under this umbrella term aren’t within the scope of the article, nor is the history of the term. I’m not out to speak about how we got to this point. The fact of the matter is that we’re here. And what is Paganism? It is, effectively, a culture that provides a web of common reference and language for a bunch of different people with different beliefs and practices to hang together. Paganism, therefore, has no particular theological or religious test.
I actually feel like I could rest the defense there, but I won’t. It’d make for a really empty blog post, and outside of that, I’ve looked on the web and seen a lot of static about Pagan atheism. Some of it comes from atheists that, in my opinion, needlessly deride atheist Pagans for what they consider to be unacceptable levels of religiosity; most of it, however, comes from Pagans who consider belief in the existence of at least one deity to be a necessary quality of a Pagan.
Really, really there?
But let’s break some things down. Theism is generally accepted to be typified by making a claim of the existence of at least one deity. There are a series of assertions implied in the statement, “At least one deity exists.” For example, it requires a founding definition of “deity.” It also requires a founding definition of “existence.” Sitting around and indulging in a discussion about what it means to exist would, honestly, turn into a series of blog posts that would end up rehashing ontology in general. I’m not going to attempt an iron-clad definition of “existence.” Generally speaking, though, one of my rules for saying that something exists involves my ability to demonstrate that existence to others in convincing ways, particularly when those “others” may hold views that wouldn’t be biased towards accepting that the object in question exists. This actually flows forth not from some serious position of modernism, but from the pretty practical meat-and-potatoes way that I, and many other humans, handle experiencing strange new phenomena. If I see something strange, I draw others’ attention to it to see if they see it and what they make of it.
Of course, over a lifetime of taking this practical attitude to things, including an admission, upon first encountering something unusual, that I could be hallucinating or seriously confused, I’ve developed certain rules-of-thumb to help speed up my conclusions. For example, I’ve found that most things which exist can have machines built which demonstrate and exploit that existence. For example, there was a time when HIV’s role in AIDS was not as well-accepted as it is today. The development of drugs which directly assault HIV, and which significantly extend the lives of HIV+ people, has been a major nail in that coffin. Another guideline is observing the biases of those who claim a certain thing exists. There are a bunch of these other sorts of guidelines, and a lot of people who are simply being sensible use them all the time.
Putting a few of these together, I come to the conclusion that no deity exists. Now, we can make some fuzzy definitions of “deity,” and there are a few that I might semi-comfortably consider interesting and useful, but I don’t grant them the status of, as Feynman once put it, “really, really there.” They’re not beings in this universe. They’re not beings in another universe. They’re not on another “dimension” or “plane” or “level” or “realm of ideals,” and the existence of those things is also something I do not accept. If I list the properties of deities, existence isn’t among them. That alone is enough to qualify me as an atheist. But I will, for good measure, mention some other things that I don’t think exist. I don’t recognize the existence of vital life-force, or chi, or ki, or “energy,” or any of the other myriad terms used in New Age and Pagan circles. I don’t recognize the existence of spirits, of demons, or of angels. I have no reason to conclude that I have a soul that will continue on after my death, which is to say that I also don’t believe in an afterlife. There are a lot of things common to the lives of Pagans that I don’t recognize in the ontological class of being “really, really there.”
And yet, if you find yourself blanching at this, or you’re ready to fire off a comment and tell me I’m not a “real” Pagan, at least let me tell you my response up front. Stop. You’re being obsessed with ontology.
Putting on the Santa suit
A really wise friend of mine has this great shtick he does about how he’ll never tell a child Santa Claus isn’t real. It’s really a brilliant bit, and I actually love hearing him do it at dinners and parties. Essentially, it goes like this: Santa Claus is more recognizable by more people than your average real person. People know who he is and what he does. People get gifts from him all the time, etc., etc. In fact, if you walked down the street in a red suit giving out gifts, everyone would call you Santa Claus. So, of course Santa is real. He might be more real than most people!
And, of course, this is delivered with a little bit of humor, the sort that says, “Ha, ha! … but seriously!” He, of course, does leave out some really important details that throw wrenches in the works for Santa Claus. For example, we’ve never found his workshop, nor evidence of his purchasing the raw materials for toys. His employees are elves, and nobody’s found those (seriously, not even one crazy whistleblower?!). The FAA has never received a request for an air traffic corridor radioed in from a flying sleigh. Possibly most tragically of all, there are lots of good girls and boys that Santa somehow misses. Most people would agree that this compounds together with lots of other information to suggest that, at a minimum, Santa has yet to be found and his existence would be highly contradictory.
But the whole Santa thing is still a really apt way for explaining how I deal with things like deities and the other ooky-spooky subjects we lump together into Paganism. See, I remember being 13 years old, and because I didn’t feel I had any popularity to defend, I played Santa Claus when my Boy Scout troop sang Christmas carols down at the old folks’ home. I had a really freaking good time putting on the red suit, going “Ho ho ho!”, and giving out candy canes and hugs. Most of the people at that nursing home were beyond delighted to see me. I mean, they were delighted that a bunch of fresh-faced Boy Scouts came to sing for them, but if I’d been passing out candy canes wearing my uniform, it wouldn’t have been half as much fun for me or for them. I do suspect that there may have been one or two of them may have been suffering from dementia and possibly really thought I was Santa, but I have no doubt that most of them called me “Santa” because it was fun to do so. And it was fun for me. Everything was more fun for having the living symbol of generosity and happy childhood memories there. Yep. Santa isn’t real, but I was once Santa for a night, and it made the night meaningful.
Begging the question
This is generally the place where someone will invoke a sort of fall-back cosmology popular within the Pagan community: the Jungian concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious. I’ve never really been a fan of seeing things that way, either. To be honest, it feels like another attempt at making the gods (or magickal energy, or other such stuff) “real.” Hermes no longer lives atop Mt. Olympus, but now lives inside the collective unconscious. The problem is that both Mt. Olympus and the collective unconscious are artifacts of a mythology. This shifts the mythological location, but it doesn’t really structurally change things. The other problem I have is that, while we have physical science for discussing phenomena which exist in the world, there is no “science of archetypes.” Archetypes are, in a sense, their own mythology, albeit an interesting and compelling one and one that may be a little less supernatural. But as a mythology goes, I don’t reach for it often. I also must confess that I don’t experience gods or other mystic concepts as being part of my psyche, nor do I use the modality of ritual in such a heavy psychological fashion.
Of course, archetypes are handy descriptors. I will give them that. It’s hard to not think about any character without bringing archetypes in. I prefer to see my psyche as mine, full of its own funny idiosyncratic quirks, and to simply explore, as freely as possible, what a deity or a concept or a character means to me. I don’t need to hang that on an external framework to do so, at least most of the time.
Does it matter?
And that’s why I honestly feel that, although I’m the atheist, it’s everyone else who’s being really philosophically uptight. I might not think that Hermes is “real”, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t aspire to be like Hermes, make art that represents Hermes, talk about Hermes, do things and claim Hermes did them, dress like Hermes, act like Hermes, get other people to call me Hermes, or be Hermes, for myself or others, for a time. Just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean that you can’t experience it. If things that didn’t really exist had no power, I sincerely doubt that people would go to see Batman or Iron Man movies. People love connecting with those complex symbols of heroism. People just also know that you can’t shine a bat-shaped searchlight when you’re getting mugged and that you can’t trade in Stark Industries on the NYSE. Flynn does not live. “Flynn Lives!” still means at least another $15 for millions of people.
All of this is to say that I find the question of the gods being “real,” and indeed discussions of their ontological nature in general, somewhat silly. It doesn’t matter if they’re “real” if they’re meaningful. So, yes, I am an atheist because I don’t believe in the existence of a deity. I’m also, however, a Pagan, because I have a personal relationship to the same things that Pagans have relationships to. Once you get past the word games of ontology, being an atheist Pagan isn’t so silly after all.
Originally published at: rhett.weatherlight.com
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.
Next Sunday, we share an conversation between with DT Strain and B. T. Newberg, “How I became a Naturalist”.