Today we continue our early winter theme, Beginnings, with an interview with Stifyn Emrys, author of Requiem for a Phantom God and other books, gives us the inside scoop on his Atheist Paganism and his ebook ventures.
B. T. Newberg: In the last year, you’ve become actively involved in the “Atheist Pagan” question, writing numerous blog posts and debating Ian Corrigan over whether Atheists can be Pagans or not. I find this is often a matter of how you define terms, so could you tell us what “Atheist Pagan” means to you?
Stifyn Emrys: To me, an atheist is someone who is “without gods,” and a Pagan is a very broad term that comprises any number of earth-based, polytheistic and pantheistic belief systems. I think the conflict comes because some use the term Pagan as a virtual synonym for polytheist. I don’t subscribe to this definition. I respect polytheists, but I resist the very human inclination to redefine a broader term in some narrower sense because it happens to fit my particular belief system.
There are many, many people who respect the earth and our universe who do not see it necessary to define these things in terms of deity. I think it’s natural to view these things in anthropomorphic terms, because doing so makes them easier for us to understand from a human perspective. I’m also fascinated by ancient myth, because its symbolism offers us a glimpse into how we, as humans, interact with our environment and make sense out of things.
I have great respect for metaphor, myth and symbolism. The difficulty, I think, arises when we forget that these are intended as gateways to understanding. Instead, they are taken literally, because, frankly, it’s easier to do so. It also leads to dogmatism and fundamentalism. That’s what I’m concerned is occurring among those who insist that Pagans “worship” literal gods. Very much the same thing happened early in the development of Christianity, when the orthodox literalists suppressed mystical or Gnostic traditions that sought a deeper meaning.
There’s a huge strand of mysticism running through Paganism that I don’t want to see sacrificed to literalism. I’m not using the term “mysticism” in some mumbo-jumbo sense; I’m using it to denote the mysteries of the universe – mysteries I believe we can and should continually seek to understand using science and inquiry. This contrasts with a literalist approach that maintains we’ve already got it all figured out thanks to our symbols, religious hierarchies or holy books.
I’m aware that the term “atheist” carries a certain amount of baggage. I think the terms Pagan humanist and secular Pagan work just as well. Unfortunately, some of the most vocal self-described atheists and anti-theists tend to come off (in my experience) as bitter or petty. Given the way we’re often treated, that’s understandable. But I prefer to take a more positive tack. I like Carl Sagan’s perspective: that the universe in itself is more awe-inspiring than any god who symbolizes it could ever be. Why spend time revering gods as symbols of nature when you can go straight to the source? I think many non-theistic earth-based Pagans would agree with this approach, and I don’t think they should be excluded from a discussion of Paganism.
BTN: So when you say an atheist is “without gods”, do you mean without literal interpretations of gods, or without gods of any kind, symbolic or otherwise?
SE: I mean without literal interpretations. We communicate through symbols; there’s no getting away from that. I think it’s important to be aware of how we use symbols rather than pretending they don’t exist. We don’t stop buying tickets to movies involving superheroes because we know they don’t exist. We enjoy these movies (at least I do) because they offer an insight into human nature and the world in which we live. Symbols are extremely valuable from that standpoint; I believe they become dangerous when we take them literally and, in doing so, ignore the ideas the symbols were meant to convey.
BTN: Many of these concerns also inform your books. Your first, Gospel of the Phoenix, re-weaves the story of Jesus with earlier myths like that of Isis and Horus or the Queen of Sheba. To put it bluntly, what gives you the right to re-write the Gospels?
SE: I anticipated this question, which is why I addressed it in the introduction to the book. What gives anyone the right to present a version of any story? We don’t even know the names of the people who wrote the four canonical gospels (most scholars recognize the titles as pseudepigraphal). What gave “orthodox” Christians the right to exclude the Gospel of Thomas from the canon? What gave the author of Luke, writing four decades after the fact, the right to pick and choose elements of the book we call “Mark” and interweave them with the sayings gospel known as “Q” and at least one other source?
I’m not claiming this book to be “scriptural” or “holy.” It’s just one possible interpretation, and I’m up front about that. Many people have written lives of Jesus. In fact, it has been one of the most popular topics addressed by writers across the centuries. I don’t think I have any more right to produce such a book than they did, but I don’t think I have any less right, either.
BTN: After Gospel of the Phoenix, you followed up with a critique of monotheism called Requiem for a Phantom God, and a further exploration of Jesus-myth issues from your first book in a sequel called Principle of the Phoenix. With three books critiquing or rewriting Abrahamic religions, it almost starts to seem like a New Atheist-style all-out attack. Would you call yourself actively opposed to Abrahamic religions?
I’d call “The Phoenix Principle” an exploration of how Western religion has developed over time. It’s provocative in places, but it wasn’t intended as an attack, either. Rather, it was meant as an attempt to tie many historical and mythological elements together. It’s not a sequel to “The Gospel of the Phoenix” but a separate work, although it touches on some of the same events.
BTN: How would you characterize the difference between the two works, Gospel and Principle?
SE: “Gospel” is written in biblical style and is meant to be poetic, along the lines of ancient wisdom literature and gospels. It’s relatively short, about the length of any one of the four canonical gospels. “Principle” is much broader and written in an investigative style. It covers far more than the life of Jesus, taking in ancient literature from Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Jewish scriptures, as well as apocryphal texts. It examines patterns of myth and tradition that run through everything from the traditions of the pharaohs to medieval legends and lore.
BTN: Okay, that makes sense. I think many Pagans would sympathize with that approach, too. On the other hand, there are those who may find you controversial for other reasons. With one foot kicking the “Atheist Pagan” hornet’s nest and the other foot pointing in a “Christo-Pagan” direction, you must take a lot of flak in the current Pagan community. What’s your stand? Are these legitimate forms of Paganism, and if so, why?
SE: I try to see things from different vantage points, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is I’m open to gleaning information whatever its source. The primary drawback is, like a referee in football, people who have taken hard stands always seem to think I’m on the other side. As a consequence, it’s those hard, dogmatic stands that I seek to soften up. People who say you “can’t” be a Christo-Pagan, a Pagan Atheist or whatever generally betray a rigidity in their own thinking and, often, a lack of respect for the principle that people should be able to identify themselves however they wish – as long as they’re not deliberately pretending to be something they’re not. Spiritual self-identification is, to me, as important as ethnic or racial identification. Imagine a person telling a person of Native American heritage, “You can’t call yourself Native American because you were born in France.” Or imagine telling someone who’s gay, “You can’t identify as gay because you were once in a straight relationship.” That’s offensive. And to me, it’s just as offensive to tell someone, “You can’t identify yourself as a Christo-Pagan or Pagan Atheist because those designations don’t fit into my preconceived notions about them.” It’s a matter of respect.
BTN: Does that miss the point, though? I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I can imagine opponents protesting that the analogy would be closer if you told someone who claimed to be gay they can’t identify that way because they don’t date the same sex. For those people, it’s not about respect, it’s about (their) definitions, isn’t it?
SE: I see two principles at work here. The first is freedom of speech: I believe we all have the right to choose our way of self-identifying. On the other side of the equation, a lot of gays were (and some still are) “in the closet” because they fear violence or ridicule from anti-gay groups or individuals. The same goes for many Pagans who are “in the broom closet.” While I personally believe that it’s best to be true to one’s self, I can completely understand the desire for privacy and safety from those who can be less than understanding. I think they should be able to identify themselves as they choose, whether I agree with that choice or not.
Second, I think it’s important to recognize that some people purposely claim some false identity for the sake of profit, power or manipulation. This purposeful misidentification isn’t what I’m talking about.
Still, I’m less likely to say, “Your label is wrong” than to point out apparent hypocrisy or self-contradiction … and, when possible, give the person the opportunity to respond. This is why, in personal interactions, I prefer to ask questions than to issue proclamations. I won’t say, “That wasn’t very (Pagan, Christian or whatever) of you.” Instead, I’ll ask a question: “How does your opposition to same-sex marriage stack up against the U.S. tradition of civil equality? Or Jesus’ teachings about love and acceptance of those who are different?”
BTN: I want to switch gears now and talk about your publishing ventures. You’ve self-published a total of six – count ’em six! – books since the summer of 2012. Are you finding self-publishing a viable avenue for getting your message to the public?
SE: It’s working well. As an independent author, I can get my work out there a lot faster than I could if I went through the old-fashioned publishing process. I find that books often “take off” once they get a strong following, whether or not they’re traditionally published. I know of one independent author who has sold more than 250,000 copies. I’m nowhere near that, but my exposure is growing, and I’m pleased with that.
Being an indie author also gives me more freedom to pursue a variety of interests without being tied down to a specific genre. As of this writing, I’ve produced an inspirational book (“Gospel”), a theological treatise (“Requiem”), an examination of history/mythology (“Principle”), a children’s fairy tale (“Feathercap”), a book of historical vignettes (“Undefeated”) and two works of fiction: “Identity Break” and the novella “Artifice,” both from a trilogy I’m working on. My interests are pretty broad, ranging from spirituality to sports, from science fiction to human rights, and I enjoy being able to share those interests with readers.
BTN: Before we go, I have to ask: where does the name “Stifyn Emrys” come from?
SE: It’s a pen name. My given name is Stephen, and Stifyn is the Welsh form. Emrys was Merlin’s Welsh name, and it means “immortal.” I like to think that a writer’s words, while perhaps not immortal, at least survive him or her.
BTN: Finally, I always end by asking authors, if you could sum up your message to the Pagan community in one sentence, what would it be?
SE: Respect one another, embrace diversity and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions.
Stifyn Emrys is an author of numerous, including Requiem for a Phantom God, a critique of Abrahamic monotheism. His first novel, “Identity Break,” is due out in February 2013. He lives in California with his wife, Samaire Provost, author of the “Mad World” YA series. His books are available on Amazon (www.amazon.com/-/e/B008LHKFM2) and Nook (www.barnesandnoble.com/s/stifyn-emrys?dref=2207). Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/semrys.