I just returned from PantheaCon, the largest annual Pagan gathering in the US. About 2000 Pagans gather in the Doubletree hotel in San Jose, CA every year to converse, do ritual, party, drink, sing, dance, and build community. It’s a lively and fun event. And this year, there were two Atheopagan events on the official schedule. Mark Green has written a good review of the event here. I had a great time and I appreciate everyone who participated in the Atheopagan events. But I have some reservations about the experience.
In order to understand the significance of having explicitly non-theistic Pagan events at PantheaCon this year, it’s necessary to put it in the context of the history of the wider Pagan community. In the 1990s, access to World Wide Web grew exponentially, which led to the unprecedented spread of information about contemporary Paganism. As a result, Paganism experienced a kind of dilution from the time when most Pagans belonged to small, secret, initiatory groups.
Around the turn of the millennium, there was a reaction to this dilution, in the form of “hard” or devotional polytheism, which grew rapidly. This was accompanied by an increase in dogmatism and evangelism among many polytheists. Literal theism increasingly came to be seen as the sin qua non of Paganism. And it became commonplace to hear other Pagans say that one could not be Pagan if one did not believe in literal gods. Some non-theists left Paganism during this period.
About 10 years later, various groups of non-theistic Pagans began to form, including the creation of this site. This was partly in reaction to the perceived domination of Paganism by polytheists. The more outspoken and cantankerous advocates on both sides (myself among them) frequently engaged in heated, public debates about the place of theism and non-theism in Paganism.
Since then, something of a truce has been reached in the hot war between the evangelical polytheist community and the non-theistic community. The various factions of polytheists have settled into the territory they have claimed — a substantial swath of the contemporary Pagan landscape — while the loose confederation of non-theistic Pagans rejoices over its small gains.
This was manifest in the Pantheacon programming this year. Pride of place was given to myriad permutations of polytheistic devotion, while Atheopagans contented themselves with having established a beachhead on the contemporary Pagan scene: two explicitly non-theistic events, a forum and a ritual, both during respectable time slots.
There is a reason for the disproportionate representation. Part of it may be relative numbers, but I’m not convinced that is the only explanation. I suspect it is also because of a qualitative difference between theistic and non-theistic Pagans. Polytheists today tend to be energetic, focused, and organized — everything that non-theists Pagans are not. Non-theistic Pagans are divided — by belief (some reject theism while embracing other unscientific beliefs), by ritual (some embrace ritual, while others eschew it), and by symbol (some use theistic language and symbols pragmatically, while many reject them). But the real defining characteristic of contemporary non-theistic Paganism, as I see it, is a low level of commitment, bordering on the blasé.
Polytheists, despite their diversity, are bound by a belief in the reality of the gods and the significance of their worship, which motivates them to worship both privately and publicly. In contrast, non-theists are bound by a negation of that belief. Now, you might argue that non-theists are bound by a “belief in science”, but the scientific method is a methodology, not a belief system. It proceeds by disproving hypotheses, not by proving them. And a negation will never inspire people the way an affirmation will.
Writers, like Jon Cleland-Host, Lupa, and others who have contributed to this site, have advocated for a more positive understanding of non-theist spirituality, one focused on a Sagan-esque wonder evoked by the natural universe. And while this idea has some passionate advocates, I have yet to see their passion spread to the wider non-theist Pagan community.
This was reflected at the Atheopagan events at PantheaCon. The non-theist forum was held in the afternoon of the first day of the conference. It drew around 50 people and resulted in lively discussion. Nevertheless, I left unsatisfied. We had explicitly invited polytheists to the discussion in the program description, but only one or two took us up on the offer. And now I’m kind of glad they didn’t.
Despite my attempt to discourage the use of offensive and judgmental language, a fair amount of disdain for theism was casually thrown around during the forum. I found myself cringing more than once at the thought of how any theists present would feel. The forum quickly devolved into a kind of gripe session for non-theists. Now, catharsis has its place, but is counterproductive if the goal is understanding. I think a more productive discussion might have been had if the discussion had been facilitated by a theist and a non-theist, and perhaps by a less notorious non-theist than me.
The forum was entitled, “Dancing Without Deity: A Discussion on Non-Theist Paganism“. There was, of course, no actual dancing at the forum discussion. But there was an opportunity to dance the next day at the non-theist ritual, which was titled “Living Earth Devotional: A Non-Theistic Ritual of Commitment“. The ritual was scheduled on the second day of the Con at 11:00 pm, which is very late for some people, but it is actually a a very good time slot. For a lot of people, Saturday evening is the height of the Con, and the Con crowd tends to stay up late and sleep in. The other events taking place during the same time slot were a BDSM discussion, a drum circle, a bawdy body affirming ritual, a Roman ancestor ritual, a lighthearted scapegoat ritual using sock puppets, and a bardic song and poetry circle.
Unfortunately, the non-theist ritual only drew around 20 people. Given that PantheaCon usually draws around 2000 Pagans, the turnout at the non-theist ritual was underwhelming. We expected a minimum of 40 people, and we were hoping for 100. Over 40 people had registered for the ritual, more than had registered for the forum discussion the day before, but less than half who attended the forum actually attended the ritual. This reinforced my belief that (like Unitarians and other non-theists) non-theist Pagans enjoy talking about their religion more than practicing it.
I suspect that more people would have been drawn to the non-theist devotional had it not been advertised it as explicitly non-theistic. The reality is that non-theistic rituals are not uncommon at PantheaCon. Groups like Reclaiming and the Spark Collective regularly populate the PantheaCon programing with rituals which don’t invoke deity, but they don’t advertise as non-theistic. The result was that people who might otherwise have been drawn to a “Living Earth Devotion” were probably turned off by the word “Non-Theistic” in the subtitle.
But not only did we fail to draw in open-minded theists, we also failed to draw in the very same people who so were talking about non-theistic Paganism so enthusiastically the day before. I am left wondering about what the future holds for the non-theist Pagan community. Explicitly non-theistic Paganism coalesced under the pressure of extinction from an external force: evangelical polytheism. But now that open hostilities have ceased, and something of a cold war, if not a real detente, dominates polytheist-nontheist relations, I wonder what will happen to us now.
Will the non-theistic Pagan community thrive in this newly accommodating environment? Do we have enough passion and creativity to build a religious community based on more than the rejection of someone else’s beliefs? Can we create communal practices that really lift us out of ourselves and our overactive cerebrums and help to bind us together in the way that religion should? Will new leaders step forward to carry the torch of non-theistic Pagan religion? Are non-theist Pagans willing to make the commitments and sacrifices necessary to make Naturalistic Paganism a reality, and not just a name or an identity?
If we do succeed, I think it will only happen if non-theist Pagans are willing to move outside our comfort zone. We need to get out of our armchairs and remember (or learn) how to dance again, both literally and figuratively. Maybe we need to reconsider words which we have for so long rejected, like “devotion“, “worship“, and “spirituality“, and what role they may have in a non-theistic practice. And maybe we need to consider what we can learn from those polytheists we have been arguing with for so long, something about privileging direct experience over abstract thought, about having courage to take emotional leaps of faith, and about keeping a lookout for the divine “Other”.
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Postand the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.
To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.