We’re not all Amy B.: Meet some other non-theistic Pagans

When saw that Jason Mankey interviewed atheist Pagan Amy B. at Raising the Horns, I was first excited, and then horrified.  Personally, I tend to avoid the label “atheist Pagan” for the same reason that many non-theists avoid the term “atheist”.  I’ve seen “atheist Pagan” used closely with “secular Pagan”, which does not describe me at all.  But even though I don’t identify as one, there is much that I have in common with self-described atheist Pagans, including a commitment to philosophical naturalism and humanism.  So, that was why I was excited to read Jason’s interview of Amy. And then I read this:

With no belief in the supernatural, why do you go to rituals?

Because I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment. Mega-church worship services and high Catholic masses can be dazzling, but for sheer joy and fun, Pagan ritual has them all beat. Properly done, Pagan ritual involves an all-body experience and lots of theatricality.

When I read that, I thought, “Crap! This will confirm the worst fears of theistic Pagans about non-theists.”  I commented on Jason’s blog and expressed my concern, and I was glad to see other non-theists speak up as well. It’s my hope that those reading the interview will appreciate that Amy is just one type of non-theistic Pagan, and is not necessarily representative.  For one thing, she describes herself as a “secular humanist”.  While I am a humanist and a humanistic Pagan, I’ve never described myself as a “secular” anything.  Indeed, my Paganism is a reaction against secularity.  Amy’s ritual-as-entertainment approach, I think, is a function of her secularity, more than her atheism.

In any case, this is not a personal criticism of Amy B.  She is entitled to believe and practice as she sees fit.  I have no problem with her self-identification as a Pagan.   And I would probably enjoy doing ritual with her.  I just want to emphasize that not all non-theistic or a-theistic Pagans are secular or aesthetic Pagans like Amy.  Many non-theistic Pagans, including myself, have a deep sense of spirituality and treat ritual as something sacred.

But rather than tell you more about what my own beliefs and practices, I’d like to instead introduce you to the recent writings of three non-theistic Pagans who have written about their beliefs and their practices.  You may or may not know them already.  They are non-theistic type Pagans whose approach to the gods and ritual, while non-theistic, nevertheless is more reverential than what Amy B. described in her interview with Jason.

Áine W.

On her blog, The Spinning of the Wheel, Áine W. describes herself as a naturalistic Pagan, a pantheist, an an atheist.  Throughout her posts, Áine tries to balance her “pantheistic leanings” with her atheism.  She explains that her spiritual practices are largely metaphorical, and she feels that religious ritual is beneficial psychologically.  She writes about reclaiming ritual as part of her reclaiming her Pagan identity: “I believe that one of the core reasons for my spiritual leaning stems from an innate human need for ritual, particularly when connected with mythologising or storying the universe.”  Áine’s evolving practice is strongly influenced by her Wiccan background and by Glenys Livingstone’s Pagaian CosmologyShe gives an outline of her evolving core ritual here.

Áine explains, in her recent post entitled “Choosing Metaphors: theistic language in non-theistic spiritual practice”, that as a pantheist, she acknowledges “divinity”, but not “deity”.  Divinity, for Áine, is the Cosmos, the universe, or existence, which she calls “Gaia”.  In spite of her non-theistic beliefs, she does use anthropomorphism in her rituals and devotions.  For Áine, deities are “metaphors of physical phenomenon or abstract concepts” which she meditates on, dedicates words to, and lights candles for.  She is comfortable using theistic language because “it adds meaning to my rituals and my feeling of connectedness with what I consider to be the divine.

In an earlier post this past May, entitled “Emotional Pantheism: where the logic ends and the feelings start”, Áine writes about how she has tried to balance her secular life and her spirituality, or her logical side and her emotional side, represented respectively by her atheism and her pantheism.  She explains that, while she does not “believe” in divinity, she does feel it:

“… although there are theological and philosophical theories and intangible concepts that excite me and are meaningful to me, I’m not sure that I could be said to believe in divinity in any real way.

“But when it comes to how I resonate emotionally, I have very strong pantheistic feelings. Although I may not see divinity as something that can even be defined, let alone proven, I feel as though the universe is divine. It is not something I believe in the way that I believe in science and physics and the physicality of my day-to-day existence. But it is something that I feel at my very core. It is an emotional response to awe, to beauty, to mystery. And that emotional response is very strong in me.”

While she is not willing to take leaps of faith logically, Áine is willing to take emotional leaps of faith, by opening herself to experience the trans-mundane without judgment.  She concludes: “So when I perform ritual – when I light my altar candles and utter words of dedication and devotion – I am not merely marking a changing season or an astronomical event. I am, emotionally, reaching out the divinity that I see in the Cosmos.

I love Áine’s distinction between logical atheism and emotional pantheism, and how she is able to bring these together into a kind of uneasy balance.  There is a kind of ambivalence about spirituality in Áine’s writing that I really identify with.  Like my own, her relationship with these two sides of herself is constantly evolving.  In a post entitled, “Symbiosis: the two of cups”, she writes:

“I still somewhat see my spirituality as my shadow, or a part of my shadow self. It feels sometimes like an outpouring of everything I have been rejecting as I mature – irrationality, reverence, magic, possibility. I become, in ritual, a version of myself that nobody else ever sees, something that is quite opposite to much of what I feel makes me myself. Through ritual and reverence, I reach out a hand to that part of me that revels in mysticism and the unknown, that thrills at the thought of dark mysteries. I experience the dark joy of life.

In spite of this ambivalence about her spiritual side, it is clear from Áine’s writing that she is a deeply spiritual person.  And her approach to ritual, whether it includes anthropomorhism or not, is profoundly reverential.

Treeshrew

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On his blog, Endless Erring, Treeshrew describes himself as an aspiring “naturalist druid” and “atheist druid”.  He explains that does he not believe in gods, spirits, or magic, but loves nature and finds the universe amazing.  He believes that science is the best way to understand reality, but contemporary druidry helps him create a “a sense of meaningful relationship with the inter-connected natural world of which we humans are a small part.”

Treeshrew defines his own spirituality as “deep sense of awe and wonder at the natural world.”   The spiritual life, for him, is

“one fully engaged with living and one which seeks inspiration, or Awen in a Druid context, from the natural world. And whilst I do not believe in anthropomorphic gods in the sky, I do believe in the intricate connections of the forces of nature, the life-force of the universe, the energies that permeate all things.”

Treeshrew wrote about his struggle with the question of anthropomorphism in a post earlier this year entitled, “Gods, atheists and Muppets, oh my!”.  He describes his struggle to figure out how, as an atheist, to deal with the presence of deities in the prayers and rituals of his druid tradition.  Treeshrew explains that for him, “deities are characters in stories.”  But, he goes on:

Stories are important. Stories are a human universal and they connect us to each other and our past. Stories impart wisdom and teach life lessons. Stories can reveal ‘truths’ that facts alone cannot. … In ritual I am willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ just as I do when reading a book or watching a film. I am happy to enter into the immersive experience, but once the ritual is done, I return to reality. The gods and goddesses live in our minds only and we can carry their inspiration within us.”

According to Treeshrew, even though the gods are human creations, they are powerful symbols.  He writes, “What is important is that they point beyond themselves to the awesome powers of the natural world, the vast universe of which we are a part.

Through ritual, Treeshrew explains in another post, we re-enchant the world, “bringing meaning and relationship back into our understanding of nature.”  In a post entitled, “Nature Worship … what’s the point?”, Treeshrew writes that the purpose of ritual, for him, is not to interact with gods or spirits, but to interact with nature:

When we gather in a group for ritual, we interact with each other (humans are part of nature after all), and we re-enact our beliefs that nature is sacred and should be cared for. Ritual can serve as a reminder of this. I don’t perform ritual to ‘get’ something for myself from nature, I do it to align my thinking closer to nature and change the way I relate to the world.

Worship, writes Treeshrew, “is thus not a give and take business transaction, or a wish-granting mechanism, but simply an acknowledgement of something greater than oneself, and a surrender to it.”  Treeshrew writes in another post that far from being opposed to science, religious ritual helps us to experience the wonder and awe revealed to us by scientific discoveries on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.

Treeshrew’s approach to the gods as “characters in stories” need not be seen as reductive.  They symbols that point beyond themselves to the natural world and help us to experience truths that cannot be communicated in other ways.  Facilitated by these symbols, ritual enables us to “enact our beliefs” (great phase!) in the sacredness of nature and our connection to it.

Peg Aloi

peg

Peg Aloi, also known as the Media Witch, blogs at The Witching Hour at Patheos where she writes primarily about media of interest to Pagans.  She is also a poet, singer, freelance film critic, professor of media studies, and author.  Until her recent post, “Adventures of a Non-Deist, or, Why I Don’t ‘Believe’ in the Gods”, I didn’t know anything about Peg’s theology or her practice.  Peg was an atheist before she became Pagan.  She was drawn to Neo-Paganism by a love of ritual, nature spirituality, and environmental activism.  The worship of the gods or the Goddess did not feel right to her, so she came to identify as a “non-deist” witch.

In spite of this, Peg does call on various gods and goddesses in ritual.  And while she does not worship the gods, she does have statues of them on my altars and images of them on her walls.  Peg describes them as “forms of inspiration”:

I like to focus on their characteristics and narratives to try and bring about change in my life: identifying with Pomona to bring abundance, for example, or Artemis to find peace in solitude, or Herne to connect with the wilder unspoken aspects of nature. I give them places of honor and look at them and think about them. But I do not worship them.”

Peg explains that, in spite of the eclecticsm of her devotions, ritual allows her to participate in the ancient mythology of the gods:

“Even as I write rituals, crafting them from poetry I gather from a plethora of writers or that I create myself, even as I describe the attributes of these deities and write passionate paeans to them, I do not think of what I do as worshipping these figures. I think the most accurate way to describe it is to say that I engage with the energy and imagery of these deities: I take part in their mythology, their ancient story, which has been reborn around the world.

Through ritual, the ancient names, imagery, and stories of the gods can be drawn upon to re-myth our own lives, and to effect personal and, ultimately, social transformation.

The practices each of the Pagans above is a unique and beautiful example of a non-theistic Pagan religiosity.  My own beliefs about the gods and about the purpose of ritual, while somewhat different from each, are also very similar to theirs.  They are non-theistic, but they are neither secular nor merely aesthetic.  Their approach to ritual is distinctly religious.  Their inclusion of theistic language in their rituals is neither facetious, nor a form of play-acting.  It is, rather, part of each of their attempts to reach beyond themselves to experience the ungraspable mystery of existence which is in the natural world and within themselves.

(If you’d like to know more about non-theistic Pagans, I highly recommend “Care and feeding of your atheist Pagan” by Rhett Aultman, as a great place to start.)

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  • http://oneofamyriadfaces.wordpress.com Myriad

    Interesting article, thanks! While I’m quite firmly ensconced on the theistic side of things, I liked reading about all the different approaches to spiritual practice, and the people who practice them. I, too, was a bit horrified on your (the non-theistic pagans’) behalf when I read that interview. Some of what was said, and of course specifically the part that you quoted, I found hard to stomach. I’m a bit iffy about using theistic language out of context, no matter what the reason, but on the whole, your post made me feel a lot easier about non-theistic approaches to Paganism.

    (Now your post is kind of nudging me to write a “Meet some other polytheistic Pagans” response, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough of them well enough to do that :) )

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “I’m a bit iffy about using theistic language out of context, no matter what the reason, but on the whole, your post made me feel a lot easier about non-theistic approaches to Paganism.”

      I’m really glad to hear that. Thank you. That was my hope.

      “Now your post is kind of nudging me to write a “Meet some other polytheistic Pagans” response …”

      Actually, I’m already working on that post myself. You read my mind. :)

      • http://alisonleighlilly.com Alison Leigh Lilly

        “‘Now your post is kind of nudging me to write a “Meet some other polytheistic Pagans” response …’

        Actually, I’m already working on that post myself. You read my mind.”

        Yes, please! I think there are a lot of us who’ve been thinking along similar lines, wanting to make it clear that not all polytheists have a fear/hatred for non-theist Pagans. Even aside from theological diversity (which is a good thing), there are many, many of us who value and appreciate everything you guys (non-theists) bring to the larger Pagan community! I’ve been kind of mortified and disgusted in turn by some of what my fellow polytheists have been spewing saying recently. I would love to see a post celebrating the diversity and complexity of modern Pagan polytheism to counter the narrow view being put forward by some.

        I really enjoyed this post, John — thank you for writing it, and I’m really looking forward to your next one. :)

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    So now here’s three more intriguing blogs to follow. Thanks for destroying what’s left of my free time.

    But seriously, I appreciate this a great deal. I had a similar reaction upon reading that line about ritual as entertainment.

    However, I’m not sure I share your view on secularism and secular humanism. I’ve found secular humanist rituals very moving and deeply spiritual. In fact, I drew upon secular humanist ritual for my daughter’s saining. What’s more I often seem to find religious significance in matters commonly considered secular. Maybe I’m confused about the precise distinction between secular and sacred. But it’s a happy sort of confusion.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Yes, I thought about trying to define “religious” and “secular”, but that was going to turn into a whole post of its own. I’m using the terms here more in an antithetical sense which of course is only one way the terms are used. I think I mean “secular” here to mean, not the opposite of “sacred”, but an indifference to the sacred as a category. It’s confusing, because “secular-ism” is the separation of religion and government, which many religious people support. Do you think there’s a better term for what I’m trying to describe?

      • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

        It’s a tough nut to crack. I’m hearing from you and from others here and from myself a lot of reaction revolving around Amy B’s choice of the word: “entertainment.” The primary tension may be between sacred and profane. Her comment seems to take ritual out of one category and into the other.

        Perhaps it was just a poorly-chosen word. After all, she went on to say that she didn’t mean to denigrate ritual but rather wished to elevate the notion of “entertainment” — as I recall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

    ‘Entertainment’ seems exactly the wrong word to use. At my UU congregation I go to the secular, non theistic rituals to be touched, to learn, to experience community. In that those things take up my attention, I suppose they are entertaining, but that seems ……not the right world.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

      It puts ritual on a level with reality television or Seinfeld or…..whatever other schlock we find ‘entertaining’.

  • http://www.fairpoint.net/~sirpeterj/ Ananta Androscoggin

    I remember one high priestess I was corresponding in a discussion group back in 1998 who said that all of her Pagan work made her fantasy life very fulfilling. Left me rather wondering why she didn’t just join a LARP (live action role playing) group, instead.

    Another place where this viewpoint about “important stories” can be found in the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Worf takes Alexander on a short trip to a Klingon festival being held on a nearby colony (where they meet the time-traveling older Alexander). At one point, Worf expounds on “These are the stories of our people. They tell us who we are, how we came to be here, they connect us to one another…” and some bit more (not a direct quote).

  • http://knowthesilence.blogspot.com Joshua

    Thanks for this. I came across Treeshrew’s blog the other week and have enjoyed it, and that same post by Peg Aloi caught my attention as well. I don’t think I’ve come across Aine W.’s blog before, but I’m checking it out with great interest; she and I seem to be of similar minds.

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    Thanks for the shout-out, John! I’m glad you enjoy my blog as much as I enjoy yours. One minor point of correction: I’ve sort-of dropped the OBOD course at the moment as it isn’t quite for me at this point in my life, so while I’m still a druid, I’m not necessarily an OBOD one at the mo.

    I love both of the other blogs you highlighted as well!

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Thanks. I’ll make the correction above.

  • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com Áine Órga

    Thanks very much for the little feature, John! :) I’m really chuffed! I am of course familiar with Treeshrew’s blog but I’ve never come across Peg’s blog before so I’m very much looking forward to checking it out.

    I too was horrified by that interview, so it’s good to see someone talking about it. Although I don’t feel I have anything to prove regarding my spirituality, so in a way people can think what they like about it, it’s not a pleasant feeling to be misrepresented. I do like to think that people might come across the concept of naturalistic Paganism and see it as a viable form of reverence, and something that is very important to a great many people.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “I do like to think that people might come across the concept of naturalistic Paganism and see it as a viable form of reverence …”

      I hope so too. I think your blog is a great example of that.

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12StepWitch

    Wow, thank you. Aine’s writing in particular has brought to me the clear difference between believing in deity and believing in Divinity. I certainly feel that the Universe possesses a Divine nature, a Great Spirit, but nothing like what hard polytheists divine as deity. (I was so perplexed the first time I saw deity described as “People, but more powerful, and on the other side.”) I do feel that I can interact internally with this divine force, much like I can warm my skin by stepping into the sunlight or cool myself with a splash of water. There is an exchange, but unlike with the way I would interact with a Deity the exchange is based on Divine alignment rather than Divine Intervention. It is “personal?” It couldn’t be MORE personal, because I am made of its molecules. Does it love me? Does the sun love the flowers it feeds? Not with a conscious mind, and yet the flower is fed and the frost is kept from it.

    If I hadn’t been relieved from the certain death of alcoholism by a mere weak plea made to what I understand as my higher power, I might be able to brush off more this idea of a divine force that is accessible to human . But the fact is that I spoke, and was Heard, and things changed. Now, did my desperation cause a shift in alignment that allowed me to sit in the Sunlight of the Spirit at long last? That makes more intuitive sense to me than the idea that a conscious God heard my prayer and thought to answer me. But in the days that followed I certainly felt carried and that I was being fueled by a power that went far beyond anything that I was capable of generating. So there is definitely something, and we can do more than hold it sacred or revere it, we can certainly interact with it and be changed by it.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “But the fact is that I spoke, and was Heard, and things changed. … So there is definitely something, and we can do more than hold it sacred or revere it, we can certainly interact with it and be changed by it.”

      That truly beautiful. I couldn’t agree more!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

    Although most entertainment began as ritual. Drama came out of Greece and served a ritual purpose, sport came out of ritual and still serves that purpose, music is still a huge part of most worship. I have often said that storytelling itself is a sacred act, that good stories tell us things that are true in a way we can actually hear them. Maybe I agree with Amy way more than I thought I did at first reading. Maybe we do need to sacralize our entertainment, or re-sacralize it.

    • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

      Yes! I think you’re on to something Kenneth. Funny how much can turn on a single word.

      • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

        If we’re not careful we’ll end up in the whole worshiping Superman conversation all over again. :)

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  • Jacob Bornheimer

    I really enjoyed what you had to say here. I’ve been struggling for years now with both the side of me that is unabashedly rational and the side that deeply wants and needs mysticism. I love Áine’s quote about emotional response to mystery, it really hits home :)

  • Kye Maas

    I keep finding these types of perceptions in my various searches for others who share my perspectives. Personally, I tend to refer to myself periodically as a non-theistic pagan, but with a completely different perspective. I do not worship, and use no godforms or deities in my practices at all, but I do believe in magic, the supernatural, and a wide number of spirit entities. Have you encountered anyone else with this kind of perspective?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      Yes, several, in fact. One that comes to mind is Drew Jacob, who I believe is non-theistic, but does practice magic. http://roguepriest.net/author/roguepriest/

  • Terry

    Something that i am struggling with is reflected in part here.

    I have always considered myself to be for the most part a Naturalistic Pagan or Witch, I worship (Yes) revere and honor The Universe/Nature, I see It as sacred, holy and divine, It deserves a religious reverence to me, respect.

    But….I recently discovered another religion that is non theistic, It says that Nature is pleasing aesthetically only. Meaning that I love the parts of nature that make me feel whole and connected while not caring too much for the parts that do not, such as snakes, cancer and evil people. (understanding of course that good and evil are subjective terms)

    Snakes scare me which is another story but what about cancer? Isnt cancer part of nature, what about the desert? I hate the heat, The sun does nothing for me but make me feel miserable and I only feel truly alive and connected when I am in an overcast/rainy/foggy day and people that do bad or evil things for example, rapists and child molesters, while still a part of nature to me no longer deserve respect or honor once they have crossed a certain line.

    Please help me to discover if this new religion is correct, am I just looking at the feel good parts of Nature and loving them?

    I am a deep thinker so I will likely ponder any replies I see a while before responding. I cant just look at the surface of anything, I must delve deeply and explore what I am really feeling, thinking and believing and make sure that its truly authentic which is very important to me.

    I do understand that there are good and bad aspects to nature and that these are subjective based on perception and experience, a cat is bad to the mouse and to the person who has bad cat allergies while the cat to me is one of the greatest pets ever!

    Ugh….Its Halloween for me and I am in ritual and came across this as I like to read essays and articles in ritual, along with my other practices…

    I do not believe in any Gods, deities, higher powers (except The Universe), I do engage in trance, spirit dancing, meditation, contemplation and I do practice Magic though I see it more as … emotional therapy…hard to explain…I light candles and incense, I burn sage, I cleansed my apt tonight but this was more to set the mood for the ritual….I have a ritual knife that I use for cutting into wax, I have a chalice I pour wine in and drink from and I even talk to Ara (Nature) as this is how I was raised and I have a degree system I follow, a personal system of achievement to keep me grounded and improving and I have always felt like I was Pagan but the fact that i do see some parts of Nature as….yucky or …or do I?

    My mom died of cancer recently so I have to admit that may be clouding my judgements on the value of nature at the moment, anyone even understand what I posted? :o)~

    Thanks for reading either way!

  • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

    Yes, you’re right. She said, “Just because an activity is fun doesn’t mean it’s frivolous, or lacks authenticity and meaning”. Unfortunately for her, I think that is the *definition* of “entertainment” for a lot of people.


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