This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.
The Wheel of the Year is a division of the solar year into eight holidays (the solstices, the equinoxes, and four days in-between). Insofar as the days on the Wheel of the Year mark natural points in the orbit of the earth around the sun, the Wheel marks a natural pattern. It marks a natural logos. Wiccans use that natural logos as a frame which they cover with religious symbolism – they cover it with religious mythos.
According to the Wiccan mythos, the Wheel represents stages in the lives of the Wiccan god and goddess. Some (but not all) Wiccans think of the god and goddess theistically, as real people. Atheists reject this theism; on the contrary, the god and goddess are merely human projections. At most, they are symbols, icons representing the dynamic polarity of male and female in animal nature and the solar cycle in botanical nature.
And while atheists must reject any theistic interpretations of the Wheel, atheists need not reject the aesthetic-affective dimensions of the Wheel. Any atheist who has ever been overwhelmed by love can appreciate the story of the god and goddess as emotionally beautiful and satisfying poetry. It is entirely consistent with the purest atheism to affirm that love is sacred and holy. For anyone who values earthly nature, the drama of the sun and earth is both beautiful and ethically arousing – it reminds us of our personal and social obligations to the whole earthly ecosystem. It is entirely consistent with the purest atheism to affirm that earthly nature is sacred and holy.
Atheists can certainly use the eight days of the Wheel as purely atheistic holidays (and many atheists and atheistic groups already do). The Wheel of the Year also provides materials for personal reflection. The eight parts of the Wheel can be put into correspondence with the eight stages of human life as described by Erik Erikson. At each sabbat, we can reflect on those stages – on what it means to be an infant, an adolescent, an aged person, a dying person.
The Wheel of the Year provides a great deal of material for atheistic reflection. The regular movement of the sun can be used to symbolize all the laws of nature – it can serve as a symbol for all the patterning in nature. Natural creative power (natura naturans) is not irrational; on the contrary, the success of science shows that it is rational. Natural creative power contains the natural logos – nature is rational and reason is natural. The Wheel of the Year can inspire reflection on the rationality of nature.
The Wheel of the Year can inspire us to think about deep time. The Wheel has been rolling for billions of years from the past and will continue to roll for billions of years into the future. We can mentally roll the Wheel back to the very dawn of life on earth, and then mentally roll it forward through the entire course of earthly evolution. The solar cycle depicted in the Wheel drives all biological evolution on earth. And we can wonder about how the Wheel will roll into the future: what will the shape of life on earth be like? The Wheel compels us to think about our stewardship of earthly life.
The Wheel of the Year is a natural cyclical pattern. As such, it inspires us to think about the deep features of natural cyclicality. The Wheel doesn’t just roll; it rolls in one direction, along an arrow of time. And it doesn’t just roll through the same patterns. Our best science reveals that as the Wheel rolls on, the contents of its cycles tend to become more complex (Chaisson, 2001, 2006). The cycles of the Wheel do not merely produce another generation of bacteria. On the contrary, those cycles build an enormous biological complexity hierarchy. The Wheel rolls uphill. Will the Wheel always roll uphill?
The Wheel of the Year inspires us to think about general principles of cyclicality. Machines that seem to operate linearly are driven by cycles. The action pattern of every Turing Machine is cyclical. Computers are also wheels. How deep are the principles of cyclicality? Iteration is cyclical. Number lines and hierarchies of sets are generated by cyclical processes. Perhaps all complexity is built by repetition or recursion. Perhaps everything is generated by algorithmic iteration. The logic of creation and evolution by rational selection together constitute a purely atheistic account of the emergence of all natural complexity (including our whole universe). Evolution by rational selection is an example of algorithmic iteration. Hence the Wheel symbolizes the evolutionary process which constructs all complexity. The Wheel symbolizes the self-manifestation of natura naturans through the interplay of objective will and objective reason.
Atheists must repudiate any activity in the sabbat rituals that involves the Wiccan god and goddess. But that still leaves some interesting ritual activity for atheists to use. It is entirely consistent with atheism (and with rationalism) to light a candle symbolizing truth, and to draw a sacred circle that includes reason and excludes irrationality. Many religious rites focus on purification and ascetic self-discipline. For an atheistic nature-religion, those rites would focus on purification of the mind and cognitive self-discipline. Everybody is welcome inside the circle of reason. Just leave your irrationality outside.
Some (but not all) other posts in this series:
Chaisson, E. (2001) Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chaisson, E. (2006) The Epic of Evolution: The Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.