The Atheist Wheel of the Year

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

The Wheel of the Year involves eight solar holidays (the sabbats).  The sabbats include the solar quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes) as well as the solar cross-quarter days intermediate between the quarters.  For theistic Wiccans, these days symbolize events in the life-cycles of the god and goddess.  These days are marked by sabbat rituals.

Atheistic Wiccans, or atheists generally, must reject any theistic aspects of the sabbats.   Of course, atheists are free to use the non-theistic aspects of the sabbats.  The celebration of the sabbats is consistent with atheism (and with the denial of the Wiccan gods).  The sabbats are solar holidays.  Scientific naturalism confirms the structure of the sabbats.  The earth does orbit the sun and the seasons do follow a cyclical pattern.

Atheists can certainly participate in all the life-affirming aspects of the sabbats.  And atheistic Wiccans, or atheists generally, can perform many other rituals or ceremonies on these days.  Many atheistic ceremonies are already being done on these days.  All sabbats involve gatherings and feasts.  And all sabbats symbolize the continued existence of natural life on earth.  As such, they are life-affirming holidays.  The sabbats affirm both the rhythms of human life and the rhythms of the entire earthly ecosystem.  As life-affirming holidiays, they can play positive roles in atheistic communities.

The list below provides information about non-theistic versions of the sabbat holidays.  The sabbat days listed here are for the Northern Hemisphere.  For the Southern Hemisphere, the days appear on the opposite places in the solar calendar.  The solstices and equinoxes are inverted as are the cross-quarter days (for instance, Beltane takes place on 1 February and Imbolc on 1 May).  The agricultural aspects of these holidays (e.g. harvests) are most meaningful for the temperate latitudes (at about 45 degrees).  For those in the tropics, the solar variation is smaller and therefore has less meaning.  Nevertheless, these celebrations can still be done in the tropics.  They should be varied as the participants see fit.

Imbolc (about 1 February).

Imbolc takes place at a time which is often very emotionally difficult; the winter has been grinding on, the cold is at its worst, and the long lack of light leads to depression.  For many, it is the worst point of the year.  It therefore seems fitting to use Imbolc to remember the Dark Ages, when superstition and the sleep of reason bred monsters.  But any recollection of the Dark Ages should have at its end an affirmation of hope.  This is both the hope that reason will triumph over irrationality and the hope that brighter and warmer days will soon triumph over the dark and cold.  It is a time to emphasize the virtues of patience, resolve, and determination.  Darwin Day (12 February) is close to Imbolc and may be celebrated along with it.

Ostara (Spring Equinox; about 21 March).

Since this is a time at which light triumphs over darkness, the American Humanist Association, through its Secular Seasons Project, suggests marking it with a celebration of the Renaissance.  This is the end of the Dark Ages.  This can be celebrated by remembering those who fought for science over religious superstition.  It might be celebrated with some ritual banishment of a priestly figure by a figure symbolizing reason or science.   Obviously, the Spring Equinox is a time of psychological re-vitalization.  This may be ritually recognized in many ways.

Beltane (May Day; about 1 May).

Many non-theistic practices are associated with May Day.  One of the best known and most widely practiced involves erecting and dancing around a Maypole.  Various atheist groups have participated in May Day Parades.  Some atheistic groups celebrate the National Day of Reason on the first Thursday in May.   For atheistic Wiccans, this should be close enough to Beltane to serve as a Beltane ceremony.

Litha (Summer Solstice; about 21 June).

The Summer Solstice is the longest day.  Since the light of the sun traditionally symbolizes reason and truth, the Summer Solstice symbolizes the maximal power of reason and truth.  On the Summer Solstice, it is therefore fitting to celebrate the Enlightenment.  This can be done by perform the Cosmic Walk as a counterpart to the Advent Spiral.  The Summer Solstice is also World Humanist Day, which can be celebrated in many ways.

Lammas (aka Lughnasadh, about 4 August).

Lammas is an initial harvest holiday.  Many neo-pagans mark Lammas with feasts involving the fruits, vegetables, and grains available during the height of the summer.  Since corn is often first harvested around this time, Lammas is often celebrated as a corn festival.  Corn festivals are common and traditional during August throughout the United States.  Atheistic Wiccans and atheists generally can obviously celebrate corn festivals.  Beyond feasting, it is hard to find much recent ritual activity at Lammas.  Since Lammas is the height of summer, it may serve as a time of reflection on accomplishments or a time for the reflection on the coming harvest, which symbolizes the impermanence of all things.

Mabon (Fall Equinox; about 21 September).

An interesting and complex ceremony for the Fall Equinox is performed in Crested Butte, Colorado.  This is the Vinotok ceremony, which is said to originate in Eastern Europe.   This ceremony is also known as Burning the Grump.

The Vinotok ceremony takes place over about one week and involves a large cast of characters – it’s a large-scale festival performed (so it seems) by most of the town.  It might take several pages to describe the elaborate aspects of the Vinotok ceremony.   But here it will be useful to focus on the Green Man and the Grump.  The Green Man symbolizes natural creative power expressed in the botanical vitality of agriculture.  The Fall Equinox is the start of the harvest.  At this time, obviously enough, the crops are grown, the leaves are falling, and thus the Green Man is dying.  To ensure his return in the spring, someone must be sacrificed in his place.  The sacrificial scapegoat is the Grump.

The Grump symbolizes all human negativity.  The Grump is a wooden figure of a man with a hollow interior.  Over the course of the ceremony, people write their complaints and grievances on paper and put them into the Grump.  One might also write down things that hold us in bondage or burdens from which we seek to be relieved (e.g. bad habits, addictions, personal failings, and so on).  The Grump put on trial and found guilty (perhaps the charge is that he holds us back from realizing our highest ideals).  The Grump is then taken to the town square and burned.  This climax of the festival involves considerable partying.  Upon the sacrifice of the Grump, the Green Man returns.

Atheistic Wiccans, as well as atheists generally, ought to be able to perform and enjoy something like this ceremony.  It can function as a powerful psychological purification ritual, in which we seek release from our bonds and burdens.  It is interesting to note the parallels between Burning the Grump and the Burning Man festival held in the Black Rock Desert.  But the significance of Burning Man is a topic for another time.  Burning the Grump resembles the burning ritual described by Buckland (1986: 99-101).  While Buckland puts that burning ritual at Samhain, Mabon seems more appropriate.

Samhain (about 31 October)

Samhain is traditionally a time to remember and honor the dead.  At this time there are many well-established ceremonial structures for dealing with death.  These include the Day of the Dead in Mexico and elsewhere.  One way that some Wiccans honor the dead is through Silent Suppers (Cuhulain, 2011: 96; Sabin, 2011: 171).  A Silent Supper is meal that is served and eaten in silence, with a place at the table set for the dead.  Atheistic Wiccans, or atheists in general, can obviously hold Silent Suppers.  For children, all the usual North American Halloween celebrations and activities can be done.  One of the psychological functions of Halloween is to help children deal with their fears.  It is also a good time to teach children about superstitions.  Children may learn that ghosts or other frightening powers are not real, but merely projections of our own fears.

Yule (Winter Solstice; about 21 December)

Many atheist groups have Winter Solstice activities.  Atheists can certainly perform all the usual Yule practices (setting up a tree, giving gifts to children, and so on).   The mythology of Santa can be used in a positive way.  It is customary to tell young children the Santa myths and to allow or encourage them to believe those myths.  It is also customary to tell older children that Santa is merely an illusion.  Atheists can certainly use these customs to very good ends: all gods and goddesses are like Santa; they are pleasing fictions.

Many Waldorf schools perform a ceremony known as the Advent Spiral.  This ceremony is primarily a ceremony for children, with parents watching.  It involves a large spiral laid on the ground or floor.  The spiral must be large enough for people to walk from its outer end into its center.   Some versions of the Advent Spiral use a double spiral, so that people can walk into the center along one spiral and out of it along the other.  The spiral is laid out with evergreen boughs or perhaps with stones.  Luminariums (small candles in holders) may be set at regular intervals along the spiral.  At the center of the spiral, there is a chair.  The ceremony is performed in darkness.  It starts with a child holding a lighted candle walking into the spiral and sitting on the chair.  Other children are lined up at the outer end of the spiral with unlit candles.  One by one they walk into the center of the spiral, where they light their candles from the central candle.  After the candle is lit, the child walks out of the spiral.  The Advent Spiral symbolizes the growing of the light from the Winter Solstice.  The use of the spiral and the lights is clearly similar to the Cosmic Walk.  This similarity motivates the performance of the Cosmic Walk at the Summer Solstice.

Some (but not all) other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year


Buckland, R. (1986) Complete Book of Witch Craft.  Second Edition Revised and Expanded.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training.  Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice.  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bret

    Considering that religion is ritual… is this some sort of attempt to religicize atheism? I’m not sure I understand the purpose of celebrating these (or any) days through the context of atheism. I’m not against celebrating things, I just don’t see the point of injecting atheism into something.

    Is there some demand for this, am I completely out of touch?

    • SAWells

      Go back through the links to Eric’s “nine theses” to see how bad the argument is. Apparently Our Brains Are Hard-Wired For Religion, says Eric, so we need an atheistic religion.

      Oy gevalt.

    • ACN

      The first thesis alone:

      The first thesis is that as Christianity declines in America, two communities will be growing: an atheistic community and a neo-pagan community.

      Seems sort of…unsupported. Especially since I can think of several other religions that would be happy to sop up christian de-converts. Don’t you need some data to show that christian deconverts go overwhelmingly to join those two communities only before you can just assert that? What if they become muslims, or hindus, or apatheists, or generic deists or…

      Most of the rest are predictions about the future of religious naturalism that are similarly unsupported, but 7 also seems particularly wrong. Namely, “what evidence do you have for these claims?” seems like a pretty good response to every religion…

    • Eric Steinhart

      These are celebrations that are being performed as alternatives to theistic (usually Christian) celebrations. Various atheist groups do them, as well as people who enjoy ceremonies and celebrations, but who don’t want to perform the traditional Christian ones.

      Many people (at least in the USA) seem to stay within the confines of Christianity mainly because it provides them with culturally entrenched ceremonies – Christmas, Easter, etc., as well as rite of passage ceremonies (birth, marriage, death).

      The development of non-theistic alternatives would go a long way to the construction of a non-theistic culture, and non-theistic society.

  • neleabels

    All this is getting somewhat insane…

    • Eric Steinhart

      Because it’s insane to socialize?

    • Belial

      Socializing is normal.

      It’s really weird to want to, let alone espouse, formulate and plan, an atheist ‘Kwanza’.

    • James Croft


    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s amazing to me how much the same crowd that insists “atheism is just a lack of belief” are so hostile towards atheists coupling their lack of belief in god with constructive rituals, affirmations of value, etc. Atheists are supposed to abstain for some unspecified reason from anything associated with religious or ritualistic or mass communal behavior regardless of whether those rituals and behaviors and the values and symbols they celebrate are compatible with atheism and rationalism or not.

      I guess all atheists are allowed to do is not believe in things. There are important rules of strict irreligiousness that must be adhered to lest we in anyway seem to be like them. Anything that the irrationalists and theists do must be tainted forever.

      Sometimes fundamentalist atheists are as dogmatically confining and suspicious of evil around every corner as fundamentalist theists are. It’s tedious.

    • Steve Schuler


    • neleabels

      The invention of fantasy calendars à la Tolkien with no other purpose than entertainment is one thing. But this here? Pft.

      By the way, it is a bad idea, a remarkably bad idea to include the rituals of Waldorf schools in this list of “atheist” ceremonies. The pedagogy of the Waldorf schools is based on the ideas of the lunatic esoteric Rudolf Steiner who in his lifetime produced about 300 volumes of inane ramblings about the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria, about spiritual alien beings from the planet Jupiter, about the superior Aryan race and the inferor “Monkey” race or the degenerate (American) Indian race. He fabulated about archangels and -demons, about Lucifer and some spiritual Evil-deity, whose name I have forgotten.

      And yes, he took all this stuff DEAD SERIOUS. For him – and for his anthroposophic believers – he Atlanteas really existed, as the Lemurians. (BTW, I encountered this people first in the stories of Conan the Barbarian) For him, ghosts and spirits really wander the world as non-bodily entities and evolution really is some kind of transcendental spiritual journey.

      How did Steiner find out about all this? Like all good prophets, it was “revealed” to him by his deeper “spiritual insight”, which he called “Geisteswissenschaft”, i.e. “spirit science”. This term must not be confused with the German academic term “Geisteswissenschaften”, i.e. the humanities. Anthroposophy is an authoritarian belief system, this means that Steiner’s writings must not be questioned but perused as a holy book. People in doubt about his ideas, just don’t understand, because they have not reached the sufficient spiritual level yet.

      But let’s hear the man in his own words. Unfortunately the English translation does not really grasp his weird style:

      If you recall the talks we had in connection with the evolution of the Earth through the Saturn, Sun and Moon periods, you will know that at each of these evolutionary stages, one particular kind of being from among what we would now call the higher hierarchies, attained their human level, as it were. We know that during the ancient Saturn period the Spirits of Personality, the Primal Beginnings, the Archai reached their human level, during the Sun period the Archangels, during the Moon period the Angels and during the Earth period, mankind.

      You will also have seen from our talks on evolution, that each level of beings that reaches a certain stage of development, received preparation in advance. We know that the human being was being prepared throughout the Saturn, Sun and Moon periods, and that what we nowadays call man’s completed physical body has been evolving since the Saturn period, the etheric body since the Sun period, the astral body since the Moon period, and that the ego was only added to these during the Earth period; that is, all the beings that are at a certain level are prepared as a whole.


      Steiner is of course much more impressive and idiotic in the original German, as you will certainly agree, David:

      Nach der Mondentrennung vermehrten sich die Menschen wieder. Auch die auf die anderen Planeten ausgewichenen Seelen konnten sich wieder inkarnieren, so dass lange Zeiten hindurch junge und alte Seelen bzw. Menschen unterschieden werden konnten. Mit der Wiederverkörperung trat zugleich das menschliche Einzel-Karma in Erscheinung.

      Da der menschliche Ätherleib dem Einfluss des Astralleibes durch die Sonnenwesen entzogen war (s. oben), war auch die Fortpflanzung dem Menschen nicht bewusst. Auch konnten die Fähigkeiten dieses abgetrennten Ätherleibes durch den geistigen Einfluss gesteigert werden, so dass die Menschen über ein fast grenzenloses Erinnerungsvermögen verfügten. Das logische Denken fehlte ihnen, aber durch eine mehr gefühlsmäßige Erkenntnis der Naturkräfte beherrschten sie die Lebens- und Fortpflanzungskräfte der Tiere und Pflanzen.

      Verloren ging das vorausschauende Bewusstsein, als sich allmählich die sinnliche Wahrnehmung vor die geistige schob. Dadurch und als Folge des Irrtums wiederum entstand in der Seele Furcht. In die Erdenkräfte, unter deren Einfluss der Mensch durch die luziferischen Mächte gekommen war, mischten sich Wesen, die noch früher sich unregelmäßig entwickelt hatten und die die ahrimanischen (mephistophelischen) genannt werden. Sie sind die eigentlichen Verursacher der Furcht.

      If this is constructive affirmation of human values thank thanks, but no thanks.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Nobody (but you) cares about Steiner. Obviously you (or your kids) can do the Advent Spiral while affirming that every word Steiner wrote is false.

    • Belial

      > “This inability to process the possibility of atheistic religions from so many atheists strikes me as just a profound testament to the dominance of Christianity over their minds.”

      Greta Christina does a great job talking about how identity as an atheist will fade as “The Atheists” have more success and are better accepted by the Christian dominated US society.

      For me, (I’m reluctant to lump all atheists together), top down group or ritualized behaviour is begging for in-groups and out-groups. That’s bad. My view on the matter isn’t based on a reactionary response to Christianity or adherence to an ‘atheist identity’. It is based on reason and the arguments here on FTB and in communities that focus on other values.

      I don’t see substitution as a good way forward. Is getting off religion like stopping smoking or are you suggesting the fake-wiccan neo-atheist religion (group rituals) is a useful good like methadone support for heroine addicts??

    • Daniel Fincke

      Greta Christina does a great job talking about how identity as an atheist will fade as “The Atheists” have more success and are better accepted by the Christian dominated US society.

      It’s not about atheist identity in perpetuity. It’s about things beyond atheism—like values, community, philosophy, ritual, etc. that non-theists could benefit from as much as or much better than religious people do if only the irrationalism bound up in Western monotheism were shorn off. It’s not about atheism itself.

    • KG

      Stone me. Your position is so obviously weak you have to resort to stupid crap like “fundamentalist atheists”. Sure, go ahead, invent whatever rituals you like. The objections are to the claims that this is something atheists need to do, and that they need to take garbage like Wicca seriously.

  • Eric Steinhart

    Mostly the question for atheists comes down to this: Do you want people to go to church for their holidays or not? If not, then give them something else to do.

    An enormous number of people participate in theistic culture for no other reason than that it provides social activities, especially family-friendly activities.

    You’d think atheists would be interested in constructing a cultural alternative, that is, some non-theistic family-friendly and prosocial activities.

    • Daniel Fincke

      NO ERIC, Atheists are only interested in lacking beliefs! They are not interested in anything else. And why are we even talking about atheists??? Bald is not a hair color?!?! Do you have rituals for ALeprechaunists too?!? AAARGERHTHRHRHRGGHHRHG!


    • SAWells

      No, Daniel, the issue is that not-believing-in-gods is the only thing that atheists, by definition, have in common. As soon as you talk about any other factor X, you’re no longer talking about “atheists”, you’re talking about the subset of “atheists who also have X in common”. I’ve commented below on Eric’s scoping problems.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Seriously though, Eric, to the inevitable objection that “atheists can have other community activities irrespective of their atheism”, I’ll add to your point about an alternative non-theistic culture that people go to religious communities specifically for something non-theistic culture does not readily give them: community that is specifically concentrated on values and philosophy and which can provide a firm foundation for their children.

      Atheist refusal to understand or value this and how much ritual and affirmation of intrinsic goodness to things through ritual and symbology and community, etc. means to people is maddening to me as someone who cares about the end of authoritarian irrationalism.

    • F

      Ah. In Buddhism, this is known as expedient means. I get the idea, now.

      However, I think a lot of atheists would rather take all the rituals and burn them in a Wicker Man. Which would have nothing to do with pronouncements on what atheists “are allowed to do”, as some would have it. This just means that some fraction of atheists is going to snicker at such calendrical staged group rituals they way they do at anything else which is similar – particularly those built upon half-remembered, half-invented religious rituals of an agricultural world from which we are divorced. You may as well hail the coming of the combine and its fog machine. What does this say about contemporary society that we have no source for a spontaneously created festival or tradition, or a truly deep need for such a thing? Because it would exist on its own rather than being dragged in from religions or a mostly imagined quasi-historical past. Our economies and lives simply do not function in a seasonal world like they did even 300 years ago.

      I personally find that home-grown irregular “rituals” or “traditions” celebrated as wanted or needed are far more interesting and fulfilling. YMMV.

    • KG

      I diagnose a severe case of OWHITUSAC* syndrome. Take a look at most of Europe: churches have been closing, church attendance and all other indications of Christian religiosity falling, for several decades, without any need for ludicrous attempts to create a synthetic atheist religion.

      *Only What Happens In The USA Counts

    • Eric Steinhart

      This series explicitly deals only with the future religious landscape of the USA. That was made clear at the start, and has been often repeated.

    • SAWells

      And God forbid that you should look at other cultures which became more secular, when trying to predict what might happen when a culture becomes more secular.

  • Daniel Fincke

    This inability to process the possibility of atheistic religions from so many atheists strikes me as just a profound testament to the dominance of Christianity over their minds. The concept that there have been atheists religions for centuries simply does not register as even at all possible or as at all meaningful. Vast regions of the non-Western world must be dismissed as irrelevant or all their atheistic rituals and meditations and symbologies, etc. must be denied their religious character. Western Atheism must be religiously impoverished because in the West religion may only be allowed to be defined as Abrahamic monotheism. It’s absurd and self-destructive for the atheist community that these memes are swallowed whole by atheists just as much as by the most fervent fundamentalist monotheists. “There can be no true religion except one that worships the Abrahamic God!” Thus say the people of the book and the fundamentalist atheist says “Amen!”

    • Eric Steinhart


      This is the secret agreement between theists and (fundamentalist) atheists. You put it brilliantly: “There can be no true religion except one that worships the Abrahamic God”.

      And so, for instance, if Wicca really is a religion, then it must be Abrahamic! And so, quite obviously, if somebody writes about Wicca, then they are really (but cleverly and secretly) advocating worshiping the Abrahamic God!

      Of if atheists want to have their own religious culture, that’s impossible, because, as we all know so well, religion is just worshipping the Abrahamic God, which contradicts atheism.

      It reminds me of the missionaries who tried to fit every religion into their Christian frame: Buddhists worship Buddha; he’s their Jesus; but he isn’t the Son of God, so Buddha can’t get them into heaven. Those missionaries were gripped by a remarkably inability to even see that Buddhism isn’t a version of Christianity, or isn’t even Abrahamic.

      Yeah, I agree: the inability of so many atheists to even process these ideas is a “profound testament to the dominance of Christianity over their minds.”

    • SAWells

      I love listening to you guys convince yourself that you’re so incredibly deep and subtle and wise, and all criticism of you is based on your critics being so shallow and close-minded and ignorant. Keep it up, I’ll get some popcorn.

      I routinely use the word “Wednesday” without worshipping Odin, and I routinely make a Christmas dinner without worshipping a Christ. I don’t need an atheistic religion to fill the religion-shaped gap in my life, because there is no gap.

      Okay, cue lecture about how hoi polloi are hard-wired for religion (not like us non-religious types, right?).

    • Steve Schuler

      Oh crap!

      While reading this through this thread I had paused after reading your comment above and seconded your criticism by saying “Amen!”. Now I get to this post and see that you have used “Amen!” to imply knee-jerk, unthinking allegiance to a fundamentalist orthodoxy, whether under that Atheist banner or some other.

      Let me assure that my use of “Amen!” above was, in no way, a snide assault on your perspective. I very much concur with your thoughts as expressed in this thread.

    • Daniel Fincke

      hahaha, I know, I took it that way, thanks.

    • Steve Schuler

      Yeah, I had no doubt that I needed to clarify my intended meaning of “Amen!” and pronto! Hence the, “Oh crap!”

    • ACN

      I don’t want to be a part of any religion, and I don’t understand why you think that you’re justified in telling me that by not engaging religiously I’m somehow part of the religiously “impoverished” tradition of western atheism. Whatever the hell that means.

      Who decided that having a religion was a goal? Did the grand council of atheistic poo-bahs meet and issue an edict? The whole thing sounds suspiciously like the alleged “God shaped hole in my heart” that I’ve been told I have by countless theists.

      From my perspective, as someone who left a religious background also, the goal has never been to create replacement religion. Gnu-atheism, to me, is the realization that replacing theistic religion with non-theistic religion is missing the point. The problem isn’t simply the flavor of the religion, the problem is being in the religious box at all.

    • Eric Steinhart

      You’re a great example of Dan’s claim that “This inability to process the possibility of atheistic religions from so many atheists strikes me as just a profound testament to the dominance of Christianity over their minds.”

      Guess what? None of this involves any God. Not one bit.

      Of course, if you want to stay in your corner all by yourself, go for it.

    • ACN

      I didn’t say it was about god.

      I understand that you’re talking about non-theistic religion.

      What I don’t understand is why NOT having an atheistic religious tradition is necessarily a bad thing (as Daniel put it: Religious Impoverishment). You’ve demonstrated that Wicca, for example, can be constructed in a sort of an atheistic framework, but why is it important that our goal be to build an atheistic religious tradition?

    • Eric Steinhart

      See below!

    • F

      I think the problems that atheists have with religions is that they are religions, regardless as to what flavor of god or other mystical nature of the universe is celebrated or worshiped or honored or recognized. There are interesting and useful things about various extinct religions, shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism, philosophy, &c., which are just fine with a lot of atheists until they get all mystical and religious. Even the Greek gods are interesting for their representation of psychological and social archetypes. No one has to imagine them as actually divine, but it seems that the overly romanticized, mostly pseudo-Celtic (cherry-picked mish-mash of solar/agricultural and lunar/hunting traditions) version of paganism is the in-thing, and that in itself may be a turn-off for some, rather than an inherent dislike of any zombified ritualistic social gathering. Some people just won’t like your sort of religion, and it will be mocked as silly in the same fashion that some people mock other people’s pastimes or taste in music as silly.

      You are going to have to get used to it.

    • KG

      Ridiculous tosh. The point is, I don’t want a religion, atheist or otherwise, and European experience shows that mass atheism does not require and has not led to anything remotely like an atheist religion.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Eric, do you think there are ways to develop holidays that do not anachronistically follow the patterns of farmers’ lives? I very much like the addition or substitution of heros of rationalism and eras of rationalistic progress. I think that’s a good start to tying these things to our era’s lives and values and traditions. I’m also interested in what ways a technological 21st Century people could use or could approach or could implement rituals and festivals and other ways to communally or individually meditate upon and celebrate values. The romanticism of “nature” usually leaves me cold when “nature” becomes contrasted with civilization. That sort of 19th Century dichotomy of civilization vs. nature is something I would love to see overcome in new rationalistic religions.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Good question. The sabbats, as solar holidays, don’t really need to have much connection to agriculture. And there’s no need to reinforce nature/culture dichotomies (indeed, lots of the neo-pagans want to erase those dichotomies, and many argue that even technology must be seen as a part of nature).

      Summer and winter solstices, and spring and fall equinoxes, are pretty clear seasonal markers for lots of people. Thus consensus can be built around them. The solstices are publicly manifest – everybody on earth can agree that they’re significant. They’ve got objectivity. So I think they’re bound to stay in any publicly valid holiday system.

    • Dunc

      I’m guessing you don’t live at high latitude… Believe me, plenty of people keep track of the seasons for reasons which have nothing to do with agriculture. I’m really looking forward to getting more than 6 hours of daylight. ;)

  • Eric Steinhart

    Perhaps atheists, focusing so intensely on their non-beliefs, are really engaged in a kind of religious performance: rituals of cleanliness and purification are among the earliest and deepest types of religious rituals. Atheism = the religion of mental hygiene. Thus the task is the perpetual ascetic practice of rigorous cognitive self-discipline. Fine with me; I practice that religion myself

    • SAWells

      You lecture other people because you think they’re shoehorning all religion into an Abrahamic mould, and now you’re shoehorning rational thought into a religious mould. Lovely juxtaposition, there, Eric, keep going.

    • SAWells

      Hey, I just made coffee, imbibing special beverages is among the most ancient and deepest forms of religious expression, let’s say I’m practicing the religion of coffee.

      I even spilled some, pouring a libation is among the most ancient and deepest forms of religious expression, I need to practice the religion of mopping the floor.

      Rituals of cleanliness and purification are among the… hey, this is where we came in.

    • ACN

      This was exceedingly amusing to me.

  • neleabels

    Eric: Nobody (but you) cares about Steiner. Obviously you (or your kids) can do the Advent Spiral while affirming that every word Steiner wrote is false.

    The Waldorf-schools care very much about Rudolf Steiner and base their school rituals on his not so ancient religion. It’s not my fault that you chose one of them as an ill-suited example for “atheist” socialising. Why did you choose it? I don’t know, perhaps you were just ill-informed, but there is no real need for you to get upset. If I am to be blamed of exposing the background of just one of your examples though, I am perfectly happy to bear that cross.

    Apart from that, why should anybody need new quasi-religious holidays just because they don’t believe in gods or the supernatural? There are existing feasts which everybody, believer or not, is perfectly happy to adapt them to their own purpose. If you choose to call it christmas, winter solistice, sol invictus or Mithra’s birthday, who cares? Most of us and certainly me had fun on the 25th and 31th of december, why should anybody now celebrate the Grinch or Grunge or whatever?

    You see, this whole series of arcticles of yours increasingly hints at the suspicion that you are trying to sketch some kind of “atheistic religion” complete with “philosophical” foundation, “ancient” traditions and now a suitable sketch of rituals.

    I wouldn’t like this idea – history shows, that the creation of new religions always leads to serious trouble. I don’t have to elaborate on Robespierre and the cult of the supreme being, have I?

    • Eric Steinhart

      I’m told that Rudolph Steiner was a vegetarian. So I guess you’d say that vegetarians are committed to Steiner’s anthroposophy. Oh, wait, they aren’t. Same with the advent spiral.

  • HumanisticJones

    My friends and I have often “celebrated” several different holidays that we don’t exactly hold any allegiance to simply for the reason of “having a set day to get together, socialize, party, and have several drinks”. Honestly it makes getting the days off from work easier if you have set days that you tend to do these things. Also I personally find themed parties to be tons of fun. I could see participating in some of the things listed here without even considering myself to be an Atheistic Wiccan or whatever.

    Is that for everyone? Probably not. Is that going to ruin my fun or cause me to force said practice on them? Also not.

  • colubridae

    What if the axis of rotation of the earth was not tilted w.r.t. the orbital plane?

    Whatever else (ie hypothetically assuming the planet and life evolved the same way), there would be no solstice/equinox.

    You’d have to find something else to celebrate.

    Which only demonstrates the arbitrary and anthropocentric nature of solstice/equinox “celebrations of life”.

    Have them by all means, but once you recognise their truly arbitrary nature, then they become a meaningless ritual.

    • Daniel Fincke

      You’re not literally celebrating the brute boring fact of a particular axial tilt. The rituals would be connected to things that do have genuine value and therefore, if the rituals were effective at celebrating them, would not be meaningless. It just so happens that seasons as they are connect to certain other things of importance to people. If they didn’t or if other things are more important then the rituals can change. Whatever. It’s not about saying, “This came down from the Most High God and He decrees thou shalt always celebrate on this day.” It’s not about making up bullshit. It’s about taking things of actual, defensible, real world earthly value to human beings and creating rituals for celebrating them. No smoke and mirrors that this is really about gods. And certainly not some deluded interest in an axial tilt being of intrinsic significance.

  • colubridae

    I’m not against partying, but my view is akin to humanisticjones.

  • Marnie

    I’m noticing an interesting breakdown in communication here where each side feels the best course of action is to compare the other side to theists, in a derisive way. This divide seems to be growing greater and less productive by the minute.

    I don’t believe that any of us are suggesting that people who identify as atheists cannot borrow rituals and rites from religions. Almost all of us have celebrations and rituals that are strongly influenced by some sort of religion at some point. It’s nearly impossible to escape in any culture. Whether it’s nostalgia or meaningful in some other way, having traditions can play an important role in many people’s lives and need not have any lasting ties to their origins.

    I think a good analogy is marriage. Marriage used to be a property exchange. A man would take a young girl of her father’s hands in exchange for status or property or livestock or wealth. Certainly, in today’s day and age, in a democracy, the meaning of marriage has changed substantially. Some people may still favor engagement rings and white dresses and sundry other trappings of a different time and place, others might forego all of that and get married by a JP while hang gliding.

    The problem is when the couple who hang glides tells the couple in the white dress and black tux that their way of doing it is the wrong way, or vice versa. (for the sake of brevity, I’m just discussing straight weddings but obviously this can all get more elaborate if we include different same sex weddings too)

    It is fair for the hang gliding couple to ask why the woman wants to wear a white dress when the symbolism has a decidedly irrelevant and misogynistic historic meaning. And the couple who went with the traditional wedding is free to ask the hang gliding couple if it wouldn’t be more inclusive of their family and friends to keep with tradition. But it’s not at all reasonable for one couple to declare that the other couple did it wrong.

    So, going back to religion, I don’t have any issues with someone being an atheist and borrowing from any religion they please. I don’t think that makes them a “bad atheist” anymore than I think people who have a wedding that made them happy had a “bad wedding.” It’s a personal decision and I don’t really have any need to grill people on their weddings, belief or disbelief unless they make an issue of it. I DO, however, have trouble with someone saying “this is how atheists should incorporate religion into their lives.” And I do have problems with people saying “atheists who reject religion outright are dogmatic and no better than fundamentalists.”

    If the point is to discuss specific examples of how atheists have embraced pagan rituals into their lives, that is fine, but many of us reject religion not just because we are without gods and goddesses but also because we have no need to incorporate what we see as meaningless ritual into our lives. They are meaningless, to us, of course. This is not to say they are meaningless to everyone. And that’s what this comes down to. How I approach the winter solicitous, weddings, funerals and other life events is something I will define for myself. My being an atheist tells you absolutely nothing about any other part of my life at all. I have a friend who is an atheist, libertarian, raw foodist. She and I have only one thing in common in that list of descriptors. It seems silly to think that what would be meaningful and relavant in her life would look anything like what is meaningful and relavant in my life. Atheism is a poor factor upon which to judge a person.

    I think Eric has done a really nice job of describing and understanding Wicca. I certainly know more about it than I did before. However, when he argues that atheists who accept metaphysics are better than atheists who don’t I feel like he is arguing to justify his own world view as the right world view instead of simply educating and opening discussion. Perhaps he is intentionally using loaded language to get more exciting conversations going. I don’t know.

    That said, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to be having the same argument with each other. I think it’s fair to say that Eric is not arguing that we need to accept these rituals into our lives. At the same time, I think Eric should concede that there may be good reasons why a reasonable and thoughtful atheist would reject the premises offered and not want to incorporate these rituals into their lives. It is totally fair to say “this is why I don’t think this premise would work for me” and that doesn’t make me irrationally dogmatic. At the same time it’s totally fair for Eric to say “it is possible to value and embrace these rituals without any need for magical gods and goddesses.”

    My 2¢ anyway. I’m not a philosopher, I have no degree, I’m approaching these discussions from a layman’s point of view.

  • Eric Steinhart

    ACN raises an excellent question:

    What I don’t understand is why NOT having an atheistic religious tradition is necessarily a bad thing (as Daniel put it: Religious Impoverishment). You’ve demonstrated that Wicca, for example, can be constructed in a sort of an atheistic framework, but why is it important that our goal be to build an atheistic religious tradition?

    If we don’t build an atheistic religion, then the only religion will be theistic. Theistic religions provide people with all sorts of socially and culturally valued (and probably essential) products: ceremonies for rites of passage, holidays, ways to give values to their kids, conventions for behaviors, ways to make sense out of bizarre experiences (e.g. seeing ghosts), ways to deal with overwhelming life-events (grief, death).

    People obviously want those products. So, as long as atheists don’t provide a well-organized alternative, theistic religion will thrive. If you want a society and culture that isn’t focused on theistic social practices and cultural structures, you’ll have to provide non-theistic social practices and cultural structures. And that means providing an atheistic religion.

    • MissMarnie

      If we don’t build an atheistic religion, then the only religion will be theistic.

      I don’t think you’ve made a good argument that we need religion nor that we need non-theistic religion.

      Theistic religions provide people with all sorts of socially and culturally valued (and probably essential) products: ceremonies for rites of passage, holidays, ways to give values to their kids, conventions for behaviors, ways to make sense out of bizarre experiences (e.g. seeing ghosts), ways to deal with overwhelming life-events (grief, death).

      The implication of this is that you believe non-religious (theistic or otherwise) people are ill equipped to handle these tasks. I believe you are mistaken. In fact, with no religion and no rituals and no gods, I manage to have a means of handling all of these items.

      People obviously want those products. So, as long as atheists don’t provide a well-organized alternative, theistic religion will thrive.

      Some people do, but not all. As I mentioned above, though, being “atheist” does not give people a common set of values. You can be an atheist and believe in ouija boards and alien abductions. Atheists are not a cohesive group with a common set of values. There are secular Humanist groups who are striving to do what you are discussing and there’s no reason there cannot be secular Wiccans doing the same but you are not going to find a common ground for atheists because being atheist tells you nothing about a person’s culture, values, history, needs, aversions, or preferences.

      If you want a society and culture that isn’t focused on theistic social practices and cultural structures, you’ll have to provide non-theistic social practices and cultural structures.

      I think you have made a false dichotomy. It’s not a choice between theistic religion and non-theistic religion. There are certainly many religious people in the US but offering up a non-theistic pagan alternative isn’t going to change the country. I think you do far better to fight for enforcement of a separation of church and state than you do to fight for a competing primary religion.

    • grung0r

      People obviously want those products. So, as long as atheists don’t provide a well-organized alternative, theistic religion will thrive.

      So what? Who gives a shit what people want? A look at the last 2,000 years of western civilization will show you an awful lot of products that people really want, like holding women, children and people from other cultures as chattel, murdering Jews and burning supposed witches, book burning and anti-intellectualism, Fascism, totalitarianism and Feudalism, War, rape, and murder. At almost any time in any place in history, the safest thing to do was to look at what people wanted and run as fast as you in the opposite direction, because their wants were probably coming for your dignity, your body or your self-determination or indeed your life.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Why are you comparing fascism, murder, rape, feudalism, burning witches, slavery, the oppression of women, etc. to voluntary festivals, meditative practices, rituals for children and for important life ceremonies, symbols, discussions of metaphysics, and the transmission of values through all of these things? Is there some reason that festivals, rituals, rites, practices for transmitting values to children, etc. must be authoritarian, irrationalist things? They can’t be useful and productive tools? They must be the sole provenance of authoritarian, faith-based, misogynistic, homophobic, superstition forever? Are you saying they have an intrinsic link to those things? Are they structurally authoritarian? Is your claim that all religion, qua religion is authoritarian?

    • grung0r

      Why are you comparing fascism, murder, rape, feudalism, burning witches, slavery, the oppression of women, etc. to voluntary festivals, meditative practices, rituals for children and for important life ceremonies, symbols, discussions of metaphysics, and the transmission of values through all of these things?

      I wasn’t, and an honest reading of what I said should make that obvious. I was responding to Eric’s claim that the reason we should have an atheist religion is because people *want* religion. I decided to explore other things that people clearly want. My point was simple:many people want many repugnant, horrible ‘products’, and any pragmatic claim that we should have something because people want it simply isn’t good enough. The fact is, people have made similar pragmatic claims about scapegoating, the holding of slaves, the fighting of wars, women’s subservience, etc. A claim for *why* we should support Eric’s stupid little religion should require a hell of a lot more justification then “some people want this sort of thing”, because as I hope I demonstrated, people want a lot of things, and most of those things are horrible. Do we really need a replacement for scapegoating? No. We get along fine without it.

    • SAWells

      “…you’ll have to provide non-theistic social practices and cultural structures. And that means providing an atheistic religion”

      Eric, you are now explicitly using the terms “religion” and “social practices and cultural structures” as synonyms. They are not. Please use words better.

      I invite you to consider the phenomenon of the birthday party. It is a common, indeed almost universal, social practice and cultural structure. It even involves providing children with moral, social and ethical instruction ( Ask nicely. Say thank you. Play nicely. Share. Don’t hit.) Religious content: zero.

      Your move.

  • WMDKitty

    *smiles* I like these ideas.

  • Eric Steinhart

    Let me get this straight: in post after post, atheists yell at me because I fail to understand that atheism is really only exactly just about the denial of the existence of God. That’s it! That’s all it is and it’s nothing more.

    But now suddenly in this post I find out that atheism is not at all really only exactly just about the denial of God. It’s about the denial of all religion. Huh.

    Now, I’ve also been told that atheists know all about the law of non-contradiction. You know: atheists never contradict themselves. Hmm….

    • grung0r

      You are a true douchebag, Eric. If your going to throw shit like that around, post some fucking examples. Demonstrate what you are alleging, or concede that it is just yet another in your long line of lies, slanders and strawmen.

    • Steve Schuler

      grungor, I have absolutely no idea why you would call Eric a douchebag. I have followed this series of articles in it’s entirety and Eric has said nothing in his articles or in his comments to individuals to even remotely warrant that sort of an indictment. If you have followed all of the comments made in this series you may be aware that I Myself am not above utilizing ‘direct confrontation employing coarse language’. In the instance in which I did there was some ‘backstory’ that wasn’t readily apparent to the casual observer. Perhaps this is the case in what I am witnessing here.

      While there has been a lot of what Eric has written about that I am somewhat skeptical of, there has been more than sufficient resistance to some of what he proposes that I don’t feel that I need to add my voice to the choir. I seem to be of the personality type that does not require participation in, or identification with, social institutions than most people, but that certainly doesn’t undermine Eric’s theses that most people do.

      While I think that Eric’s thinking in the comment above can be well supported simply by reading the comments that have been generated throughout this series of articles, I think that you will have a very difficult time supporting your accusation that this, “is just yet another in your long line of lies, slanders and strawmen.”

    • grung0r

      I think that Eric’s thinking in the comment above can be well supported simply by reading the comments that have been generated throughout this series of articles

      And yet You didn’t bother cite even a single example. I wonder why that is? I would guess it’s because Eric is cold-reading you, and you don’t want the spell to be broken. The comment in question could just as easily been:
      “I see atheists here being inconsistent. Does that mean anything to you? Because I’m really getting a strong inconsistent atheist vibe here. The inconsistent atheist thing is coming through very strong”

      Consider: you may be remembering the comments of two different people, on different sides of the fence. You may be misremembering the arguments of the supposed inconsistent atheist, or misremembering what those arguments related to.

      What Eric has done here is suggested that somewhere, in the hundreds of critical comments regarding his inane babble, there lies a inconsistency. He doesn’t tell us where, or by whom it was made, other than just critical “atheists”. You just filled in the blanks and decided he was right. Good Job. Is John Edward’s show still on? I bet he has message from you from someone who was very important to you, but has passed on. Their name has something to with “j” or an “o”, or a “k”. yeah, that’s it. The “j” Is coming through very strong now.

    • Steve Schuler

      Whatever, Dude.

      I share both Eric and Daniel’s criticism of atheists who sometimes want atheism to mean no more than the lack of a belief in gods and at other times want it to have much more substance and a much broader range of meanings, if not explicitly then at least implied. One of those ‘implied’ definitions apparently involves the discussion of the potential merits or benefits of anything that, even in a very general sense, refers to ‘religion’ as being inherently preposterous and incompatible with ‘true atheism’.

      What I don’t understand is why you persist in following Eric’s articles if you find his thoughts so annoyingly intolerable. You know who I find annoyingly intolerable? Rush Limbaugh. And guess what? I don’t listen to him.

    • grung0r

      I share both Eric and Daniel’s criticism of atheists who sometimes want atheism to mean no more than the lack of a belief in gods and at other times want it to have much more substance and a much broader range of meanings, if not explicitly then at least implied. One of those ‘implied’ definitions apparently involves the discussion of the potential merits or benefits of anything that, even in a very general sense, refers to ‘religion’ as being inherently preposterous and incompatible with ‘true atheism’.

      I will suggest to you then that the implication you are reading lies solely in your mind. For my part, My atheism is entirely independent from any anti-religious sediments I hold(I freely concede that those sediments are legion). Were I to become convinced tomorrow that there was a historical Jesus, who the son of a supernatural omnipotent sky dictator, sent to sacrifice himself to save us from our sins, then I suppose by definition I would cease to be an atheist, and become a theist, in the sense that I believed a particular theistic proposition to be true. What wouldn’t change would be anti-religious stance. If anything, I would become even more entrenched in my position. After all, opposing a real dictatorship is a more pressing matter then opposing an imaginary one.

      This is just speculation on my part, but I wonder if the confusion here lies in our different religious pasts. Having been raised entirely secularly, It took no effort on my part to reject god’s existence. What what harder was rejecting the strong cultural current that religion is *good* and a virtue. Those two ideas, like I said, where entirely separate and unconnected for me. By contrast,for someone like Daniel(I don’t know about you or Eric), everything he believes about religion now would have followed from his rejection of God, a position that previously held. I can see how someone who had once been in the fold would feel in their bones like these two ideas are deeply connected. But they aren’t. They are wholly separate propositions, and one’s belief about one does not contradict the other.

    • Steve Schuler

      I think that you bring up a good point in this post, SAWells.

      I think that for each of us the way we were raised and what we have experienced in life, obviously, has a very profound and enduring effect on ‘the way we are’. What isn’t so obvious, especially in internet forums as opposed to real life interactions, is where someone might be coming from experientially. It is perhaps too easy to presume too much about what someone is actually saying, in part because it is so difficult and uncommon to gain knowledge about the larger scope of someone’s life.

      Yes, I was raised as a Christian but had definitely become a non-believer by the age of 12. You had an entirely secular upbringing, but still were/are influenced by a culture in which organized religion is a major force. Dan’s and Eric’s experientially based perspectives are, no doubt, unique to themselves as well. Throw in the additional consideration of how an individuals innate personality tendencies effect our perceptions and it makes it even easier to find ourselves talking past each other rather than with each other.

      Well, I suppose we all have to do the best that we can with what we’ve got to work with.

    • Steve Schuler


      Sorry I called you SAWells, grungor!

      My Bad.

    • SAWells

      No, the problem is that you use language poorly. Case in point: you’ve now tried to call critical thinking a “religion”, and previously you’ve tried to declare that truth is “divine”, while also strongly implying that your position is The Atheist Position. Pushback is natural.

      Consider the title of this very post. You’ve called it “The Atheist wheel of the year”. But there is no such thing as THE atheist wheel of the year, is there? At most you’re proposing AN atheist wheel of the year. You can’t even get a grip on the definite and indefinite article!

      You keep saying that atheists can this, atheists should that, atheists must this, atheists will the other; then actual specific atheists pop up to say actually, I can’t this, I shouldn’t that, I mustn’t this and I will certainly not the other; then you complain.

  • Amavra

    I don’t have any studies on this on hand, but I have heard over and over that the largest growing “religious” group self identifies as “nones”, and the largest growing religion (aside from “nones”) is Neo-paganism. So it makes a certain amount of sense that as people leave Christianity they get attracted to different things which puts them roughly into the two camps. I think this post explores one thing people may prefer in paganism over atheism (it is true for me at least) with some ideas on how one could be an atheist and still benefit from seasonal celebration or nature appreciation. I also see many instances in my life and online where pagan and atheist communities have similar goals especially when it comes to the preservation of church and states separation. I think the similarities are most emphasized by the attendance of pagans and atheists in UU churches. There is obviously a bit of overlap in values between some members of the different groups.

    I lead a small group of pagans at an AF base and we talk about the wide distribution of theism we have within the group quite a lot. A few people are fully polytheistic, a couple more are more abstract – pantheistic, but most are deist, agnostic or even atheist (though none are strict materialists). We discuss then the things that we share, the desire to celebrate the seasons together as well as other humanist and environmental values. And for at least one atheist it is a nice place to be able to talk about the lack of belief in absence of an actual atheist group (something I really wish we could change around here).

    • Eric Steinhart

      Thanks for commenting, Amavra! I’d love to hear more from you, and to see your comments on other posts in this series – it’s a long series by now, but the posts are all pretty short. Perhaps they can be helpful to your group.

  • Cortez Lebo

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