To My Nontheistic Pagan Friends

Is there a Goddess or God, or goddesses and gods? Whether you consider yourself a nontheist, monotheist, duotheist, or polytheist, there is only one answer we can give with complete honesty and complete certainty.

We don’t know.

Our experiences may be so powerful we have no doubt there is, or our evidential requirements may be so high we have no doubt there isn’t, but in the end we simply do not know.

I have previously encouraged my fellow theistic Pagans to have enough confidence in their beliefs, practices and experiences to not feel threatened by those who share our reverence for Nature but who simply cannot accept our magical worldview. Now I want to speak to the other side of the tent.

From John Halstead comes this blog post titled “Being Ashamed of Paganism.” Halstead references the Denver Pagan Pride ritual where Teo Bishop wrote about being ashamed (albeit for different reasons) and says:

The ritual which Teo described reflects not just a variation on a theme. It is a Paganism that I do not recognize. It is a Paganism of wishful thinking and self-delusion. It is a Paganism which suffers from the same flaws as the 60’s counterculture hippie movement from which it sprang: an overemphasis of idealism over realism, endemic disorganization, and an inability to communicate its vision to the wider culture. And it is frankly a Paganism I am embarrassed to be associated with.

To his credit, in response to one of the comments Halstead admits “I’m not proud of my embarrassment.”

Paganism is a very young religion. While it has ancient roots, the beliefs and practices of people who call themselves Pagans today aren’t much over a hundred years old, if that. More importantly, most of the organizations and institutions which are influential in articulating Pagan beliefs and practices are no more than fifty years old. While the first generation of Pagan leaders are gone, some of the second generation are still active, and the third generation is still sorting itself out.

The point is that we are still trying to figure out what modern Paganism is going to be when it grows up.

Because we have such little structure and because so many of us have a deep distrust of authority, the door is always open for those whose enthusiasm exceeds their competence to set themselves up as experts. Because the need for leaders exceeds the supply of volunteers, those who lead rituals and gatherings and even organizations frequently do not have the knowledge, expertise, or temperament we would expect from a leader in a more established religion.

If there are problems with certain Pagans (and there are) or even with many Pagans (there may be), that’s a problem with those Pagans, not with the religion itself – which isn’t even fully defined yet. Be precise with your critiques and complaints so we can address what needs to be addressed without getting distracted and without feeling – or causing – embarrassment.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss magic. One of the classic definitions of magic is “the art and science of causing change in conformance with Will.” There’s no woo in that definition, although many of us find it easier to change consciousness and create change when our Will is amplified with tools and robes and candles. We find we get better eggs when we dress the goose in finery than when we dissect it.

Early in my exploration of Paganism, I came to a three-fold understanding of magic: part manipulation of unseen forces, part intercessory prayer, and part psychological programming. You can argue there are no unseen forces to manipulate and there are no gods to intercede on our behalf. Again, we can’t know for sure, and you might be right. But the psychological aspects of magic are purely naturalistic: they require nothing supernatural in order to work – and they do work.

Does even this definition of magic promote self-delusion and wishful thinking? It doesn’t have to, but it can. That’s why I advise would-be magicians to study what works and what doesn’t and to keep detailed records of their workings. My experience is that while magic can’t do the impossible, it can make the improbable more likely. In the end you still have to do something in the material world to take advantage of the opportunities magic creates.

I’ve been writing a lot about Morrigan lately. If some of us see Morrigan as a goddess, while others see her as an aspect of the Goddess and still others see her as a metaphor and cultural symbol, so be it. What matters most is that our experience of Morrigan as we understand her helps us to reclaim our sovereignty and to live in ways that are responsible and sustainable.

Paganism is not and will not be monolithic. But when we strengthen our own traditions, we strengthen the movement. I encourage non-theistic Pagans to ignore the elements you can’t accept and focus on building practices that support you in your outlook on Life and the Universe.

Remember that something called you to Paganism – otherwise you’d be an atheist. Perhaps that was a love of Nature, or an interest in ancient literature, or as with one non-theistic Pagan I know, a love of ritual. Perhaps you believe that developing reverence for the Earth is the only thing that will save us as a species. Whatever your reason for being in this big tent we call Paganism, you do have a reason, and I’m glad you’re here.

Yes, you’re a minority, but our tent is tiny compared to some of the other religions in this country and in the world. We need all the people in it we can get. There’s a place for you here, just as there’s a place for everyone else who feels our call.

And when it comes to gods and magic, who knows – you might be right. Let’s all find the right combination of pride and humility as we explore the great mysteries of Life.

there’s room for us all here
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  • One of the things that I have learned in my study of Druidry is that it is best for each of us to experience our understanding and "spirituality" on our own. Telling someone is not the same as letting them experience.

    Perhaps it is best for both sides to take the attitude that we should allow the other to experience for themselves the "truth." In this way the God and Goddesses, or the lack thereof, will be able to influence us and lead us in the right direction.

  • "One of the things that I have learned in my study of Druidry is that it is best for each of us to experience our understanding and "spirituality" on our own. Telling someone is not the same as letting them experience."

    Steve Thomas – what a moment of synergy that statement is for me. I just got through telling a fellow professor the exact same thing, when we were discussing teaching methods in the classroom. 🙂

  • Greetings from Spain.

    The Greek geographer Strabo wrote: "Some say the Galicians are atheists, and that the Celts and their northern neighbors worship a god with no name"

  • Thank you for this essay. I am presenting on Humanistic and Non-theistic Paganism at a conference and then at a gathering later this spring. I get flack from both sides – from Pagans who have a difficult time accepting the possibility of non-theistic practice (hello – Nature is empirically provable and a spell is merely a complicated visualization with props) and from Atheists how roll their eyes at the suggestion that anything spiritual is inherently rubbish. Our complicated brains are capable of conceptualizing metaphor and art, and while many aspects of ritual are perhaps unnecessary, the states of consciousness they can produce are real and scientifically verifiable and sometimes downright helpful.