Interview With an Atheist Pagan

For me, my relationship with the gods is what makes me a Contemporary Pagan. I’ve never understood Paganism without deity, even though I have many friends who lean that way. I thought it would be interesting to interview one of my “Atheist Pagan” friends in an attempt to better understand her way of thinking. Amy B. is one of my best friends out here in Northern California and is one of my favorite ritualists in the area. While I don’t always agree with her on matters of theology, I have a lot of respect for her.

Jason: I call you an atheist Pagan but that’s not accurate, is it? How do you define yourself?

Amy B.: Philosophically, I’m a secular humanist. I accept the Wikipedia definition of secular humanism which is “embracing human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience and superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.”

I think Pagans accept the humanistic values of human reason, ethics and social justice. I’m not so sure they’d agree with philosophic naturalism. Also, I’ve never met a particularly dogmatic Pagan. As for the rest of the definition, a temporary short-term belief in the supernatural can be fun to hold in some sense and for a specific purpose, but in the long run, truth and reason matter more.

Also I’m an agnostic atheist which means I lack belief in gods. I’d like to refer readers to the Iron Chariots Wiki for more info.

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.

You’ve been doing Pagan rituals for over 30 years. Theatricality and entertainment can’t be the only thing you get out of them, right?

Oh, but they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In my opinion there is no experience more worthwhile than the emotional high generated by a good theatrical performance…or a rock band. Much ink has been devoted to this subject by scholars of theatre and music philosophy.

Do you see rituals as metaphors for the seasons?

I assume we’re talking about Wiccan sabbats now. Metaphor – no. Sabbats are community celebrations of seasonal changes in the place where you live. That local focus is important. In any case, I bring my own interpretation to it and use the content and presentation to remind me of the physical changes in the world around me. I am never there for god worship.

But I can’t have Paganism without the gods. Does it bother you that I have a supernatural experience while you are simply being entertained?

Wow. Let’s unpack the implications of that question.

First, I am more inclined to believe you’re having a heightened emotional or awe-filled experience rather than a supernatural one. That doesn’t make it any less valuable or significant.

Second, it doesn’t bother me and there’s no reason it should. In fact, I’m a little envious since my skepticism makes it so hard for me to achieve a similar state.

Third, don’t discount the power and satisfaction of just having fun. (Current brain research could weigh in on this.) Just because an activity is fun doesn’t mean it’s frivolous, or lacks authenticity and meaning.

You’d like all the people you circle with to have the god experiences you have, correct? A sort of “I want you to know Dionysus on a more personal level” thing. You can’t control that, but I accept the sentiment as well-intentioned.

Well I would like everyone to know him on a more personal level. But what do you think is going on when I experience the gods?

I don’t know.

Is it self-delusion?

Let’s use kinder words and say it’s the use of active imagination. When focused on creative pursuits, this is a good thing.

Do you look on my experience as real as a cat jumping on a table is real?

No. Your experience is all in your head. You could be hooked up to an MRI machine while having your experience and we’d see brain wave images. That much is manifestly real. But did Dionysus really appear and hand you a glass of wine? I think not. Skepticism is the default position here. The jumping cat can be verified by other witnesses.

You lead a lot of Wiccan rituals. They contain invocations of deities. How do you handle this when you don’t believe?

Writing invocations is an exercise of poetic imagination, i.e. fiction. Neither poetry nor fiction is my strong suit, I freely admit, so I’ll either borrow something from a book or get my husband to write the invocations. He’s good at that.

Don’t forget that the words are only half the invocation, the other half being presentation. The words can be the most beautiful and evocative ever written, but if the invoker mumbles or reads in a monotone, for example, the words won’t have any effect.

If you call the Midsummer Sun God, is that god just a metaphor to you?

As the High Priestess of the ritual, I am taking on a stage role. I have a script. I have blocking. I act my part. I don’t have to believe the script; I just have to convince you I believe the script. That’s what acting is. If I’m successful, the coveners will experience that emotional high I mentioned earlier…or at least walk away smiling. Metaphor doesn’t enter into it.

Ritual is performance art. I try to make the parts interesting, coherent and mesh well. It is not my job as a ritual leader to create meaning. I can’t do that; no one can do that for someone else. People will find their own meanings. I just want to make the ritual worth $5 and an hour of your time, and interesting enough that no one checks their watch during it.

Theatre, music, singing and dancing are deep body experiences. These things lure you into an altered state, and they are safe ways to do so. Doesn’t a good rock band do that too? This is how ritual should be.

For me in ritual, the Drawing Down the Moon segment is kind of like the height of theology. The point of that exercise is that it’s unscripted. Because we believe it’s deity, it can be garbled or hard to understand.

Oh, wow, that is just so wrong. If you believe the gods are greater than us, wouldn’t you expect them to communicate in clear, plain, easy-to-understand language, as, say, an adult would speak to a toddler? We expect clear communication from our school teachers as a matter of course, but the gods get a pass? That makes no sense. Consider the reverse: is it okay to summon the gods using gibberish? If so, why don’t we do it more often and would we be able to guarantee who shows up?

Furthermore, improvisation is a difficult skill to master. It certainly requires much more practice than monthly ritual would allow. It also helps to take a class.

I understand the importance of theatricality in ritual, but sometimes ritual is powerful because it’s not theatre.

I don’t disagree with this. An esbat has the added element of close social ties among relatively few coveners and this can help foster the heightened emotional experience. But this is not a sufficient substitute for preparation, rehearsal and presentation.

Isn’t the whole point of some ritual to have an experience you weren’t prepared for?

No. If this were the case, no one would bother attending a training coven or being initiated. Not knowing what to expect puts people on edge. The more stressed they are, the less they are able to focus on the ritual, the less they’ll get out of it, the less they’ll remember later on, and the longer it will take to absorb the lesson.

Wiccans often talk about “raising energy” in ritual. What do you think happens when we raise energy?

Well, we hum and we shout and we lift our arms and then bend over and hug the floor. All of these things affect the body. The humming is nice if it goes on for several minutes. Making choral harmonic sounds together is a pleasure-inducing activity and does the brain and body good, as does the deep breathing to maintain the hum and produce the shout at the end. The arm lift and floor hug is basic muscle stretching. All good. Other than that, nothing happens. In my cynical moments I think it’s just an exercise to make us feel good about some social or personal issue without us having to actually work on those issues.

Are you really as skeptical as you claim?

Yes. But I spent many years as a theist of varying kinds, and I understand the desire to be comforted and validated by a belief in the supernatural. The closest I can come to that is to say that I believe in the efficacy of art (and science) to inspire, comfort, and provoke our imaginations. Sing more. Dance more. Think deep.

About Amy: Amy B. has been a Methodist, a witch, a generic theist, a Unitarian Universalist, a Neopagan, and an atheist, approximately in that order. She is a morris dancer, and loves writing and producing Wiccan rituals.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • ibejedi

    Very interesting perspective — thanks for sharing it!

  • John H Halstead

    Jason and Amy, thank you for sharing this. The one concern I have as a non-theistic Pagan is this statement: “Because I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment.” I’m glad you went on later to say, “Just because an activity is fun doesn’t mean it’s frivolous, or lacks authenticity and meaning”, because I think the term “entertainment” may connote frivolity, inauthenticity, and meaninglessness to many readers. The statement concerns me especially because of accusations in the comments on another Patheos blog about a year ago that non-theistic Paganism was the equivalent of LARPing (live-action role play). I hope readers (especially theistic Pagans) will appreciate that Amy’s is just one form of non-theistic Paganism and there are a variety of other ways to be non-theistic and Pagan. For me, I also consider ritual an art form, but I also consider art to be spiritual. I would distinguish it from entertainment, which is rarely art, or at least rarely good art.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Yeah, doesn’t work for me as a non-theist either.

    • Bonnyfire

      I had a big problem with her calling it all entertainment, as well. She also came off as condescending to me, too. And I’m a non-theistic Pagan who does do ritual for the joy and celebration and reverence. But entertainment? It can be entertaining, but it’s not like I’m going to the fair, no matter if I have just as much fun. I winced through her whole interview. Not all non-theistic Pagans have that same outlook and I hope everyone knows that.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      Historically speaking, church services were an important form of entertainment! But they were never *just* entertainment. I agree, I find that characterization to be distressing. Even my friends in the theater think of their best work as something more than entertainment — good theater is meant to make meaningful change in both the company and the audience, not just to be fun.

  • liza

    I am, frankly deeply saddened that someone who leads rituals for others would see it as a form of entertainment-frivolous or not. I am, offended actually, that the expectation of ritual is to make it interesting enough not to check your watch, and worth a $5 cover. It would be one thing if I were attending some function with the expectation of being entertained. It is entirely another, since ritual, to me, is a way to bring people closer to their Gods, and the Gods closer to Their people.

    I hope that people involved in these theatrical performances have brought their Gods, despite this, and have grown spiritually closer to Them. The Gods deserve better.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      This is why I feel it is vital that people involved in ritual are all on the same wavelength about it. Otherwise it is meaningless.

      • liza

        I don’t believe her stance invalidates mine at all. It just makes me exceedingly sad that ritual has been made into a form of entertainment and nothing more… and that she is leading rituals for people.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Do we know what people she leads rituals for?

          If it is people that share her beliefs, then it is fine. It is only if she is holding rituals for people with a genuine belief in the gods that it could be an issue. (Potentially that could be inadvertent charlatanry.)

          • liza

            I guess I would say… I believe that my communion with the Gods is the result of my experiences and my relationship with the Gods, so I wouldn’t necessarily need her to lead me to that. There is an skill in crafting a ritual, I get that. I don’t have anything against creating rituals that are beautiful, and encourage joy and fun. I think we SHOULD enjoy ritual. My issue is when it comes to the Gods being included, when they are not really included.

            However I also believe that in a ritual setting, the facilitator *is* a channel. That isn’t to say the Gods can’t/don’t/won’t pull a “paw of dominance” move, and step in regardless (sometimes I think the Gods give *no f%cks* if you believe or not), but if the person is INVOKING Them, as she said she is-she is (supposed to be) becoming the channel for people to access the Gods.

            There are many people who don’t have a direct connection to the Gods, who sincerely want one, and don’t know how to go about creating one. We have been so cut off, that people have no clue, especially at first. If someone is sincerely seeking, and doesn’t have a connection, the leader *is* the connection. They are the channel that is supposed to be opening for the Gods to step into. So the person who is seeking, who wants a connection may go away feeling nothing-not because the Gods weren’t reaching back to them, but because the channel was not really a channel. Until someone has some sort of established practice it isn’t hard to miss the subtleties that the Gods CAN have.

            I think this woman is truly hindering people by leading rituals. I think she is serving to keep people separated from the Gods, simply by not believing in Their existence, and donning the priestess roll.

          • Karen Heyou

            I think she told us what she leads rituals for:
            “I just want to make the ritual worth $5 and an hour of your time, “

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            You miss my meaning.

            If the other people there are aware that she is running a non theistic ritual, then it is all fine.

            If, on the other hand, people believe is is genuinely channelling gods, then that is a less than ideal situation.

          • Karen Heyou

            Yes, I see. I agree with your point. Still, I think she made her motive clear enough. If she is merely entertaining a knowing audience, then I am offended. But, it is her right to believe differently than I and act accordingly. If she is conducting rituals for unknowing worshippers, she is defrauding them of the experience they paid for, even if they aren’t aware that they have been defrauded. This, she has no right to do.

    • Ywen DragonEye

      I agree Liza – I suppose it is fine to “play act” ritual, as though it were a Ren Faire (maybe?), as long as everyone understands that this is what is happening. But if there are those who come to celebrate with expectations of genuine reverence for the holidays and deities, it seems to me, are not getting what they came for. I trust that Amy is up front with those attending.

      • liza

        I trust she is not, by her own words of (see below) she is clearly being asked to do something she does not do. The words and the presentation are not the halves of invocation. The ACT is important, and that doesn’t factor in to here at all

        “You lead a lot of Wiccan rituals. They contain invocations of deities. How do you handle this when you don’t believe?”

        Writing invocations is an exercise of poetic imagination, i.e.
        fiction. Neither poetry nor fiction is my strong suit, I freely admit,
        so I’ll either borrow something from a book or get my husband to write
        the invocations. He’s good at that.

        Don’t forget that the words are only half the invocation, the other
        half being presentation. The words can be the most beautiful and
        evocative ever written, but if the invoker mumbles or reads in a
        monotone, for example, the words won’t have any effect.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    The joy of a Pagan world view is the ability to agree to differ.

    To each their own. I disagree with a lot of what she said, because I am a hard polytheist. However I don’t feel that her stance invalidates mine, or vice versa.

    I wouldn’t want to share ritual with her, because I just don’t see that working.

    That all said, I would like to address a couple points:

    Is it self-delusion?
    Let’s use kinder words and say it’s the use of active imagination.”

    That’d be a ‘yes’, then.

    “I understand the desire to be comforted and validated by a belief in the supernatural.”
    That comes across as pretty patronising. It is a rewording of the ‘religion-as-a-crutch’ line I have heard so often.
    Belief, for me, has nothing to do with comfort or validation. It is about a reasoned analysis of experience.

    To use a couple cliché lines:

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

    “One sure mark of a fool is to dismiss anything that falls outside his experience as impossible.” – (Unsure of the source of this one, but I’ve heard it in a video game.)

    • Joseph Bloch

      Thanks for spotlighting the quote about self-delusion. Folks like Amy seem to go through the process with their hand over their mouth covering their condescending smile, wrapped in their aura of smug self-assurance that they’re “better” than the self-deluded folks who actually _believe_ this stuff.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I just dislike the assumption that many atheists make that they do not operate on belief. Even though they do. (Believe in an absence is still a belief.)

        • Janus Bellator

          Ah…but atheists do have a belief in an absence. They do not HAVE A BELIEF.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Interesting contradiction, isn’t it?

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          I’d say that framing atheism or theism entirely in terms of belief is an oversimplification of both. In fact, the notion that one must commit to a belief in presence or absence first could be argued as a very Christian-centric way of viewing spirituality. And that previous sentence is an oversimplification of Christian thought about belief.

          But then again, I’m a non-cogntivist who doesn’t think it was a contradiction for one of my intellectual forebearers to invoke Venus and Eros and advocate atomism. Life is more complex.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I wasn’t exactly framing theism in terms of belief as much as I was framing the entire concept of experience in terms of belief.

            What do we really know, after all?

      • Terence Clark

        And, like my comment below, I think you are presupposing an awful lot of things about her intentions and her feelings toward other pagans that you have no justification for applying to her.

    • Terence Clark

      I think its unnecessary to assume arrogance here. She enjoys pagan ritual, enjoys spending time with her coven-mates, and genuinely appreciates their belief in deity. I don’t see how that is any different than any one of the multitude of other theological debates in modern paganism (hard poly/soft poly, mono/duo/poly, god/goddess as aspects, dryghten, etc). That’s not even touching some of the other major controversies. We each arrive at an answer we feel is correct based on our experience. I don’t feel it’s necessary to read smugness into her words. I don’t think she has a “ha ha, you silly theists” approach any more than I believe you have a “ha ha silly non-theists” approach. Why is it necessary to read that into what she says?

      I’ve attended a UU church on and off over the years and there were members of those congregations from a multitude of beliefs, but the most common was probably secular humanist. Nevertheless, they host a Solstice pageant every year hosted by a fairly prominent pagan personality (Due to some of the recent controversy over Big Name Pagans, I’m not name-dropping here). The UU members attend along with pagans and the general public, and we all have a pretty good time of it. I don’t, at any point, see evidence that anyone gathered there feels superior to me because “it’s all in my head”, nor do I see a reason to believe that this is secretly the case.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I didn’t assume arrogance.

        • Terence Clark

          You didn’t use the word, per se, but by reverting to the harsher ‘self-delusion’ wording and critiquing her comments as patronizing and assuming she meant it as ‘religion-as-a-crutch’ lead me to feel that it was your implied meaning here.

          In both cases your comments alter her statements to mean the same thing with respect to the human mind, but change the tone from explanatory to accusatory, and thus more arrogant. Which is precisely why she chose to reword her answer for self-delusion. She doesn’t mean it that way, and I don’t think it’s helpful for us to read it that way.

          • Aine

            She chose to reword it because one is plainly offensive while the other pretends not to be. Pretends, not actually is.

          • Terence Clark

            If you find that offensive, is she justified in feeling offended by you feeling there are gods? My issue is that you are forcing conflict where there doesn’t need to be. It’s also specifically why I brought up the other conflicts in paganism. Are hard polytheistic stances insulting to soft polytheists or to those who view the gods as aspects of Jungian archetypes? Are those who believe in the concept of the Dryghten offensive to those who don’t have a monist view? Are those who believe in only the Goddess offensive to those who believe in a Goddess and a God,or to those who have many gods and don’t adhere to the Goddess/God dichotomy? Or those with no gods?

            Why do we need to treat non-theistic pagans as somehow different from and more severe than the multitude of theological distinctions within theistic paganism? Why is the conclusion she has drawn from her experience an insult, but the other differing theistic viewpoints are
            merely acceptable variations that we’ve decided to agree to disagree on?

            To me these conflicts have entirely the same character as the ‘in your head’ versus ‘real’ concept and are only offensive because the receiver of the message chooses to take them that way. And we choose to take them that way by unnecessarily reading intent into the wording where I suggest it’s entirely unnecessary.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Put bluntly, we need to treat theistic and atheistic pagans differently because they are.

            In simple terms – if a bunch of hard polytheists are doing a ritual designed to talk to their specific patron god (who they believe in as a literal spiritual entity existing independent of the human mind), would they really want someone there who will not actually be offering any energy input?

            Or, conversely, would a bunch of atheistic pagans really want a hard polytheist around claiming that the invocation has objective reality beyond entertainment/group psychology?

            It is not about calling superiority, it is about respecting difference.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            “Or, conversely, would a bunch of atheistic pagans really want a hard polytheist around claiming that the invocation has objective reality beyond entertainment/group psychology?”

            It depends.

            If you’re saying that there’s an objective reality there, then perhaps it might be good to go there and talk about what each of us brings back.

            If you’re taking a reductive view of my ritual space, then you’re probably invited anyway, but I won’t expect much.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I feel that people are, likely, better served by rituals with other who share a purpose with everyone involved.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Certainly, but I think the implication that we never can share a purpose or meaningful ritual because I see systems theory and you see a god is taking that idea a bit too far.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Not to me, it isn’t. I am just struggling to find a way to explain why.

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            > In simple terms – if a bunch of hard polytheists are doing a ritual designed to talk to their specific patron god (who they believe in as a literal spiritual entity existing independent of the human mind), would they really want someone there who will not actually be offering any energy input?

            Hmm. It’s my experience that the gods sometimes make use of those who don’t believe in them without their being conscious of it. Some people lend energy to a ritual while remaining completely skeptical about divine beings. So belief isn’t necessarily the mark of an effective ritualist. (See, for example, the significant numbers of highly observant Jews who don’t necessarily believe in God — though significantly, I have never seen such Jews heap contempt on believers; they simply have different reasons for doing what they do. Hindus often have a similar range of beliefs, from atheist to monotheist to polytheist.)

            Sometimes the gods come when atheists call. Who knows why?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I just prefer the focus of a unified front.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I find the language of the question offensive as both an atheist and a high-functioning madman.

            I’m not a therapist, so it would be unethical for me to answer the therapeutic meaning of “delusion.”

            I’m not a Buddhist scholar, nor was that questiona bout Mara, so I don’t know the answer to the Buddhist meaning of the word.

            I’m not a New Atheist, so I’m not going to accept their political framing of religious experience.

            Imagination though is wonderful. Imaginary does not mean worthless, meaningless, or even “unreal.”

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            She may not mean it harshly, but that is still what she believes, clearly.

            I don’t feel she came across as arrogant. She answered honestly, and I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I agree with her stance, though.

            As for the ‘religion-as-a-crutch’ bit; how else is that to be interpreted? Not everyone believes in gods for comfort.

  • The Domestic Pagan

    I get it. It’s not about being frivolous. It’s about experiencing joy, pure and simple. It’s a lesson I needed to learn. http://www.thedomesticwitch.net/2013/06/how-atheist-pagan-helped-me-find-joy-of.html

    • Janus Bellator

      Good blog article. Introspection sometimes works, doesn’t it? ;)

  • Treeshrew

    Thanks for that very interesting interview. I have a very similar view myself, but wonder at the point of doing ritual. It’s given me a lot to think about!

    • Janus Bellator

      I wonder about the point of rituals, myself, sometimes. Except that they are social times and celebrations, I’ve never really seen the need for them I mean, if your gods are outside yourself, do they really care? I guess “sabbat religionists” are not confined to Christianity, hm?

      • Terence Clark

        Humans have been proven to derive more from an experience by simply having a ritual. Even something as simple as unwrapping a candy bar a particular way prior to eating it has been shown to greatly increase the enjoyment of the experience for the one eating it. We are creatures of ritual. And while I get the idea of external deity being potentially an issue, I don’t think one needs to eschew animism or pantheism in order to worship their deity in a ceremonial fashion.

  • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com/ Soliwo

    To me, authenticity beats competence. I would not object to disbelief in literal gods, I am not sure of my own theological sense, but I could not do ritual with someone for whom it is just entertainment. I dislike the word too. Joy is fine. Joy is great. But ritual … is about meaning too. And the sole focus on ‘entertainment’ means a lack thereof.

  • Joseph Bloch

    I’m sure I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this, but I find this attitude disgusting and condescending. There are plenty of other ways that Amy could get “entertainment” without going through the exercise of conducting a religious ritual. Why that as opposed to, say, an SCA event? The whole thing strikes me as deep mockery.

  • Janus Bellator

    What a terrific interview, thanks! And I note than in no way does Amy ever say that someone else must think/do/feel the same as she does, or get the same things from ritual. Why would someone else feel free to be offended or saddened by something that is not being forced upon them? We each get out of it what we put into it. No one else is in charge of your feelings, so why is it important that we cater to them?

    • Aine

      …we’re allowed to be offended when we’re being patronized and condescended to. The ‘no one else is in charge of your feelings’ is a very nice sentiment I guess, but I’ve only ever seen it used by people who want to say anything they want without consequence.

      • Janus Bellator

        Amy was not patronizing or being condescending to anyone. She was attempting to answer a difficult question in a spoken language. That someone else feels obliged to scorn her because she is different really IS offensive.

        • Aine

          She treats ritual as entertainment – something I hope she is VERY upfront about to people joining her. She also treats belief as a delusion (it doesn’t matter what ‘nicer words’ she uses), and her words were incredibly patronizing. She is no more intelligent or thoughtful than someone with faith. She treats belief as a delusion, and refers to it as ‘fun’ but that ‘truth and reason’ have to win out.

          Gross, gross, gross.

          • Janus Bellator

            Why would she need to be “upfront” about what is strictly a personal and private point of view? As for belief — if it is without proof, it IS delusion. And we all have them.

          • Aine

            Because she is performing entertainment, and she needs to be upfront about that. My beliefs mean that if I were in a ritual being led by her, I would have some SERIOUS fallout with my spirits. If she can’t respect faith, she needs to respect other people, which means being upfront that this is play time for her, and not religious or spiritual, so that for people whom this IS religious/spiritual for can stay far away.

            She is leading rituals. This is more than a private belief. If you have no respect for other people, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that this is anything other than blatant disrespect.

          • Janus Bellator

            You are attempting to separate ritual from entertainment. They are not mutually exclusive, but merely two parts of the same thing. And perhaps your own spirits do not have any humor, but I have always known that Deity is a joker who enjoys a good belly laugh, often at our expense. Are you so without respect, yourself, that you cannot allow other to be as they are instead of what you wish?

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Gods and their worshipers don’t have a monopoly on religion or spirituality.

            Much less ritual.

          • Aine

            Good job completely failing to read what I wrote.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Then could you please explain your boundaries here.

          • tigresslilly

            I think there are several separate concerns present.

            1. A primary problem a theistic pagan may have with the statements “Rituals are purely entertainment” followed by “I lead rituals” is that the person speaking has made a tool used to contact and commune with the Gods into a play and is now directing these plays for groups of people who may be going to the event believing it’s a religious ritual when in fact Amy isn’t performing a ritual but creating an interactive play.

            If Amy isn’t honest about what her views and purpose of ritual are, she is intentionally or unintentionally deceiving her guests. The ritual may put a theistic pagan in an awkward spot with one or more of hir deities depending on the kind of relationship ze has with them. The ritual could mislead or discourage new seekers who may be looking for gods. But beyond all of that, it breaks the rule of hospitality. The ritual leader should respect those he or she has invited enough to explain the goals of the ritual, just as the invitee should choose to either respect the hosts stated purpose or politely leave instead of hijacking a ritual to his or her own ends. Anything else is rude to both host and guest.

            2. The second concern is whether Amy’s stated feelings of theistic paganism is condescending/offensive or not. The truth as I see it is that Amy’s view is offensive and a little condescending but it’s not something she can help. She hasn’t had an experience with the Gods and has no reason to believe they exist or that other people have really had a divine experience. Again I would say it’s rude to tell people they are deluded if their belief isn’t hurting anyone but when someone asks point blank it’s better to be rude and honest than deceitful but polite. I’d prefer to know where a person stands and then agree not to further discuss that aspect of theology because we won’t agree and I’ll be offended, even as I realize no offense is intended.

            3. I think there is a third side issue about whether atheistic pagans should go to theistic ritual because the goals theistic and atheistics have is so different that people are concerned about energies not meshing. To my way of thinking: that’s something that belongs to individual groups to decide who to invite and how to screen for proper group and ritual function. I personally don’t have a problem with an atheistic pagan or or any faith or non-faith at my ritual so long as they are polite and respectful. My experiences with raising energy and group ritual work are not ones where I could really understand that particular view well enough to articulate it further.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            1. I think if you’re going to use quote marks, you should actually quote rather than putting your own adverbs into the discussion. Quite possibly a gap in this discussion is whether art and entertainment are inherently sacred. My opinion is they are.

            2. Speaking for myself, I engage in imaginative religious ritual. I have suffered from delusional parasitosis. To me, it’s highly offensive in both ways to insist on conflating the two and collapsing the language in that way.

            So to me, imagination is sacred and imagination has an essential role in interpreting the sacred. And some of my best conversations in these matters come from talking about the ways in which we “eff the ineffable” in different ways.

          • tigresslilly

            1. Yes, I think there you’ve nailed where the gap is for people. While I’d agree that art and entertainment are part of a ritual and I would agree that there is art and entertainment that speaks toward my faith. I don’t think there is anything inherently sacred about art or entertainment though.

            I think I’d like to see one of Amy’s rituals because I do think it would have value. I’m not certain I’d be comfortable participating–though probably no less comfortable participating in such than I would be participating in a ritual where the gods invoked weren’t ones I was familiar with.

            2. Your view is new here and I’ll have to think more before speaking towards it. Thank you for explaining.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Belief without proof is not delusion. Delusion is belief in spite of conflicting evidence.

            She needs to be up front about her beliefs because she heads rituals.

            Do you really think that it is morally acceptable to allow people to believe she is providing a spiritual service when she says it is a form of entertainment?

            There is nothing wrong with what she does, as long as she does it honestly and openly.

            It is the difference between seance as entertainment and seance as charlatanry.

          • Janus Bellator

            “Morally acceptable?” That’s as Christian a response as I’ve ever seen. I do not judge what is moral or immoral for anyone but myself. I’m a Pagan, not an Abrahamic!
            And as far as I can tell, she has never lied about her own beliefs when leading ritual. THAT would be reprehensible. But who goes around giving their spiritual cv before a rit? Do you? If asked, I’m sure she would say. After all, she just did the interview, so everyone knows it now, anyway, if they did not before. But having anyone present their ritual credentials before they’re allowed to lead a ritual is wtmi, imo. Either you’re in it for what you can get out it or you’re not in it. We are all different.
            Oh…and I view any séance as a pure charlatanry, anyway, be it intended merely for entertainment or no. But that’s just MY preference. Anyone else is free to conjure as many ghosts or spirits or dear departed as they wish. Their doing so harms me not at all.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Christians don’t hold the monopoly on moral judgement. I was using the term in the societal context.

            Who goes round asking people for their stance prior to a ritual? Well I would, for one. I have no interest being part of a ritual with people who do not share my beliefs.

  • John

    Perhaps the word “metaphor” would have been more appropriate than entertainment.

    • Janus Bellator

      Only if that is what she meant, I think. But it’s a good suggestion.

  • thelettuceman

    The amount of condescension in the interview is staggering.

  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    Reading this made me physically ill, and I mean literally. The amount of condescension and basically desacralizing of ritual is astounding. More astounding that people actually think this is awesome.

    Wow, just wow.

    • liza

      ^^this^^ seriously, ^^this^^

  • Alioth

    This may be a futile question, given the rest of the thread, but… I’d love to hear people’s perspectives on why the gods don’t speak in cleartext.

    Relevant quote:
    “If you believe the gods are greater than us, wouldn’t you expect them to communicate in clear, plain, easy-to-understand language, as, say, an adult would speak to a toddler? We expect clear communication from our school teachers as a matter of course, but the gods get a pass? That makes no sense. Consider the reverse: is it okay to summon the gods using gibberish? If so, why don’t we do it more often and would we be able to guarantee who shows up?”

    Please forgive me if this has already been addressed many times and I’m simply failing to find it… it’s late, and I’m not hitting the right combination of search terms to find anything much.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      We can judge that dolphins are intelligent, yes? We can’t communicate clearly with them, can we?

      To use popular fiction as an analogy – ever seen the (Kevin Smith) film, “Dogma”? If so, you will doubtless recall the part where we see what happens when God (well, Alanis Morrissette) talks.

      When communicating between species (and worlds/realms/dimensions/planes), there will always be something lost in translation.

      As an aside, I believe that some gods/spirits are non-verbal. My personal encounters with Cernunnos, for example, have left me with the certainty that he does not speak – he is older than language.

      • Ywen DragonEye

        Yes, in my encounters with him as well. You FEEL what he wants to communicate.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Exactly. If anything, language just gets in the way of communication, in that regards.

    • Aine

      Her comparing gods to adults and humans to toddlers is a huge misunderstanding of non-monotheistic theologies.

    • tigresslilly

      My two cents in this topic is that the comparison is wrong. Gods are not adults and we the children. Gods are not teachers while we are students. Gods are a Non-human element which exist in at least in part on a different plain than we do. Their concerns, limitations, and existence is so essentially different than ours that it is hard for us to speak to one another.

  • mbtankersley

    Why is the photo accompanying the article the Albuquerque Isotopes logo?

  • Mother Wolf

    I can’t help feeling that when she says “entertainment” she is speaking of us – reverent, believing, and she, the non-believing ritual leader pulling the strings of our emotions to produce an effect, like a puppeteer. I think it’s fine that she’s an atheist, but I don’t have much respect for someone performing rituals she doesn’t believe in. And writing invocations? And I really don’t appreciate

  • Terence Clark

    I’ve teetered on the line between atheist and polytheist for several years now and curiously enough her comment that “I understand the desire to be comforted and validated by a belief in the supernatural.” Indeed in my more skeptical times when I’m wrestling with whether my experience with the divine is literally true or a psychological manifestation, it is that knowledge that I am comforted by my beliefs and that believing for comfort’s sake is entirely valid that quiets down my otherwise restless brain.

    I am a hard polytheist, but once upon a time I was a pretty devout little Catholic boy who very much believed in the god of my church. How do you walk away from that belief and into another without having some serious questions about the literal truth of your experience in either case?

    I’ve chosen to use her approach to ease the undying skeptic in me and keep me on my path. It’s like Pascal’s Wager. If I believe and continue to follow my pagan path, but there are no gods, then I have lead a good and happy life with rich spiritual experience and risked very little. She has chosen to use the same justification for why she can continue to conduct ritual with her community and respect their beliefs while ceasing to believe in the spiritual aspects in her own experience. Similar benefits, different conclusion.

    I see no cynicism or arrogance in either, nor do I see it necessary to view either with any more or less validity.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      The lesser wager actually comes from polytheistic philosophies including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Tibetan sources. Virtue is good, and if the gods exist and favor virtue, it’s even better.

      The strong version of Pascal’s Wager demands that the Divine not only play dice with the universe, but “father may I” with humanity. The idea of absolute estrangement from something that is also universal seems to be a particularly Christian conundrum.

      • Terence Clark

        True, and I didn’t mean to suggest I had any kind of severe judgment in mind with the flip side of the wager. But the wager still stands in my case, albeit without eternal damnation on the line. I’ve often argued against the Wager as it’s a false dichotomy anyway, but it’s at least reasonably illustrative here.

        • Terence Clark

          The flip side being, in business terms, opportunity cost of spending a life pursuing non-spiritual things and losing the opportunity to gain from a relationship with the divine.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Oh no. I didn’t mean to sound like I was disagreeing. I was just noting that the lesser wager is very compatible with at least a few varieties of polytheism and the atheisms that emerged from those traditions.

  • JasonMankey

    I’ve been out of town and with limited computer access since first posting this interview and I must say I’m very surprised by the comments. A quick look through Raise the Horns shows that I’m a VERY committed polytheist who has had (or at least believes I have had) very real experiences with deity. To say that Amy is “patronizing” and “rolling her eyes through ritual” kind of hurts me. I do ritual with this woman and she’s never been that way with me during ritual. Do you all really think I would do ritual with someone who is mocking me behind my own back?

    Nearly everyone I do ritual with has different ideas about the nature of deity. Some are hardcore polytheists, others believe all gods are one god, etc. That one of those people is an atheist Pagan is just another idea in the room. Sure, it’s not one I agree with, but I’m not going to kick someone out of circle just because they disagree with me. It would take some serious eye rolling (which Amy doesn’t do) for that to happen, so it’s not something I’m going to worry about.

    I would be bothered by someone who doesn’t believe in deity calling down the moon and faking that experience, but most rituals (especially public ones) don’t have that element. I have been to some of Amy’s rituals and they are wonderful seasonal celebrations. I don’t go to public Beltane celebrations expecting some sort of crazy deep religious experience, but I do go to honor the Spring, and yeah, hopefully to be entertained. If ritual wasn’t at least a little bit entertaining I doubt most of us would go.

    Thanks for all the comments.

    • Mother Wolf

      Jason, I’m sorry you were hurt by our reactions and in my opinion your sincerity and integrity are beyond question. I wonder if Amy simply did not manage to convey her feelings clearly. You know her well so perhaps you knew what she meant better than we. I have no problem with her being a Pagan atheist (or vice versa). But with so many readers coming away with the same impression of her attitude, something she said must have conveyed (erroneously or not) condescension. I hope we just misunderstood.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I will repeat what I said previously, for clarity:

      “I understand the desire to be comforted and validated by a belief in the supernatural.”
      That comes across as pretty patronising. It is a rewording of the ‘religion-as-a-crutch’ line I have heard so often.
      Belief, for me, has nothing to do with comfort or validation. It is about a reasoned analysis of experience.

      I did not say that she was patronising, in general, or that she acts in a disrespectful way when presiding rituals. It was specifically that line.

      I have always disliked the notion that many atheists have suggested to me over the years that belief is a source of comfort. It isn’t. It is simply how everyone experiences the world.

      She may belief that gods are man made symbols, but others do not. To suggest that belief in the supernatural is a source of comfort is patronising. It also does not understand how belief can manifest in different people.

      Allow me to respond to her stance, in a similar manner:

      I can understand the desire to rationalise the spiritual experience (let us face it, supernatural implies ‘beyond nature’) in ways that comforts and validates the individual.

      It’s still just belief, though.

    • Tom Griffin

      I think some people didn’t give what Amy was saying a chance. She used the words : “entertainment, theatricality, performance, imagination, fiction, and altered state.” Think about what happens when we sit through a movie. We get caught up in the storyline, and the story comes alive to us. Sure, we know its actors, a script, a set, etc., but we still get caught up in the illusion. When a movie is performed extremely well, we almost forget (and sometimes do forget) that what we are watching is just a movie. With respect to a pagan ritual, none of us know if there are actual gods or goddesses that we are communicating with. The better the performance, the more we forget that what is actually effecting our senses is a performance. My point is that there are two parts to a ritual, 1) the performance and hopefully 2) the transforming experience (the ritual that comes alive for us). Everyone should be able to agree that 1) occurs. Concerning 2), whether it just comes alive theatrically or whether we are actually communicating with gods or goddess is something no-one knows, and we are free to pick and choose which we believe it is. Consider Homer’s Illiad which is the story of the Trojan war. Some
      historians say that there might have actually been a Trojan war and that the stories about the Trojan war were based upon what happened, and some say
      not. Whether I think there was a Trojan war or not, it’s still an
      incredible story that effects everyone deeply. Unlike a movie, a ritual is something we participate in and are not just passive observers. Because we are actually participating in the ritual, we gain a further element of the transforming experience. I think what is extremely important though is that when we enter the circle, we hold hands and respect each other as one. If we look at each other as enemies or adversaries, it will only distract from the transforming experience.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It isn’t that people are disagreeing about the existence of the two points, it is more that, for some people, the main point of the ritual is deep communication with their god(s). Without that communication, what, really, is the point?

        • Tom Griffin

          The profound aesthetic experience.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            For aesthetics, I’ll just head to a gig.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Probably nothing at all, if that question is at the forefront of your mind when approaching my sacred spaces.

          At the end of the day, we need to work with the revelatory understandings we have, not with what we wish them to be. Of course, the problem with the ineffable speaking to (or at, or through) people is that while we generally can agree on the adjectives and adverbs, the nouns become garbled.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I don’t ‘wish’ them to be anything.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            That wasn’t about you.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Fair. Couldn’t be sure.

        • Tom Erv

          When you understand your own reasons for participating in the ritual, you won’t be asking other people what the point is for them.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Unless you want to make sure that they are in for the same reasons.

          • Tom Erv

            It’s not so much the *reasons*, it’s the why behind them.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            The reasons for the reasons, as it were.


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