When “Pagan” Loses Meaning: Atheists and Theists

Barbie is a pretty potent symbol herself, so is the author trying to convey that polytheists are fake, shallow, superficial and materialistic?

I was angry this morning. I read M.J. Lee’s post over on Humanistic Paganism and I found myself really pissed. It cheesed my grits. It got my goat. And then I thought “Why are you pissed Star? This isn’t even your religion she’s talking about.”

That thought caught me by surprise. I have never before thought that way about another person who considers themselves Pagan. A different tradition, yes. Different nuances, different culture, different emphasis, but always with the same threads running through them. Always some element of commonality.

Lee and I aren’t of the same religion though, on any level. She’s an environmental atheist, and I am a devotional polytheist. The only thing that connects us is this word: Pagan.

I’m not saying Lee isn’t Pagan, or that I’m not Pagan, but I am saying this is one instance where the word Pagan loses all meaning.

So maybe we aren’t Pagan after all.

As a hard polytheist I believe in distinct, sentient Gods that move within nature’s laws. I celebrate this belief. Hell, I even advocate it. But I know other people believe differently, and I don’t care. I have good friends who see the Gods as merely energy or metaphor and I celebrate their right to that belief. I don’t demean them. I simply tend my own garden and work to express my own belief as best I can. I don’t work at the business of deciding whose religion is right or wrong.

Lee does, and that’s what disturbs me.

Aside from the inescapable feeling of being insulted, of being painted as an ignorant and superstitious cultural looter unable to connect with nature and intent on ruining myth and metaphor for everyone else, Lee’s post resembles an “evangelical creep” of atheism into our community. I read a lot of atheist blogs, admire many atheists and have no problem with that theological flavor in our communities, but this militant, evangelical style of atheism is anathema to me. It is not my religion. And if these evangelical atheists are identifying as Pagan, and people like me are identifying as Pagan, then that word has obviously lived past its usefulness.

Paganism is a diverse place and I treasure that. Atheists should be welcome at our tables, in our circles and at our festivals. I will never advocate for a narrow definition of who has a right to ally themselves with our broad community.

However, I’m not going to bow down to an atheist orthodoxy. I’m not defining myself to please them, couching my practice in terms they approve of, or accepting insults from them because I don’t fit into their mold. I’m not just talking about Lee here. I once had an interview with an atheist who became increasingly insulting as my answers to his questions refused to conform to the rules of atheism. I ended the interview. If a Christian treated me the same way I would do the same thing. There are a lot of atheists in Paganism, and I’ve had to encounter these attitudes over and over again.

My religion is not a matter of whim. It’s not a matter of want. Lee keeps asking why people want “supernatural” Gods. As an atheist she cannot conceive of people needing them, and so she phrases her questions in terms of whim.

Atheism doesn’t bear truth with a capital T. It is not the One True Religion. I don’t need saving by scientific methodology and pure reason any more than I need saving by Allah or Jesus. I am not some ignorant infidel that stubbornly refuses to see the truth of atheism, however gently it comes knocking.

Non-theistic nature reverence is wonderful. It’s beautiful. I welcome it in our communities. But not as Holy Reason coming to save the ignorant and superstitious theists. Just because we don’t treat you as shamefully as some other faiths have, doesn’t mean we are willing to endure your gospel.

I’m also aware that the perhaps the battle for the word “pagan” may have been lost. As society at large increasingly begins to identify the word with secular environmentalism, and as environmental atheists embrace the term, then I have to wonder if I am on the wrong side of history. Maybe I’m standing here staring at the point where we begin to use our proper, specific labels rather than our overarching umbrellas. We still have a lot in common, we still benefit from shared community, knowledge and resources. But today I’m forced to recognize that in many cases we’re not the same religion anymore, on any level.

In cases where all we have in common is a label, then perhaps it’s time to examine ourselves closely and redefine.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.


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