Pagan Atheism (talk from Starwood 2018)

(I spent last week at the Starwood Festival, which was amazing. Attendance was over 800, the weather was lovely, the land is lovely, the people are magical. I’ll be posting more about this year’s Starwood over the next few days. To start with, here’s my talk on “Pagan Atheism”. You can watch the video (really more of a listening experience, I guess, since it’s just me sitting there talking), or read my notes — as always I depart from the prepared text a fair bit.

Hi! Thank you for coming. If you don’t know me, I’m Tom Swiss. Let me take a second for some self-promotion: I’m the author of the books Why Buddha Touched the Earth and What Does It Mean For The Gods To Exist? and other essays. (This talk grew out of that title essay, so if this is really interesting to you you can go buy a copy of that at the ACE book tent, and help me get some gas money…) And I also blog at Patheos as The Zen Pagan.

If you look in the Starwood Tour Guide, you’ll see that in my bio I describe my spiritual path as “Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian”. Sometimes I throw “Transcendentalist” in there. I’ve been calling myself both a “Pagan” and an “atheist” since the 1990s.

When I first got into Paganism back then, my real-world community was an eclectic circle where we had Christo-Pagans and self-initiated Wiccans and folks into Druid stuff and I was throwing in bits of Taoism and Zen — who was going to argue?

On-line, back in those days we had the Internet but the web wasn’t really a thing yet. (I wrote my first HTML in 1993 and I had a personal site by 1996, so get off my lawn, you darned kids.)

We were still on dial-up, and blogs were still years away. We didn’t even have MySpace yet, let alone Facebook and Twitter. The on-line culture was still weighted towards programmers, engineers, and scientists.

USENET newsgroups and private mailing lists were where the important discussions happened, and FAQ – “Frequently Asked Questions” – documents were important works of the culture.

See, mailing lists and newsgroups were more of a conversation, and there wasn’t a Google – or even an Altavista (anyone? anyone?) – to search back through them. The same questions and topic would come up over and over again. So a tradition developed that the group would write up a list of these questions and answers, and post it about once a month for the newbies.

So the “Frequently Asked Questions about Neopaganism” written by hacker Eric S. Raymond had some authority with on-line Pagans. It stated: “[M]any neopagans are philosophical agnostics or even atheists; there is a tendency to regard `the gods’ as Jungian archetypes or otherwise in some sense created by and dependent on human belief, and thus naturally plural and observer-dependent.”

(Raymond — or ESR, as hackers know him — was a Wiccan priest at one point, and also a devotee of Zen. He has an interesting spiritual autobiography, an essay called, “Dancing With the Gods” which is an interesting account and an excellent read for Zen Pagans. Unfortunately he sort of went nuts after 9/11, falling into conspiracy theory BS.)

So nobody complained about my “Pagan atheist” identification back then, and I’ve had that in my bio at Free Spirit Gathering and Starwood and a few other events for fifteen or twenty years now, and on my blog and in my books, and neither the Pagan Police nor Atheist Agents have come to take me away.

So you can do it and get away with it! That’s a point I want to emphasize, if you’re not sure yourself, if you’re conflicted about feeling like a Pagan but not “Believing”, with a capital B, in this stuff.

In fact there are enough of us out there to make a book: Godless Paganism is whole thick book of essays by various “non-theistic” Pagans. I have two essays in that. (I meant to bring my copy to show you, but, life happened.)

But a few years back I made it out to PantheaCon on the West Coast, and heard two prominent atheist-slash-humanist Pagans speak, Mark Green (of Atheopaganism fame) and John Halstead (editor of the Godless Paganism book and the website). I was surprised at some of their stories about how people had told them they aren’t valid Pagans.

In fact the intersection of atheism and Neopaganism goes back centuries, to the start of the Pagan revival. One root of it was the poetry of British Romantics. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a big guy in that, he and his buddies weren’t just using the ancient gods at a literary device, they were looking to get past the Christianity of their culture. They helped shape our Neopagan notions of the deities; Shelley wrote of the “Sacred goddess, Mother Earth / Thou from whose immortal bosom / Gods and men and beasts have birth”, and at least one time he raised an altar to Pan, and wrote about that as the “true religion.”

But he was also an amateur scientist, and he was expelled from Oxford for writing a book titled The Necessity of Atheism.

(Shelley was also a vegetarian and an anarchist. I love this guy!)

So atheism is right there at the start.

But it seems there’s been a bit of a backlash in the past few years, going along with the rise of the group of Pagans we’ve come to call “devotional polytheists”. They are explicitly supernatualist and often insist “our gods are literally real”…which may in turn be a reaction to some on the atheist/naturalistic/humanist Pagan side talking about the gods as “metaphors.” If you have feelings of devotion, great emotional attachment, to a thing, hearing someone call it a mere “metaphor” might sting.

Boldly rushing in where angels fear to tread (that’s sort of my idiom), I’m going to say that they’re both wrong, that the gods are neither metaphors nor literally real.

So here’s a big question: can we find room for that emotional excitement of devotion, that bhakti yoga, while still accepting the naturalistic, scientific, materialistic view of the Universe? (We won’t get that with metaphors, I think.)

How does this possibly fit together?

But first, a little tangent: I am reminded of a story. I mentioned bhakti yoga, that’s the Hindu sort of devotional practice: prayer, chanting, singing, and repeating the names of the gods, to keep the divine always in mind.

Well, the story has it that there was an atheist who was always going around saying “There is no god! No god! No way, no how, no god!” Well, the atheist eventually died, as we all do, and he was immediate united with the divine! God said, hey, you always had my name on your lips, always had the divine in mind, good job.

So there’s that.

Anyway, to get back to our topic…to figure out how this might fit togeher, we need to look deeper and do some philosophy. To answer the question “Do the gods and goddesses exist?” we need to answer two questions, just two trivial little matters:

• What is a god?

• What does it mean to exist?

We have here two fundamental questions of theology and ontology that have had philosophers arguing since the days of ancient Athens! The good news is, there’s already so much gibberish on these topics that I don’t think I can make the problem any worse!

Let’s start by thinking about what your average person, your Joe Sixpack – or going back in time, your Eric Meadhorn, or Alexandros Winejug or Hiroshi Sakebottle – would say about this stuff.

Imagine that we could jump in our TARDIS and grab a sample of average citizens off the streets of various civilizations, from the ancient Sumerians to today, and ask them about ontology – that’s the branch of philosophy that studies existence. What’s real?

I think we’d get a sort of naive realism. Does this stone exist? Of course it does, our subject replies, what a stupid question.

Well, ok. How about that unicorn that the town drunk said he saw behind the tavern? Well that doesn’t really exist, our subject says, (assuming our friend Oberon hasn’t been around), it’s a fiction or a delusion or a lie. A good story, though, the bit about that unicorn and the mayor’s daughter is true even if it’s not, you know, “factual.”

The number three? we ask them. Sure, that exists — see, I have three coins in my pocket. You think I can’t count or something?

People like you and me? Of course we exist, we’re standing here talking to each other. Duh.

But if we’re going to be philosophers, we’ll find that any of these points are debatable. We’ll come back to that.

And if we also asked our random sample about theology, if we asked them to describe the primary deity of their culture’s pantheon, I think what we would get is a picture of a king but even moreso — a super-king, a magic king. (In fact, in some cultures a king could be promoted to godhood. So we can see that they are of a type.)

The idea of kings is central to the social structure, the complicated hierarchy, that has been with us since we became farmers and city-dwellers. Every citizen controls some bit of land, from the peasant’s plot to the lord’s realm; and each man has power over some number of people, from the head of the peasant household ruling his wife and children to the chief of the whole nation. The kings are the ones on the top of their various heaps, the ones who rule the most land and the most people.

And even though I’m a Zenarchist who looks forward to Universal Enlightenment and the abolition of the state, I have to admit that a lot of people find that hierarchy very comforting. Someone is in charge. People can know their place in the social order.

But why stop there? It’s an obvious extrapolation to follow that curve upward. There must be a ruler of the whole world, everything we see, the sun and the moon and the sea and the rains. It would take power far beyond what any mortal has to rule all that. Magic power. And this ruler would have a royal court, of course. There’s your head deity and your pantheon.

And that heavenly king is comforting to a lot of people too. There is not just a social order but a cosmological order. God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

Even most citizens of the supposedly democratic United States believe in the heavenly King of Kings. And its problematic to have a spiritual monarchy in a democracy. (The Athenians at least had Zeus’s kingship of the gods be subject to limitations.)

The point I want to emphasize here is that there is a common, sort of naive idea of the gods that comes from projecting hierarchical social structure upwards. As below, so above.

And it’s worth pointing out that only as that agricultural social structure has started to fall apart the past few centuries with industrialization, only in that time that we started to move away from agricultural kings, has atheism been able to find any sort of social opening. Maybe as we’re figuring out that we don’t need kings on earth, we don’t need them in heaven. Again, as below, so above.

Put these “common sense” ideas of deities and of existence together, and we get the gods and goddesses as super-powered super-royalty. Kings and Queens and Princes of the Universe, Lords and Ladies of All, possessed of the power to bend and shape the world to their liking, as real and as independent of human beings as stones are (according to our common sense), but made of some more rarefied and magical sort of non-physical substance not subject to the constraints of normal matter.

Now, not being a big fan of kings I’m downright glad to say that under that set of definitions, reason leads us to conclude that we have no evidence that such gods exist. There are no super-kings up in the sky. Ha! I thumb my nose at the empty heavens! And no lightening bolt strikes me down.

But…but. These are not the only notions of “realness” or of deity out there.

Existence is a weirder thing than we think of in our day-to-day life.

Let’s consider for a moment the existence of a subject near and dear to my heart: me. According to the teachings of Buddhism, in a sense I do not exist.

Now I don’t mean that there’s some conspiracy here, that Tom Swiss is a fictional front for some conspiracy. Nor do I mean that everything we experience is a dream, that you are Chuang Tzu’s butterfly who dreamed it was a person, or that we’re living in a simulation like The Matrix.

The teaching called anatman (Sanskrit) or anatta (the Pali equivalent) says: okay, your physical body exists, there are senses like sight and hearing and touch and time, there are emotional reactions to stimuli, and there’s memory and intellect and a perception of the world.

But nowhere in these piles of stuff, these skandhas, is there a “self” that’s separate from it all, an atman. If you take me apart there’s no self in there, any more than if you disassemble a mechanical watch you’ll find the “watchness” in there somewhere.

The “watchness” of the watch exists only as a relationship of the pieces and of the external world — the owner who keeps winding it and uses it to tell time, but also the watchmaker, the owner’s wife who gave it to him as a gift, and so on. The “me-ness” of the thing we call by convention “Tom Swiss” exists only as a relationship of the pieces — body, memories, perceptions — and of the world, both physical and social. “Dependent arising,” as the Buddhists say.

“I” exist only as a set of relationships that includes the food I eat, the air I breathe, the sunlight that powers the photosynthesis that makes all that possible; and also all the other humans with whom I participate in the social interaction that makes thought and language possible. Those relationships reach out though time and space without limit. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn often speaks of it as “interbeing.” And it doesn’t just apply to humans, it’s everything. Everything is “empty” – empty of a separate self-nature.

It’s like the punchline of a famous Mullah Nasrudin story:

The Mullah was traveling alone across the desert, and a group of other travelers recognized him from far away, and wanted to meet the great wise man, wondering where he was going. Nasrudin saw these people coming toward him out of the desert, figured they had to be bandits, and made a run for it. The other travelers saw him hurrying along and thought he must be bound for some important spiritual business, and pursued him more quickly, so the Mullah fled faster, and they followed him faster. Finally Nasrudin was exhausted and stopped, and they caught up with him in the middle of nowhere.

“Oh great Mullah Nasrudin, we recognized your holiness from afar, and hurried to follow you. What great wisdom brings you to this place at this time?”

“Well,” said Nasrudin, “I am here because of you, and you are here because of me.”

If “my” existence is conditional on the world around me and on other people…what should we expect about the deities? What if a god is a set of conditions that arise in the world, a relationship between phenomena? That’s a more subtle idea than super-kings, something more observer-dependent.

Now that idea also changes out whole idea of death. It’s said that the Zen master Bankei lost his fear of death because he realized that “he” had never been born – this thing he thought of as “me” was a mental fiction, a character in a story being told by his brain. So how could he die?

We mentioned devotional practice and love for the gods. Let me talk about something less speculative. I love my father. Some of you might know that he passed away last fall.

But I do not use the past tense here. I loved my father, but I love him still. And I do not mean that metaphorically.

So again for purposes of this discussion, accepting the naturalistic, scientific, materialistic view of the Universe; without stepping into speculative supernaturalism, belief in some sort of immortal immaterial soul, can I love a thing that does not exist?

In the conventional sense, Dad does not exist anymore. The only thing left is a box of ashes that’s still sitting on his desk, waiting until we get around to paying the church to dig up the family plot.

But, if I understand that Mark Swiss was not a certain animate lump of carbon, but that that animate lump was a center for conditions and events and the play of cause and effect – what we call karma – then all that other stuff is still around. My father is the way that I say “howdy!” to the toll collector. He is the way the scores of men he taught baseball when they we boys cheer the O’s. He’s the way I like driving through the mountains. He’s just a much more spread out and subtle thing than he used to be.

And speaking of the departed…consider for a moment the Ouija board. (First made in Baltimore, hometown pride.) I’d bet a lot of you have played around with one at least a little bit.

If you’re using a Ouija board solo and holding a conversation with some sort of Other, from our skeptical materialistic perspective it’s easy to say that the Other is an aspect of your own subconscious mind, that you’ve worked yourself into a disassociative state. It’s weird and tells us some interesting things about the mind, but doesn’t bring up any ontological issues.

But if you’ve ever experimented with using one with a partner, and you’ve been able to have some sort of sensible conservation with some sort of something…what was it?

(Let’s try it if we can. Can I get two volunteers. “Is there an entity here willing to communicate with us? We know that communication is difficult. But we ask that you give us one word, one single word, to guide our work and our meditations this week.” [We got the baffling message “G 1 G”. Or “G One G”. “Gone?”])

If, as skeptical atheist types (for the moment, at least), we discount supernatural disembodied spirits, and if we assume our fellow Ouijaers weren’t engaged in some conspiracy to fool us, what was on the other end of the line?

Usually, when we have a mind present, its physical correlate is a single brain. It seems that we had here a temporary mind whose physical correlate was not a single brain, but a shifting collection of the neurons of two (or more) brains, linked not only by the usual synapses but by non-conscious verbal and non-verbal communication between the people holding the planchette.

It’s a weak sort of group mind — “weak” in the sense of not totally absorbing the participants. Not a mob, not a Borg. I don’t mean that this “group mind” is anything supernatural, just more subtle than we usually encounter.

So, consider: what sort of weak group minds might arise in the subconscious minds of an entire society over a long time? Could the right sort of ritual, function like the Ouija board, to let them communicate?

So there we’ve got two possibilities for deities that aren’t very much like super-kings at all, deities not made from any supernatural substance.

Let’s go back to that bunch of hypothetical typical citizens we kidnapped in our TARDIS. Now we’re going to look at their answers about existence, the field of philosophy called ontology. When we asked those people about the existence of various things, we went from stones to numbers to people. Talking about anatman and group minds shows us that the question of the existence of personal “selves” is blurrier than we thought, but surely we can put our faith in the existence of numbers. Mathematics is the purest of the sciences. Right?

Actually…there is a long-standing debate among mathematicians here.

In philosophy there are two sides (not counting some fringe positions) on the question of the reality of abstracts. There are the platonists who take the position attributed to Plato, that abstract ideals exist, that in addition to (for example) coins existing, there is also the universal of circularity, which exists independently as a real thing.

And there are nominalists – they include some heavyweight philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – who believe that what exists are particulars, and that general, universal terms like “circularity” are just convenient names. They’re more adjectives than nouns

A common example is color. Redness as a visual phenomenon exists, we can all (at least those of us with normal vision) agree that certain things produce the experience of seeing red and certain things do not. (Though we can argue about the edges of that.) But does the color “red” really exist apart from those experiences? Or is it just an adjective that we sometimes use as a noun for linguistic convenience? This is not a settled matter, philosophers have been arguing about it for thousands of years.

And that debate found its way into mathematics in the 20th century. We can ask the same questions about numbers: is “five” really a thing unto itself, or is it just a descriptor of things?

We have mathematical platonists who argue that numbers and the other entities of mathematics really exist, in some way that is outside of space and time; and nominalists who say that numbers are just conventions of thought or language, not real things.

And this is still a controversy today, not something belonging to ancient times.

If mathematicians we can’t agree on whether numbers exist, how can we say anything about the gods?

Well, numbers are for eggheads anyway. At least we can say with 100% solid certainty that things like stones and bricks are real. Right?


Some of you have heard, I’m sure, of Richard Feynman. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, a Nobel prize winning physicist who many people said he was the greatest mind in physics since Einstein.

He was a man of broad curiosity – he loved drumming, so, there you go, I can imagine him getting down with us around the fire. When he was a graduate student, he would drop into to different classes to see how far he could get in various fields.

In one of his books, he tells a story about how he once went to a philosophy seminar where the students were discussing the idea of an “essential object” That’s some sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, don’t ask me just what that means. Feynman hadn’t read the book they were talking about so he didn’t know either. So when the professor asked Feynman whether an electron was an essential object, trying to figure out what they meant he asked “Is a brick an essential object?”

He said:

What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical constructs were essential objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy. In the case of the brick, my next question was going to be, “What about the inside of the brick?” and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see the surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began by asking, “Is a brick an essential object?”

Here we have a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, one of the greats, saying that we can almost-but-not-quite call electrons real. And saying the same thing about the inside of a brick! According to Feynman both are theoretical constructs which are not the same as reality.

(The philosophy students, as in all good stories about philosophers, proceeded to vigorously disagree and could reach no conclusion on whether a brick was an essential object.)

If we can’t agree that bricks are entirely real, what do you want from the gods?

I think the answer to this puzzle is a sort of contextualism: we can only say that a thing “exists” in a certain context.

There is apparently a fancy philosophical name for this – I was so disappointed to learn that I’m not the first to think of it! – “ontological anti-realism.” There’s a good explanation of it from philosopher David Chalmers, but first we need a little philosophical jargon:

• Ontology – which we’ve already mentioned – is the branch of philosophy that deals with what exists. An ontologist is someone who practices ontology. A meta-ontologist, then, gets meta- about ontology, compares systems of ontology and figures out which one (if any) we ought to use.

• Mereology is the branch of ontology that deals with the relationships between parts and wholes. A “mereological sum”, informally, means a whole formed by combining two parts.
Mereological universalists say that if you take any two things and put them together, you really have a new thing; mereological nihilists say that only the most basic building blocks really exist.

• And we talked a minute ago about platonists and nominalists. Platonists say abstract ideals like “circularity” and “five” are really real, while nominalists say they’re just convenient names for describing real things.

With that, we can handle Chalmers’s explanation:

For example, the ontologist [guy who studies existence] may ask: Do numbers exist? The Platonist says yes, and the nominalist says no. The metaontologist may ask: is there an objective fact of the matter about whether numbers exist? The ontological realist says yes, and the ontological anti-realist says no.

Likewise, the ontologist may ask: Given two distinct entities, when does a mereological sum of those entities exist? [In other words, when we glom two things together, do they really make a new thing?] The universalist says always, while the nihilist says never. The metaontologist may ask: is there an objective fact of the matter about whether the mereological sum of two distinct entities exists? The ontological realist says yes, and the ontological anti-realist says no.

Ontological anti-realism is often traced to Carnap […], who held that there are many different ontological frameworks, holding that different sorts of entities exist, and that while some frameworks may be more useful than others for some purposes, there is no fact of the matter as to which framework is correct.

Let me say that again: “some frameworks [about what is “real”] may be more useful than others for some purposes, but there is no fact of the matter” as to which one is right.

(Another quick tangent: I want to note that a lot of talk from the “post-modernism” and “critical theory” movements that tries to criticize the scientific worldview gets part of this, but often forgets that once you have a specific purpose [like, getting practical stuff done in the world], we can in fact say that some frameworks are more useful. It’s not a case of “that’s just your opinion, man.” For putting a satellite in orbit, Newton’s theory of gravitation is useful, even if he was the product of an imperialist colonial sexist racist Eurocentric culture.)

So to deal properly with the gods, perhaps we need several different ontological frameworks.

Or “reality tunnels,” as Robert Anton Wilson liked to call them.

When we ask “Do the gods exist,” we have to ask, “In what framework? In what context?”

Within a ritual, the gods invoked exist — not as metaphors, but in the same way that Hamlet exists during a staging of the play. If your Hamlet is only a metaphor, I don’t think your play will be very good.

But if I’m working out a physics or engineering or programming problem, or trying to understand a biological process, there is no god factor in the equations.

The gods do not exist when I make my personal budget, and praying to them won’t help my checking account, as much as I could use a miracle. (So please, buy my books!)

But when I try to figure out how to lead my life along lines that bring prosperity to all, maybe I can use a little divine guidance.

If I am doing healing work and the person I’m working on wants me to pray for them — their gods exist. For purposes of that work, I’m a believer, and I will call upon whatever deities work for them: “I am of all faiths in my fashion,” as Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus once remarked.

On the other hand, a few years ago I found myself doing CPR on a friend (he’s fine now). I was deeply aware of the gravitas and even the “energetics” of the moment, of the intimacy of my lungs being the breath of life for another, but I was not praying and for that moment did not give a darn about the gods. It was all about reductionist biomedicine, using pressure to get oxygenated blood moving to the cells.

But when I went to Japan a few days later, while he was still in a coma, I made it a point to visit a temple of the Medicine Buddha and pay my respects. Not because I thought Yakushi is a super-king who could reach out from some other dimension to heal my friend, but because it seemed the aesthetically best thing, the most beautiful thing, to do.

And because doing so could change my own mind a bit, and telling others about it could change their minds just a bit, and so create a change in our actions. This is the subtle way that magic works to produce change in the world.

And it’s natural – our brains are wired for it – to put a human-like face on that subtle flow of attention, intention, and energy; a flow that is more subtle than stones or unicorns or even numbers, but exists, and as more than metaphor.

So to sum up:

I believe that we give up trying to find one ultimate, final truth that encompasses everything in human experience, we can justly and rightly keep multiple views, and by working from different perspectives we can build a sort of “depth perception” that can give us a much richer life.

I’m an atheist and I’m also a Pagan, and there’s no more conflict there than between my right eye and my left eye.

About Tom Swiss
Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as "Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian", which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. He is the author of Why Buddha Touched the Earth (Megalithica Books, 2013) and has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. You can read more about the author here.
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