Who are we talking to anyway?: Humanistic Paganism and the gods

Who are we talking to anyway?: Humanistic Paganism and the gods August 22, 2012


Over at The Wild Hunt, Brendan Myers has posted a guest article about whether Humanist Paganism is on the rise.  It has stirred up some controversy in the comments section.

Old Gods and New Orthodoxy

What was most interesting to me were the comments of several polytheists that Paganism and atheism are incompatible because Paganism is necessarily theistic.  “Raksha”, for example, argued that being atheist is “okay”, but it is disingenuous to call oneself Pagan also, because Paganism is the worship of “the Old Gods”:

In our current society, “Pagan” refers to a variety of religions that worship the Old Gods in some manner or another. […] claiming that NOW it doesn’t primarily mean “worships the Old Gods” is disingenuous. It doesn’t matter how much you like the pageantry or holidays or the general outlook on the world, if you don’t believe in the Gods in some form, you are an atheist. […]
And that’s okay! Really! It doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of the community or participate in ritual or whatever. Calling yourself a Pagan is inaccurate and could lead to confusion and anger, just like a straight woman calling herself a lesbian would. Just be honest, and we can all avoid that!

Similarly, Leoht Sceadusawol argued that

to dismiss the gods is to dismiss the central aspect of Paganism. Paganism is not about the parties/festivals/just having fun with friends. It is a (collection of )belief system(s) – religion(s).

I was a surprised to hear this kind of insistence on orthodoxy from Pagans, since contemporary Paganism has traditionally eschewed orthodoxy.  “Northern_Light_27” echoed my feelings:

”The comments to this post surprise me, […] In the past, the majority of what I’d read is that sincere participation is sincere participation, and it doesn’t matter whether the participant’s belief in the gods is “I believe fully in them but haven’t met them”, “I’ve been devoted to Her for 20 years and we commune together regularly”, or “I believe they are important archetypes of the collective consciousness” as long as the person isn’t obnoxious about shoving their ideas into someone else’s face and insisting that everyone has to believe as they do. For years, I’d hear from hard polytheists frustrated that the Wicca-focused people around them are shoving their “archetypes but not literal beings” ideas or “facets of a singular jewel” monism into their face and sneering at the idea of sincerely held hard polytheist beliefs. Now it looks like the tides have shifted and the hard polytheists are the ones on the dominant end insisting on like belief.

Where does pantheism fit in?

I appreciated the response of “Obsidia” response that Pagan is a broader term than “Raksha” suggested, citing Starhawk’s pantheism as an example.  Starhawk wrote:

“People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase ‘believe in’ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks we may see them, touch them, […] In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves.”

Starhawk’s view is pantheistic.  And my own interaction with nature resembles Starhawk’s in this way.  I do not personify nature exactly.  I might speak to nature as “you”, as I did during a recent trip to Pike’s Peak where I felt compelled by the experience to say “thank you” over and over, but I do not think nature hears me or will respond.

While I do not personify nature, I do mythologize it — by which I mean that I associate natural phenomena with mythological figures in myth.  In the morning, I greet the sun with a hymn to Indra, but I do not believe that Indra is literally the sun.  Both Indra and the sun are symbols of the light and warmth that I experience and enjoy.  At the fall equinox, my family celebrates harvest season with a dramatization of the Osiris myth, but I do not believe that Osiris is the grain.  Both Osiris and the grain are symbols of the experience of sacrifice which precedes transformation.

I wonder if polytheists would consider these practices to be atheistic or theistic.  I don’t “believe” in Indra or Osiris or any of the “Old Gods”.  And I do not exactly “believe” in the sun or in grain, since their existence is physical and evident.

Where do archetypes fit in?

But that’s only one half of my interaction with the gods.  I am a Jungian Pagan, so I also find the gods in my deep self.  These are the parts of me of which I am only partially conscious.  And I do tend to personify these aspects of my self in a sense.  They are not full personalities.  Their very nature is their incompleteness.  But they are parts of a personality.  And so I do personify them.  I give them names and can talk to them and listen to them if I choose.

I wonder if polytheists would consider these practices to be atheistic or theistic.  The archetypes of my unconscious are not evident in the way that the sun and grain are.  They can only be experienced by me in my imagination and observed through interpretations of my words and actions when they manifest in that way.  I don’t know if I would say I “believe” in the archetypes.  I believe in my experiences and I find the names and images of archetypes to be useful interpretations of my experience.  But I don’t believe they “exist” “out there” independent of my psyche.

There was an interesting exchange in the comments between Leoht Sceadusawol and Baruch Dreamstalker, in which Leoht suggested that whether ritual is theistic or atheistic depends on whether it is a monologue or a dialogue:

Leoht Sceadusawol: I am unsure why they would bother with religious ritual if they do not believe in the deities involved.

Baruch Dreamstalker: Because sometimes one wants communion with a part of the Earth, like the sea or the woods, and our social-primate brain does that most often in conversation. The Gods are the other end of the conversation.

Leoht Sceadusawol: So, without the gods, it isn’t a conversation, it is a monologue.

Baruch Dreamstalker: A dialogue even with an archetype arising from one’s own copy of the collective unconscious is still a dialogue. Only if we know every word in advance do we have a monologue.

Leoht Sceadusawol: I agree. But you have to accept the existence of the archetype, which is still a belief in that god, albeit from a different nature that most would consider ‘godhood’. A wise man once said ” I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”

The notion of ritual as a conversation is an interesting one.  When I interact with nature, it is more of a monologue.  I can listen to nature and I can speak to it, but nature is deaf to me.  On the other hand, I can have two way conversations with the archetypes.  However, in some sense I am talking to my “self”, albeit a part of my self with which I do not identify with my waking consciousness.  It is strange to think that I monologue with a divine that is separate from me, but dialogue with a divine that is part of me.

Are we playing pretend?

In another comment, Eric Devries accused Humanistic Pagans of playing pretend in ritual:

I guess it’s based on the way I practice Paganism(which involves faith heavily) that I don’t see Atheism and Paganism being any more compatible than Chistianity and Atheism, it doesn’t make sense to me. Mind you i’m not one of those to go around telling Pagans they aren’t real Pagans because they do/don’t whatever, but if you show up to Pagan rituals to have a role playing type experience that doesn’t make you a Pagan in my eyes. I have more in common with a Christian than with the people you describe, which isn’t a problem for me it just makes me wonder what makes a person a Pagan. […]
I’m not playing at my faith, it’s a very serious matter to me and if someone is showing up for a group ritual to in effect LARP [Live Action Role Play] while the others around them believe they are sharing an experience with someone like minded I think that’s dishonest and offensive.

Leoht echoed this sentiment in response to a comment that belief in the existence of the gods is not important:

If you don’t believe, why bother pretending? It’s not LARP [live action role play].

This same accusation came up in a previous “challenge post” by Jake Diebolt on the Humanistic Paganism blog entitled “Ritual — why bother?”. Jake, an atheist, asked why humanistic pagans bother with ritual if they don’t believe in gods.  And he accused humanistic Pagans of being hypocritical.  It is interesting that the same accusation comes from both theistic Pagans and an atheistic non-Pagan.  This reminds me of something Aldous Huxley wrote:

“Religion, it seems to me, can survive only as a consciously accepted system of make-believe. People will accept certain theological statements about life and the world, will elect to perform certain rites and to follow certain rules of conduct, not because they imagine the statements to be true or the rules and rites to be divinely dictated, but simply because they have discovered experimentally that to live in a certain ritual rhythm, under certain ethical restraints, and as if certain metaphysical doctrines were true, is to live nobly, with style.”

I suppose that there may be some Pagans who act “as if” the gods are real when they participate in ritual.  And there may be some psychological value in “pretending”.  But I agree with polytheists that there is something disingenuous about pretending.

I for one do not pretend when I participate in ritual.  My (Humanist) Paganism is not a “consciously accepted system of make-believe.”  I do not believe in the gods the way that many polytheists do, but neither do I pretend that I believe in them when I participate in ritual.  I think Eric and Leoht’s comments are based on a false dichotomy, or else a very narrow definition of what Pagan ritual is.  I am realizing in writing this that strict atheism and literal theism are two ends of a long spectrum, and my own beliefs and practices fall at different places along that spectrum.

Humanistic Pagan ritual

I’ve written before about “Why I bother with ritual”.  And I had a similar discussion with Rua Lupa following her post on Humanistic Paganism where we went back and forth about personification.  It may seem strange to atheists and (poly)theists alike that I would recite a hymn to Indra while raising my arms to the sun, and yet claim that I neither believe in Indra nor am I pretending to believe in Indra.  It’s simply that I find the myth of Indra and Vritra in the Rig Veda to be evocative, evocative in a way that I associate with the experience of light and warmth from the morning sun.  And taking a moment in the morning to honor that experience with ritual gestures and words from an ancient Indian text is the essence of what Paganism is for me.

I may even make offerings.  I regularly pour libations outdoors.  Polytheists and theists would probably find this equally strange.  Who am I making offerings to?  I don’t think I am making them to anyone.  I pour libations because I find the act of ritualized giving to be evocative.  It draws a feeling from me that I call “sacred”.  It is part of a process of sacralizing my experience of the world which has been called the re-enchantment or the “re-godding” the world.

I agree with “Lailahart” comment that

It’s not pretending, it’s about how one defines the idea of deity (which is always different, especially with Pagans!) and the importance one places on that concept. Perhaps they exist, perhaps they don’t, but if the commune with them enriches this life (the only thing we truly know) they serve a valuable purpose.

Sannion responded to Lailahart:

And that’s exactly what’s wrong with this situation. My rituals are done to please the gods. Therefore, if you do not acknowledge the existence of those gods then there is absolutely no reason to be in attendance at the rites because — and I know this will come as a shock to some — true worship isn’t about us and what we get out of the experience however much one may, indeed, get out of it.

And here we get to the very heart of the matter, I think.  Sannion (who does not identify as Pagan) worships in a truly deity-centered fashion.  The focus is on the gods, so the reality of the gods matters.  But from a human-centered perspective, the focus is not on the deity, but on the experience of the human being.  The justification for the ritual comes, not from the gods, but from human beings.  This is what makes ritual “humanistic” in my mind.

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  • Good post.

    The form of Contemporary Paganism that I have been trained and initiated into is orthopraxis vice orthodox. As a result, what one believes and why is fairly irrelevant as far the the group or others are concerned. Individually it is extremely important. However, a practice based tradition, as compared to a belief based one, allows room for all the different -isms and -ists to work together and function as a group.

    I regularly work with and ritual with polytheists, monists, atheists, humanists, and many others. There is more going on within the dynamics of what ritual constitutes to different people than anyone person can experience. Yes, expressing those experiences can be important in understanding them more deeply, but let us not forget that each person’s religous needs, goals, and experiences are different and their own to hold.

    Boidh se!

    -Spanish Moss

    “Lost in a thicket bare-footed upon a thorned path.”

    • I couldn’t have said it better.

      Regarding your group’s orthopraxy, how does your group interact with the gods? Do you address them directly? By one name or several? Do you make offerings? Does your group acknowledge any communication from the gods? How so? For example, an ADF group I attended would cast a tarot spread to determine if the gods found the offerings acceptable.

      • -How does your group interact with the gods?

        By engaging in various practices whereby one can interact with the Gods; Prayer, Devotional offering, Enactment of their seasonal rituals, etc. Tradition teaches how to work with the Gods but not who the Gods are. Those mysteries are for the individual.

        – Do you address them directly?

        Sorta. There are specific prayers and liturgy that is said and used from the BoS. However, where those prayers are believed to go by the individual is harder to say. I know some who speak to their unconscious, others to an All-spirit, to distinct Gods and Goddesses, etc.

        – By one name or several?

        The rituals are concerned with one Goddess and one God, with names given. However, the interpretation of that again is up to the individual. Does it mean, “all Gods are one God”, that the Gods are two amongst many, symbol sets representing archetypes…? The Tradition is mute theologically speaking in that respects. We do have those conversations, but from a personal perspective, which is very different.

        Then in people’s personal practice, which is not group work. They may have several, or none, Gods/Goddesses that they additionally work with.

        -Do you make offerings?

        Offerings are part of the praxis.

        – Does your group acknowledge any communication from the gods?

        Drawing Down the Moon is the primary form of communication. Now whether that is the surfacing of the inward divinity, tapping into the subconscious, or the literal descent of a Goddess, are matters of belief left to the individual. Seeing a trend?

        I hope that I have answered your questions in full.

        Boidh se!
        -Spanish Moss
        “Lost in a thicket bare-footed upon a thorned path.”

        • Thanks for sharing. Sometimes my enthusiasm for learning about other traditions gets the best of me and my rapid fire questions can be offputting to some people. If you don’t mind my asking, what Witchcraft/Wiccan tradition is your group? How do you feel about the trend toward hard polytheism in contemporary Paganism?

      • Specifically I am an Initiate of a working Alexandrian Coven, and Initiate of the Eternal Harvest Tradition (TIW not BTW). The Alexandrian framework is in which I have been speaking since I am active in that Coven, however, the EH is mostly orthopraxis, and I haven’t cut any ties there, just less involved since I am not working with a Coven.

        I welcome the diversity. I think that hard polytheism definitely has a place at the table. From my experience though, I’d have to say that the trend is towards hard polytheism mostly in regards to online practice. I co-coordinate two local festivals, Mayfaire and Shadow Harvest, and from my observations the most common theology is pantheistic or monistic.


  • VikingRunner

    “Mind you i’m not one of those to go around telling Pagans they aren’t real Pagans because they do/don’t whatever, but if you show up to Pagan rituals to have a role playing type experience that doesn’t make you a Pagan in my eyes.”

    This is a brilliant example of why I am trying hard to rid phrases of the “I’m not one to…” or “I don’t usually think/say/do…” whatever. Because usually when somebody says something like that, what they mean is “I don’t like to think of myself as someone who does these things, but I do.” And I don’t want to be that person. If I do something obnoxious or hold an obnoxious belief, I want to start owning that, so I can learn to do better. Even if it’s as simple as letting go the need to be publicly self-righteous about things like this, even if it’s something I care deeply about.

  • Excellent post. What we naturalists really need to do is hammer out the specifics of what we get out of ritual, prayer, etc., boil them down to understandable “talking points”, and then educate, educate, educate. The most damaging misconception out there about us seems to be that without literal belief in external gods one can only be pretending, doing it just for kicks, or roleplaying. Sheesh! We need to show hard evidence that we are serious about our religion too. Then others will respect us (maybe).

    We also need to do some detailed historical studies digging up evidence of naturalistic views in all eras of ancient and modern Paganism, so that we have something to say in the face of this constant slide toward the obfuscation of history. More and more, people are beginning to assume that hard polytheism is the “original” Paganism, and naturalists and soft polytheists are somehow defacing or desecrating that purist ideal. It’s absolutely wrong, and a travesty of scholarship. I only wish I could do it all, but Neopagan history is not my field of expertise, nor is ancient Paganism outside Greece. We all would have to pool our resources to make something like that happen.

    • Great post, John! Thank you for such a thoughtful response to this conversation.

      And as far as pooling resources and looking into a clear, articulate way of explaining what non-theists get out of ritual…. my own background is in political philosophy and the philosophy of aesthetics/poetics, and in both of these areas there’s research being done into the role of ritual in a more “secular” sense that could probably be applied to non-theistic/humanistic approaches to ritual. I think there might be some very useful work to be done exploring art as ritual and ritual as art. A common ground for both theists and non-theists, maybe. It could also open up the conversation about “pretending.” People can have deeply moving, even transformative experiences of works of art — a book, a theater or musical performance, even something as simple as viewing a painting — without needing to “believe in” the literal veracity of what that work of art depicts. Rather, it’s about the emergent experience that a work, or ritual, evokes and how that experience is an experience of connection and relationship even if it is not relationship with a literal, external being… (It sounded to me like this might have been what you were getting at, John, when you talked about speaking a prayer to Indra/the sun in a way that was neither “believing in” nor “just pretending.” Am I on the right track there?) There’s also the idea in postmodernism of “deep play” that I’ve always found really intriguing.

      Personally, I’m a polytheist. Not a hard polytheist… more of a difficult polytheist, with generous doses of pantheism and animism mixed in. But I find that I’m getting far more out of the conversation and ideas coming from the humanistic Pagans these days than from hard polytheists, who do seem to be drifting more and more towards a kind of preoccupation with piety. So, anyway, thank you, and keep up the good work! 🙂

      • Alison:

        “Rather, it’s about the emergent experience that a work, or ritual, evokes and how that experience is an experience of connection and relationship even if it is not relationship with a literal, external being… (It sounded to me like this might have been what you were getting at …”

        Yes, right on.

        “There’s also the idea in postmodernism of “deep play” that I’ve always found really intriguing.”

        I think postmodern theory may be a very fruitful source for us, especially in its constructive forms. See http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2220

        I love what you wrote about the sincerity of “deep play” on your site and I think it is worth copying here:

        “An essential part of such spiritual work is “deep play,” in which we experiment with self-identity and community boundaries, exploring our relationships with each other, with ourselves and with the gods.
        “But deep play is only “deep” if it is sincere. Sincerity is, when you get right down to it, perhaps the most important part of such spiritual work. It’s the opposite of cynicism or calculated self-possession. It’s in the rich soil of sincerity that true meaningfulness can be nurtured and cultivated.”

        I would love to read more by you on this topic and how it relates to the topic at hand.

    • “More and more, people are beginning to assume that hard polytheism is the “original” Paganism, and naturalists and soft polytheists are somehow defacing or desecrating that purist ideal.”

      It seems like the Pagan community has come full circle in this regard. I thought the community had moved beyond appeals to history to legitimate its practices following the debunking of the Murray hypothesis and the myths of pagan survivals and matriarchal prehistory. But now, in a way, it seems we’re back there again. Credit is due to the polytheist community, I think, for turning its focus from external forms to internal experience to legitimate their practices — but this idea of hard polytheism being “original” is still disturbing. Even if such a claim were true, such appeals to history are, to my mind, something that belongs to 19th century modernity. Having said that, I agree there is value in seeking out historical antecedents of humanistic, naturalistic, and other non-theistic forms of Paganism. Greek, Hellenistic, and Imperial Roman culture are of course rife with examples. I suspect there are good examples in Indian history as well.

      “We need to show hard evidence that we are serious about our religion too.”

      Even more than the issue of historical antecedents, I think this, seriousness, is the real issue. The comments to Myers’ post show that some people at least have strong doubts about the “seriousness” of non-theistic practice. This is partially a continuation of the old “fluffy bunny” phenomenon, and something that we will never completely escape in any religion, but I agree we need to work at it. What kind of “evidence” do you have in mind B.T.?

  • Bonny F

    I just wanted to say thank you for this article. I read the original by Dr. Myers and a light bulb went off and I thought “that’s it! That’s me!” And then I read the comments and felt like a disrespectful, dishonest person that had short-changed the people I had participated in ritual with. It’s been bothering me for days.
    Your post made me feel so much better. I do revere Nature (and its science) and also see it as an all-encompassing spirit that may have no sentience that we could relate to. It has been here before us and will continue on without us and whether it cares whether we burn incense or leave it offerings, I wouldn’t know. It seems cold compared to others who have such a personal relationship with their deity. (I, honestly, envy that relationship and wish I could feel what they feel.) But it still brings me comfort and awe. And when I am in ritual, I participate with all my heart and always have respect for whatever deity may be on the altar. It makes me feel connected to the earth and the people in circle with me, as does the whole Pagan culture. I am so very glad to know that there are others like me, who can feel that desire for ritual without “believing.”
    Thank you. I no longer feel like a liar or someone who sat down in the wrong classroom. Sometimes, I guess, it just helps knowing you’re not the only one. Thank you.

    • Thank you Bonny. I felt the same way. And it is an enormous relief to me to hear from others such as yourself. I am coming to suspect that naturalistic/humanistic/non-theistic Pagans are a largely silent (if not majority, then) plurality in the Pagan community. Myers’ own example of discovering 11 atheists out of 20 Pagans may not be an aberration. It’s easy to feel like a poseur listening to polytheists, but one thing that I think has always made contemporary Paganism appealing is its validation of a diversity of individual experiences. Just as there is no orthodoxy or orthopraxy in Paganism, so there should be no orthopathy (right feeling). While there were several outspoken individuals whose comments were very critical, there were also several who felt like you and I did. Take Mary Leinart’s comment:
      *Yes! Hello! My existence if validated by your article! Hooray! I’m a humanist pagan, but I’ve had trouble finding like-minded folks in my area because the terminology seems to be really amorphous. I’ve also seen it called “rational paganism” and “naturalistic paganism”.*
      I take great encouragement from comments like these and your own. Thank you and welcome.

    • VikingRunner

      I agree with you, Bonny. I don’t do a lot of ritual, just because I haven’t been very spiritually focused for a long time. But I love reading Pagan rituals and Pagan books and mythology, because it resonates with something inside of me. I’ve always seen it as symbolic, though – no belief in any gods here. (And I don’t really envy people who really believe in them. How could I? Yeah, maybe it would be nice if belief A is true – but if it’s false, then someone who believes in it only makes me feel kind of bad for them if I think about it at all.)

      I didn’t read the comments on the article and after seeing your comments and John’s, I’m glad I didn’t. They would have just annoyed me. >:D

      I’m sorry. I’m just finishing lunch and I’m still half starved. I’d wanted this comment to be a lot more intelligent! Mostly though, the point was to say no, you’re not alone. I feel the same way about ritual without believing. Thank YOU for speaking up too. It is good to know you’re not the only one.

  • Reblogged this on Brain of Sap and commented:
    A very good conversation about paganism in general and one that seems to have taken a step forward from the days I remember it being all about “Thats not paganism” and “That is”. However much seems to be said about Science vs Religion, I never have seen that point and although I am a hard polytheist, I see sense in a lot of what Dr. Myers said. Having been raised as a atheist, I learned from a very young age was that Science was all there was until I read a very clever essay that disputed my entire idea of the universe. This essay was simply about Energy work and its on the Internet Sacred Text archive (here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos065.htm ) talking about psychological magic in which I learned about how to work with my own personal issues using magic and it really helped. From then on I was pagan, and I still knew about respecting science and I still practiced magic.

    • darakat:
      You raise an important point I think. There is a strong narrative of anti-scientism in contemporary Paganism. (Note, I don’t say “anti-science”.) Many Pagans are ambivalent about science. If naturalistic/humanistic Pagans wish to open a dialogue with the wider Pagan community, we might consider balancing our outward commitment to the scientific method with an open acknowledgement of its limitations, i.e, that scientific theories are always tentative and that the science proceeds by disproving (not by proving) hypotheses, for example.

  • Thank you so much for this blog post! I had exactly the same feelings as the ones Bonny related – feeling initially glad we are having the conversation (even though I didn’t agree with most of what Brendan Myers wrote!), and then feeling like suddenly our type of Pagan is not allowed, offensive, fake, etc. with all those negative comments. Reading the comments here, on the other hand, makes me feel like I’ve found “my people.” : ) Thank you also to Alison L. L. for your comments, and B.T. for your suggestion (which I’ll address in a sec).

    So here are my two cents. First, two years ago at Paganicon (Pagan conference in the Twin Cities, MN) I attended a wonderful panel chaired by and discussing non-theist or atheist Pagans. It was really interesting to hear other people’s experiences of the divine, whether that is nature itself (pantheism, or a touch of animism as Alison alluded to) or something so far beyond us that it’s not even right to call it deity (as Bonny alluded to), and so on – AND (what I’m getting at!) it was a great opportunity for Wiccans, polytheists, and other deists to ask questions about our practices, beliefs, etc. I think from now on every Pagan festival should have a panel or discussion like this. We are more alike than we are different, and I think with personal interaction even the hardest polytheist can be at peace with our existence. ; ) But we all know how internet forums work – badly. They just lead to shouting and flaming and insulting others. We can all use less of that, so let’s try to talk to people in person.

    Second – B.T.’s suggestion and your comment: “Having said that, I agree there is value in seeking out historical antecedents of humanistic, naturalistic, and other non-theistic forms of Paganism. Greek, Hellenistic, and Imperial Roman culture are of course rife with examples.”

    I think I’ve found one. I’m working on a manuscript (I’m the acquisitions editor, not the author!) by John Opsopaus about Neoplatonism as a philosopy and spiritual practice. It’s amazing and I’m getting so much out of it. Basically, as he tells it, Neoplatonism is the West’s spirituality without religion, just as Buddhism or Taoism in the East . You can hold the beliefs of Neoplatonism and still be either a Pagan, Christian, Jew, atheist, etc. It does involve theurgy, but that can mean anything to the individual based on their other beliefs. This philosophy is about much more than the gods, therefore it’s bigger than polytheism – it’s about living well (through thoughts and actions) and developing spiritually. This is a philosophy that endured for centuries, spread far and wide, seeded many other religions, and I think we “humanistic Pagans” (or whatever label you as individuals like to go by) can use it to help claim our place at the table. It’s no less “historical” than their polytheism.

    Anyway, I wish you could all read it but it probably won’t be out until 2014. : )

    • Elysia: Thank you. I agree, we should try to engage the festival community as well as the online community. Do you recall who sat on the Paganicon panel you mentioned?

      Opsopaus’ writing sounds very interesting. Please keep me informed about its publication.

      The Neoplatonists are a good source for humanistic/naturalistic pagan thought, but the transcendentalism (small “t”) of Neoplatonism does not always jive well with naturalistic Pagans.

      • Luckily, I have the program right here! (I’m the volunteer coordinator for the event, so these papers stick around a long time.) It was called “Those Godless Pagans” and presented by Eli Effinger-Weintraub, Leora Effinger-Weintraub, Volkhvy, and Vieva Wood.

        Yes, working with John on the manuscript I have been calling out things he writes or assumes that actually would not work for all Pagans, just so that he can consider it and make any adaptations, caveats, or explanations necessary. I can imagine there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy that will work for everyone, but the practices in the book should be sympathetic to most.

        • I love it. I’m copying the program description below:

          from Paganicon 2011:
          “Those Godless Pagans: Non-Deistic and Naturalistic Paganism Roundtable Welcoming all pantheists, animists, naturalists, humanists, atheists and agnostics. Whatever you call yourself, if the phrase “godless Pagan” applies to you, this is your space. We’ll look at topics like: how I got here; how our non-deism impacts our pagan practice and vice versa; spells and rituals without gods and goddesses; and playing nice with other Pagans and non-believers. Curious deists welcome, but proselytizing and path-bashing will not be tolerated (in either direction).”

          How did the panel go?

          • The panel was awesome. I felt welcomed and at ease. There was no bashing either way, although there were some raised eyebrows and lots of probing questions. There was a lot of sharing. It felt good.

          • Eli Effinger-Weintraub

            Hey, John. I know I’m *really* late to the party here, but as Elysia notes, I was on that panel (and my wife and I were its original instigators), so if you ever want to talk about what the experience was like from my end, lemme know!

            • I would love to hear more about the details of how it went. Fl you want to email me? My email is on the About Me page.


  • Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  • L

    Reblogged this on Mountain, Path, and Pool.

  • L

    I read this, a polytheist, and went “Hey, that’s me too!” Maybe I’m in some kind of bizarre minority, but I think what I’m already doing is both simultaneously humanistic and theistic. The gods I believe in (or rather, “know”), are both immanent and emanant, personal and beyond our ability to understand, naturally manifest and literal. My most prominent god, Chaak, is the physical idol on the altar, just as much as he is the physical rain and humidity and thunder, just as much as he is the monstrous giant, smoking a cigar, wielding his axe, and taking his fair share of the crop from the farmer who failed to failed to make his offerings and pay his due.

    I make offerings regardless of how they make me feel, because it is Right, but on the other hand, I make them for my benefit as a human living in the world. If that makes any sense to anyone else but me. 😛

    • Well, that goes to show once again how diverse Pagan “belief” is. I’m curious, what specifically in the post made you think “That’s me too”?

      • L

        For one, it’s not a matter of belief: I can point to the rain, the sky… I can even point to books and the apple that fell from the tree and hit Newton on the head and say “That is where my gods are”. They are Schrodinger’s Cat… at once very much there and very much not there. But that’s their nature according to the old worldview of my reconstructed tradition. Technically, they’re simplistic manifestations of an infinitely remote creator force, known to some as Hunab Ku or Ometeotl. They change names and personalities depending on the uniform They wear and the tools They pick up to do their work in the world.

        Hard to put into words, but let’s just say that, even though both stances are technically diametrically opposed, they are very much compatible, and almost necessary, even, in my reconstruction.

  • I can dig it. I’m like you, only I don’t do much for ritual, other than smudging, which is clearing negativity & welcoming positive energy, but that has nothing to do with a deity. Science has made it pretty obvious that energy flows, I simply believe that energy exists everywhere (every atom as a proton and an electron, therefore everything has energy, even air).

  • I find it bizarre that the majority of people seem only able to approach ritual with the same mindset that they have outside the ritual.

    When I participate in Pagan ritual, I believe fully in whatever beliefs the ritual requires. When I participate in Christian ritual, I believe fully in whatever beliefs the ritual requires. When I participate in New Atheist “ritual,” I believe fully in whatever beliefs the ritual requires.

    Yet outside of these things, I don’t believe in anything.

    Belief is a tool, to be picked up when it needs to be picked up and put down when it is no longer needed. Except where it affects the practice directly, does it really matter what people believe outside of a particular practice? What’s important is what they believe within the practice. That means that an atheist can fully (yes, I mean fully) participate in theistic ritual and truly (yes, I mean truly) believe in the gods as real during the ritual, yet not take their existence as fact once they’ve suspended their participation.

    • I understand suspension of disbelief or “bracketing” metaphysical questions, but I do not understand actually changing one’s beliefs from situation to situation. Perhaps we don’t mean the same thing by “belief”. If I don’t believe in the existence of incorporeal spirit beings with personalities, I may suspend my disbelief in order to “dwell in” the ritual authentically, but I’m not going to start believing in spirits. I wouldn’t even know how to do that.

      • Belief is a choice, and if you know how to suspend disbelief, then you know how to engage belief. The suspension of disbelief involves removing emotional content from an idea, while the engaging of belief involves imbuing an idea with emotional content, for any length of time (from relatively temporary to relatively permanent suspension or engagement).

        So yes, suspension of disbelief is the start, so that beliefs external to the ritual don’t affect the ritual itself. But since ritual isn’t a passively experienced art like books or movies, it requires one further step: that of actively engaging the ritual’s beliefs. No practitioner, who hasn’t fully engaged the ritual’s beliefs, can say that he has fully experienced the ritual.

  • Great post! Something that certainly needs to be addressed and discussed more. Paganism has very little to do with where the gods fit in to your practice, if at all. If that were the case the ancient animists, and many reconstructionists would be out. For example, it is largely accepted by anthropologists that the Gaels did not consider their gods divine. The term “god” used for lack of terminology.

    • What does “divine” mean when you say the Gaels did not consider their gods divine?

      • I suppose higher, better or supreme.

        • Do the Gaels didn’t consider Lugh higher or better? That doesn’t seem right? Do you have a source for that?

          • Unfortunately not one I quote properly off the top of my head. However, The book of invasions sheds light on the practices of Lugh’s worship. With closer inspection you’ll find that Tailtiu was venerated before Lugh. She’s a cthonic deity representing the land itself, Lugh’s stepmother. Áenach Tailteann was a celebrated festival which overtime morphed into Lughnasadh. (The Aonac Tailteann and the Tailteann Games, Their History and Ancient Associations, T. H. Nally (30 June 2008). So, no, I wouldn’t think it correct to say that Lugh was considered higher.

    • What did you mean when you said “Paganism has very little to do with where the gods fit in to your practice”? I think a lot of hard-polys would disagree.

  • “I suppose that there may be some Pagans who act “as if” the gods are real when they participate in ritual. And there may be some psychological value in “pretending”. But I agree with polytheists that there is something disingenuous about pretending.”

    I act as if the gods are real because I do not know IF they are real. It is possible that they are a product of my psyche, yet, they seem real enough in ritual. Is this faking it? I see it as accepting the limits of knowing. I believe that polytheists (whether agnostic, like I am, or theist) have plenty in common. Our practices will be similar in many ways. I do not treat the gods as (only) metaphors, I just doubt more. Is this pretence? I do not think so. There is a point where all this talk on belief stops being helpful. I understand both parties, the humanists and the religionists, but I do not want to pick sides. If you are not sure of the god’s objective existence, one is only allowed to practice in a naturalistic way? I’ll pass for that.

    As I wrote on my blog (Pagan Layman)
    I love nature, and if the gods exist, they do too.
    As such, I enjoy both naturalistic celebratory rituals (like welcoming the sun itself), and devotional rites to the gods too. Belief should be based on experience I think. The gods have not spoken to me directly. If they would have, I might be a somewhat ‘harder’ or faithful polytheist, who is to say.

    • Somehow, I did not realise that this was an older article. It is still such a current issue.

    • I agree. I think a lot of our difference boils down to different experiences, or maybe even just different temperaments.

  • Slaine Na Mailpe

    Okay, I realize that this is an old article, but this is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now.

    I grew up in a Christian church and have had many experiences of communing with God. And I loved church; the building, the people, the songs, the ritual – all of it… except the politics. I didn’t believe that the God that I personally knew was for any of the bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, public-manipulating politics that has come to define “church” to the general public. So, I re-approached Jesus’s teachings as if no one had ever studied them before. What I found was 1) a man set out to reconnect his people to their god and 2) several centuries worth of games of telephone that were eventually written down as “inerrant scriptures.” I did not find a savior. This caused confusion, but not catastrophe; I never prayed to Jesus anyway. I prayed to GOD. But the god of the Bible didn’t appear to be my God… so who had I been talking to all this time? Who had been talking to me?!? I came to paganism to find out.

    I read books and did rituals invoking one deity after another hoping to hear His (I assumed it was a “him”) familiar voice as an acknowledgement that I’d pegged the right one. Nada.

    Then, one night, I did a guided meditation that was intended to help me meet and establish a relationship with an archetype that I could work with in the future. And meet him I did. It was Him. I asked Him what I was supposed to call him now – which deity was he? He said it didn’t matter what I called Him. In fact, He said he probably only appeared to me as he did because I had been raised to view him as male my whole life. After the meditation was over, I knew that my God was not going to be found in a book or enter the room because of an invocation. He is in my head; he’s a part of my own psyche. For lack of a better way to put it, He’s my imaginary friend.

    So, what do I do now? I love ritual and worship but I do feel there’s pretense when I do them now (I don’t have a group, so I’m “faking it” all alone). I still value my history and relationship with my God, even though I no longer think he’s “real.” And even though I’ve found that “Spiritual Naturalist” is the best way to describe me and my beliefs these days, I keep hoping for a supernatural experience that will prove I’m wrong about Him after all. I often wonder if other Humanistic Pagans share that hope as well.