How Pagan Spaces Become Toxic to Non-Theistic Pagans (Part 1)

How Pagan Spaces Become Toxic to Non-Theistic Pagans (Part 1) November 28, 2015


I present this as an example of the kind of animosity and vitriol that non-theistic Pagans can encounter in nominally open Pagan spaces.

I recently discovered an online Pagan community called /r/pagan — part of the Reddit bulletin board system.  So I decided to solicit writers for the anthology on non-theistic Paganism I am editing.  My post was entitled “Are you an Atheist Pagan or a non-theistic Pagan?”  I cut and pasted the blurb from the Indiegogo campaign (which has been a great success — thank you everyone who contributed).  I’ve copied it here because it was subsequently described as “proselytizing” and I want my readers to judge for themselves.

“’But “atheist Pagan” is a contradiction in terms!’ Maybe you have heard this or something like it before. Maybe you are an atheist Pagan and you’ve kept it a secret because you thought you were the only one. The truth is that atheist Pagans exist! Together with other non-theistic Pagans, like humanists, naturalists, animists, pantheists, and Gaians, atheist Pagans are part of a growing and vibrant community within the larger Pagan umbrella. Non-theistic Pagans are Pagans who do not believe in the literal existence of personal gods. But beyond that definition, “non-theistic Pagan” may refer to a variety of theological orientations. For some, gods play no role in their spiritually at all. For others, gods are seen as mere metaphors or as numinous archetypes. Some are pantheists or animists. Most non-theistic Pagans share a love of Pagan ritual and myth and experience a deep sense of awe or reverence in nature. We are gathering writings of atheist and other non-theistic Pagans for publication of the first ever collection of writings by and about non-theistic Pagans. Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot].com.”

I actually did not return to the /r/pagan board for a month.  When I did, I noticed the first response was by one of the moderators for board, “hrafnblod”, who turned out to be extremely antagonistic to atheistic Pagans.  Hrafnblod, who describes himself as an “Ænglo-Texæn Heathen,” immediately implied that I was a “Non-Pagan” and that I was “proselytizing.”  Obviously I am Pagan, so I found the first charge insulting, if not entirely surprising.  But I was confused by the second charge, that I was “proselytizing.”  I didn’t think I was trying to convert anyone to anything, and I didn’t see how the post could legitimately be read that way.

Hrafnblod also accused me of “attempting to commandeer the banner of paganism” and then characterized my spirituality as a “thin veneer of ‘paganism'” (notice the quotes around “paganism”) draped over atheism.  He stated that this was not going to be “tolerated” and told me my place was the atheist bulletin board.  While he said I was welcome to post at /r/pagan, I was not welcome to “extol the virtues and ‘pagan’ qualities of atheism” (again, notice the quotes):

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Needless to say, I found these comments to be shocking in a nominally open Pagan forum, and from a moderator no less.

Another commenter advised me that the /r/pagan subreddit* existed “to ensure that Pagan theists have a small corner of Reddit.”  It turns out this was not accurate.  There is, in fact, already a space devoted to polytheists at Reddit called /r/polytheism.  And the description of “Contemporary Pagan” on the /r/pagan subreddit explicitly included “Earth-based spiritualities” and “philosophical non-theisms”!  Clearly that included me.  (Interestingly, the description has since been changed — but is still generic enough to include non-theistic Pagans.)  And the FAQ still refers to Humanistic and Atheistic Pagans.  (I take issue with some of the language in the FAQ, but that’s an issue for another day.)

So, it turns out, it was not me, but the polytheist moderator, who was actually trying to “commandeer” the /r/pagan subreddit!

Several other commenters came to my defense:

“I really don’t get the comments suggesting this is forcing a particular stance or view. As far as I can tell this is just saying that atheist pagans exist and there is a new project underway. I don’t really see that as a threat to anyone’s beliefs! Further, this isn’t a post by non-pagans, and it seems pretty judgmental to suggest that non-theists can’t be pagans. It’s an umbrella term that includes a whole host of disparate views.”

“I don’t get it either. Nothing about the OP’s post suggests that theistic pagans are being disrespected. I’m new, I identify as non-theistic, and quite frankly after the responses above I feel wholly unwelcome in a community that promotes being inclusive. If I can’t see a post boasting literature that speaks to me and offers me a voice, then I want no part of this place.”

“… and this is the first evidence I’ve seen of exactly that which I identify with. Years of doing this belief thing on my own, and in the course of a day I’ve watched the one thing I understand get accused of being hostile and divisive, and subsequently being strong-armed myself, being told I’m just as unwelcome upon my first actual attempt at correspondence here. … preemptively: I do identify as pagan. I did not mistakenly arrive here. I practice in a most pagan matter without stepping on anyone’s cultural toes. I just don’t identify with any pagan god.”

These commenters were dismissed by hrafnblod, who responded by asserting that paganism is “inherently” theistic:

“Paganism is an inherently theistic space, whether it’s polytheism, duotheism (as in Wicca, effectively a founding tradition of modern paganism), pantheism, animism (both of which are far more on the theistic end of the scale than the OP would disingenuously have you believe) or even monotheism in some cases. The only traditions that claim atheistic tendencies are not traditions in their own right, as far as I’ve seen- they’re just atheists claiming some sort of vague, undefined ‘nature devotion.'”

“And moreover, a recent idea that’s primarily pushed by humanists and atheists who are shoving themselves into paganism and declaring it to be welcoming for them, whether anyone actually agrees or not.”

I tried to explain to hrafnblod that I was not “in opposition” to polytheism and that I was not trying to “push theism out of the pagan sphere,” as he charged.  I told him that “Anyone who wants to call themselves Pagan is welcome, as far as I am concerned, so long as they respect my right and the rights of other non-theistic Pagans to do the same.”  But it was clear that he was not open to discussing the issue, as became increasingly apparent in the discussion that followed in the next thread I started, titled: “Do you think Paganism is ‘inherently theistic’? Why or why not?”.

To be continued …

* A “subreddit” is a community within the Reddit system.

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