Book Review – Godless Paganism

Book Review – Godless Paganism April 25, 2016

Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, edited by John Halstead.

Even in pagan antiquity, there were those who, while participating in the community’s religious life, did not believe in literal gods. In the centuries that followed the Christian domination of the West, the epithet “godless pagan” was leveled at a wide variety of people. In the 1960s, there emerged a community of people who sought to reclaim the name “pagan” from its history of opprobrium. These Neo-Pagans were interested in nature spirituality and polytheism, and identified with the misunderstood and persecuted pagans of antiquity. While many Pagans today believe in literal gods, there are a growing number of Pagans who are “godless.” Today, the diverse assemblage of spiritual paths known as Paganism includes atheist Pagans or Atheopagans, Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans, Buddho-Pagans, animists, pantheists, Gaians, and other non-theistic Pagans. Here, their voices are gathered together to share what it means to be Pagan and godless.

Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans is true its name, it contains the voices of many non-theistic Pagans of all different types.  It’s an anthology featuring the opinions, beliefs, views, philosophies etc of many different people.  It is not the view of just Halstead or his interpretation of other Pagans, it is literally many voices in one book.  I can’t imagine that anyone is unrepresented in this book (though it’s possible).  The voices in this books are wide-ranging, Atheopagan, Atheist Pagan, Agnostic Pagan, Pantheistic Pagan, Animist Pagan, Humanistic Pagan, Archetypal/Jungian Pagan and on and on.

I like the way this book is set up, the anthology approach is a great way to present things, especially within Paganism.  We are a pretty diverse group, and even in the narrower groups within Paganism the diversity can still be vast – one author writing about a type of Paganism would be, and generally is, full of generalisations and assumptions and personal bias.  The anthology approach avoids this problem by letting people speak for themselves and their own religions.  You can know for a fact that everything you read in this book is true to the religions being presented – because the religions being presented are being shared by those practising those religions. Though of course they are not necessarily representative of every person who also identifies with those religions.

Many of the voices in this book were virtually indistinguishable from general theistic Pagan voices.  Some so much so that I come away not entirely sure if they believe in the Gods or not.  They say, in one paragraph, that they do not, but in the next they are talking about the Gods they honour – even if they don’t do rituals or anything like that.  Some of the voices do not explain how their Gods are not-Gods in a satisfactory way.  But some do quite well, yet they are so similar to some theistic Pagans that you can see why some theists like me are adamant that non-theists can indeed be Pagan.

Then you have the voices of those who are so obviously not theistic that it leaves you wondering – why do they even want to call themselves Pagans or identify as religious anyway?  Some of these voices are so clearly anti-theistic that you, meaning I, suddenly narrow my earlier position and think, you know what, non-theists can be Pagan – but that doesn’t mean all non-theists who identify as Pagan should be doing so.

I read the review of this book over on Scholastic Pagan and I have to agree with his suggestion: Just because you are participating in a religion, doesn’t mean you are part of that religion or can/should identify as that religion.  As he says, he goes to midnight mass sometimes, but that doesn’t make him Catholic.

Thinking of that, then yes, there are some non-theistic Pagans who, while they could possibly truthfully say they are part of the Pagan community, they are not part of the Pagan religion/s.  And, considering the fact that the only reason I could find (or understand perhaps) for some of them identifying as Pagan, is that they want to be part of the Pagan community – I am still left wondering why they want to identify as religious.

This was, at many times, difficult to read as a theist.  I am fine reading non-theistic stuff, indeed, as a homeschooler, I am generally Secular – so I have no problem with this sort of thing.  But I am still a theist, so it was difficult to read those parts by those people who were, well, insulting.

Many of the voices were able to discuss their beliefs and such with an internal voice, looking at their beliefs without contrasting to theism.  Many others however were unable to do this.  They were sharing their beliefs by drawing contrast to theism.  Thus, when they would wax eloquent about how their non-theism is rational, based on science, cognitive thinking and evolution – they are, indirectly, saying that we are the opposite.

Some weren’t even indirect with their comments about theism.  Non-theism is inherently superior when it comes to ethics. Theists sacrifice their cognitive minds for pretty stories.  Theists don’t believe in or trust science.  The ancients didn’t comprehend how the forces of nature work (and by extension modern theists don’t either?).

Yeh, I can suddenly see why some theists have a problem with non-theistic Pagans.  The bad blood doesn’t all come from our side of the pond.

I had two other problems with this book.  It was frightfully long for what it was.  That is probably great for non-theists, but for me, I honestly got to the point where I wanted to just give up completely.  It’s not that it was horrible to read (though obviously some parts were grrr worthy) it just got a little repetitive after a while.

Oddly, and this is the second other problem, it also got a little, well, preachy in parts.  That seems, weird, right?  I still think that is weird, that I felt occasionally preached at.  But it’s the truth, during some parts I felt like someone was trying to convert me.  I had to grit my teeth and persevere – and I admit, in some of these parts I did skip a paragraph or two every now and then.

My favourite part of the book was near the end – the part that focuses on the history of Atheism within Paganism and religion in general.  It was nice to read about that, because I do agree that Atheism has been part of religion for a long time, and a part of neoPaganism since the start.  It was nice to be able to read some cited information on that.

Overall Assessment

This is a good and valuable book.  It really shares in depth information about non-theistic Paganism, in its many forms and it really helps theists to understand what is actually going on in non-theistic Paganism.  It will also hopefully be a great resource for non-theistic Pagans themselves, especially those who do feel unwelcome in the Pagan community, excluded or alone.  This book will, I think, really help them.

For the theistic Pagan this is a hard read.  On the one hand I think this book has the potential to show us that non-theists can certainly be Pagans and should be welcome in our community and even some of our rituals.  But, it also has the opposite effect – it shows us that some non-theistic Pagans really don’t belong in at least certain aspects of our Pagan religion/s.  And, as mentioned above, there are some tooth grinding moments to endure.

My unbiased review says this is a good book and I recommend it, especially to non-theists.

My theistic biased review… I could mostly do without it and I will probably never read it again.  And I am a prolific re-re-re-re-re-re-reader of all the books.

Recommended For

Non-Theistic Pagans – obviously.

Unsure Pagans and Seekers – There will always be those who come looking into Paganism who just can’t quite make themselves believe in the Gods.  This book will be of great value to them.

Theistic Pagans – Who want to understand more about non-theistic Paganism and think they can persevere.

Non-Pagan Atheists – Who want to understand how non-theists can be religious, and also who think they can persevere.

I bought this book in ebook form from Lulu, where it is also available in paperback from there.

You can also get it from

Amazon in paperback
Book Depository in paperback

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