Guest Post: Humanist Paganism on the Rise?

Guest Post: Humanist Paganism on the Rise? August 18, 2012

[This is a guest post by Brendan Myers. Brendan Myers, Ph.D, is the author of eight books on environmentalism, ethics and social justice, and spirituality. He has taught philosophy at six different universities in Canada and in Europe, and provided policy research for the Government of Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and various private clients. His work has been featured by the Pacific Business & Law Institute, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, as well as numerous cultural societies, environmental groups, interfaith groups, and humanist societies around the world. And he’s a decent songwriter too.]

About a year ago, I was attending a semi-private gathering of pagans in eastern Ontario, Canada.  One of the people there was an atheist and we were talking about why she enjoys attending pagan events. At one point, intending to be cheeky, I called out to the group, “How many other atheists have we got here?” Eleven people, out of twenty, put their hands up.

Now, my little observation that evening is nothing like a scientific study of changing opinions in the pagan world. But that was not the only place where I’ve observed this trend. Not all of us join the pagan world because of an interest in magic, or because of a transformative spiritual epiphany, or because of a traumatic experience with some other religious group. Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers. Some still practice magic (you don’t have to be religious to do that), but will approach the matter with a critical, scientific eye. And speaking of science, they tend to be interested in astronomy, quantum theory, evolutionary biology, and the like, and will take inspiration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and from Bill Nye right alongside Starhawk or Crowley. Those whom I have met tended to be in their 30’s or older, educated, earning a lower-middle class income, and raising small families. (As an aside, a lot of them are cosplayers too!) Social, political, and moral causes tended to be more important to them than supernatural ones. For instance, an associate of mine who recently declared himself a Humanist Pagan told me that avoiding genetically modified food improved his health more than reiki treatments and aura cleanings. And he felt afraid to admit that to his pagan friends! Finally, many of the humanist pagans I’ve met tend to think of themselves as artists and musicians (or whatever) first, and as pagans second – as THW has observed about artists like Austin Osman Spare, or Dead Can Dance.

But they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals, and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations. They are a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome, and their place in the modern pagan movement may still be marginal and unclear, but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless.

(This isn’t a recruitment drive, by the way. I just thought the pagan world might like to know that these people exist, and that if you haven’t met one yet, you probably will soon.)

For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just. Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.

Finally, if I may speak personally, I also noticed that some pagans have treated me as a spokesperson for humanist paganism. Perhaps that is because my books are about universal philosophical problems like loneliness, fear, global warming, and social justice. Also, I don’t write about magic or ritual or how to talk to the gods (although I do write about Druids). The role of main spokesperson for humanist paganism probably belongs to B.T. Newberg, more than to me, because he manages the Humanistic Paganism blog and FB page. But for my part, I find that human rationality is profoundly spiritual; an instrument not just of practical knowledge but also of enlightenment. I study Druidry to be a better philosopher; I don’t study philosophy to be a better Druid. Perhaps that makes me a humanist pagan. But if so, I will still toast the Great Queen with my drinking horn. Hail!

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246 responses to “Guest Post: Humanist Paganism on the Rise?”

  1. “They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking
    horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as
    they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters.”

    And that, right there, is where we differ.

    If you don’t believe, why bother pretending? It’s not LARP.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’ve enjoyed the Pagan groups I’ve attended, but have difficulty relating to deity/deities, at least on a deep personal level. But hopefully, I can find a place in the broad tent of Paganism too.

  3. Not to mention, do they consider they might be offending the people holding the ritual, if those people *do* believe in the gods and are performing a deeply-felt religious act? I would hope they would check in advance before simply attending rituals for fun. I, for instance, would not go to a Catholic Church and receive Mass just because I found it to be an interesting ritual, or because I happened to agree with Jesus’ ethics – that would seem highly inappropriate.

  4. “For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person”

    Um, we don’t need Humanist Paganism to show that. Plenty of actual polytheists and animists are sophisticated, cosmopolitan and enlightened. This implies that to be an intellectual you can’t also really believe in something so silly as gods – which is *exactly* what many non-pagans think of us! And that Acropolis you mentioned? Was built by polytheists who believed in and loved their gods. It was built FOR the gods.

    “but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless”

    Which just shows how amorphous and essentially meaningless the word “pagan” has become. Glad I switched to using “polytheist” a long time ago. If a bunch of atheists like the morals and culture of modern paganism and feel the need to identify as pagans for some reason without holding any of the spiritual or magical beliefs of paganism, I guess it’s no skin off my back – but I do hope, as I said in another comment, that they are up front about this when dealing with other pagans, who might not appreciate non-believers in their rituals.

  5. Uh, this really shouldn’t be news. As non-dogmatic, largely orthopraxic religions it shouldn’t be some huge revelation that different beliefs about the religions can coexist within them. Heck, Heathenry has had openly atheist folks for years before “Humanist Paganism” became an internet blogging trend. I applaud Wild Hunt for putting it out there so that more Pagans will know about it, but it’s kind of sad that it’s necessary to do so.

    On the other hand, is it just me or did anyone else read this article as slightly condescending? The quote, “Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the ‘woo’ anymore,” seems to imply that there aren’t any theistic Pagans who are the same way; or that theistic Paganisms are bankrupt of and intellectual approach to their religion.

    “It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just,” seems to imply that theistic Pagans are incapable of being sophisticated, cosmopolitan, or enlightened and that we need humanism in order for Pagan culture to be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, etc. etc.

    Then there is the litany of historical positive contributions of Pagans, presented in the context of Humanistic Paganism somehow being the torchbearer of. Theistic Pagans are perfectly capable of remembering that “the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans,” among other things.

    Maybe I’m just reading that all into it, and I’m not really trying to be antagonistic or anything. That’s just honestly how those parts came off to me. I also have no problem with atheist or Humanist Pagans. I just don’t think it is necessary to act like Humanistic Paganism is bringing some big revelation or adding anything particularly vital to the Pagan community outside of another way for people to interact with their traditions and a different worldview to understand them in. It should be applauded that we allow for such intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual diversity, but no particular philosophy or theology should try and puff itself up as being more vitally important to Paganism than all other philosophies and theologies; which is a trend I find in a lot of the Humanist Pagan articles and blogs I’ve read.

    If I’m reading too much into the article, or getting this wrong, let me know. Good article, just wanted to share my initial reaction to it.

  6. There’s also the point to be made at how much of Paganism is centred on symbolism and metaphor. Unlike Abrahamism, we recognize that something doesn’t necessarily need to be real to still be true.

    I, for one, believe in the gods and spirits, but if they were somehow proven not to exist, it wouldn’t be a major trauma, nor would it change my practice very much.

  7. 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.

  8. 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”. Does this article strike a chord with anyone else in the Seattle area? Want to get a cuppa?

  9. I for one, consider my self a humanist AND a Pagan. I see humanism as a concept that only deals with ethics, not necessarily canceling out religious belief. Humanism only comes into conflict with religion when one’s religious beliefs causes one to act in a way that’s not consistent with reasoned morality. It seems in this case, most pagans are humanists. Feel free to correct me if I’ve got the definition wrong, it just seems as if the label of “humanist pagan” isn’t quite accurate in this case.

  10. I’m actually one of those polytheists. I’d write more but I don’t want to burn my deep fried Oreos. Plus “Honey Boo-Boo” is on TLC and I don’t want to miss it. I got my welfare check the other day and the cable is back on. Just debating whether or not I should take a bath in the plastic tub out back with my dog before I sit down to watch my show. Y’all come back now, ya hear?


  11. 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 going with this: 1.
    one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks. Synonyms: polytheist. Note religion in the definition.
    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 while the others around them believe they are sharing an experience with someone like minded I think that’s dishonest and offensive. As a solo I’m not losing any sleep over it but if were in a group i’d be bent.

  12. I’ll accept that label, especially since I have yet to find a path that fits. Reclaiming, in its ideal form, appeals to me, but I live in a rural state with few options. You’re not likely to find me standing next to you at a ritual, but I enjoying coming here and reading about everyone’s experiences and beliefs.

  13. Exactly. Believing in Thor, as a corporate, interdimensional being that can personally influence the lives of people on his whim, or believing in Thor as the embodiment of principles of honor and strength wrapped in the symbol of a storm is still ‘believing’ in Thor. It has been my experience that people who have these divergent views of deity can ritual together just fine. And I find many Pagans float a bit between these two beliefs structures as well

  14. This is beautifully written. I am so glad it has been, and fits very very close to what I see as the trend. Even as long as i have been in Paganism, and as much as I travel to meet Pagans, I still finding facets I did not know. This is what pushed me into doing Pagan Science Radio this Sunday night, on Pagans Tonight Radio Network.

  15. Deities exist, even the FSM.

    What can be debated in the nature of their existence.

    To say it doesn’t matter is actually pretty insulting for those who think it does. It makes it sound as though the ‘humanist Pagan’ is just there for the party, as opposed to an actual respect for the belief.

  16. Well, just for the record , I’m a hard polytheistic CR based pagan , A Sinnsreachd/ADF Druid .I welcome Humanist Pagans to the party . One of the Strenths of the pagan community is our diversity . Now i don’t call myself an egghead or intelectual but , i do consider myself semi intelligent , am college educated . I can carry a reasonably intelligent conversation , argue my points without looking a fool.In our community we need these folks , smart people ………….having these kinds of people in our midst should be no surprise to anyone . Free thinkers atract other free thinkers. Tis quite nice to have those with us that can articulate intelligent thought and the basic views of the pagan community . Kilm

  17. I’m entirely too disjointed by trying to finish up a translation project for last semester to come up with an appropriate, intellectual response, but I’ll certainly try to make a quick one that is intelligible:

    I think Humanism, like the scientific growth out of the naturalistic sciences derived from the Enlightenment are more readily adapted to Pagan leanings than Abrahamic ones. I could argue that in some Pagan paths, a study of some humanism is required. After all, we always make a big deal about how the products of the Enlightenment are the products of ancient Pagan philosophers and thinkers. The development of these morals and intellectual ideals COME from the Classical Pagan theories, and represent a time when we didn’t have to worry about this division between science and religion that monotheistic religions have created.

    My point is that I don’t think there needs to be a divisive gulf between “intellectual Paganism” and “religious Paganism”. They’re two parts of the same whole, and both are just as steeped in the heritage and traditions of the past. Any angst between the two is a product of our dear old Christian friends who spent the better part of two thousand years asserting their God’s law over the Natural law.

  18. I’m sticking with Pagan (with an appropriate tradition-focus modifier). Mostly because I do not think that constantly changing labels does much good, and only spreads divisiveness in the community. But I AM a Hard Polytheist.

  19. While I welcome different paths to the table, I find the stereotyping of Pagans in this article slightly offensive. Humanist Paganism is not the holder of intelectual, educated and sophisticated pagans nor there are plenty of Pagans that are invested in environmental or social justice issues. What I find to be disheartening is that those who would come under the umbrella of Pagans actually stereotyping and attempting to define other fellow Pagans. This is what we get from others outside of our community and we should not do it within our community.

  20. Your choice of course. But pagan doesn’t mean someone who necessarily believes in any deity, so it won’t describe me.

  21. I’d guess most “humanist pagans” stray from the word belief because it implies truth without reason…but may very well fit your definition of belief if it coincides with thriceraven’s example of “believing in Thor as the embodiment of principles of honor and strength wrapped in the symbol of a storm.” I hardly think there are many people going “this is total bollocks but Hail Thor anyway!”

  22. You’d be surprised.

    I, personally, know a woman who has developed an interest in Norse mythology (to the point of enquiring about how to cast the runes) because ‘Thor is hot’…

  23. Belief does not imply truth without reason. Belief is commonly (among Pagans and polytheists anyway) recognized as subjective when not accompanied by any evidence. Now, claiming that one’s belief is knowledge WOULD imply truth without reason. People have only been conditioned to think of belief as an unwavering, certain faith in KNOWING the divine, when in fact belief doesn’t mean any such thing in many religions outside of Abrahamisms.

    I tend to accept definitions such as, “a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth” as less biased than definitions that assume belief implies a need to be proven or implies a truth claim.

    Also, “reason” is not synonymous with “scientific evidence” or the scientific method, I wish atheists would quit acting like it is. We can reason things out that aren’t capable of physical scientific study, such as ethics. So hypothetically, a “believer” who has internally consistent logic in his beliefs, does not contradict known scientific facts in his beliefs, and holds those beliefs due to reasoned responses to their experiences or perceptions has beliefs that are founded in reason, even if not founded on physical scientific evidence.

  24. Oh I wasn’t saying that’s how I define it. I totally agree. However, at least in my experience, I’ve known enough people who conflate belief with knowledge that I tend to use that word carefully. All good points.

  25. Oh I see. You have a good point, it is good to use the word carefully, particularly in a world where it is used so carelessly.

  26. Well, Atheists are done secularising Christmas, why not move onto Winterfylleþ?

  27. 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.

    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.

  28. I’m inclined to believe that it is not uncommon. Notice how, when The Craft came out in 1996, there was an upsurge in interest in Wicca/Witchcraft, but most of that was short lived.

    Paganism has an image that attracts people on a superficial level. Many treat it as a fad or something to ‘dabble’ in.

    It isn’t taken seriously (because of the ‘Paganism is what you make it’ attitude, I imagine) by the ‘majority’.

    Honestly, can you blame people for not taking ‘Paganism’ seriously, when you are lucky to find two ‘Pagans’ in a hundred to even agree on what ‘Paganism’ means?

  29. I’m surprised to see so many comments to the effect that one must believe in the gods the way an Evangelical believes in Jesus, or one is merely role-playing in ritual. The variety of the human embrace of the mystery is a lot more complex than that.

  30. Why so surprised? Faith is faith, regardless of who is believed in. (Of course, there is a rather distinct difference between faith and veneration.)

  31. Perhaps your rituals are, and in that case it would be a different situation..but paganism is a very broad term, encompassing a wide variety of though and practice. People are pagans for different reasons and with different purposes. An individual tradition can define things however it pleases, but for the purposes of the umbrella, it can mean a very different thing.

  32. You nailed it. Definition of ‘Deity’ is a highly complex subject. All are valid. Where any individual beliefs fits in, is up to them.
    I find many atheists simply don’t believe in a “corporate, interdimensional being that can personally influence the lives of people on his whim”. That’s not the same as believing in some sort of higher power/organisation of the universe that may or may not be sentient.
    Paganism in general, is a celebration of life, which can be shared with the utterly devout or those who simply share the way of life.
    Key here is respect for all.

  33. As much as contemporary Pagans like to harken to the olden days (the really, really olden days) as a source for our practices, we are often oblivious that the pre-Christian and non-Christian world had a huge diversity in its beliefs. You didn’t join a Pagan church. Paganism was not a “religion.” As my first teacher used to say, if you went up to an ancient and asked them what his or her “religion” was, you’d probably get a blank look. They might say, “I’m from Athens.” Paganism was cultural as much as religious. One did not burn incense to the Gods necessarily because one was a hard polytheist, one burned incense to the gods because that’s what one did.

    I remember a conversation once with someone who had been born and raised on an island in Malaysia. Every year, they had a Goddess festival where everyone decorated their porches for the Goddess. We thought that was marvelous. But that doesn’t mean they were all hard polytheists. It was a fun, lovely cultural festival with religious roots. Many people who have no interest in Baby Jesus celebrate Christmas, it’s just a fun cultural holiday with religious roots. You can be a Christian, an atheist, a Humanist (large or small H) a Christmas Catholic or a Pagan and still dig decorating a tree and giving presents.

    So it is not a surprise to me that many people enjoy the rich culture of our contemporary Paganism just for what that culture offers, without a deep concern for the reality of the Gods. Neopagan culture values the arts, values good times (mead, anyone?) and is open and accepting of many ways of life. We don’t do a dogma check at the door. I have no problem with lots of people joining the party.

    Now, that might not apply if I am creating a small working circle with a specific magical or religious agenda. That’s a different situation, much like how some people in the ancient world chose to become members of the various mystery cults. That’s a deeper commitment, a deeper and more specific calling. Then I want people on the same wavelength as me. A cultural Pagan might not be a good fit

  34. I found this article derogatory enough
    to comment for the first time here after following TWH for years. There are
    many card-carrying theists, henotheists, polytheists, etc. that are intellectual,
    scientifically minded, healthfully skeptical, sophisticated and enlightened. Your generalizations are irresponsible and your
    vague “this is not a scientific study, but…” disclaimer does not cover your disrespect. As I prepare to teach my eighth year of
    college level biology, this
    30-something, middle income polytheist and animist with a small family will continue
    to commune with his Gods and spirits, thank you very much. You can keep your costumes.

    Despite our theological differences, I respect your right to
    describe yourself as an atheistic pagan.
    As modern paganism continues to develop and move away from the “this or
    that” categorization of the Judeo-Christian paradigm in which we are immersed,
    the diversity of pagan expression, both in practice and belief, will continue
    to evolve.

    However, there are countless ways that an introduction to atheistic
    paganism could have been written, and this was a poor choice.

  35. If you take a cheeseburger, and then remove the cheese, and then remove the meat, and then remove the bun, and then remove the lettuce and tomato and pickle and ketchup …. and then pronounce, as you sit there with an empty plate, “This is the way I like my cheeseburgers! I call it a ‘humanist cheeseburger’.” Well, in such a case regardless of what else we might be dealing with, we are definitely not dealing with cheeseburgers, or humanism.

  36. *golf clap for the funny*

    Yeah, how is all this labeling/limiting of Paganism (and others, too really) helping to create openness and understanding anyhow rather than just creating prejudices and misconceptions people got to work over?

  37. That’s my entire basis for taking an interest in Denmark’s politics. Seriously, look up “Hell Thorning-Schmidt” sometime. Now THERE is a goddess I could serve the rest of my days….

  38. I have been meeting with a growing number of other Atheist/Humanist Pagans. Pagans. generally, accept my Atheism. I wish I could find more Atheists who accept my Paganism…

  39. Thank you for this comment, William. 🙂

    But if I may say so, I think you are reading a bit too much into the article. It’s a piece about some of the merits of humanist paganism; it says precisely nothing, one way or another, about other kinds of paganism.

    I’m not the kind of writer who covers his words in a mountain of caveats and disclaimers, in order to avoid causing unintended offense, or accidentally making someone feel “invalidated”. I don’t like doing it; it always feels to me like a distraction. I’d rather get straight to the job of saying what I have to say.

    With that in mind, perhaps you will find the piece easier to understand?

  40. I take it as a sign than we’re on the right track and that pagans have the stones to undertake their own spiritual journeys rather than mindlessly falling into formation each morning to take their orders. There was certainly no consensus in the ancient world on what “paganism” meant. Outside of one’s own mystery cult or tribe, it wouldn’t have even occurred to most people to lose sleep over orthodoxy of belief or praxis.

    Nor are Christians really all that different. In theory, all Catholics believe the same things. In reality, perhaps a fifth of them are in line with the Vatican on even the big issues – Mass attendance, papal authority, the real presence in the Eucharist etc. There’s a hell of a lot of freelancing going on, just within that one sect of how many thousands of others, to say nothing of the millions of Christian solitaries?

  41. I fail to see why some people seem so appalled at this perspective. It’s a lot like Caroline Casey’s philosphy: “Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities.” Sometimes she amends that to say, “Experiment with possibilities.” It seems to fit with the Age of Aquarius, which is beginning to appear, like the sky’s brightness before the dawn. In a way, it can be compared to Chaos Magick. It’s simply a way of living in the world as it is, and what’s wrong with that? I think it’s cool. (And btw, Jesus can be considered a Humanist, too.)

  42. What gets me is this post nods to all the Pagans responsible for helping to create an understanding of logic and helped built the groundwork of math and science… then it’s as if now someone is expected to have to switch away from being polytheistic and spiritual to keep use and interest in these things. When you go to a gathering to celebrating the Great Queen, do you sort of feel the guys who feel She is real are using less of their intellect?
    Sounds like they think you’re a Druid, but you think you’re just bumming drinks off them.

  43. If the action pleases the gods, do they care what motivated it? Are they YHWH policing our thoughts too? I think if the gods are pleased, belief or lack thereof is immaterial. What you do matters, not what you think.

  44. We can’t even agree on what a religious Pagan is, let alone a cultural one.

    Do you get cultural Christians?

    For the record, I haven’t celebrated Christmas since 1999. It would be hypocritical of me to do so.

  45. You are of course, free to. I may have overstated a bit, the above is merely my opinion. I for one, am done with gods that negate my actions because my thoughts are wrong, YMMV.

    Edit: For what it’s worth, I’m a hard polytheist myself, and I believe in the literal existence of the gods. I just don’t have a problem with other people joining in with worship who don’t see it exactly that way as long as they’re there to be reverent and participate. Someone there to disrupt or mock would be totally different!

  46. Thank you for this piece Brendan. After 25+ years of being a pagan on various paths, I am headed towards humanist paganism. One of the major reasons for this change is the number of practices associated with paganism that are outright bs and frankly embarrassing. There is awe and there is woo. I can do without the latter.

    To address others comments on the Gods. Whether or not they exist as actual beings is unprovable and ultimately irrelevant. When we sacrifice to Athena, invoke Manannan or offer a horn to Odin (and his brother) we deal with powerful and valuable symbols that can have a profound impact on who we are as beings. Odin need not physically sit in Asgard to have what he stands for held in reverence. Spirituality does not require religion.

  47. If this piece says nothing about other kinds of Paganism, then when you say:
    “…for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices…”
    “Humanist” pagans are a little more intellectual than who?

  48. AH, now you’ve pointed exactly to what’s wrong with this article.
    The message – I’m not reasonable, naturalistic, humanistic, or rational if I’m pagan. How rude.

  49. In my book, two people don’t always have to hold the same religious views for one to not decide the other is an idiot. If someone’s viewed and defined as less intellectual, scientific, reasonable, naturalistic, humanistic, or rational based on whether they believe in more, less, or no deity, there’s bigotry in there somewhere.

  50. There is a difference between inclusive and exclusive faith, and I get cognitive dissonance hearing what sounds like the latter among Pagans.

  51. Who said Paganism is (or should be) inclusive?

    Sure, there are branches that are (eclectic), but there are also some pretty fundamentalist branches, too.

  52. Well, I am a hard polytheistic nontheist – I believe in all/most of the (established) gods out there, but follow none of them.

  53. And some of us are Pagans are actually /religious/ not just, or not even, spiritual. So the ‘spirituality does not require religion’ thing…doesn’t really hold.

  54. I agree with that, completely.

    I am non saying that a theistic Pagan is any less intellectual/scientific or reasonable than an atheist. But I would argue they are more Pagan.

  55. Yet there are plenty of Christians for whom Jesus is waiting for them at the barricades, not in church — or, if in church, in the soup kitchen in the basement.

  56. By your own definition it is inclusive (includes both types of branches). Paganism isn’t a religion by itself, it includes many things.

  57. But he is waiting for them (so they believe).

    It is the difference between a religious path and a philosophical one.

  58. Ancient Pagans had Religion, they just didn’t have religions, plural. That is to say, they did not have the concept of different, and, in particular, rival religions.

    In fact, outside of the monotheisms, the idea of a religions as a bunch of mutually exclusive clubs is not the norm. This is why Buddhists have no problem also being Confucianists, Taoists and Shintoists at the same time.

  59. Until you know otherwise, I think it is courteous to assume other people intellectual, reasonable, naturalistic, humanistic, and rational even if they believe in deities and one doesn’t.

  60. I admit, Paganism is a useless term, nowadays. Too many people using it for their own purpose to allow it any significant universal meaning.

    Yes, Paganism isn’t a religion, but a catch-all term for a diverse collection of non-Abrahamic religions.

  61. I’ve always considered myself a humanist pagan. In some ways, it’s similar to the way Chaos Magicians relate to other forms of ritual magic. To the Chaote, there is nothing inherently magical about a Goetic seal, it’s what the practitioner invests into it that counts. The Chaos Magic concept of “meta-belief” enters into this too: the idea that when one is performing a magical operation, one invests the “belief” in the process in order to make it work. The idea is similar to “suspension of disbelief” in theater arts, but in a positive sense. If one *behaves* as if the Gods are real, and throws oneself into as sincere and convincing behavior based on that belief as one can muster (ask a trained actor about the idea of “acting is believing”) the Gods will *become* real in that moment, providing one can sufficiently suspend disbelief in the Gods.

    What is “belief” besides just another trick of the human mind? People can and do change their beliefs many times over their lives. Why should it be impossible to change “belief” – indulge that trick of the mind – deliberately and temporarily? When I am hoisting a drinking horn to Thor at a blot, I behave accordingly and I feel the presence of Thor. This is not “cosplay”, it is much more than that. By immersing myself in the reality of the moment, I obtain the benefit of the ritual, without having to devote myself 24/7/365 to being an acolyte of Thor.

  62. I find that to be pretty much par for the course. The atheists I’ve been exposed to were more in line with Richard Dawkins and his anti-theism than they were with secularism and/or genuine atheism. The whole “jumping on you in order to assert scientific fundamentals over religious belief moments after that came up” and everything at all.

  63. and as both a Buddhist and a Pagan I can say that Buddhists have no problem with people also being Christian, Muslim or Jewish. In fact there are many somewhat “famous” American Buddhist Zen Masters who also practicing Jews. Unfortunately, it is the fanatical Christians and Muslims who have a problem with people practicing other “religions”.

  64. We’re not that huge a movement that we can affford to subdivide ourselves by excommunicating one another. Indeed, when Vodouisants and Santeros suffer discrimination it’s the same forces that discriminate against us at play, and they get stronger when they prevail. Inclusiveness should be part of our practical theology.

  65. “… Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices,…”
    Dr. Myers, not to drag this out, but can you explain how this sentence does not compare Humanist Paganism with the broader Pagan community in the sense of being more intellectual? You want to be Pagan BUT you want to be intellectual, too. As if the two are normally not together.

  66. Why? if a humanistic Pagan agrees that nature is sacred, that the proper way to celebrate that is in seasonal ritual, and that our bodies are part of sacred nature, what makes them less Pagan?

  67. Thanks for the illuminating essay, Brendan. And thanks to Jason for offering the platform.

  68. When we start hearing about “shoulds” we know we’re back in the realm of fundamentalist religion.

  69. Why? This is her own path to appreciation of the sacred. May her theology flower!

  70. “By immersing myself in the reality of the moment, I obtain the benefit of the ritual, without having to devote myself 24/7/365 to being an acolyte of Thor.”

    So, do you assume that those of us who are hard polytheists “devote [ourselves] 24/7/365 to being an acolyte of Thor”? That seems like rather an overstatement.

  71. It really isn’t.

    When I say ‘Thor’, what I actually mean is Chris Hemsworth.

  72. An informed person would not call themself a Christian if they did not actually follow Christ.

    An atheist who agrees with some of Christ’s philosophies is still an atheist.

    I don’t see why Paganism is different. Paganism is a collection of faith systems. To say you are Pagan when you don’t have the faith seems to ring hollow to me.

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

  74. I never said I wasn’t a fundamentalist, did I?

    Now, tell me why being a fundamentalist would be a bad thing?

  75. I’m not convinced ‘we’ are a movement of any size.

    Numerous disparate movements and even more individuals, sure, but cohesive? Not a hope.

  76. The implication, here, is that a ‘theistic Pagan’ is somehow intellectually inferior to a ‘Humanistic (read atheistic) Pagan’.

    Is this, or is this not what you are trying to state?

  77. I do believe Dr. Myers was not making a value judgement on Humanists vs. Theists but simply stating a humanist pagan might be a person who shifts their focus from the spiritual to the strictly the realm of the intellect. Not intellect as in “I’m smarter than you now,” but using in a way to imply a way of approaching things.

    The wording could have been clearer, but I’m sure he was not implying that more spiritual pagans can not be just as intellectual.

  78. “if a humanistic Pagan agrees that nature is sacred,”

    What, in the context of humanism, does “sacred” mean?

  79. You may be correct, but a pagan certainly does not have to sacrifice spiritual for intellectual. The sentence makes a clear distinction between intellectual and the Pagan community, offering atheistic paganism as the bridge between the two. This is a bit offensive.
    Please don’t think I’m splitting hairs- it is not my intent to focus on this sentence as much as the broader voice that resonates in this article. This sentence exemplifies the distinct smell of elitism.

  80. Great article! Thanks for sharing this with TWH’s audience! (thanks for the mentions, too; made me blush ;-P )

    I’m not sure I agree that such humanistic or naturalistic Pagans are only now emerging, the likes of which have “not been seen since Classical Greece and Rome”. Arguably some Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers were both Pagan and humanistic or naturalistic, and in recent history Jungian Pagans used to be far more numerous than they are now. Identifying historical figures as “naturalistic” or “humanistic” is a difficult and often anachronistic enterprise, but nevertheless I see our community as part of a continuous trend, always there even if as a minority.

    My fear is that ignoring such past figures plays into the growing tendency to view a literalistic kind of hard polytheism as the “original” Paganism and naturalistic forms as recent aberrations, whereas historically there always was a diversity of views (often un-differentiated).

    My favorite line from the article: “I study Druidry to be a better philosopher; I don’t study philosophy to be a better Druid.”

  81. LOL AP! That’s guuud metaphor…except…I think “humanist pagans” still want the buns. 🙂

  82. The persistence and popularity of this blog argues that many Pagans see it oftherwise.

  83. That comes from the context of Paganism. If one calls onself a Humanistic Pagan, one must disply some level of Paganism. That’s my drastically reduced set.

  84. 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.

  85. Thanks to Brendan. My reaction is “defend to the death his right to say it.” 🙂
    Note: AP’s comment on Humanist Cheeseburgers. 🙂
    (Also, wasn’t offended but “intellectual”…knew what you meant…etc…)

    As to the offshoot conversation, personally…and I’ve said this before…I feel that the word Pagan is offensive to all of us…simply because it’s the name the Christianized Romans (and then the RCC) gave us back in the day.

    Please feel free to read: Pagan as Slave Name:

  86. Way back in the nineties our printing company had the World Pantheist League as a client and I was fascinated with their godfree form of religion; for awhile I thought of joining their ranks before several goddesses up and yanked me back into the realm of hard polytheism. But this (naturalist/atheist/pantheist) movement *is* growing fast, forming one end of rapidly-widening contemporary Pagan spectrum. (I put hard polytheism — which I espouse — at the other end.) Thanks for this pointer to an important part of our movement.

    P.S. I am pleased to note that just yesterday I recruited Mr. Newberg to the blogosphere at PaganSquare (I’ll announce his arrival formally on my WitchesandPagans FB page in the next week or two.)

  87. Dear “Guest”,
    Lailahart has understood my text best when she (are you a she?) says I am “simply stating a humanist pagan might be a person who shifts their
    focus from the spiritual to the strictly the realm of the intellect. Not
    intellect as in “I’m smarter than you now,” but using in a way to imply
    a way of approaching things.”

    I do not claim that theistic or polytheistic pagans cannot be intellectual. No such statement appears in my text, and if others think it is “implied” there, then they are committing a logical fallacy. Remember, the statement “X has properties A,B, and C” does not mean the same thing as the statement “not-X lacks properties A,B, and C.”

    The general idea is that humanist paganism is an “emerging option” for pagans who want to be more intellectual about their own paths.

    Thus there is no “distinction between intellectual and the Pagan community” intended in my text. That statement attributes to me a false dichotomy.

    And as to the “distinct smell of elitism”, well, what can I say?


  88. Leoht Sceadusawol:

    It is not what I am trying to state. There is no claim about the superiority or inferiority of one pagan path over another, expressed or implied in my text.

  89. What this, and not every Guest said earlier was how I think it is courteous to assume other people intellectual, reasonable, naturalistic, humanistic, science-interested, skeptical, and rational even if they believe in deities and you do not. Think about that list, and how these attributes, many complimentary and flattering, really aren’t specific to atheism. You can guess from my wanting to respond I’m a rather skeptical pagan, but that doesn’t say I’m not deistic. See what I mean?
    The only thing pretty much correct if they say they believe in deities (even for the length of a ritual) and you don’t – is that you’re an “atheist” or “agnostic” and they’re not. Why not call yourself atheist pagan instead of implying global assumptions about another’s viewpoints, logic, or intellect that haven’t been clarified by themselves – it’d be more accurate and wouldn’t start misconceptions.

  90. @facebook-518736223:disqus I want to clarify I don’t think this about you at all, now from what you’ve said. I apologize for my tart response here.

  91. Thank you for your response.
    I must contend, however, that you did not state “X has properties of A, B, and C”. Instead, you stated X sub 1 are also X but “want a little more” A than other X’s. Therefore, not-X sub 1 want less A, which as a spokesperson for the atheist pagan movement you discontinue using.

  92. Traditional Wicca is not faith based. It is experience-based, like other mystery religions. Mystery religions serve as gateways to experiences, insights and gnosis that by definition cannot be adequately communicated in words. At this level, argument over the truth or falsehood of particular beliefs is a waste of time because the understandings in question cannot (not must not, literally can not) be talked about very directly.

    For this reason, traditional Craft covens can happily accommodate atheists, agnostics, monists and hard polytheists in the same circle.

    Other paths may and do look on things differently.

  93. I often look at things the same way, but I don’t regard worship and other ritual practices as being solely for my benefit; I hope that these devotions also benefit the gods, the human community and all-sentient-beings, as the Buddhists say. If everything is connected, perhaps this is automatic.

    When involved in a ritual, the best practice for me is to take it seriously. My mind and sensory apparatus are malleable enough, and I’ve changed my theological views often enough, that I’ve come to be agnostic about my own ability to apprehend anything close to ultimate reality for more than fleeting moments, or to be sure that “reality” exists. I prefer to live in a universe in which human beings are not the only rational intelligences. So I engage in acts of worship and veneration, some of which make perfect sense to me and some of which I do out of politeness to my hosts. If someone else is willing to do as you describe while participating in the ritual, I have no problem with that, and I doubt the gods do either. If they do, they’ll deal with it.

  94. I’m all for intrafaith understanding so I appreciate this post. I agree with those who observed that this is not all that new; it goes back at least to the Renaissance.

    The opposition which some commenters set up between “Humanist Paganism” and “Abrahamism” doesn’t fit the facts. “They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see
    it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters
    is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our
    social and environmental relations.” That’s a fair description of the theological viewpoint of Mordecai Kaplan, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, of the majority of Reform Jews, and of a good many Reform rabbis. A lot of the people sitting in the pews of mainstream American Protestant churches on Sunday morning also would agree with it.

    Organized religions offer community, some support for making ethical choices in one’s daily life, and opportunities to join with one’s neighbors to do good. For a great many people, that is enough.

  95. The U.S. is full of cultural Christians. They go to church on Easter, have Christian weddings and funerals, and celebrate Christmas. They call themselves Christians but don’t really believe all the dogma; they often do not even know the majority of the articles of faith they are supposed to be practicing, etc. I celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. I’m fine with others’ decisions not to tho.

  96. Not only does Humanism have nothing whatsoever to do with atheism, the two are incompatible to the point of being mutually exclusive.

    Humanism is the philosophy found in both the Ascelpius and in Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. The same philosophy is also found in Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos, which, at least according to Gerald Gardner, “might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed.”

    It is only The Church that misidentifies Humanism with atheism. Or at least they are the only ones who have any excuse for making such a mistake.

  97. Unitarian Universalist Humanism is historically atheistic. They weren’t all happy when UU Paganism appeared and demanded a seat at the table.

  98. Brendan, thank you for this essay. I belong to Hathor. –But I have never fit comfortably in the local Pagan community. I think you have pretty well described me here.

    Happy synchronicity: I recently read “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt. In the early fifteenth century a book hunter recovered “De Rerum Natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” written in the first century by the Roman Lucretius. Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus; both men were Atheists–and yet the excerpts I’ve read from that book resonate with modern Paganism. You asked in a recent podcast if there was any text that one Pagan could recite to another as an affirmation of following a Pagan path. I am thinking that something meaningful could be mined from “On the Nature of Things.” I’ve downloaded a copy from I’ll share if I find something good.

  99. I’ve been comfortably identifying as an atheist for years now, and never stopped practicing with my local Pagan group. It’s a diverse group as far as what people believe, which focuses things far more on orthopraxy than orthodoxy. When you have Hellenists and devotees of Set and a guy who believes in an intangible dragon that tells him the future all in the same circle, a few atheists are hardly going to be all that exotic.

    That’s how it works for our group. It works for me because I view religions as cultural systems that I can either participate in or not based on whether I like the impact they have on my culture and myself. It’s faith I’ve got no room for; I can’t tell the difference between it and wishful thinking.

    Thankfully for my continuing religious practice, a story can be just a story without being JUST a story, if that makes sense. I don’t need to believe in ghosts to be fully present and participating at and grateful for a Samhain ritual, and the other people at the ritual (at least in the case of my local group) don’t need me to, either.

  100. “If the action pleases the gods, do they care what motivated it? Are they YHWH policing our thoughts too?”

    If you happen to give someone something they wanted, but your heart wasn’t in the right place (for whatever reason), would the recipient of your gift be right to feel that the gift as not sincerely given? Of course. If you give someone a gift through some ulterior motive, that someone would have every right to feel offended. Why should the gods be different? The entire point of giving gifts to the gods (at least, in my religious tradition and others that I know of that make offerings to the gods) is to enter into and develop a relationship of mutual reciprocity with them.

    The second question in the quotation above makes it sound like the proper definition of our religious traditions is “not Abrahamic” (not that you’ve said it in so many words, but the implication is there, I think). While that may very well be the kind of reaction that impels many people towards Paganism, and is the mental space wherein many people stay, it is unfair to assume that we all have to keep defining ourselves over against Abrahamic religions in a reactive fashion. My religion is not an Abrahamic religion; not because it has to be the opposite, but just because it is different. Similarities between religions that worship Yahweh and religions that do not are not always matters of contamination of the latter by ideas from the former: sometimes they have to do with the underlying nature of religion as such.

  101. Are we accusing non-theist Pagans of ulterior motives? That’s the difference between your example and what I think we’re describing here. If someone gives me a gift because they’re trying to bribe or blackmail me, or because they’re trying to earn my favor dishonestly, or something, sure I’m not thrilled. But I don’t think that’s what Humanist Pagans are doing, and I hope you don’t mean to imply that they’re somehow trying to finagle favor dishonestly with deities they don’t literally believe in? That… doesn’t even make sense to me.

    What I think you’re describing is rejecting someone’s right, honorable, and virtuous action, because their heart isn’t in the place where you think it should be. I’m not willing to make that judgment. The reason I made the comment about YHWH is because this reminds me a lot of the concept that some Christians have that even if they’re perfectly chaste in action, they’re still guilty of unchastity if their thoughts are wrong. Or that even if they’ve never killed anyone, they’re guilty of murder if they’re angry. Aren’t you saying that even though these Pagans’ actions are pious, they’re being impious because their belief is wrong? I don’t see any difference there.

    When I started this path, I didn’t believe it either, but practice came first and belief followed. The gods didn’t seem to care, since they responded to me even before I believed in them literally. If that doesn’t happen for someone else, or they don’t need it, I’m not offended by that. It’s too like where I came from myself.

  102. @google-f240b5fe44f4960edff6beceadab57e9:disqus A lot of Pagans do conflate belief with knowledge, though. If I had a dime for how many times I’ve heard “Pagans don’t have “faith”, they *know* the Gods. They don’t “believe”, that would be like believing in the postman”, I’d be wealthy. Usually this is said with sneering condescension for the idea of mere “belief”– it’s like these people forget that not everyone has had that kind of first-hand experience of the Gods, and don’t realize that it’s like the blind man grasping a bit of elephant. All anyone will ever have is personal experience, and that’s not knowledge of the totality.

  103. So the only options are that we’re complete believers, or we’re LARPing? I find that incredibly rude, dismissive, and short-sighted.

    I completely agree with the idea that it doesn’t matter whether the Gods exist or not– as a practical matter, for me, it *doesn’t* matter. My direct experiences of gods are few, not nearly as total and convincing as those of my more mystically-inclined friends. I’d like to think that’s not a bar for entry into Pagandom. I incline toward belief that the Gods exist in some fashion, but am agnostic on what “exist” means. I don’t believe it’s a question that can be answered, and, as a practical matter, I don’t see that it has much bearing on what I do as a Pagan. If I discovered tomorrow that the Gods exist 100% in our heads and have no reality outside of human brains, I wouldn’t do anything differently, because the symbols and the culture and the values are still worthy and still speak to me regardless of whether anything is actually out there in the void hearing us when we make offerings. I’d like to think there is, but I don’t claim to *know*. When I come to a ritual, I come sincerely, but I can’t profess a degree of belief that I don’t actually have. If that’s “LARPing”, in your eyes, so be it, but I don’t think my community sees it that way.

  104. @Dver The local Catholic cathedral doesn’t see it that way. I’ve gone to Mass on Christmas and Easter before, even though I’m not Christian, to honor my ancestors and the deep and sincere Catholic faith they had. I was pleased to find a paragraph on the back of the program welcoming non-Christians and saying, basically, that they’re happy we’re there, they don’t mind at all if instead of praying to Jesus, people pray instead for peace, just please don’t take Communion.

    Belief isn’t the only reason someone would be attending a ritual. (If it were, nobody would have come to my wedding, as none of my guests were Pagan!)

    @16588998ed9c85096ea9c9dbc9dc039e:disqus I kind of find the idea that rituals are only for the Gods to be rather odd. Like any other community event, I think rituals are for both sides of the relationship, the Gods *and* the members of the community. Like a birthday party for a friend isn’t just for the honored friend, but also for what the host and the attendees experience as part of the rite of friendship extended to the birthday person. It’s a relationship, both sides get something from it, IMO.

    I’ve been to a lot of rituals in the last 20 years, and I’ve never had someone ask me what I believe or don’t believe about the honored Gods. I’ve always heard that what matters is what you *do* (-praxy), not what you believe (-doxy), and if you come with a reverent attitude and proper etiquette, it’s nobody’s business what you believe or don’t believe in the privacy of your own mind.

  105. Not, that is not the case.

    I didn’t say ‘complete’ belief. I didn’t even say what the nature of belief should be. But 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).

  106. Ever been to a Christening?

    Many denominations (of Christianity) will not recognise someone as an adherent until they have been initiated by baptism. During that ritual, the question is asked (either to the supplicant, or to a nominated guardian) ‘Do you believe and trust in God?’

    No is not really an option, nor is ‘Does it matter?’

  107. The blind man knows the elephant exists. He just doesn’t know the full nature of the elephant, only his own perception of it.

    When the blind men get together, they are not arguing about whether the elephant exists (apart fro the blindest man, who missed the elephant altogether), but ‘how’ it exists.

  108. Seriously? I like myself. I don’t see a problem with my belief. I acknowledge that it is belief, however. I accept that I could actually be delusional, but through a process of rational reason, I doubt it.

    Fundamentalism is not bad, in and of itself. In fact, a lot of my argument on here isn’t actually fundamental theology, but basic English.

    Something I find I keep coming back to is trying to find a definition for Paganism that makes the word usable.

  109. I feel that Brendan was a bit ‘lazy’ in his formulations. I hoped that he might be interested to discuss the matter at hand – what is the place of intellectualism within paganism – than just saying that he did not say anything truly offensive in his article. Why not think, hey, those are some interesting comments, and I have written about the sometimes sneering attitude towards ‘reason’ opposed to ‘whatever feels right’, maybe there is something important here to discuss?

    When he thinks of woo and of less-than-intellectual paganism, I am sure he has a picture in his mind of eclectic15-year old wiccans or perhaps pagans who are more grounded in the New Age side of things, who sneer at the mention of the word ‘reason’. There can be, especially in some online corners, a somewhat hostile attitude towards critical thinking. I estimate that he thinks of these people, and that he just hasn’t come across any interesting blogs such as yours, Dver’s or Sannion’s.This is my guess. He defines Humanistic Paganism but nowhere does he address other forms of paganism, because that is simply not what he was talking about. Yet, he does say something about it, because apparently Humanistic Paganism offers something that regular paganism does not, and the only real benefit that is really mentioned in the article is the ‘more intellectual approach’.

    I liked ‘The Other Side of Virtue’. I like philosophy. But yes there are other viewpoints than that of the philosophical professional. Why not address what concerns the pagans here. Why shy away of a good argument to be had, just because that was not your original point in writing your piece? Truly, Brendan, you find the comments here below not at all interesting?

  110. Kudos for bringing up belief vs knowledge, and how so many confuse the two. It’s a common mistake I see so many people make. I think a large part of the confusion has to do with failure to properly define the terms we talk about, but I digress…

    Brendan’s article (if I read it correctly) spoke more to the idea that people who tend to value critical thinking and science/evidence-based decision making can find a community within the larger neo-pagan umbrella. They can get value out of the rituals, find inspiration in the myths and tales, and cultivate a general sense of cultural identity and belonging that is largely missing from the skeptical/atheist/nonbeliever community, such as it is. They can do all of these things without compromising their aforementioned evidence-based worldview, to boot. Does this fit everyone’s definition of “pagan”? Of course not. Does it matter? Not really. None of us need to run any of this past the more “hard” polytheists for validation (and vice versa, for that matter).

    Times change, people change, cultures change; the pagan community can either change and embrace this (possibly) growing demographic, or they can dig their heels in the mud. If a hard polytheist would not permit me to partake in a ritual due to my non-belief in gods, magic, or anything supernatural, then that’s their prerogative, and I would never challenge that. But as has already been stated, there are pagans who wouldn’t care one way or another, and it’s within these communities that the pagan movement can grow and change in ways the more hard-line traditional-types won’t or can’t.

  111. I had a Mormon friend who went to Taiwan for his two year mission. He and his fellows were quite frustrated in that every time they went to convert the local Taoists to Mormonism, the Taoists would smile and ask where to put Jesus on the altar next to Buddha, Krishna, and a plethora of other Gods.

    Religion, per se, is very different depending on where you go, and what the cultural norms are. One person’s religious figure may be a ‘useful’ individual to put on your altar, or one more God/dess to honor on an altar dedicated to all within the Tao.

  112. Recognizing diversity is far more powerful and honest, comparative to lumping all Pagan paths into an amorphous blob of “we are all kind of this”. The fact of the matter is, some of us have bright, well-defined lines of what makes this path separate from another, whereas another path may have no lines at all. To refuse to recognize another’s boundaries, however, is inhospitable, rude, and an offense to that person/group.etc.

  113. If one has not invested the time, the energy, and the belief into a working relationship with a God, Goddess, spirit, etc. why bother at all in working with that Being?

    On a practical level if the Being in question is real, and you are calling on, say Thor, for a working, at the very least you are saying this: “Hey Thor, I’ve never bothered to speak to you before, but hey, come out for a drink?” At worst you are saying “Hey, most of the time I don’t believe in you, but just for tonight I’d like to raise a horn to you, ok?” How is that not at least a little bit offensive, if not outright blasphemy?

    Even if that Being is not technically flesh-and-blood real, you are treating it as real in that moment. Implying that you give ‘just another trick of the human mind’ a good deal of agency and power in your life. Should you not at the least treat that with respect?

    I find the way that many Chaos Magicians ‘God/dess-hop’ to be offensive. The Gods are not treated as Beings unto Themselves, but means to an end, more often than not. The relationships many people cultivate with these Gods, whether or not they believe the Gods are real in the sense of this table, computer, etc. are powerful things that infuse the life of the person. For Chaos Magicians and others to simply come along and say “Hey, I don’t believe in these Gods but I can sure suspend disbelief for an hour!” is far less honest than Atheist or Humanistic Pagans.

  114. Dr. Myers-
    There are some points you made in your blog entry “On the Quickness to Take Offense and the Pervasiveness of Fear” regarding the comments of this article that I wold like to bring to the table here.
    First, on your logic “X has the properties A, B, and C” does not equal “not-X does not have the properties A, B, C” (ie saying Humanistic Pagans are intellectual does not mean that other pagans are not intellectual). If in your article you had stated “Humanistic Pagans are intellectual” this logic would hold true. Unfortunately, you chose to say instead, “Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, BUT WHO WANT TO BE A LITTLE MORE intellectual about their practices”, setting up a direct comparison. In this case, your logic does not hold.
    Secondly, in your blog you state that some of the comments here are because we feel your statements are a threat to our sense of self and our identity because they are an alternative. I disagree- they are simply insulting. For example, if we were a bunch of parents chatting at open house, imagine what these statements sound like:
    “My child wants to be part of of the larger child community, but tends to be a little more intellectual.”
    “For those who are anti-children, my child can show how children can be sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and enlightened.”
    I don’t think the parents would feel threatened or fearful- they would feel disgusted. I think most of us are not so fragile in our belief systems that we feel fearful by your statements- after all, we are constantly defending ourselves against the onslaught of Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

  115. In an earlier comment, Dr. Myers said that the comparison was set up to contrast the individual’s earlier practice to his/her current practice. I interpreted it to mean that, for example, a young or new pagan indulged in fluffy new age practices when they started out, but now prefer to pursue more intellectual ideas in their practices.

  116. Agreed, but pursuing more intellectual practices does not mean that they will eventually become an atheist.

  117. I found this post very wonderful! Because to me it’s so interesting to discover even more types of pagans out there. I just feel like this group isn’t talked about much or they seem a little on the down low. Well, we aren’t abrahamic religions, not going to flog you for being atheists! :p

  118. Sarenth, Atheist Pagan is precise and doesn’t suggest by default non-Atheist Pagans aren’t humanist, intellectual, naturalistic, etc.
    Sarenth, Also, feel free to be less subtle and explain more clearly

  119. ErynneRose, This is an interesting view of it. I think going through new age healing practices is common from even fairly intellectual people of all religions with illnesses not then responding to medical treatment.
    What’s distasteful is when people advocating a treatment get testy and a bit insulting towards someone because the treatment they’d advocated didn’t help someone who tried it. When it comes to a lot of medicine – what works for one or even many still doesn’t necessarily help everybody. Reiki people – you are not being singled out, that goes for you, too.

  120. To build off of an example I read above, I think that participating in a ritual with offering to gods one doesn’t believe in would be like showing up for someone’s birthday party, possibly even bringing a gift for that person, without really giving a damn about the individual whose birthday it is: it’s enough to like hanging out with that person’s friends, and to like and feel fulfilled by birthday parties in general, right?

    If someone shows up to my birthday party who doesn’t know or care for me, but who brings a present as a “price of admission” for being there and hanging out with my friends, and I feel kind of put off, am I “policing their thoughts”?

    As a further question, what makes an action “right, honorable, and virtuous”? Does intent have nothing to do with that, or does it play some part? I am not asking these questions rhetorically: I think they should be considered.

    “What I think you’re describing is rejecting someone’s right, honorable, and virtuous action, because their heart isn’t in the place where you think it should be.”

    If we are going to make an a priori assumption that a given action is “right, honorable, and virtuous”, then of course it would be wrong to reject that. But *when* is an action “right, honorable, and virtuous”?

    “Aren’t you saying that even though these Pagans’ actions are pious, they’re being impious because their belief is wrong?”

    I am stating nothing definitively, I am asking questions that seem to be getting glossed over. Without these questions being discussed, there will be no resolution to the current debate.

    “When I started this path, I didn’t believe it either, but practice came first and belief followed.”

    And that’s well and good, and the way that most people start, I think. I started with practice and *wanting* to believe, but didn’t have actual belief until a profound and terrifying (literally awe-some) religious experience showed me that this was all quite real.

    As far as it goes, I am not up in arms about humanist or atheist Pagans participating in rituals and making offerings, because I think that gifts given have their way of returning, and that thus practice can lead to belief; I would recommend that if such people wish to participate in such rituals, that they do not make their minds up beforehand about the existence or non-existence of gods. What I oppose is the implication that humanist Paganism is somehow intellectually superior to theistic Paganism, or that participating in Paganism is merely a fun social outlet without a deeper meaning, and that those of us who do believe in gods are dupes who are missing the joke.

    I also object to the deep-seated cultural implication, one I come up against often enough in conversations with atheists and humanists, that reason is *the* human faculty most laudable and most worthy of cultivation. As *a* human faculty, it has its place, and should certainly not be rejected. There are other, non-rational human faculties that are religiously important – ecstatic experiences, for instance – and that are all-too-often rejected in place of reason. An balanced acceptance of non-rationality is not intellectually inferior to an insistence on absolute rationality.

  121. Who said the goal is always to create openness? At the expense of everything else? I’ve seen, for instance, many polytheist groups embrace openness and lose all their focus, intent and usefulness as they quickly filled with people of so many varying approaches that nothing could be agreed upon or accomplished. The “point” of paganism IMO is not to be concerned with making everyone feel welcome and included (which, as always, puts the emphasis on people and their feelings), the point is to worship the gods (emphasis on the divine). If being open doesn’t serve that, then it’s not going to be a primary goal, at least for some. Unsurprisingly, it is often the ones insisting on understanding who least understand this point of view.

  122. Whether or not they exist as actual beings is unprovable and ultimately irrelevant.”

    Obviously, it’s irrelevant to you. And to many others whose spirituality is entirely self-focused. As long as YOU get something out of it, nothing else matters. But that is not a universal priority. It is not the goal of everyone’s spiritual practice. So humanist pagans are perfectly welcome to feel that way, but they should be very aware that other pagans may not share that feeling, and may not welcome them at rituals where the reality of the gods is believed and held sacred.

  123. Yes, but they do say “please don’t take communion” – the most sacred part of their ritual, which is essentially the level at which ALL my rituals are done. Not all rituals are equal – a wedding is not comparable to a mystery rite, for instance. In other words, neither would I necessarily mind some atheist attending a simple reading of hymns or poetry in honor of the gods, but I would not welcome them at any real devotional act, ecstatic worship, sacrifice, etc. So I think the Catholics actually agree with me on this point. Though it doesn’t really matter, as everyone is welcome to set their own boundaries. But atheist pagans should be aware of those boundaries and respect them.

    You’ve never had anyone ask what you believe at a ritual. Maybe that’s because the rituals you’ve attended were held by the types of pagans who don’t care, or are equally atheistic at heart (as many are, I’ve found). But I also contend you may have run into people who never would have dreamed that someone would attend their sacred ritual who didn’t believe in the gods being honored. I certainly wouldn’t have, at one point in my life.

    And I would agree that in many cases, what you do is more important than the details of what you believe, but I don’t think that extends infinitely to the mere basic belief in the gods’ existence. At least, it doesn’t for the type of religion I practice.

  124. Once again, pagans show themselves to be merely reacting to Christianity rather than pursuing a religion for its own sake. I know many pagans don’t like the structure and requirements laid down in monotheistic religions, but they were not wholly absent from ancient polytheisms either. Sure, if the gods are pleased, that’s that. But what ever gave you the idea that They would be pleased merely by someone going through the motions, saying “well I don’t really believe in you, but I’ll mouth the words and make the gestures anyway because I find it personally satisfying.” Would you want a gift given by someone who didn’t think you were worth anything, just because it amused them to give it to you?

  125. “Does intent have nothing to do with that, or does it play some part?”

    Exactly. I find it amusing that the types of pagans who would claim here that intent and inner feelings don’t matter, just the outward actions, are probably the same types that in all other cases put intent ABOVE all else in terms of spiritual practice – e.g., it doesn’t really matter if you give tangible offerings to the gods or do certain actions at the right times or whatever, as long as your heart is in the right place.

  126. Think of it as my friend bringing their friend to my birthday party. I don’t really know them, but they bring a gift anyway (how nice!) and they don’t make waves, everybody gets along and has a nice time. No, I’m not upset. I think it’s clear that we just have rather different ideas about some things. I think that some things are right, honorable, and virtuous within my ethical code (which is not absolute) and that the actions themselves, independent of intent, are either virtuous or unvirtuous. The details of my personal morality aren’t really relevant to this discussion, but suffice it to say that bringing gifts to birthday parties and acts of piety toward the gods are both things I would consider virtuous in and of themselves. From where I stand, in this framework, I can’t look at someone else’s actions, find them to be good, and condemn them for their thoughts, beliefs, or impulses that aren’t acted on. This is all I’m saying.

    As to your last two paragraphs, I resent those implications too, and I have not supported them here or anywhere else. I don’t think that my mere acceptance of a particular group of Pagans *as* Pagans immediately means I buy into these things. And I think the characterization of Humanist Pagans as looking for a “fun social club” is not fair either, there have been several who have replied in this thread and none of them said “Gosh, I love to sneak into those Pagan barbecues because the food is so darn good!” There are shared values involved.

  127. Just a couple more points:
    1. Perhaps this is between a Right-Brained approach and a Left-Brained approach to Paganism.
    2. What if I believe the definition of “God” is “All-That-Is” ? Am I an Atheist?

  128. Northern_Light,
    Christenings/Weddings/Funerals are special exceptions for most every religion who celebrates them far as who is expected to show up and how much they’re expected to participate or know what’s going on. For your Roman Catholic example – It’s a sin for a Roman Catholic to completely quit going to Church. Less emphasis is given to actually caring about what’s going on with you while you’re there. There you can go and pretend you care, and everybody celebrates what you’ve done. No one cares what you think. It doesn’t matter.

    Yeah, the model you know is one where you can just warm a bench and donate a few bucks, stand up and sit down when expected and everybody loves you, it’s great. you aren’t a participant. You aren’t expected to add, you aren’t expected to work.

    Some traditions say when the Mind/Body/spirit are aligned it is best for ritual magic. Will, attention, motivation, focus, enthusiasm, energy, skill, curiosity, intuition – that these tools from your mind, you’re supposed to bring to ritual for its success. Those involved in planning ritual may love bigger groups and lots of people, but often these are a mess when nobody cares. Don’t be that guy who thinks they’re such a great gift whenever they show up – when they don’t ever do anything – if you’ve gone to the trouble of showing up (which is half the way of success) – work! Nobody expects you to show up when you don’t care about being there, so you’re expected to add your focus and energy, you’re expected to work. Even a small group, when it’s of focused people, make for a better ritual. And if you’ve put anything into it, it’s so much more interesting and valuable to you.
    🙂 BB

  129. I do find many of the comments on the article interesting, but I don’t want to wade too far into the debate. This is partly because, well to be frank, I have other things to do. My teaching term at the college begins this week, for instance. I also have three new books in progress, and a swiftly-approaching deadline for one of them.

    It also appears that certain critics have decided to interpret my text in the very worst possible light, and they are debating a straw man version of my argument. I can take criticism, but I have no time for haters. I have enough stress in my life as it is.

  130. “Yeah, how is all this labeling/limiting of Paganism (and others, too really) helping to create openness and understanding anyhow rather than just creating prejudices and misconceptions people got to work over?”

    How is the labeling/limiting of Paganism helping to create openness? I would desire openness in saying “I am not that” as much as “we are this”, despite the word Pagan being very, very loosely applied right now.

    I think that Atheist Pagan works for what it is: non-theistic Paganism of some tradition, or lack thereof. I think that such labels are important; it is why I label myself Northern Tradition Pagan rather than, say, Kemetic even though I have a very active, working relationship with Anubis.

    Labeling myself, and labeling others allows us to build common ground while respecting our differences. To do otherwise is to disrespect one another’s tradition. I am not Asatru, but I count myself as a Heathen. To say we are both Pagan may be a true statement despite some Asatruar’s feeling on the word. It works for building alliances, and bringing us together in times of trouble, but my path is very different from Asatru.

    Please drop the condescending attitude though; there are better ways of asking for clarification.

  131. Why less honest? They are being true to their internal compasses.
    This discussion has brought out a lot of rigid boundary-drawing that I find quite incompatible with the Pagan spirit.

  132. “Think of it as my friend bringing their friend to my birthday party. I don’t really know them, but they bring a gift anyway (how nice!) and they don’t make waves, everybody gets along and has a nice time.”

    But, to stretch the metaphor even further, such a thing is usually an overture towards getting to know you better, right? How would you feel if someone showed up with a gift, but spent their time there ignoring you?

    “As to your last two paragraphs, I resent those implications too, and I have not supported them here or anywhere else. I don’t think that my mere acceptance of a particular group of Pagans *as* Pagans immediately means I buy into these things.”

    I did not assume that you did. I bring them up, not in response to you specifically, but in response to the overall conversation. I understand how people are offended by Myer’s implications, and possibly also by his backpedaling on this forum (and, apparently, in his blog post).

    Overall, whether atheism and humanism are the same thing or not, atheism is what happens when the arguments of Christianity against the Pagan traditions of the ancient world – arguments which were always couched in terms of *reason* – get turned on Christianity itself. Ancient pagans referred to Christians as “atheists” with good reason. Can atheists show up at Pagan rituals? Sure, if they’re not going to be obnoxious. But, if they participate, are they being true to their atheism, being true to the Pagan tradition of the ritual in question, or neither? Can atheists and Pagans make common cause against the overweening Abrahic religions? Certainly, so long as that doesn’t lead to the outlawing of religion, or the pathologizing of religious experience, as I’ve seen argued from so many of the Dawkins set.

  133. 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.

  134. I got a negative vote on this, and I’m guessing why.. Reiki people (and I am one, too) – there is an aggressive view that everybody benefits from Reiki. No, they don’t all benefit from Reiki treatment, same as anything else – it helps some people but doesn’t benefit everyone. If someone tried it and it didn’t help them, trust their word for it.

  135. I wasn’t thinking of new age healing practices at all. I was thinking of my own experiences starting out as a solitary. I picked up several Wicca 101 books that I found exciting and fun at first, but now I want less sparkle and more substance.

  136. There is no conflict between science and religion in monotheistic Judaism. Since the Hellenistic period, if not before, Judaism has employed a variety of methods for interpreting scripture, most of which are not literal readings.

    AFAIK, there is no conflict between science and religion in Islam, either. Most of the important scientists of the Middle Ages were Muslims.

  137. Difficulty relating to deity or deities, at least on a deep personal level, is very common among people in general, not just people involved with Paganism. In a society imbued with modern science, in which the existence of gods and their frequent interaction with humans is not taken for granted, I think this is a perfectly normal attitude for a person who has never had a direct, spontaneous encounter with a deity and who does not have a psychological bent toward personalizing the numinous.

    Sometimes such people, if they continue to be in contact with a culture that takes interaction with gods for granted, will begin to take notice of more subtle experiences and begin to interpret them as divinely sent. Sometimes such people do not, and will never feel a need (other than as a response to social pressure) to believe in any kind of divinity that has a personality or qualities. According to my understanding of what ritual is, that should not be a bar from their participating in most Pagan rituals.

  138. @

    You’ll note that I was very careful to say my rituals are done to please the gods. I don’t concern myself with what others believe or do because it almost always leads to frustration and disappointment. But I am a Dionysian with a very strong devotional focus and so for me the priority is always what is pleasing to the gods I honor. Now, I certainly derive pleasure from doing what is pleasing to those I love — but that’s a side-effect not the point. If I want to do something strictly for my own enjoyment I will just do so. No need to pretend it’s a ritual.

  139. There was no consensus in the ancient world on what paganism meant because it’s a term that was coined by Christians and forced on the diverse populations they encountered. The ancients didn’t use it for themselves, they knew themselves simply as the people, or by their ethnic or civic identities or as members of a cultic community devoted to particular deities. We should always be mindful of that. So much of the frustration evident in contemporary paganism is a direct result of this.

  140. Reread this post for the third time and saw “the stones undertake their own journey.” Which is absolutely true if you are an animist.

  141. I was very careful to speak from my own beliefs and practices. I do not identify as pagan so it doesn’t really matter what the rest of pagandom does. But I’ll tell you this: you cannot be all things to all people, not if you wish to retain any of your coherence and value. Water the wine too much and no one will bother drinking it any more.

  142. You cannot separate belief from action. Intent is an essential component of worship.

  143. You (and a couple others) keep going back to the party/festival thing, and I don’t know where you’re getting it from. I don’t know where this assumption that atheist or not fully theistic Pagans are somehow insincere is coming from. I also don’t see atheist Pagans “dismissing” the Gods– I don’t think people who don’t believe in Gods as literal beings, but do acknowledge their cultural and symbolic worth to the community, their value as an idea(l) as “dismissing the central aspect of Paganism” (and I don’t agree that the Gods inhabit that place for every single expression of Paganism). There was a wonderful discussion on Raven Radio about this, I wish I could recall which podcast it was so that I could go re-listen for the quote. Basically, that the speaker would rather have sincere atheist Heathens who live the values and folkway of Heathenry and venerate their ancestors (because everyone has ancestors, they are indisputably real) than people who 100% believe in the Gods but twist the lore to suit their own purposes/don’t act properly. That show has also put forward the idea that there’s a fair amount of scholarly weight to the idea that the Gods *weren’t* central to our ancestors’ daily lives, that the ancestors and the landvaettir were, and the Gods were honored more by the community than by the individual (I hope I’m restating the argument correctly); that modern Pagans placing the Gods above the ancestors in importance when it comes to personal, individual practice is a modern, Christian-influenced (by way of “buddy Jesus”) thing. That’s only one expression of Paganism, but it seems perfectly fine to situate a sincere, but atheistic, practitioner within it.

    My point is that there’s an enormous amount of ground between mystics who have a lot of experience of the elephant and your idea of party Pagans who don’t give a shit and just show up for the free booze.

  144. What exactly defines a “real” devotional act, in your eyes?

    As for the rituals I’ve attended, I think the proper answer isn’t that they’re “equally atheistic” (btw, I didn’t identify myself as an atheist– I lean toward agnostic theism, actually; I just don’t have much in the way of direct experience of the Gods and have been, more than once, the one in the room squirming uncomfortably when everyone is rapturously describing what they felt in the ritual because I didn’t actually feel what they felt), it’s more that they’d find such a question to be invasive and rude. I don’t question the idea that not all rituals are alike, that there would exist some where some degree of orthodoxy is demanded, but I don’t think that’s *most* Pagan rituals by a long shot.

    The comments to this post surprise me, other online discussions of atheists and Paganism that I’ve read in the past haven’t gone this way, and I’m wondering if the spaces they were held in were substantially different in some way, or if it indicates a shift in Paganism. 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. It’s interesting.

  145. That’s some Olympic-level conclusion-hopping, anon. You went right from the idea of people who don’t believe the Gods are literal beings and/or people who are there for reasons other than the singular reason to honor the Gods to shiftless partiers who don’t work and don’t care. It’s so bizarre I don’t even know how to respond to it. I’ve been, like many if not most people have, a person who has been to many different religious events for many different reasons, ranging from being asked by a friend to come to showing up at a Mass to honor my ancestors (and I don’t think that’s in any way an insincere thing, or asking for applause from anyone–it’s just, it seems improper to me to offer to my ancestors in a Pagan context without acknowledging in any way their sincere Christianity) to a focused, hard-working participant and the person running the ritual/leading the group.

    I happen to think there’s value in both the small, Mystery-focused group model and the congregational model. I also think that different people bring different things to the events they attend, and I don’t happen to think that lack of belief in the Gods as literal beings means the attendee “doesn’t care” and “doesn’t work” and “doesn’t put anything into it”. Like I said, I find hopping immediately to that conclusion to be completely bizarre. Yes, I think we’ve all run into people who show up for the booze or even worse, show up to hit on people. I don’t think Dr. Myers or anyone else on the less-than-complete-theism end of the discussion are talking about those people, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s a convenient straw man for some posters here to knock down.

  146. I mean a real devotional act such as sacrifice or offerings to a particular deity, an act aimed at direct communication with a divine entity, as opposed to, say, the type of pagan ritual that is for instance more seasonal or generally celebratory, and might mention the gods or read a myth aloud but aren’t directed at the gods.

    The difference in this article, for me, was the mention of these humanist pagans participating in ritual with hard polytheists. I don’t care what they believe – I don’t agree, but of course I don’t agree with many different religious views, yet that doesn’t affect me. What potentially affects me is that there may be people calling themselves pagan and participating in pagan rituals (not the common archetypal sort, where it doesn’t really matter because it’s all about people and ideas anyway, but rather the hard polytheist sort) but not actually believing in the entities involved. I do not insist on anyone believing like I do, UNLESS they are going to participate in my religious practice, in which case yes I expect that they will share a basic belief in the existence of the deities we are honoring. Likewise, I respect anyone else’s prerogative to set down boundaries as to what’s acceptable in their sacred space.

  147. Right.

    People should avoid projecting their own emotional and mental limitations as if they were signs of being more intellectually sophisticated. If you have trouble giving yourself over to ecstatic union with the Divine, that is hardly unusual. But if you wear it as a badge of honor that is just stupid.

  148. It is less honest because it is play-acting at religion. At the least Atheist Pagans and Polytheist Pagans and so on have chosen to believe in or not believe in Gods, Goddesses, spirits, etc.

    It is less honest because, as the definition goes: free of deceit, untruthfulness. If the person is professing a belief in the Gods but does not actually hold that belief, then they are not being honest.

    If that is fine with their internal compass, I suppose that is between them and themselves, and the Gods, spirits, etc. they may call on.
    I do not and will not approve of it. My Gods are due more respect than being a flavor of the day, or ‘used’ for a spell.

  149. That is the game I have been playing from the beginning. I can’t help myself, I am something of a pedant.

  150. 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.”

  151. “You (and a couple others) keep going back to the party/festival thing, and I don’t know where you’re getting it from.”


    “they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals,
    and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the
    Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an
    upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not
    exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what
    matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile
    life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations.”

    The way this reads (to me) is that the Humanist/Atheist Pagan likes the scene, but not the substance.

    Someone throws a Blót or Symbel to honour the gods, the point is the honour, not the party. The above statement seems to reverse that point.

  152. So glad I can join the Olympics! If you look in my comment above, I never said the word belief.
    The work I mentioned –
    “Will, attention, motivation, focus, enthusiasm, energy, skill, curiosity, intuition” ..”tools from your mind, you’re supposed to bring to ritual for its success.”You said you “always heard that what matters is what you *do* (-praxy), not what you believe (-doxy) ” Perhaps the Wiccan view cares just what moves the body is making. I don’t know, I’m not that tradition

  153. Well, that was simple enough.

    Personal interpretations often hinge on pre-existing biases.

    I offer apology for presuming you were saying that which you were not.

  154. Awww.. it wasn’t so bad, you didn’t get compared to either Hitler or Evangelicals.. (yet, anyway)
    Have a good one.

  155. I fail to see much of a distinction. (Of course, corporations being atheistic does not mean that all atheism is corporate.)

  156. I do not choose my belief. If I did, I’d go with Atheism. I believe what I cannot disbelieve.

  157. Actually, in fleshing this out and thinking about it, Atheistic Paganism, like Humanistic Paganism, muddies already murky waters. What is Atheistic Paganism supposed to mean when Pagans cannot agree on what the word Pagan means, then adding Atheist before it?

    Is an Atheist Pagan a polytheist? A duotheist? Well, no, if the term applies at all. Maybe pantheist, but this is stretching it.
    Do they believe in spirits at all, that the world is something to be venerated, or just that the Pagan imagery, rituals, etc. are useful as meditation aids, awe in nature, etc.? If they believe the latter, then they are not altogether different, and in fact probably are Humanist Pagan.

  158. I’m confused, why do you want to be a Humanistic Pagan?, can’t you just be a Secular Humanist society?, because, that, at least to me, seems to be what you’re describing.

    Personally, it just seems like an attempt to suck up to the New Atheists, by saying “please don’t make fun of us, we’re just as rational as you are”, by chucking out anything that doesn’t fit into a New Atheist worldview.

  159. Another term I’ve seen for a “humanist pagan” is a “cultural pagan”, someone who finds cultural belonging and a framework by which to engage in life rituals and rites (coming of age, weddings, deaths, seasonal celebrations, etc) without sacrificing or compromising their evidence-based worldview with belief in literal gods, magic, souls, the afterlife, etc.

    What it is decidedly NOT about is “sucking up” to the so-called new atheists (which is a terrible misnomer, as there’s little “new” about it). Even one the most ardent of popular atheists, Richard Dawkins, has been quoted as saying he can still find tremendous value in the act of certain rituals, ie singing Christmas carols and setting up a tree. While he’d most likely never consider himself a humanistic pagan, there are those of us who wish to dig deeper into these cultural traditions of our forebears and celebrate according to our own worldview.

  160. I’m thinking that omnitheist works better for myself. But I am not a huge fan of Greek/Latin terminology, so I guess I could call myself an Ealgodan.

  161. Then I do hope that at some point when the beginning of the school year settles down a bit you give yourself a few moments to reread this article you presented with new eyes, as if you were a theist pagan just reading today’s TWH news.
    We’re not haters, and we have better things to do than to be “out to get you”. we just ask anyone writing about their form of Paganism to write about it with common courtesy.

  162. @LeohtSceadusawol:disqus If I read the OP correctly, you’re reading something in that he didn’t intend– though I admit, it wasn’t clearly written. He said “and subscribe to Pagan moral values”, and by the definitions of Heathenry, living properly by Heathen values pretty well precludes showing up to a Blot for the party– such a person wouldn’t be a good guest, for one thing.

    How I read the OP is basically the idea that the literal existence of the Gods is less important to such a Pagan than living properly by the code of whichever Pagan religion the Humanist subscribes to; that, basically, it matters less whether there’s a Thor to hear the “Hail!” shouted into the void, the hail is doing some very important things on both a community and an individual level that are still plenty worthy regardless of whether Thor is a being or a cultural ideal. Having read some of the OP’s writings (although sadly not his books, as I’m still hoping to see them published in electronic format) and heard some of his podcasts, I’m pretty sure that he’s talking about people who are serious about their Paganism, they just don’t think there are actual beings hearing our rituals.

    (I do, however, wish Dr. Myers hadn’t basically flounced on the discussion and had explained things a bit better in the comments.)

  163. While I’ve got no problem with “Humanist Pagans” being a part of the community and participating in ritual (at least those where their non-belief isn’t at odds with the purpose of the ritual), I feel about the term “Humanist Pagans” kind of like I do about the “political lesbianism” of the 70s. Granted, I wasn’t around in the 70s, but I have an MA in women’s studies, so I’ve read a lot from the time and while I understand the impulse of these women to identify with the strong woman-focus of the lesbian community, I agree with the actual lesbians of the time who complained that straight women appropriating the identity “lesbian” for themselves and taking over lesbian spaces when not willing to engage in genuine lesbianism was frustrating and marginalizing and it ended up being pretty offensive, no matter the good intentions of the women who did it.
    In our current society, “Pagan” refers to a variety of religions that worship the Old Gods in some manner or another. Sure, more than a thousand years ago “pagan” may have just meant “country bumpkin” in its original use, but 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. Someone mentioned even Richard Dawkins likes some aspects of ritual, but he doesn’t call himself a “Humanist Christian” or a “cultural Christian.” He doesn’t believe in any God, so he is an atheist. That’s what atheism means.
    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!

  164. Bearing in mind that not all Wiccans think alike–
    For coven esbats and other small group workings of the Wiccan type, as opposed to larger and more open celebratory rituals, all nine of the mental attributes you list are important to the success of the ritual. Successful magic is psychic and mental; it requires more than going through the motions.

    However, IMHO, the attitude that the Chaos magician described in one of the earlier comments, the “Method acting” “situational,” or “while in the circle, adopt the belief that it’s all true,” will do. Such a mental attitude might not be quite as powerful as absolute, context-independent certainty that the gods being addressed are real, but it is adequate, and not in itself disrespectful or offensive to the gods or to the other human participants.

    If, once the ritual is over, a participant speaks or behaves as if the gods are mere tools for the use of the magician, rather than respected partners in the work, that would be disrespectful from my POV, and also cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Hubris and ego inflation are occupational hazards for humans whose relationships with gods are more than devotional.

  165. Isn’t that a quotation from Shepherd Book, a fictional character created by Joss Whedon, who is an avowed atheist?

    Although, to be fair, President Eisenhower was quoted as saying something similar, at greater length.

  166. “there’s a fair amount of scholarly weight to the idea that the Gods
    *weren’t* central to our ancestors’ daily lives, that the ancestors and
    the landvaettir were, and the Gods were honored more by the community
    than by the individual”

    From the little I know about Roman religion under the Republic, it was like that.

  167. I don’t think this a good metaphor. Maybe if you described it as different cheeseburgers, some with or without ketchup, with or without onions, etc.

  168. I echo the sentiments above. The article is interesting and informative. I’ve been researching “Humanist Pagans” for quite some time. However, this statement is problematic:

    “For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.”

    I understand why it was said and I understand its point. But as written, the statements’ implications are offensive.

  169. I became Pagan because of an epiphanal experience. Ritual was my further pursuit of that revelation. Belief didn’t enter into it.

  170. If you’re going to stretch belief in a deity to include acceptance of an archetype, you’ve gone a tad beyond what most religious folks mean by the term.

  171. “Pagan” can also be a person who follows an Earth-based spiritual path. As Starhawk wrote, “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. She is here. She
    is within us all.” (from __The Spiral Dance__)

  172. Those exact words are, yes, but Whedon was paraphrasing.

    Why, am I not allowed to quote fictional characters? Even if they are inspirational and allow a positive archetype to be achieved?

  173. I agree. But I am not arguing about the nature of belief, merely its existence.

  174. My belief is that my reality is objective, not delusion. Yeah, I have had some epiphanal experiences, too.

  175. People have differing opinions on what is sacred. Not everything considered sacred is considered ‘Pagan’, after all.

  176. I apologised to Dr. Myer for misinterpreting what he wrote already. That was sincere (the only kind of apology I do.)

    Regardless of how important they may feel it is to play along, it still comes across as patronising to those who do believe.

  177. How do you connect with something you do not believe in?

    The quote is pretty much a statement that the existence of ‘the Goddess’ (which one, out of curiosity?) is a fact, not a belief.

  178. This is why I’ve long thought that a better description of paganism would have to include ‘ancestral/tribal religion’ as opposed to just ‘nature/fertility religion’ which, by the way, is a definition that only dates back to 1908.

  179. A great post, Brendan. Thank you for it.

    I’m so pleased that conversations about humanistic/naturalistic/whateveristic Paganism are happening on increasingly larger stages. When my wife and I started “coming out” of the naturalistic Paganism closet five years ago, reactions from fellow Pagans ranged from confused (“Why bother calling yourselves Pagan?”) to hostile (“You’re not real Pagans.”) to, surprisingly, prostheletizing (“You just haven’t found the right gods to worship. Try mine; they’re awesome!”). All of which, alas, I see in the comment thread here.

    But after several years of having these conversations, and of calmly and respectfully but firmly and unapologetically claiming our place at the Pagan table, of explaining to folks what our spirituality is about, why we consider ourselves part of Paganism and what we have to offer it, we’re seeing changing attitudes in our personal communities, sometimes in the least expected places. Folks get it, and they’re welcoming us.

    There is room at the table for us, it we want it–and are willing to keep asking for it with excellent essays like this one.

  180. Some of us actually do “belief work.” We work with our beliefs and know that they are changeable things. Touching a rock and knowing that it is part of the body of the Goddess does not require “belief.” It is a lot like the song: “Hold on loosely.” It’s a flexible state of mind that goes BEYOND “belief.” IF you agree with Dion Fortune’s definition of Magic (Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will), it’s not the BELIEF that counts, but the ability to change consciousness so that the EXPERIENCE OF REALITY also changes. Witches travel the dimensions. I might believe I am travelling on a straight path in one dimension, but in another dimension, I find that I am moving in a circle! If I fix my belief on the straight path, I will miss out on the experience of the circle.

  181. “Touching a rock and knowing that it is part of the body of the Goddess does not require “belief.””
    How does it not?
    Try telling an atheist that the rock you are touching is the body of the Goddess. Hel, trying telling a Heathen that.

  182. It’s not a “belief.” It’s a way of interacting with and relating to “All That Is.” There are many ways of interacting with and relating to “All That Is.” This is the way that brings me the most joy and understanding and love. At least for now. Letting go of “belief” can be truly liberating.
    As Caroline Casey puts it: “The only approach to proscribed knowledge is experimental verification
    for oneself. Jump across the chasm of doubt, land on the side of the
    worldview, and see for yourself whether it works. Aspire to
    be a pragmatic philosopher who is willing to check out anything, as
    long as it is useful. Test every proposition in the fires of actual
    Rest assured, if an Atheist or a Heathen is interested in my experience, I will share it with them. And I will certainly listen and be glad that they share theirs with me.

  183. A common view found among ancient Pagan authors is that “belief in” and/or “knowledge of” the Gods is innate. The philosopher Epicurus (who is often wrongly thought of as some kind of atheist) asserted that “The Gods exist and knowledge of them is self-evident.”

    The Emperor Julian made this point very nicely in his “Against the Galileans”:

    “It is not by teaching but by nature that humanity possesses its knowledge of the Divine, as can be shown by the common yearning for the Divine that exists in everyone everywhere — individuals, communities, nations. Without having it taught us, all of us have come to believe in some sort of Divinity, even though it is difficult for all to know what Divinity truly is and far from easy for those who do know to explain it to the rest.”

    But then how does it happen that some people do not know of the Gods? Sallustius provides an interesting answer to this issue from 1700 years ago:

    “Nor need the fact that rejections of the Gods have taken place in certain parts of the earth and will often take place hereafter, disturb the mind of the wise: both because these things do not affect the Gods, just as we saw that worship did not benefit them; and because the soul, being of middle essence, cannot be always right …. It is not unlikely, too, that the rejection of the Gods is a kind of punishment: we may well believe that those who knew the Gods and neglected them in one life may in another life be deprived of the knowledge of them altogether. Also those who have worshipped their own kings as Gods have deserved as their punishment to lose all knowledge of the Gods.”

  184. I’ve seen Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture live before and I have to say, as far as spiritually enlightening discussions go, this one was one of the best I’d heard. The man spoke to us of the greatest mysteries of existence, of the scope of the galaxies, and our origins as the dust from ancient stars. I was quite pleased to have my mind and spirit blown by him.

    The mysteries are interpreted by many people in many different ways. Not believing in the literal existence of gods does not mean that one cannot have a profound spiritual experience in the natural world.

  185. In the Poetic Edda, we are told that the sons of Ymir made the world from the remains of Ymir. For those that believe that, they will certainly reject the notion that ‘all that is’ is the Goddess.

    I may be simplifying, but I don’t see any release of belief in what you say, other than the belief of belief.

    I am not saying that you are wrong. I am just saying that, without verifiable evidence, most things are a matter of belief.

  186. Come on, everyone knows that the world was created when a bird laid an egg on Väinämöinen’s knee, which broke when he moved and the pieces of the egg made up the earth, sky etc.

  187. Well, I heard the world was created by Maheo from some clay taken from a coot’s beak and is so large it an only be carried by Old Grandmother Turtle.

    Is my point adequately illustrated?

  188. I grew up in an atheist household but we always celebrated Christmas. My mother did not think of it is Christ’s birthday. We never went to church. To her it was about family and children and Santa. It was so sad for her the day we discovered that she was our Santa. As a pagan and Wiccan I still believe in that spirit of Christmas and Santa that she provided to us (Yes and Easter was about the Easter Bunny). I happily celebrate both holidays with no sense of guilt or feeling of hypocrisy. Yule is reserved for the more spiritual celebrations and the time for Them…while Christmas is the time for the Family etc. Cultural backgrounds differ so there is no black and white reason why people practice their faith the way they do,

  189. It seems to me like the definition should include everyone because there clearly aren’t any boundaries which I suppose is nice in the big tent sense but not so nice in the Paganism having some kind of meaning sense.

  190. I did, my practice is faith based and I want how I identify to reflect that. Paganism seems to have become such a broad term as to be utterly meaningless. I’ve called myself that my whole adult life but i’m over it now.

  191. You need to take a basic logic class. I recommend the excellent book that Bren is writing. It is frustrating to debate with someone whose logic does not line up.

  192. Can you explain how it does? I for one do not follow your random leaps of thought. Please demonstrate your argument logically. Thank you.

  193. I have known Bren for decades. He is anything but irresponsible. He is only vague when I have had a bit too much wine and can’t follow his exquisitely constructed argument…. perhaps you share my dilemma? Not sure what Biology has to do with anything, but if if helps I teach that also, plus chem and maths not to mention IT…. oh I teach it in either French or English selon besoin. again, not sure why anyone cares,,,, Sorry this article got your knickers in a twist…. Bren is straight thinking and straight speaking. He is no athiest…. so less of the name calling thanks. I think it must have been an excellent choice… given the large and passionate feedback Be Well..

  194. I have known plenty of Pagans/polytheists who have taken umbrage at the (mis)appropriation of Ancient Pagan festivals by Christianity.

    The term Christmas is pretty explicit, if you ask me. Christ’s Mass.

    It would be like saying that the festival of Litha has nothing to the goddess it is named after.

    By that logic, I could not celebrate Christmas without being a hypocrite. Now, not all people may have that same belief/opinion, and so not all people would be hypocrites, but I still think that people should get their own festivals.

  195. Here is something from the Pagan Federation (The UK’s largest umbrella organisation for Pagans) as a definition:

    “A definition of a Pagan:

    A follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping

    A definition of Paganism:
    A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”

  196. Pan is totally hot. Absolutely. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling sexually attracted to a god-form.

  197. One of the most spiritually enlightening people I went to see was Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I was happily blown away by the amazement and awe at the universe that he had, and that he was able to share with us. You don’t need a literal belief in a god to stand in a religious awe of the natural world. In fact – that’s what I always thought paganism is about.

  198. I’m not sure how accurate is the statement that Humanist Pagans are uninterested in ritual. I consider myself a Humanist Pagan, but ritual is very important to
    me. I may not be representative, I know. But B.T. Newberg’s writing on
    ritual at the Humanistic Paganism blog would seem to contradict Myers’ characterization. See for example, Newberg’s post: “Nontheistic ritual: Is it effective?”.

  199. I step outside and look at the beautiful faces of my gods in nature. I don’t need or want holy texts to define them for me – I can see them for myself just fine with my own eyes. That’s why I fell in love with the Craft in the first place – I don’t need mythology and holy texts to find the sacred – the Sacred is right there, waiting for me, outside my door. I don’t have to “believe,” I just have to look around me – they’re as real as the sun and the moon and the earth, planets and stars because they ARE the sun and the moon, the earth, planets and stars.

  200. Humanistic Paganism not be confused with “cultural Paganism”. “Cultural Pagan”, like “cultural
    Christian”, implies a lack of depth of commitment, someone who (to
    borrow Leoht Sceadusawol’s description in the comments below) likes the scene,
    but not the substance. I for one have a lot of difficulty with the “scene” of contemporary Paganism, while having a lot of love for what I consider the substance.

  201. Humanistic Paganism should not be confused with Secular Humanism.. Humanism can be secular or religious. If
    you read the first Humanist Manifesto (1933) and the second Humanist Manifesto (1973),
    you will notice a strong concern to preserve something called
    “religious” from the dogmatism and authoritarianism of traditional
    religion. Secularism is not the only alternative to theism.

  202. Another thing that concerns me is the conflation of humanism with atheism, especially in the comments. I’ve noticed that “atheistic Pagan” seems more often (though
    not always) to be a term applied by (poly)theists to others rather than
    a self-descriptor. It is almost a term of opprobrium. In any case, it
    should be pointed out here that humanism and atheism they are not
    necessarily the same thing. For a discussion of Humanistic Paganism. As I use the term, atheism means that one is not a theist, and so does not believe in God or the gods as persons.
    (I mean “person” here in the sense in which it is debated whether
    fetuses are persons, and not in the sense of the legal fiction that
    corporations are persons.) Humanism, as I use the term, means that one
    locates the proper justification for human action in the human sphere
    and not in the divine sphere. In other words, one looks to humanity,
    not God or the gods, to define what is good, true, and beautiful. With
    these definitions, it should be clear that a humanist may or may not be
    atheistic, and vice versa, although the two are often found together.

  203. Articles like this need to stop lumping people and their preferences together so easily. Humans are much more complex than that.

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