The apparent paradox of Pagan
atheism has prompted me to do a lot more thinking about atheism than I ever
have before. In the process I
picked up a copy of the British philosophical journal Philosophy Now, which had a fascinating article on “Varieties of Atheist Experience” by Paul
It turns out that atheism is a
complex term with a number of reasonable meanings beyond the dogmatic
assertions that modern reductionist science knows all we need to know to answer
the fundamental questions of life and consciousness. I recommend the dogmatists
take a look. They may well be
appropriating a complex word to express a simple thought, just as the anything
but skeptical people today do who misleadingly call themselves “skeptics.”
The rest of us would benefit as
well. Here I will focus on only a
couple of alternative meanings.
To be an atheist does not
necessarily deny the existence of what we term today “paranormal phenomena” nor
does it necessarily deny the existence of a kind of impersonal pantheistic
unity to the universe. Both questions
are logically and practically separate from whether Gods exist, whether
personal or impersonal. And both questions are highly relevant to the question
of “Pagan atheism.”
A Personal Admission
I practice Pagan spirituality
towards its shamanic end rather than towards its celebratory end, if I can make
that distinction. Wicca tends to
be celebratory, but some traditions, the Gardnerian among them, also have a
I have had a number of encounters
with deities and spirits that have convinced me it is more reasonable for me to
believe they exist than that they do not.
But I am equally certain that absent such encounters, in my
judgment there is no very good reason to believe they do exist beyond taking
other people’s word for it. And
that latter strategy has obvious risks. Why some of us have such encounters and some do not is a mystery to me, but I am pretty certain it is not a sign of ‘spiritual development.’
I will soon have a post up on these
phenomena, but I mention them now so readers can see where I am coming from. I am seeking to understand
sympathetically a position I personally do not hold. I think I succeed, but my readers, particularly Pagan
atheists, can be the judge.
Atheism in Science
A great many scientists, including
many of the most important, have described their sense of wonder and awe at the
beauty and magnificence of the universe.
They do not describe themselves as religious in any conventional sense,
and can reasonably be termed atheistic.
But in a Pagan way.
Why? Because they perceive
the universe as intrinsically possessing qualities worthy of their awe/. I will pick one: beauty.
The garden variety Dawkinsesque
atheist would agree with the French scientist Jacques Monod that we live in a world of “icy solitude” and “If he accepts this message in
its full significance, man must awaken from his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his
fundamental isolation. He must
realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world that is
deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings
or his crimes.”
A sense of isolation and estrangement is captured by the terms
“icy” and “alien.”
This is quite a different attitude from the atheistic attitude I
am describing where the universe in its beauty and other qualities fulfills a
scientist’s purpose and life in exploring its wonders. As an example of this view, consider
Albert Einstein, who observed
The most beautiful thing we can
experience is the mysterious. It
is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer
pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are
closed. This insight into the
mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is imprenetrable to us
really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant
beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive
forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense and in this sense only, I
belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and
punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own
– a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I
believe that the indifvidual survives the death of the body, although feeble
souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism.
It is enough for me to contemplate the
mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect
upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and
to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesmal part of the intelligence
manifested in nature.
Einstein is describing a universe with admirable qualities
independent of our capacity to see them whereas Monod’s universe has no
qualities that require a reference to consciousness to exist. No beauty, no color, no nothing. Every quality every ethic is a human
creation and so ultimately rooted in our meaningless existence, and so itself
meaningless. To get a clear
example of the difference, imagine you are driving in the mountains and as your
car rounds a bend you see a rainbow stretched across the sky. Do you immediately experience a sense
of discovery of beauty that was there even before you discovered it? Or do you congratulate yourself that
the human mind can create beauty from the meaningless interaction of sun, rain,
and the diffraction of light? Most
of us do the former, not the latter.
Such a world is worthy of devotion and admiration. It is not alien, it is home. We do not need to feel we are the
center of creation in order to feel at home in it, and be glad we are. A Pagan atheist could resonate deeply
with Einstein’s views. Indeed I
do, and I am no atheist. But I
seriously doubt that a Pagan atheist would resonate to Monod’s description of
the world as an alien place into which we are thrown to pointlessly seek our
various purposes before disappearing forever into a meaningless void.
Since, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson demonstrate, we think metaphorically and through and with the qualities
of embodiment it is natural to honor this wonderful world in terms connected with the kinds
of beings that we are: through song and ritual and dance, through
“anthropomorphizing” the qualities we experience as most basic to our world,
such as gender, the stages of life, and the qualities of matter. We create a poem of celebration and
call it our religion. It is
anything but alien. It celebrate where we live and who we are at the most
I think all religions are of this character, and as such they are
reactions and creations in response to the meaning and beauty Einstein
described, translated through cultures and times and individual
experiences. In sharp contrast to
the Dawkinesque/Harris view I consider religions one of humanity’s most
profoundly beautiful and human creations.
They are easily perverted, but let us not equate the entire body with
its sometimes disease wracked form.
In the modern world many of us have turned our view from the
transcendent conceptions of deity that describe a deity who does not speak to
us and whose followers often seem more to be benighted orcs in service to
Sauron than people in touch with what is highest in the world. We have seen the beauty around us and
for many it is enough. This
sensibility is extremely open to Pagan ways of celebration and acknowledgement.
I think our understanding of atheism has been twisted by equating
the spiritual only with the transcendent.
Even Monod’s atheism, as I read him, is a view of transcendent rational
objectivity imposing its visions on the raw material of an alien universe. As soon as we shift our attention to
the immanent, the qualities in the world, the view of spirit and value changes.
I think today we are seeing a kind of continuum from scientists
who share a perspective akin to Einstein’s through people such as Pagan
atheists and on to Pagan theists. Indeed,
a friend of mine was a Pagan representative at the Parliament of World
Religions held not long ago in Australia.
While there NeoPagans, indigenous peoples, and others took some time to
do a ritual together. There were
some scientists present at the Parliament as observers. They asked this group as to whether
they could join in, explaining they were not religious themselves, but felt
more at home with the NeoPagans and indigenous Pagans than with any other group
there. They were welcomed.
If our civilization has a future worthy of admiration I suspect
this developing honoring of the world in which we live will play a powerful
role in it.