Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

Earlier this week
I was down visiting Pagan friends in the Bay Area.  Our conversation 
ranged over a lot of topics, as it always does.  This time we ended up discussing a
discovery that had surprised a close friend when he discovered it.  It surprised me as well when he
told me the story.  That surprise
was there were a significant number of Pagans who describe themselves as atheists.


I have long
argued that a great many Pagans are not bothered by the old question so common
in Christian theology: proving that God exists.  We have frequent encounters with our Gods. My own personal
judgment as to whether a NeoPagan tradition is worth while or not is: do the
Gods come?  If they do, good.  If they do not, look elsewhere.

Now it seems that
many of us do not, but do not look elsewhere. 

This came as a
surprise to both of us.  We are
Pagans not because of philosophical conviction or being impressed by the
extraordinary spiritual qualities of individual Pagans, but because we had
personally encountered Pagan deities in Pagan rituals.  Or at least that is so for me, and I
think him.  My own first coherent
thought after the Goddess manifested at a Midsummer ritual I had been invited
to was “Here’s a religion where they ask their God to come, and she does!”

But many Pagans
describe themselves as atheists, which at a minimum means they never had an
experience like mine.

What is atheism? 

Atheism can mean
many things, depending on the atheist. 
It can be a denial that a all powerful deity with a personality, like
the Biblical God, exists.  In that
case I suspect ALL Pagans are atheists. I am.

But it can also
mean that there is no “supernatural” at all.  Here it gets tricky, for what is “natural and what does
“natural” mean?  If deity is
immanent there is no supernatural because there are simply various dimensions
to what is real.  Or by natural
perhaps all that is meant is what is encompassed by “scientific laws” that
cannot be impacted by mind in any sense.

As we discussed
this intriguing discovery of there being many Pagan atheists, it seemed that
what atheist Pagans meant in their self-description was one of two things.  First, that what we encountered in
ritual were really impersonal forces not conscious beings.  Or second, that the terms “Goddess” and
“God” were metaphors for describing qualities we perceived in nature that we
were convinced amounted to more than individual subjectivity.  There are also some atheists within the
Pagan community – on its margins, really, who sound like Richard Dawkins.  This third category I will ignore
because I do not find it very interesting.

But what of the
other two kinds of atheists?

Possession

I wonder how much
Pagan atheism comes from the fact that so many of our traditions are not
“possessory”?  When the God
suddenly appears in your mind, and even takes over your words, it is quite the
encounter, one that is hard to describe to someone for whom it has not
happened.  When your feet begin to
dance to the beat of drums and you are not doing it, as happens to me in certain African Diasporic
traditions, I
know I have
“company.”

But that kind of
experience did not account for my encounters with the Goddess. She was always
external to me.  Why did She come
to me and to some others, but not to all Pagans? I simply do not know.

Does that make
Pagans to whom She or other deities have not come in any serious sense lacking?  Well, they lack that experience.  But is there more involved?

Perhaps not.

Pantheism

I think the core
insight we all share, whether we be atheistic or theistic Pagans, is that this
world is a sacred place, a place of intrinsic value.  Nature’s value, and the value of what lives around and bout
us, are not simply an ‘add-ons’ emerging from our own subjectivity, simply a
product of our own minds.  Rather
we recognize something that exists independently of us, and brings forth our
respect, awe, love and fulfillment. Something that can give meaning and depth
to our lives.

This kind of
Paganism does not require encountering actual deities to be genuine, heartfelt,
and admirable.  Atheistic Pagans
with this perspective have a strength and integrity and ability to open
themselves up more fully to non-logocentric perception those of us who have
encountered deities do not need. (And may not have.  I long felt this about the natural world but was too
entrapped in the modern scientific mentality to allow it room in any but the
most private recesses of my soul until I
encountered the Goddess.  These
folks are in better touch with reality than I was.) 

These Pagans have
the confidence and discernment to know that value is real, beauty is real, and
the worth of the world is real and sacred regardless of human attitudes.  These qualities bring forth our
devotion.  Despite my different experiences,
I think this is not “inferior” in spiritual quality to my own.  ‘Spiritual’ as I use the term is a
quality of consciousness, not whether one sees auras, channels deities, can sit
in a full lotus, or any other quality that can be described as outside
ourselves and happening to us.

This kind of
Paganism is pantheistic, and I think may shade off into that fascination and
love of the natural world that motivates so many scientists.  Pantheistic Pagans differ from this
attitude common within the scientific community in that they turn their
perceptions into poetry, using ritual and myth to take our understanding to
places words alone cannot go.

I wonder whether
any of my readers would describe themselves as “atheist Pagans” and if so,
whether my description of them seems fair or lacking?  And, of course, anyone else is welcome to chip in.  This is a fascinating and recently
discovered issue for me.