Atheist Pagans? Yes, We Exist! “‘Atheist Pagan’ is a contradiction in terms.” Maybe you have heard this before. Maybe you have even said it. Or maybe you are an Atheist Pagan and you’ve kept it a secret because you thought you were the only one. The truth is that Atheist Pagans exist. And we are a growing and vibrant community within true larger Pagan Umbrella. Atheist Pagans are Pagans who do not believe in the literal existence of personal gods. But beyond that definition, Atheist Pagan may refer to a variety of theological orientations. For some Atheist Pagans, the gods play no role in their spiritually at all. For others, the gods are seen as mere metaphors. For others, they are numinous archetypes. And some Atheist Pagans are pantheists. Some Atheist Pagans believe in magic; others do not. Most Atheist Pagans share a love of Pagan ritual and myth. The term ‘Atheist Pagan’ overlaps somewhat with two other terms: ‘Humanistic Pagan’ and ‘Naturalistic Pagan’. Humanistic Paganism Humanistic Paganism is a form of Religious or Spiritual Humanism. Religious Humanism can describe any religion that takes a human-centered ethical perspective, in contrast to a deity-centered ethical perspective. A humanistic ethic is one defines the good in terms of human experience, not the will of any God or gods. Humanism adds to atheism a positive ethical component. Not only do Humanistic Pagans not look to the gods to solve our problems, but they also recognize our human responsibility to solve those problems. Even if the gods did exist, a Humanistic Pagan would say that we cannot know their will, and so we must base on our actions on what we human beings know — our own experience. For Humanistic Pagans, human experience and reason provide a more than sufficient basis for ethical action without supernatural revelation. In fact, some Humanistic Pagans argue that humanistic religion may be more ethical than theistic religion, since the will of inscrutable gods cannot be appealed to to justify actions that cause suffering. The term “Humanistic Pagan” is somewhat problematic, since it seems to exclude the more-than-human world, including animals, plants, and the earth itself. But the term “humanistic” should not be confused with “anthropocentric”. Humanistic Pagans embrace the notion that we humans are part of a much larger community of beings to whom we have ethical obligations. The adjective “humanistic” is intended to contrast with “theistic”; it excludes gods, but not other living beings. Naturalistic Paganism Naturalistic Paganism is a form of Religious or Spiritual Naturalism. The word “naturalistic” refers to a commitment to philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism seeks to explain the universe without resort to supernatural causes. Just as Humanistic Pagans believe that human experience and reason are sufficient basis for ethical action, so Naturalistic Pagans believe that the scientific understanding of the material universe is a sufficient basis for the awe and reverence which motivate religious worship. Naturalistic Pagans experience a profound and abiding sense of wonder and reverence when considering the process by which the universe and biological life evolved, what is sometimes called the “Epic of Evolution”. This sense of wonder, both at what we know and what we don’t know of the the natural world, deserves to be called “spiritual” and “religious”. The name “Naturalistic Paganism” also can creates some confusion. Since many consider Paganism to be a nature religion or an earth-centered religion, the term “Naturalistic Paganism” may seem redundant. For most Naturalistic Pagans, “naturalistic” means more than respect for nature. It is more or less synonymous with “scientific”. In general, Naturalistic Pagans adopt the most current scientific explanations of natural phenomena and are skeptical of any claims that are not supported by mainstream science. Thus, Naturalistic Pagans are skeptical about things like magic, psychic abilities, communication with spirit entities, attributing intention to inanimate nature, etc. — beliefs that are common among other Pagans. Naturalistic Pagans tend to be skeptical of claims that have yet to be proven by science, while other Pagans tend to be more skeptical of science — or at least skeptical of the reach of scientific competency. While many Pagans take a “proceed until proven wrong” approach to things like magic and the gods, Naturalistic Pagans tend to take more of a “wait and see” approach. Many Pagan will practice magic or invoke gods until they are convinced that these things do not exist, but many Naturalistic Pagan avoid these things until they are first proven to exist. To the extent that Naturalistic Pagans speak about “magic” or “gods”, they tend to use these words differently than many other Pagans. For example, Naturalistic Pagans may understand “magic” as a kind of psychological technique. And they may understand “gods” as metaphors for natural phenomena, as psychological archetypes, or as symbols for all that is beyond human control. For example, a Naturalistic Pagan may offer a prayer to the Egyptian god Ra or the Greek god Prometheus, seeing them, not as literal personalities, but as metaphors for the life-sustaining power of the Sun for the human drive to discover. But why Paganism? You may be wondering why an atheist would be interested in Paganism. Some atheists find that humanism and naturalistic science, while intellectually compelling, are emotionally or psychologically unfulfilling. Humanism and naturalistic science lack the symbolic resources of theistic religions. Paganism, with its rich symbolic repertoire, is well-suited to fill that void. Humanism, philosophical naturalism, and paganism actually have a shared history, spanning centuries. Both humanism and naturalistic science flowered in Classical Greece, for example. Some ancient pagans, like the Stoics and Plutrarch, understood their myths of gods as allegories for nature. While humanism and naturalistic science declined through the Christian Middle Ages, they enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance, which also saw a renewal of Pagan imagery and symbolism. Today, the spiritual practices of Atheist Pagans are inspired by the religions of ancient pagans, but blended with contemporary humanist values and scientific knowledge. Atheist Pagans do not seek to reconstruct the ways of ancient pagans, but instead draw inspiration from their myths and their rituals to create a religion that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to modern people. While Atheist Pagans are skeptical of the existence of deities or the efficacy of magic, they do find evidence for the capacity of myth and ritual to affect human psychology. Myth and ritual have the power to shape human minds, and thereby to cause change in the world through human hands. Atheist Pagans find that naturalistic science and Paganism complement each other. Naturalistic science can keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism can enrich naturalistic science with symbolism and ritual. Atheist Pagans in the Circle Contemporary Paganism has always included a wide array of beliefs. In contrast to the Abrahamic religions, there has never been a test of belief imposed for participation in Paganism. Atheist Pagans can easily practice alongside other kinds of Pagans, including theistic Pagans. In fact, the religious practices of some Atheist Pagans may be outwardly indistinguishable from those of other Pagans. Some may even use theistic symbolism in ritual, while others do not. Many observe some form of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. If you have participated in public Pagan events, it is likely that you have circled with an Atheist Pagan before. Ritual is an essential part of many Atheist Pagans’ religious practice. Through ritual, Atheist Pagans seek to express their sense of wonder and reverence at the universe and to connect on a deeper level with that process of life. The ritual enactment of myth helps to transform our understanding of the natural world into a religious experience. Some Atheist Pagans may invoke deities, spirits, or ancestors as part of their rituals, but these are usually understood in poetic, allegorical, or psychological terms. This is not the same thing as play-acting, though. Atheist Pagans approach ritual with a sincere and reverent attitude. Ritual is known to have many psychological and social benefits, which are not affected by the absence of belief in supernatural gods, including: facilitation of group cohesion and cooperation management of anxiety cultivation of a sense of meaningfulness fostering personal healing and transformation developing a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves deepening our awareness of our interconnectedness with the natural world and motivating socially and environmentally responsible behavior. You might wonder why Atheist Pagans would participate in Pagan ritual if they do not believe in gods. But there are other things than gods that can be understood as transcending ourselves, including the natural world, the cosmos, the human community, the wider community of life, and our own deeper selves. These transcendents or “immensities” (to borrow Brendan Myers’ term, share several common characteristics: they are greater than us in both degree and kind we participate in them even as they transcend us they manifest not as problems that can be solved, but as mysteries to be accepted and integrated and there is no avoiding or escaping them, since they are part of the human condition. Atheists Pagans and God-Talk To make matters more confusing, some Atheist Pagans may use theistic language in ritual. Some feel that we should “say what we mean” and avoid theistic language altogether. However, other Humanistic Pagans feel that to surrender all theistic language to literalist demands is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Both the heart and the head need to be satisfied. In religion, the evocative power of language is at least as important, if not more, than semantic precision. As B. T. Newberg explains: “The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be. This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire. The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect. At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior. They radiate the power to transform.” Some Atheist Pagans have found that use of theistic language in a ritual context is more productive of certain kinds of religious experience than non-theistic language. For one thing, the words “god” and “gods” are embedded in a complex web of cultural associations. Such language is laden with emotional resonance and has unique potential to evoke powerful emotions of a special character. Because the word “god” lacks an objective referent for Atheist Pagans, it is like a container that can be filled with many different meanings. Whatever goes in the container takes on the qualities associated with the word, including a sense of sacredness and moral power. In addition, much of theistic language is also anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphic language can be useful to Atheist Pagans, because it stimulates different parts of the brain than non-anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic language tends to activate the regions of the brain associated with sociality and relationship, in contrast to the part of the brain that processes objects and abstractions. This is why we have a different experience in response to words like “God” or “Goddess” than we do to more abstract or impersonal words like “Being” or “Nature”. For example, we experience “Goddess” as a “Thou” rather than an “it” (to use Martin Buber’s terms) -- even when we are using the word to mean something impersonal like nature. As a result, we become open to a kind of relationship with nature that would have been impossible had we used more objective (or objectifying) language, and we become more susceptible to the life-transforming religious experiences that flow from that relationship. How to get started Check out what other Atheist Pagans are doing. The websites HumanisticPaganism.com and Atheopaganism.wordpress.com are excellent resources. Learn about the world around you. There are many scientific resources, which you can draw upon for this, starting with the internet. Learn about the science of religion. Much has been written recently about the both positive and negative roles that religion play in our psychology and in society. Spend time in nature. Use all of your senses. There is no substitute for direct experience of nature. Cultivate a sense of wonder at the universe and our place within it, from the most distant star to the smallest particles to the depths of human psychology. Read and meditate upon ancient pagan myths, as well a contemporary Neo-Pagan myths. Join in rituals of other Neo-Pagans, even if they use theistic language or imagery. Or create your own rituals. Apply the scientific method to your religious practice: Experiment. Accept responsibility for your actions, especially for your impact on the environment, and embrace your responsibility to make the world a better place. About the Author John Halstead (aka “Johnny Humanist”) is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org.