I have decided not to make a formal response to the atheist question beyond my little meditation on the ship of Theseus and this present wrap-up. Others have already said plenty in response to a certain guest editorial that kicked off this latest tempest in a teapot.
We begin with a piece by Ruadhán J McElroy entitled Q: What is paganism? A: Absolutely nothing. It discusses the difficulty of finding common ground on the definition of pagan, let alone anything else:
“But what about the pagan community?” Hell if I know…. Most of them, in my experiences, really don’t get along with each-other on even the most basic levels, but still put up with each-other because we’re all simply “not of an Abrahamic religion”, except the handful of us who are. Sometimes I think we’re vaguely united by social and political interests, and then some Fucko into Nazi Mysticiam, or Robin Artisson, has to take out his dirty clown cock, and shatter that illusion I’ve put up for myself. I’ve met an appalling number of Libertarians, some of whom desperately cling to the Republican label in spite of all the Dominionists ruining that train, in the reconstructionist movements, but then it’s not like I’ve ever been a “pure Marxist”, more of a liberal Socialist, so I’m really not surprised.
Finnchuill directly responds to Mr. Myers’s diatribe:
Recently I’d been reading the Humanist Pagan blog and some of the interviews therein, including with Brendan Myers. There is much I can admire in their perspectives, even as a mystic. Then came the blog post by Dr. Myers at the Wild Hunt, which generated a lot of responses. I wondered what is left when you remove the sacred and ritual, but I was particularly troubled by this statement: “Humanist paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain (sic), and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.” I read this as referring to the present, and of course its suggestion that reconstructionist or Wiccan circles lack in the above traits is patently absurd. It has led me to think more carefully about the concept of humanist paganism, and unpacking some of its problematic assumptions (Note: this is based on Dr. Myers’ formulations; I realize there are other viewpoints among HPs).
Although I highlighted P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ contribution in my last wrap-up it deserves another read for wisdom such as this:
There’s nothing wrong with humanistic paganism, but humanist pagans do not have the monopoly on intellect, on critical thinking, or on being fans of science and nature in addition to other things. (I’ve talked about Neil DeGrasse Tyson here before; but I am not certain that Meyers realizes that Bill Nye the Science Guy is just as much a comedian as a scientist, if not more so on some occasions…but, being from the Seattle area, I know that more than most people might, since I was a longtime fan of Almost Live and knew him just as much as Speed-Walker as “the Science Guy.”) It’s perfectly possible to be a polytheist, to think that the gods are real and to treat them as such (even if one acknowledges that our experiences of the gods come through the medium of our minds and senses–which is not to say that they’re therefore “all in our heads”!), and to have experiences that are “woo-ey” while still being someone who looks at the physical processes of the universe as explained by science and has wonder and awe for them as equally as one has a solid intellectual understanding of them.
Lupus later followed up the piece with this reflection on the differences between theology and philosophy which is quite pertinent to the debate:
There is a way, I think, particularly since the Enlightenment and afterwards, that philosophy became abstracted from being an adjunct to theology, and has become more of an end-unto-itself than something which is realized in practical application a good deal of the time. (No, that’s not a blanket statement, only a general trend I’ve observed.) Philosophical discourse sometimes appears to engage with itself, and is accountable to nothing else but itself, which can lead to some undesirable excesses.
Sarenth jumps into the fray with a useful teacup:
Boundaries are useful. They mark out what is, what is not; what belongs, what does not belong. Boundaries are, by their nature, discriminatory. We do not want to live alongside bugs, animals, and other parts of our natural world, so we make houses. If we lack the means or if we want to, we live in nature. Utgarð, Innangarð. There can be places between these boundaries, but sometimes there is a simple in/out binary that exists. I would say there are few of these, but they exist. I wish Pagans were more respectful of boundaries.
Galina nails it on the head with her rebuttal of Myers:
Most disturbing, I find, throughout the article is the blanket conflation of any spiritual engagement with ‘woo.’ I see this in Heathenry a lot, usually from people who want to erase spirituality from the Heathen equation. There is a trend, a push to make those normative aspects of any healthy spirituality: prayer, meditation, devotional work something that is largely relegated to the fringes of the community or only to specialists, people like shamans, spiritworkers, or maybe priests whose job it is to engage with the Powers. Personally, not only is this a spiritual cop-out on the part of the community, but it’s also devastating to the growth of the religion itself. Why bother practicing a religion if one is going to remove all the religious aspects from it? Go and join a LARP, or maybe the SCA instead.
Kaye responds to the lack of definition and cohesion within Paganism by formulating a fairly decent definition of Hellenism:
Hellenism stands for something. We’re not entirely sure what, and we do disagree about some of the particulars, but it generally comes down to several different ideas.
* We worship the gods of Ancient Greece through prayer and sacrifice.
* We disavow a connection with Christianity and Jesus.
* We link ourselves intellectually and through historically-based practice to the Ancient Greek world. Our practice may derive from historically Greek areas or from Hellenized parts of the Ancient Mediterranean.
Although written some weeks prior, I think Star Foster’s piece on the centrality of polytheism to Paganism deserves to be read again with this conflict in mind:
That is why polytheism is important. It will always be important to our communities, and it will become more vital and central as we grow. We may not like that, but it is true. I’m not certain I like it. Any practice you undertake or philosophy you espouse will make you welcome in the New Age movement or among the liberal, progressive branches of Abrahamic religions. Polytheism makes you distinct. Makes our communities distinct. It’s all we own
Even more relevant is this rant of hers from back in June entitled When “Pagan” Loses Meaning: Atheists and Theists:
I was angry this morning. I read M.J. Lee’s post over on Humanistic Paganism and I found myself really pissed. It cheesed my grits. It got my goat. And then I thought “Why are you pissed Star? This isn’t even your religion she’s talking about.” That thought caught me by surprise. I have never before thought that way about another person who considers themselves Pagan. A different tradition, yes. Different nuances, different culture, different emphasis, but always with the same threads running through them. Always some element of commonality. Lee and I aren’t of the same religion though, on any level. She’s an environmental atheist, and I am a devotional polytheist. The only thing that connects us is this word: Pagan.
Siegfried Goodfellow believes that atheists have a role to play in the Pagan community — as clown-skeptics:
Every faith needs its clown-skeptics. Of this I am certain. They must be welcome, and welcomed in, within certain bounds of hospitality, if they can observe those guest-host relations. Odin welcomed in Loki for a time, when he was more the jester than he was the saboteur. That changed in time, and as he wore out his welcome with his ill, he was ousted ; but for the time that he did serve, even his brand of capricious mischief was given place to serve. That is what good is all about, after all : not namby-pamby goody-two-shoe-ism, but finding a place where everything can contribute. That takes work, skill, and vision, because some things it is difficult to find the angle where they can really serve, but to do good in the world is not to primarily enter in as a moralistic judge, but to find ways to turn even poison into medicine, where it can be made to serve. In this regard, atheists keep us on our toes, and represent the skeptics the religious need to ensure that their spirituality does not degenerate down that long, historically-established and all-too-prevalent road of becoming mind control, delusion-serving, politically pacifying drek.
Katherine de la Haye asks some important questions, such as:
Do pagans want dogma, and a Pope to enforce it – or is it better to keep things decentralized, loose, flexible?
Sometimes I think the pagan world seems to be struggling between “no dogma!” vs “…unless it’s dogma we approve of!”
John Beckett believes that we must remain civil in these debates:
I want those people in our big Pagan tent singing “We All Come From the Goddess” and not driven away to New Atheism where they’ll accuse us of believing garbage and enabling fundamentalists.
Fellow Pagans, grow up. Stop assuming bad will where none exists. Stop assuming everyone who doesn’t affirm your beliefs is insulting you. Practice long enough and seriously enough that you stop caring what anyone thinks about what you believe and do.
John Halstead has much to say about the continuum of beliefs within Paganism and what non-theists get out of participating in ritual:
I for one do not pretend when I participate in ritual. My (Humanist) Paganism is not a “consciously accepted system of make-believe.” I do not believe in the gods the way that many polytheists do, but neither do I pretend that I believe in them when I participate in ritual. I think Eric and Leoht’s comments are based on a false dichotomy, or else a very narrow definition of what Pagan ritual is. I am realizing in writing this that strict atheism and literal theism are two ends of a long spectrum, and my own beliefs and practices fall at different places along that spectrum.
There is quite a bit more discussion going on out there. Just do a Google blog search for “atheist pagan” or “agnostic pagan” or “humanist pagan” and you’ll see what I mean.