I kind of don’t want to write the following post…but, a partially sleepless night and a sense that this issue has not only already been relevant to my own devotional life, but may very well be again in the next two months has made me swallow my bile and take a deep breath before diving in.
I have three things in mind as I write the present post, and so perhaps those of you who are reading and wish to follow along should go and read these other posts to be familiar with the thoughts which have given rise to the present.
First, from my Anomalous Thracian colleague, two posts on the matter of hospitality as it applies to polytheism, and perhaps (though he may not have said these exact words, I don’t think he’d disagree with the notion) can even be said to be the essence of polytheism and its ethics and obligations between humans and divine beings.
Second, from Morpheus Ravenna, from a short while back, on ritual theory for polytheists. While you should read the whole thing, one of the most important lines which is written toward the beginning is this one: “How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?” That is an essential question for all polytheists at all times–or, if it isn’t, it probably ought to be.
Third and finally, one post from Rhett Aultman, an atheist pagan, on why he thinks “paganism” is a culture and thus anything related to divinities is pretty much irrelevant to it, thus atheists have just as much “right” to be included amongst pagans as anyone else. (I’m also reminded of another post he did a while back, which I ended up commenting on.)
So, all of that adds up to: what?!?
In my mental algebra, it adds up to what follows after the next three paragraphs.
I want to begin by defining what I mean by “atheist” in what follows. I don’t mean agnostics, nor do I mean non-theists (there are plenty of religions worldwide, as well as varieties of paganism, that simply don’t have dealings with deities–and, that’s fine!); I specifically mean people who actively and purposefully affirm that there is no such thing as a deity, and that there never can, could, should, or has been. Individuals of that sort are certainly free to think this to their own heart’s content, and nothing I say or do should sway them from that viewpoint if it is the one they genuinely hold and wish to hold. That having been said, if any such individuals are reading this and want to argue about the existence of deities in the comments with me, I’ll invite them not to at this point, in as nice a fashion as I am able. (So, there that was.)
I continue here by saying that I know and have met all three of the above named individuals in person, and I like and respect all of them. Two of the three have been in ritual with me. I’ve spent the most in-person, e-mailing, and phone-conversing time with my Thracian colleague, as well as ritual time; I’ve known of Rhett for longer, but we have not communicated much, and have only seen one another in person about three or four times, and only for a few minutes at a time on each go, and when I have seen him, we’ve discussed things like glass arts for the most part. I’ve only had a few direct communications with Morpheus at this point, and have met her twice in person (once for a lovely afternoon and evening, and another time far more briefly), and we have never been in ritual together. I have no problems being acquaintances or friends with anyone, no matter what their theological (or any other!) position happens to be, and I have no plans to change that anytime soon.
But, ritual to the gods and other divine beings is an entirely different matter. And, in my mind, it all comes down to the ethic of hospitality.
Before getting into those particulars, though, a further question emerges. I’m not the only one who has spoken about modern paganism, as well as every form of ancient polytheism and their modern counterparts and continuations, as religions of practice and of experience rather than religions of creed and belief. I see the term “belief” getting used by people within these religions of practice and experience, and outside of certain definitions of the term (which I have never seen given by anyone other than myself), I’ve never heard a qualification of it that I find particularly applicable to polytheism. If we are polytheists who acknowledge (note, not “believe in”!) the reality and existence of our gods, then “belief” becomes irrelevant (outside of a few possible definitions of the term that, again, I’m not seeing used widely), and whether or not someone else likewise acknowledges the reality of the gods we have come to know and experience and interact with, nonetheless we do, and thus the gods are as real to us as the air we breathe, the sunlight we bathe in, the waters we drink and offer, and the joys and sorrows that we encounter in our dances with the gods (as well as those we dance with others) in this world.
To continue using the language of “belief” in relation to such things makes a concession to creedal religions and creedal religious formulations that is not appropriate to polytheists; it’s appropriate to monotheists–who have always had to rely on such formulations to put people in fear and ignorance of a theological construction of a singular deity that cannot be experienced because it does not and cannot exist–and to atheists–who are just as much a creedal religion as monotheists, but in the opposite direction. I would, therefore, exhort all polytheists who are reading this to seriously consider shifting their usages in this regard. “Belief in” anything does nothing, and lack of belief in anything likewise does nothing: believing in something that doesn’t exist will not make it exist, and not believing in something that does exist will not make it cease to exist. Polytheists stand and triumph only on the foundation that their gods do exist, and that is a foundation that we don’t “believe in,” it’s a foundation that we know, in the most basic and primal and powerful Greek gnosis sense of the word. (And if anyone starts in with “Well, that’s the UPG kind of gnosis,” kindly turn your feet one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and begin walking, and as you leave this virtual shrine, we’ll do our best not to slam the door after you lest we seem rude…but don’t be surprised if a few flakes of sea salt sprinkle the back of you as you do so.)
We have held in modern paganism and polytheism that our religions focus on practice and on experience, not on belief. Some individuals, over the last year, have started to use the term “fundamentalist” for a few of us, and they construct us as stringent and insistent on matters of “belief.” Again, I think that usage is entirely incorrect; if anything, we are insistent and stringent on matters of practice–first and foremost, doing something, and doing such “somethings” regularly, for our gods to demonstrate their presence in our lives and to continue growing in relationship to that presence. Likewise, whenever and wherever possible, we should do all we can to prevent anyone from doing things that would offend the deities and show them disrespect.
I think that’s all pretty obvious, isn’t it?
Okay, so herein lies the problem.
Remembering how our Anomalous Thracian colleague constructs the essence of polytheism as an awareness of the mutual obligations of hospitality in relation to the gods–we are both hosted guests and guested hosts at all times in our interactions with them–and then recalling how Morpheus Ravenna discusses doing ritual in a fashion that indicates that the gods really are real and present (or, if in a given ritual they’re not–they’re beings with agency, after all, and thus don’t have to be there, no matter how well the ritual is performed or how fervent those present might be), a very large problem comes up when the question of atheists is introduced…and, it has nothing to do with belief or non-belief.
Imagine you’re hosting a party for a dear friend for their birthday. You invite lots of your own friends, as well as the friends of your natal-day-enjoying dear one (including the ones you don’t like that much, but who they like, because it’s their party and everyone should have a chance to honor your dear friend in ways that your dear friend might appreciate). And then someone contacts you and asks to come to your party, without acknowledging that it is a birthday party for your particular dear friend: they just want to come to “your party,” as if you are the one throwing it and there is no further reason behind it. Not wanting to be rude, you allow them to come, and find out that even though your dear friend who is enjoying their natal day has passed by this other unexpected person many times, but they have refused to acknowledge them. Still, not wanting to be rude, and thinking that this unexpected guest might surprise everyone and be nice to the party’s honorand, the unexpected guest is allowed in. The unexpected guest admires (and eats) the food that has been provided, and even admires the piled-up presents and the music of the hired band and the decorations and all of the colorful and stylish outfits of the other guests, and shares a laugh and a tear in conversation with you and with the other guests as well, but does not once acknowledge the dear friend who is enjoying their natal day. As the night is winding to a close, the unexpected guest comes up to you and says, “Wow! You really know how to throw a good party! I enjoy these tremendously!” Just then, the honorand of the party comes up behind the unexpected guest, and you ask if the guest would like to say hello and congratulations to the honorand, but they reply “Oh, I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ earlier–but come on, that person doesn’t really exist anyway,” and they leave, never having looked at nor spoken to the dear friend of yours whose party it was.
From an ethic–and note, “ethics” are part and parcel of practice–of hospitality, which assumes people not only know how to be good hosts but also good guests, the unexpected guest in the above scenario is certainly not doing a very good job at upholding those ethics, I think you’d all agree. But, as the host and organizer of the party, what about the “you” in the above situation? Do you have any responsibility toward the honorand of the party to make sure that all of those invited, as well as those allowed in, are at least respectful to the honorand? I think most people would agree that, yes, the “you” in the above situation does have such a responsibility.
I don’t know about some of you out there, but I’ve had that happen to me before–and, I don’t mean in rituals, I mean having a party in which people present actively and purposefully ignored me and treated me like I don’t exist. (And it has happened at many other sorts of social occasion as well.) If it hasn’t happened to you, consider yourself lucky, because it really sucks. It sucks even worse if you’re the person being honored.
The gods–whatever else they may or may not be–are persons, and in the polytheist view, they deserve to be treated as such whenever possible.
Now, what does this mean for polytheists who put on devotional rituals for their gods when atheist pagans want to be a part of them? I suppose that depends on the event and the individuals involved.
There is the question of rituals that have nothing to do with deities, at least as some people conduct them: a rite of passage, a spell working, a celebration of some occasion or a communal or natural connection-enhancing ritual, etc. Of course, people will offer these sorts of things, and so I’m sure atheist pagans will love to attend them. The gods can be brought into anything, and most polytheists would agree that bringing the gods into as many things as possible is a big part of our religious outlook. So…
I can only speak for myself here: there is no ritual that I do these days, publicly or privately, that is not a devotional ritual. Devotional rituals are, if you want to be somewhat reductive about it, parties in honor of the gods involved. Offerings of food, hymns, and other things are given to the gods, in their honor. They are adored, worshipped, praised, and blessed, and those doing so do not offer such words and actions “as if” they were there, or with “belief in” their presence, they offer them knowing that if all goes right, the deities involved are at least aware of these praises and offerings, if not actively present and attending directly.
The receptivity of the gods is essential to the operating of any devotional ritual, therefore. If an atheist pagan, who (in their mind) does not acknowledge the reality of the gods, thus wants to be a part of the ritual because they enjoy all of the trappings of it and the spirit of it while not having any interest in the receptivity and reciprocity between the gods and humans involved, then one has to question what the atheist pagan in question is doing other than being a lookie-loo.
If the atheist pagan comes to a ritual and has their own thoughts that are private about the non-existence of the gods the ritual is honoring, and goes through the motions otherwise and is entirely respectful, then only knowledge of their thoughts would allow the person conducting the ritual to potentially exclude them (if they decided to do so). However, a larger question would yet remain (from my viewpoint, at least), namely: how honest is it to be conducting oneself in that fashion, and for what gain would it afford one to do so? Those are questions for the atheist pagans concerned to answer, of course.
I will answer myself, though, on why I think that as someone organizing and offering a ritual as a polytheist might find it useful to allow an atheist pagan who is silent about their thoughts but is respectful in their actions into a ritual. As we are religions not only of practice but also of experience (and experience both leads to more and more refined practices, and likewise is the result of properly executed practice), perhaps it is possible that by going through these motions, on this occasion, an experience may follow for that particular atheist pagan which may end up shifting their identification. If it doesn’t, it’s no better or worse for them; if it does, it’s better for everyone. There is certainly no compulsion to have one set of thoughts or another toward any of the deities or other types of divine being, nor to have certain types of experience in relation to them; but I personally think it is useful, enlivening, enlightening, and enticing to pursue those experiences further.
It is not my business (nor anyone else’s) to have any interest in whether or not one wishes to pursue such experiences, generally speaking. If one decides to come to one of my rituals, though, then they have involved me in that question, and thus it behooves me to consider the above matters.
I’m sure there are further directions in which this discussion could go, but I have made most of the points I had intended to above about as clear as I can at the present time. I’d be interested in hearing further thoughts from whomever would care to comment below, most certainly.