I have put the present post off for several weeks now, but I think I actually have the time and the mental clarity to write it now. (There are two other, longer posts that I have been planning to write as well on topics that are likely not to make certain groups of people, or even particular individuals, happy, and I suspect I’ll get to those other two over the next few days, and by the end of this week.)
As a prefatory note to the present post, and to those ones which will follow, the present blog occurs within an online shrine to one of my most important gods, Antinous: that’s what Aedicula means. Thus, it is expected that those who interact here will do so in ways that are respectful. Conversations and questions and such are fine; derogatory comments, trolling, and other such things are not, and will be deleted. This is all the warning on this that I should need to give.
Dear me–I’m writing “open letters” now. I feel like Sinéad O’Connor writing to Miley Cyrus…so, if that comparison flatters you, fair enough!
The present post is, in certain respects, an attempt at a more clear-headed elaboration on another post I did last month, which itself was a response to this. Another polytheist colleague wrote this post, which had some of the most appalling and inexcusable comments I’ve seen in a long time on it; but, they got me thinking about a variety of matters.
Then, the following post was made at The Wild Hunt on atheist appropriations of Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and other matters, and the present post seemed all the more relevant and urgent.
I assume, because of the claims that many atheists make, that you are open to reasoned discussion, and are on the whole an intelligent lot of people. I go into the present excursus not expecting to “convert” any of you away from your own positions in regards to theological matters; I merely write the present hoping that you might come away from it more informed, and thus more likely to make better-informed decisions on certain matters in the future.
Let me begin by telling you that I find many atheists, and many atheist opinions on a variety of matters, not only convincing but entirely correct; and, you will find many modern pagans and polytheists share these same thoughts as well.
The critiques of institutional monotheistic religions that atheists have voiced are ones I agree with entirely; the inconsistencies of creedal monotheistic theology and their multiple logical fallacies are spot-on as far as I’m concerned. The importance and relevance of our current scientific understanding of matters like evolution (which is “theoretical” only in a poor, colloquial understanding of the term), geology, astronomy, physics, biology, and genetics cannot be understated, and in itself each of these fields of scientific endeavor inspires wonder at the diversity and beauty to be found in the universe as we can currently perceive it and comment upon it.
I completely and utterly agree that in order for a democratic society to be free and to foster liberty and equality for all, that it must observe a strict and no-strings-attached policty of separation of church and state. I am in no wise interested in a theocratic government of any sort, nor am I interested in any moves to give creedal religions any sort of favor by local or national goverments, nor to enact laws that are based on creedal religious morals that are not shared with some religions, nor with the best understandings of science or of secular human values.
Socially, you’ll find that most pagans and polytheists, though they may range across the political spectrum, are at least socially liberal, and are in favor of things like LGBTQIA equality, are pro-choice and pro-birth control, have a concern for the environment and conservation, and a variety of similar ideas that are considered more liberal and which are often opposed by the institutional creedal monotheistic religions.
There are many self-identified atheists whose work as actors and comedians I enjoy immensely, including Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Eddie Izzard, and Stephen Fry. I respect the work of some of the major atheist thinkers and spokespersons of recent years, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. And, who doesn’t enjoy a good lecture by Neil DeGrasse Tyson? ;)
I also fully understand that atheists are a sometimes persecuted and often misunderstood minority within a group of overcultures that are still predominately creedal monotheistic in their religious outlooks, and as a result some tactics resorted to and positions adopted might not look as traditionally “respectable” as the common social mores of the overculture might prefer. Indeed, this is an aspect of your experiences that is shared between other marginalized groups, including queer people and modern pagans and polytheists.
But, in a variety of other areas of life, of interests, of activities, and of values, I suspect that you as atheists and myself, as well as many of my modern pagan and polytheist colleagues, could not possibly diverge further. Again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, nor do I intend to suggest that you ought to change, “convert,” or in any other fashion continue your lives in ways other than you might wish to do under your own free will.
I do, however, take your self-assertions that you are intelligent and informed, and are often better-read about “religion” than your creedal monotheist antagonists are, seriously, and thus I think there are some matters of added nuance, context, and classification that might be useful for you to know going forward regarding the continued existence of modern pagans and polytheists and some of what our religious outlooks do and think which distinguish us from the undifferentiated mass of “religion” that you have often critiqued.
I have often heard Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris begin arguments for atheism with lines like the following: “We are all atheists as regards Zeus and Poseidon now.” Whether you accept the existence of the deities there named, the statement in itself is not factual. While there aren’t many people who acknowledge the existence (note, not “believe,” on which more in a few moments) of Zeus, Poseidon, and a variety of other deities alive and practicing at this point in the history of the world, there are some of us, and our numbers grow slowly and steadily. You might find that creedal monotheists also think that there is no such thing as any god other than their own gods, and thus such statements might be rather odd attempts to try and create common ground with them.
Under certain circumstances I might argue that such tactics are “fair enough,” but because they fly in the face of the facts on the ground, and such facts are often the cornerstones of atheist arguments in relation to other matters in which conflict exists between atheists and creedal monotheists, it might be useful to revise your tactics in that particular respect. It is just as annoying to us to be dismissed and ignored entirely as it is when people of any number of religious viewpoints assume that everyone “believes something” or “believes in God in their own way,” thus dismissing and ignoring the existence of atheists entirely.
While I have problems with the “Golden Rule” (though almost all atheists I’ve heard speak on the matter don’t seem to), I think observing the “Silver Rule”–namely, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you”–is a good way to live one’s life, and many of the points that I bring up in relation to your own conduct fall into this category.
It is one of these matters of conduct not appreciated by many people being done to others by you which is especially puzzling to me: proselytizing. I know of few if any people who appreciate being accosted on the street by missionaries from one Christian church or another, billboards advising passers-by to repent or to find Jesus, or for having my time and privacy invaded by people knocking at my door to tell me all about the “good news” of their particular church, and leaving their leaflets for me to recycle on my doorstep or at bus stops (and, unfortunately, the list goes on).
It confuses me, thus, that atheists would resort to some of the most showy, in-your-face tactics of this sort to try and attract “followers” to atheism, as was the case with the “God Graveyard” that was done earlier this year. Rather than winning adherents by exemplary conduct, or on the strengths of your own arguments, why would you do something that more often than not hardens the resolve of those subjected to it to stay exactly where they already are in terms of their theological positions?
While newer movements that take to the streets, as it were, often have a variety of “adolescent rebellion” about them, and go through an almost necessary “obnoxious” phase which may feature some actions like the ones described above, I hope that this phase within the history of your own movement is a short one, and is overcome by the self-reflection and maturity that many of your adherents claim–all the more so because of the stated lack of needing emotional crutches and the like which atheism as an existential position is said to provide for its adherents.
Atheists have argued that their ethical foundations are sound without the need for supernaturalism or a revealed scripture or a divine authority supporting and enforcing them. If that is the case, then I say: “okay!” That there will be no consequences or “judgement” upon you by divine forces for your actions in your own belief, though, is then that much of a greater burden of responsibility to bear to do as little harm to your fellow humans as possible, I would have thought. It would thus behoove you to demonstrate your superior ethical senses and understandings by having that much more consideration for others.
I have often heard the atheist critiques on “religion,” and as mentioned before, I can agree with many of them, with the following caveat: the critiques are not on “religion” in general, but on specifically “creedal monotheistic religions.” There are many different types of religion in the world, and the basis for almost all of them excepting two (Christianity and Islam) are not creedal, but instead are some combination of experiential or practical; and even where some of these are monotheistic or monistic, a larger number throughout history have been animistic or polytheistic. To say that a religion is not based on “belief” might be confusing to many, especially when the prevailing religious viewpoints of an entire set of overcultures for many centuries has been creedal in nature, and any religious viewpoint that does not meet those characteristics (or other ones, including monotheism, Abrahamic origins, and so forth) are actively not considered real or valid religions. But, that has been the way of the world for much of human history and many human cultures, several of which still exist to this day.
From a polytheist viewpoint, there is no point in “believing” the gods exist outside of experience of them. Once one has had those sorts of experience, whether one “believes” or not is irrelevant: the experiences have occurred, and one can attempt to understand them and integrate them into one’s daily life and concerns, or one might not. However, to pretend as if one has had those experiences when one hasn’t is not considered virtuous; and to choose not to pursue those experiences is likewise an option. I might go my entire life not having visited Burundi, or going bunjee-jumping, or eating calamari; while some might feel that this is a tragic loss because they enjoy those things so much, they are not necessarily absolutely crucial experiences to have undergone in order to have a complete and accomplished life. If religious experiences were viewed in a similar fashion, as options rather than necessities (beyond the general respect for the ability of others to pursue them to whatever extent they might wish), and as things which may or may not be experienced rather than as things in which it is necessary to have “belief,” you might find that many religions around the world are far more sensible than are the large institutionalized creedal monotheistic religions that have dominated the world for the last 1600 years.
Many atheists, of course, assert that there is no scientific “proof” of the existence of deities; there is much more to say on this topic. But, even Sam Harris does not dispute that there are certain portions of the human brain which, under certain circumstances, are stimulated during periods of prayer, meditation, and other varieties of what are generally classified as religious experiences. Whether the stimulus for these experiences originates internally or externally is not as relevant in the present circumstance as that they exist on a phenomenological level. There are any number of human emotional, sensory, and other experiences that cannot be “proven” on a scientific level, nor evaluated, including the viewing and appreciation of art, the feeling of being in love, and so forth, and yet no atheist would argue that these things do not exist. Likewise, there are many areas that would be considered “values” in human life, like equality and freedom and justice, which do not have any objective existence, are disputed in their definitions and understandings, and which most certainly do not exist as facts of nature as observed on the earth or in the universe more broadly, and yet most atheists would argue that such things are essential parts of the human experience and human existence, and are what give it worth beyond the mere objective scientific understandings of biology, chemistry, and physics which actually direct how almost everything in the universe functions. If religious experiences were understood more like the aesthetic experiences of art, or the affectional and emotive experiences of love, in contrast to the institutional creedal monotheistic understandings that have been assumed as normative for the last 1600 years, then perhaps “religion” might be interpreted as a more benign force than it has often been by modern atheists.
While further differences in understanding are certainly present for modern pagans and polytheists and atheists, these are not as essential to understand, accept, or adopt as one’s own–in order to do so, either we would cease to be polytheists or pagans, or you would cease to be atheists, and that is (may I reiterate!) not the intention of the present letter. No pagan or polytheist would agree that our deities and our varieties of experience with them are “just aesthetic” or “only emotional” or are “solely values-based,” and yet nearly no pagan or polytheist would argue that they at least encompass these things. But, you need not accept those further dimensions of our own existence as polytheists and pagans to understand how and why our experiential-based religions and the practices they give rise to or from which their experiences originate are important and indeed motivating forces in our lives.
I have often heard atheists argue that atheism is not a religion, and if anything it is against religion; but, this seems to be at odds with a number of facts on the ground, and unless either the facts are taken account of, or this statement is revised, a major inconsistency remains. I’ve hosted any number of events over the years having to do with discussions of religion, and atheists have often been not only enthused attendees, but have insisted that they be given time to voice their viewpoints. The interfaith religious website Patheos.com, which I participate in on the Pagan Channel, has a large and active atheism channel. If atheism is against religion and is not a religion, then why is there an insistence by atheists on being included within the context of “religion”? If atheism is the “antibody” that should be present wherever the “infection” of religion occurs, that may be one reason to argue for this sort of strategy; but, atheism hasn’t proven to be as effective an “antibody” to the “infection” of religion as many might have hoped. An antibody that is not effective in comprehensively attacking and eliminating a virus or other infection cannot be called an “antibody” in any meaningful fashion, I’m sure you’d agree. Trust me when I say that I mean the following without any pejorative understandings whatsoever: atheism’s presence in the environment of religious activities like the discussions I’ve hosted or the website I mentioned might be more accurately likened to a kind of environmental pollutant, which manages to “kill off” the religiosity of a few people out of the population, but which doesn’t impact many others, who eventually adapt and build up an immunity to it.
I would argue, in fact, that atheism is not an anti-religion so much as a religion unto itself, and one which is adopting many of the same characteristics as other religions as time goes by. There are atheist symbols available on tombstones now, for example, which is intriguing considering that most atheists do not think there is an afterlife, and say that they find ceremonialism pointless, and yet that’s exactly what formal burials and grave-markers emerge from and represent within a religious context. There is little doubt, based on the studies of religious scholars, that atheism is much more like a religion than not, and in its practice in the modern world, it is a religion that is based more on creedal monotheism than anything else. Just as many circular arguments in relation to religious topics have been voiced in favor of atheism as have been in favor of any creedal monotheistic religion. Despite whatever “faith” in science is espoused by atheists (as if something as definite as science needs to have “faith” or “belief” expressed in it–faith or its lack in gravity will not change the fact that gravity exists!), science itself gets treated as The Ultimate Reality in a manner that is often far more like that reverence for God which is given in creedal monotheistic religions. It is of course necessary to note that there are differences between the “clergy” and “philosophers” of atheism–authorities like Dawkins, Harris, and others–and the common people just as there are with any other religion that has ever existed. There is often a deficient understanding of a given belief system in terms of the latter group in comparison to the former; thus, there are just as many ignorant and un-nuanced views of atheism by some common people when compared to scientists as there is of a particular religion’s dogmas amongst the common people of that religion as compared to their theologians and clergy. But, even in this regard, atheism seems much more like a religion than a non-religion. Stephen Prothero, in God Is Not One, argues that atheism is more like a religion than it isn’t. Of course, the biggest difference–which, as the example of tombstones noted above indicates, is changing as time goes on–is the lack of specific atheist practices, including rituals and holy days that are observed on a widespread basis. Oscar Wilde in “De Profundis” lamented this lack in atheism, but proposed that it should change, and it seems to be going further in that direction in recent decades, with the advent of “spiritual atheists” and the like (which is another subject altogether!).
In debates between adherents of particular (usually creedal monotheistic) religions and atheists, “religion” (again, usually in the exclusive creedal monotheistic definitions and understandings of it) is often argued to be “good” because it’s done good things. Time and again, atheists have pointed out that this is not a good argument, considering how much that is manifestly “not good” has also resulted from those same “religions.” I would argue, though, that not all religions are equal in this regard, and some have done more that is “not good” as a result of their particular constitutions and foci (including those that are creedal and monotheistic in focus) than those which do not share those characteristics. Of course, no religion is perfect in this (or any other) regard, because religions are constructs by humans, no matter how much divine inspiration (which I know is an arguable point, but in any case…!) may be present in any given instance of religion. The same can be said of strict adherence to science as well, though. Even if one’s values do not derive from religious or theological contexts, lacking values altogether means that atrocities of the greatest magnitude can result easily simply because the hard sciences do not naturally imply values of any kind. The wider universe may spin and collide in any number of ways that are indifferent to human values, but humans should not do the same, I think most atheists would agree.
And, I think this is one area in which a greater number of people–religious or not–are coming to a better and more useful understanding in accord with much of what I’ve written above. Science and religion can be understood as “non-overlapping magisteria,” which is to say, they need not be considered to be in conflict with one another, and their best applications might be in entirely different areas of life and our understandings of the universe. Science is an excellent method via which to understand the facts of the universe, what makes it up, and how it functions, and the modern findings of biology, chemistry (which is at the basis of biology), and physics (which is at the basis of chemistry) all provide a very good working model of the “how” of existence as we experience it. What it lacks is a larger existential “why,” which is much more appropriate to human endeavors involving the imagination and the boundless possibilities in creativity, including art, religion, and philosophy. Likewise, religion is an excellent system for giving options to humans in terms of what ultimate values are and where these are located, what narratives are the most appealing explanations for the great unknowns of human experience, and how one relates to others, to oneself, and to the wider cosmos–in essence, any and all things which might be considered concerns regarding the meaning(s) of life, which can never be answered objectively and once-and-for-all. This is the realm not of facts, but of truths, which are always contextual and limited in their application, though profound and powerful for those who perceive them in particular manners appropriate to their positions. As long as religion does not suggest that it is a superior source of facts about existence (e.g. creation myths, etiologies for certain phenomena, etc.), then there is no conflict between science and religion. And, indeed, I suspect you’ll find that most of the conflicts between science and religion that have occurred in the last 1600 years, as well as more recently (and which still rage in some regions of the U.S. and elsewhere!) are situations in which certain individuals have not understood that their religious truths are not scientific facts.
Perhaps there are areas in which scientists and atheist philosophers and religious specialists can dialogue in the future. One notion that might be explored, but which has generally not been discussed due to the understanding of “religion” as a strictly creedal monotheistic phenomen, is the possibility that deities might be an emergent property of the universe rather than a creative one. Polytheistic religions of the modern world do not generally think that deities created the world as we know it, nor are they eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in the way that the monotheistic deity has been presented. What if, instead, deities are emergent properties of the universe, beings that have come into being in ways not yet accounted for, but which are just as much a part of the “randomness” that has resulted in humans, all other animal and plant species on the earth, and the various other planets, stars, and celestial bodies in the observed universe? While their existence as such may not be possible to prove nor disprove via the current methods of science that we have available, would this suggestion be a useful one to at least float in the meantime as an alternative to notions like “intelligent design”? Even if it isn’t, it is one that might be appealing to pagans and polytheists, in any case, who are interested in looking at divine matters from a scientific viewpoint. Even if their supernatural existence cannot be proven, nor even detected, by science, at least the phenomenological existence of the “idea of gods” throughout human history cannot be disputed by atheists, and these ideas–just as much as the ideas of human liberty, justice, and equality–has had a profound impact on societies, cultures, and all of their products throughout human history. It takes no reification of mere abstracts and ideas to admit that this is the case.
In closing, I would like to remind modern atheists of the origins of the term “humanism,” which has been absorbed into the modern self-understanding of atheism. It takes at least three steps to get to the understanding of “humanism” as a synonym for “atheism” in the modern world. In the original definition of the term, which emerged in the later renaissance, a humanist was a person who had studied and internalized the teachings of the classical Greek and Roman worlds (often through Islamic intermediaries) within the Christian framework. Individuals like Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and Erasmus of Rotterdam were exemplary in this regard, and the first two of these were not only learned in both Christian theology and the heritage of classical antiquity, but they were also proponents of what might be considered by some (both in their own day and today) as “non-Christian” practices and philosophies, including magic and essentially pagan philosophies. Indeed, many modern pagans trace the emergence of our own modern traditions to these specific roots, which began to question certain premises of Christian theological hegemony in response to their learning about and respect for the classical Greek and Roman polytheistic traditions. These more esoteric doctrines were shared as interests with later luminaries of early modern science, like Sir Isaac Newton. From this understanding of humanism to the next one–namely, of looking for solutions to difficulties in the world through human effort and attention rather than through divine causes and prayer–is one that is shared by many people throughout the world, including most modern pagans and polytheists. The Jesuit university I attended for my degree in religious studies identifies itself in its core mission statement as not only Catholic and Jesuit, but also humanist in its most basic self-understanding. Indeed, most of the problems that exist in the modern world are problems that have human origins, from climate change (at least in part) to economic inequality to any number of varieties of injustice. And, while the blessings of the gods are useful to have on these matters, if that is what one is interested in, the solutions will only come about as a result of human efforts, no matter what religions or lack thereof are observed by the humans involved. Humanism as a position that ignores the possibility of divine influence or existence on life is the latest understanding of this term, and is relatively recent in its coinage. You will find that most pagans and polytheists will agree for certainly the first, and generally the second, stages of this definition.
To conclude, I thank anyone and everyone for reading this letter in its entirety. I don’t want to suggest by the above that modern atheists should seek to have common ground and cause with modern pagans and polytheists because we have a “common enemy” to unite against in creedal monotheism (although if that is the result, so be it). Again, I don’t intend for the previous remarks to be any persuasive oratory for why modern paganism and polytheism are superior religious choices that should thus be motives for which to convert to our religious viewpoints for modern atheists. I hope that what I’ve written above serves to outline some dimensions of our modern pagan and polytheist religious viewpoints so that modern atheists know that, firstly, we exist, and secondly, some of your recent actions do you no favors in gaining the respect of others (including potential allies on some issues, as modern pagans and polytheists might be), nor in becoming respected voices on the stage of world religions. As Stephen Fry has said on many occasions, I know that many atheists don’t care about respect (especially when it comes to other religions), offending people, or being at all sensitive where religiosity is concerned, but it does atheists no favors to argue for an inependent and non-supernatural source of their own ethics that is legitimate and just while actively courting disrespect and insensitivity in some areas (like the “god graveyard”), or in appropriating the religious imagery of some religions when it suits them (like Saturnalia and Winter Solstice). We would never claim Charles Darwin or John Thomas Scopes as “polytheists,” therefore claiming Hypatia of Alexandria or Saturn or Venus as atheists or atheist-appropriate symbols seems ignorant at best.
As stated previously, I am open to honest inquiry and discussion on this matter in the comments here. If we understand each other better than we do as a result of such discussions, it is all the better. My main reason for writing this letter has been because I have perceived a dearth of understanding of modern polytheists and pagans’ existence in a great deal of modern atheist discourses, and if that can be remedied in a manner that simply offers better information on us, directly from us (rather than from our creedal monotheistic detractors), it might be of potential benefit. I make no claims to be speaking for all modern pagans or polytheists in what I have stated here–we are a diverse group of somewhat-related religious viewpoints, after all, and anyone who argues to the contrary is sadly misguided!–but I do think that what I’ve stated above is relatively accurate on many of us, and thus it may be useful for you to have this information as given here.
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus