Posted by: aediculaantinoi | December 27, 2013

Polytheist Ethics and the Question of Atheist Pagans

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.


  1. 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.

    Which paradoxically, is a definition that excludes many of the atheists you cited as atheists the last time you posted about atheism.

    I can’t speak for Aultman because he appears to be an archetypalist and I’m not. Archetypalism seems to come from perennialism which says that mythology and religious symbols point to the same Truths (whether one regards them as gods or not). I’m an idolator who worships sacred Matter and moral Beings. Where I think these discussions go off the rails is in thinking it’s about the crumpets and tea and not about veneration of ideals (for the archetypalist) or Nature (for the naturalist.)

    My general rule is that if I’m an invited guest in someone’s home and/or worship, I participate (within negotiated boundaries) to honor my obligations to my hosts. If my polite and silent (unless invited) witness is so disruptive because we’re called to different relationships that it cannot be accommodated within your space, then don’t invite me. I won’t be offended. You’re not invited to much of what I do.

    But surely there must be something about interfaith hospitality in the past because we’re not the first multi-faith culture on the planet.

    • But, here, I’m not talking about the same group of atheists as I was in the post earlier this month. That post was to the general group of atheists who express skepticism or antagonism toward any and all religions generally; this context is specifically atheists who are also pagans for (as Rhett described it) cultural reasons, the same way that there are cultural Jews or cultural Catholics who are also atheists, etc. There’s nothing paradoxical about that.

      There’s no question of being “invited” or “not invited” here. I specifically state with all rituals and public functions that I do that there is no reason why anyone who is respectful would be excluded from what we’re doing; but, just because anyone can come doesn’t mean everyone should, and I tend to rely on one’s own best judgement for that, and assume that those who do come will be respectful and so forth, and will even have the ability to “opt out” on certain matters as long as they remain respectful in doing so. Thus far, everyone who does show up has done so respectfully; sometimes people leave in the middle, and if they want to do that, that’s also fine and not any of my business. It’s never been a problem before, and I don’t think it will be in the future.

      • I mention “invitation” because I can’t imagine myself within one’s home or ceremonial space without one. That is, I’m not inclined to wander around the universe and just stumble onto rituals where I don’t have a relationship tie or reason to be there to start with.

        One thing that has been nagging me all day is this passage:

        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

        I’m not certain that evangelism benefits many people beyond the evangelist.

      • If that’s the way you conduct yourself regarding invitations, that’s fine–you’re not likely to come across anything I’d be offering then, so your need to point out all of the problems of my approach seems rather excessive, to say the least, since it’s not even a theoretical possibility that you’d ever cross paths with me. It would be just as useless for me to try and point out what I see wrong with a college fraternity, since I both cannot join one and would never want to.

        As for the quoted bit that you find nagging: this position is hardly “evangelism.”

        If someone chooses, of their own free will, to attend a religious ritual that I’m holding at a public event (like PantheaCon), which has no bars on their entry (which it wouldn’t), and they’re an atheist, and thus–from my perspective–there is little to make them want to attend my ritual at all, and I have (in theory) absolutely nothing at all to gain from their attendance, and likewise for the gods I’m serving (since the attending atheist very definitely, by nature of their position, doesn’t acknowledge their existence), then the only foreseeable reason I can imagine that they *would* be there at all is because they want to experience something. Whatever that “something” is, they’ll have to answer for themselves.

        But myself concluding that this may be a useful potential outcome of a situation that I find confounding (i.e. what on Gaia’s green earth do these atheists want in attending my rituals, and what do I or the gods have to gain by allowing them to do so), which may amount to a “belief” in the eyes of some (i.e. I think such a situation might be useful to the gods if the atheist concerned has an experience they can’t ignore), then who really has a problem with whom where beliefs are concerned?

        My holding of the ritual, though, and simply doing what I’m there to do, and not barring entry to anyone…how on earth can that be considered “evangelism”? If by my very example in being a devotional polytheist, and carrying out my duties as far as practice are concerned in a manner that is accessible to a wider public–which is generally termed “leading by example”–is something you’re confusing for “evangelism,” then that’s something I’m entirely comfortable with, because it is the better (and indeed the only permissible) method of persuasion for showing people that a particular religious path or a spiritual practice is a worthwhile thing. This is especially the case with a religious path that is this focused upon praxis: the only useful factor in considering if a praxis-based religion is worth following is seeing what the praxis is and what it does for those who are engaged in it. The person potentially persuaded by evaluating that practice still gets to decide whether they like it or not for themselves, with no methods of persuasion exercised upon them other than observing what someone else did or does. If that person has an experience–and I can’t determine whether that will happen for them or not, or what it will mean to them if it does–then that’s for them to work out between the deities concerned and themselves.

        Again, calling that approach “evangelism” is pretty extreme.

        There are lots of stories of modern pagans and polytheists who started out as skeptics, atheists, or agnostics (and I know all three of those are different, but they are at least similar in the fact that the reality of the gods is more or less difficult for all three to acknowledge) and who eventually came to the position of affirming the existence of deities based on their experiences of them in ritual. As a member of this set of religions that would like to see them thrive and expand, if I can be the provider of the ritual context in which that experiential transformation happens, then I welcome the opportunity to do so.

        If you cannot see the difference between this approach and–amongst many other possibilities–standing on street corners handing out bibles, preaching with a megaphone at passers-by that judgement will soon be upon them, having commercials for one’s church, knocking on people’s doors or calling them in their homes, and leaving leaflets on bus stop benches and such (i.e. “evangelism”), then you have larger problems than an exchange of comments on a blog post can possibly correct.

        Note that it is your choice to see it in that way, and if you choose to make such a choice, that’s fine and it’s your right, but as a result you’ll be eroding what little remains of the “open invitation” that anyone has to this present discussion forum by being an intentionally disruptive negative commenter who is simply arguing uselessly, and you will be banned from further discussions herein. Your time would really be better spent elsewhere.

      • Again, calling that approach “evangelism” is pretty extreme.

        I apologize for not being more clear. I come out of a cultural tradition where evangelism was more “feed my sheep” than John the Revelator. I think that sort of desire for conversion is paternalistic because it assumes that we are problems to be fixed or holes to be filled, and not people with rich religious experiences and consequential moral lives.

        Integrating new religious experiences with old can be a difficult process, and we come to the table with family, professional, and community relationships as well. Sometimes, those experiences demand practices that create conflict. To say that it’s “better for everyone” frankly, just isn’t the case.

        Note that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those experiences. (I don’t know that we get a choice in our callings.) I’m saying that we shouldn’t be casual about the consequences of those experiences, or that the experiences themselves may be psychologically traumatic.

      • Thank you–I truly appreciate your clarification.

        While I am far from the view that “everything happens for a reason,” the possibility that someone of an atheist position would even want to come to one of my rituals for any logical reason is baffling to me…”for its own sake” doesn’t really work when the whole point of all of my public rituals is devotion to Antinous and the many gods and other divine beings with whom he is associated. So, the possibility that perhaps by doing so, they might have an experience that is transformative as a result of it is the best way I can explain to myself why they might be there, and it makes me think better of the person involved as well (though flawed or outright incorrect it may be), since that possibility doesn’t seem as exploitative as the motives that some atheist pagans have explained in coming to rituals of various sorts.

        Very few gods get involved in people’s lives to make them miserable, in my view (though “harder” is not the same thing as “miserable”!); some other varieties of divine being might do so, but the class that I understand as being “gods” doesn’t tend to, I think. If the gods wouldn’t be better off by getting involved, I don’t think they would be; and, while I can only accurately speak for myself here, the ways in which my life is more complicated now as a result of what I’ve undergone and who I’ve met have made my life far richer and more vibrant, even when it hasn’t always been easy. I think it is better, as a result, for the gods and for me (at least); it may not be for certain others, of course, but I think it’s tended to be better overall in my own surveying of these effects. (Where it hasn’t been, there has often been a deeper dysfunction that has nothing to do with spiritual matters, and then the latter acts as a kind of catalyst to move things along, as it were.)

        And, very definitely, I’m aware of how shattering these experiences have been and can be for people, very much including myself…in fact, that’s a large reason why I do hold the rituals I do, and write this blog, and all of the books and such, etc. I hope that the advice I give, the examples I try to set, and the information I provide will help people, certainly; but, by also being someone who has been shattered (and shattered again and again and again), and who is still putting myself back together afterwards, it (I hope) shows that it is possible to come out the other end of these things without being a gibbering wreck. No, by no means am I “done” in my re-integration process, but by at least being visible, I hope that those who are new and worried and who have been shattered (or are beginning to be) might see many more of us who have the visible cracks and missing pieces, and can know that we’re not bound for the trash heap as a default afterwards, if that rather wacky metaphor makes sense.

        In any case…thank you again for clarifying.

      • Well, I thought I said this above, but it turns out I didn’t. When I attend ritual, it’s because certain forms of family and community are sacred and I’m morally obligated to put my theology to the side for a few hours every year to respect the people engaged in that practice. Refraining from all ritual would require that I act immorally WRT key relationships. Some of those rituals are woven into community and civic life, and are unavoidable unless I choose to become more of a hermit than I already am.

      • Interesting…I wonder how many people are in a similar position to yourself.

  2. I hold rituals at my house from time to time and my Agnostic roommate and Apatheistic boyfriend attend occasionally. They stand by oftentimes, and are present for the hymns and libations (they both often make libations as well). I even had my roommate once utter a prayer.

    Perhaps I’m just being naive, but I don’t really care if the person attending the rites I host is Atheist, Agnostic, Muslim, Polytheistic, or a Monist. As long as they are willing to be respectful and at least pour out a libation, then I don’t think there is really any reason for me to care what they think.

    • Yes, which is what I was saying above: it isn’t a problem until it becomes a problem by the people in question acting in a disrespectful fashion. If they genuinely want to be there and to participate, even enthusiastically so, they’re welcome to do so (and that’s been the case for atheists, Catholics, and a variety of others at rituals I’ve held over the years); but if their own private thoughts on these matters become public speech in ritual space, or their conduct becomes disrespectful in some other fashion, then it is a problem.

      • I gotcha, I was still working on my first cup of coffee when I read this, as I’m sure is evident.

      • No worries–I’m still on my first soda of the day. Hurrah, caffeine…!?! 😉


      • Without it, writing non-bloggy things is certainly more of a challenge.

        *saying that as I crack open the next can for the day*

  3. […] Polytheist Ethics an… on If somebody asks me what my re… […]

  4. This brings up some interesting questions, and I’ll likely be writing more on this as well. For me, since polytheist religious practice is not creedal but is praxis-based and experiential, I don’t care if there’s an atheist in attendance in a ritual with me. So long as they *participate*. Included in that, for me, is participation in religious hospitality, which means respecting the etiquette of ritual, including behaving as if the Gods are real. So if someone were to start talking about their disbelief in the Gods at the ritual, to me that’s a simple matter of etiquette, and I’d ask them to be respectful and save that conversation for another time. I don’t care what people in my rituals believe, and I honestly think the Gods probably don’t either. If I could presume to imagine, I might picture Them gazing into the atheist’s thoughts affectionately, the way we respond to a child’s ideas about the world, patient in the knowledge that those ideas will mature with experience. For me, so long as an atheist participates with respect, I consider it part of my service to the Gods to welcome them. Because you never know when that participation may yield an experience of Their presence strong enough to bring recognition.

    • Thank you for commenting (and writing earlier)–and, I still owe you an e-mail. 😉

      Yes to what you’ve written, which is what I was saying: belief isn’t as important (or even relevant at all) as respectful conduct within the ritual, and *anyone* can do that regardless of their thoughts on the existence or non-existence of the gods concerned (or the gods generally).

      However, there is a problem in that not all gods (and not even most of them) are omniscient, so they don’t know what an individual’s thoughts are (which is why we have to pray for things out loud, etc.); and, I personally think they have much more important things to do than listen to humans’ nattering on in daily conversations, and even those who can read thoughts likewise, with that much power at their disposal, are meant to be using it for far more important tasks than whether or not Johnny Humanist thinks they exist or not. (I suppose for omniscient or quasi-omniscient deities, reading humans’ thoughts would be the equivalent of pointless internet surfing…?!?)

      If a given god does state preferences for certain beliefs, though, we must take those seriously. And, if a particular deity sees the disconnect between respectful conduct that to them seems ultimately just for show, as opposed to respectful conduct that fully acknowledges the reality of the beings who are respected by that conduct, that too must be taken seriously. That’s the crux of the issue: is our conduct as ritual hosts in error if we willingly allow in people we personally know are just doing it for show and to “use” this ritual for whatever purpose they deem fit that has nothing to do with actually respecting and honoring the gods (especially if it is a devotional ritual)?

      As far as I’m concerned, if someone started raising questions aloud on the reality of the gods during ritual, that would be a disruption that would get them booted immediately. If individuals who hold a lack of acknowledgement of the reality of the gods in their hearts do so silently, that’s fine, but deeds and actions–including the expressing of words–are what counts in praxis-based contexts. Thus, if those types of individual aren’t very careful about their conduct and don’t try to be as well-behaved in ritual settings as possible, I see no reason why we should continue extending our hospitality to them when they actively and purposefully disrespect the gods in that fashion. When someone’s “beliefs” (in the common, not-as-useful) definition remain a thing between them and their own mind, there is never any problem; when someone’s beliefs become a matter of action, including speaking certain words, then it becomes a praxis-based ritual facilitator’s problem.

  5. I’m still working to put all of my feelings on this post into words. In short, thank you. Thank you for re-articulating concepts of hospitality that I thought, until recently, went without saying.

    My mother once called me a “God groupie.” I always believed in magic, but I had deep wounds surrounding the idea of any Deity. I wanted to believe, but I wandered with my eyes halfway closed through the party (not only to the guest of honor, but to the other guests as well.) I very much wanted to connect with Someone/Something greater, but I had no context for how to do that in a way that I felt allowed a safe space for my (queer) identity and felt authentic to me. I searched for a long time, am in search, and even as I learn to practice, search. I am grateful to all of the Ritualists, Gods and Spirits that have allowed me to participate in ritual as I wandered my way to belief with my arms and mind open and my eyes slowly opening.

    I would have felt disrespectful if I hadn’t known why I was there. I wished to know Divinity, others, and myself (in that order, for ritual) better. You better bet I brought a gift. My questions for any human participants (atheist or no) would be “Did you bring your whole self? Are you prepared to surrender parts of yourself that would hinder this worship? Are you prepared to offer reverence?”

    As a ritualist, I would be honestly more concerned on whether the Gods being invited to the space are comfortable with non-believers’ offerings and praise. I’m still inexperienced, but my educated guess is that it is different for each God and each ritual.

    • Thank you for commenting and thinking about this!

      Indeed, what each individual deity wants or feels or thinks is of the utmost importance–and thus, asking them and getting their thoughts on it is necessary in such situations. I’ll have to bring that to divination in the near future and see if any parameters are set.

      Unfortunately, for the rather entitlement-minded individuals among us, the word of the gods (who they don’t believe exist) will be irrelevant…and then, problems. But anyway…

    • Also, good further questions about bringing the fullness of one’s efforts to the endeavor in the effort of devotion, etc.

      More in another context soon…

  6. Part of the issue with the term “belief” is disentangling two threads of the modern concept that come from distinct concepts in Hellenic thought. On the one hand, there is belief that is “dogmatic”, i.e., belief in a certain doctrine or “opinion”, Greek doxa; on the other hand, there is belief that is in itself experiential, which follows from the sense of Greek pistis, also translated “faith”. We can really gloss pistis as being willing to be persuaded by experience, rather than exercising a relentless and indeed hyperbolic skepticism; such a skepticism, of course, will take us well beyond mere atheism, into full solipsism and even beyond. These threads have been tightly knotted together in Christianity, which has done its best to conflate knowing the person of Christ and professing the approved doctrine concerning Christ. Separating these threads again, I think that devotion can indeed do without the former, doxastic sense of belief, but cannot do without the latter, experiential, pistis sense. (I read this as very close to what you are already saying.)

    • Yes, that’s it exactly, and thank you for making it clearer!

      The experiential dimension of pistis, and even of the Latin fides (and, to a certain extent yet again, credo!), is totally lost in the way that Christianity and other creedal religions (of which there’s really only one, i.e. Islam) have construed the term, and we keep coming back to how it is used there…including in several other commenters on this present post’s comments (which I’ll respond to in turn).

      One of the best classes I took as an M.A. student with the Jesuits was one that I thought would be the least fun and useful: Ecclesiology. In it, the professor (who I had for one other class as well) outlined a schema which I teach in my own religious studies courses now, and which I personally use as the most useful schema for such matters. He defined “faith” as one’s experience of the divine (so, modified slightly for polytheist usage, “one’s experiences of divine beings and realities”), and then “belief” is an articulation of faith/divine experiences, and then “religion” is a systematization of beliefs/articulations of divine experiences. (I know you don’t need me to lay it all out with the slashes in that fashion, but anyway…!) I think this works just as well for polytheists and people from experiential religions as it can, does, and should for monotheists, which was his presumed audience in those courses. Still, many students were reluctant to take up his definitions, and I suspect it is because of a lack of that experience.

      In any case, yes. 😉

      • ‘ He defined “faith” as one’s experience of the divine (so, modified slightly for polytheist usage, “one’s experiences of divine beings and realities”), and then “belief” is an articulation of faith/divine experiences, and then “religion” is a systematization of beliefs/articulations of divine experiences.’

        A very helpful construct, for which thanks. For my own (admittedly idiosyncratic) purposes, I might rephrase slightly, defining “faith” as one’s response(s) to one’s experience of the divine. “Belief” might then be viewed as such a response that takes a verbal form (e.g. creed, doctrine, or dogmatic theology, but also myth, legend, and saga). Other possible forms of response might involve action more than words (e.g. offerings, ritual, codes of conduct).

        Religion as a systematization of [our responses to] divine experiences (or, as a Christian might put it, to “the self-manifestation of the divine”) nicely expresses the fact that belief simpliciter does not a religion make; one’s experience must not only be expressed in words, but also be appropriated and lived out.

      • I’m glad you found this useful! Thanks for reading and commenting!

        The prof who created that schema is Dr. Leonard Doohan…I’m not sure if he’s still alive (he was in very poor health last I heard), but he was quite interesting, and has written a great deal on theologies of the laity in Catholicism, etc.

        I’m reminded by your last lines of that old phrase that gets used often by some pagans as well as others: that they are “spiritual but not religious.” To me, what “spirituality” is is the methods that put one in contact with “spirit,” i.e. one’s practices are one’s spirituality. If those practices have no thought behind them, no basis in anything (experience or otherwise), then they are just as empty and pointless as a religion that is not practiced, and would be so much sound and fury signifying nothing, quite literally…! 😉

      • You know, I actually disagreed with almost everything that you said in this post until I read this set of comments.

        I am actually made very uncomfortable by the unrelenting focus on praxis that is often on display in the Pagan community, because, as I have noted several times in my own writing, I feel like we run the risk of losing track of the foundations of our practice, as well as the substance of our belief, when we base our spiritual understanding so heavily on praxis.

        I dislike that faith and belief are on their way to becoming dirty words in certain parts of the Pagan community. I fear that a focus on praxis allows the flourishing of unacknowledged orthodoxies and biases. I have suggested in the past that praxis and theology are deeply intertwined and that it is mistake to try and completely isolate them.

        So, when I first read this post, I had a very visceral reaction of disagreement. Upon seeing you explicate your understanding of faith and belief further, here, I am very much reassured.

      • I think the feedback loop provided by our Anomalous Thracian colleague in his most recent (and very short!) blog post, which was beta-tested in a conversation we had last night, provides a good way to look at these things:

  7. Doctor, I hope you don’t consider this a non-sequitur, but I don’t see a link to contact you privately. You mentioned in an above comment that most gods are not omniscient so we have to say our prayers aloud. But wouldn’t they have to be omniscient to even hear spoken prayers? This is something that troubles me as a new pagan. Does this mean they are omnipresent? I have no clue if my goddesses know I exist. Thank you.

    • Not at all! Thanks for reading, commenting, and for your question!

      There are various degrees of omniscience. The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi (known also as Math vab Mathonwy) has its title character, Math, as quasi-omniscient, in that he knows everything that is spoken on the wind (i.e. outdoors). He doesn’t automatically know what his nephews are up to initially, but later on, he figures everything out. Very few deities are completely omniscient; even having “infinite wisdom” (like Hanuman is said to have, for example) doesn’t mean that one knows everything, but instead only knows how to handle every situation in the best way possible.

      As to the matter of omnipresence: again, few (if any) deities are omnipresent. However, that’s where invocation–which literally means “calling in”–becomes a necessity in prayer. Take, for example, the Irish Brigid the Poet–she’s never said to be omnipresent, but by calling her name in prayer, or intoning or chanting it, that’s in essence a “call” on a phone or an intercom asking for the deity’s presence. Some of them answer that call requesting their presence faster than others; and for any number of (very valid!) reasons having nothing to do with the worthiness of the invoker, some of them don’t always answer the call, but the likelihood that they’re “listening” and watching from a distance is possible (and even likely) nonetheless.

      So, one invokes the deity (usually verbally, but also with song, dance, gesture, symbols, items dedicated to them, etc.), and if the deity then comes to be present, one says one’s prayers to them, and they hear them. If it’s a deity of greater knowledge, then one might only have to speak one’s prayers to the winds (and therefore the higher up one is, because it’s always windier higher up) for them to reach the deity in question. These types of prayer, I think it’s generally safe to say, are always heard, even if they are not acted upon or the deity in question can’t (or won’t) do anything to help one.

      I think too many pagans run into the problem of thinking that just as the god of creedal monotheistic religions is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (as well as various other omni- matters), that therefore any and all other gods are likewise–and that they’re not worthy of the title “god” if they don’t meet all of those characteristics. That’s not necessarily a useful notion to carry around, because then it is assumed that the gods always know us simply by our intentions, and that the “thoughts of our hearts” that are never spoken aloud can be read by them. In my experience, that’s the very best way to make sure that the gods never answer one’s prayers or get involved in one’s life, just as it is likewise the best way to never have other humans respond to one’s requests, desires, and so forth because one has assumed that the other “should know” what one wants or is thinking or feeling, etc. It’s not always obvious, and thus it needs to be said and spoken and expressed in some fashion or other in order for it to be effective in the world. And, there is great power in actually stating what one wants in words, whether written or spoken…but, they must get out of our own heads and hearts for any of it to be effective. Thousands of years of polytheist tradition, and even the prayer practices of monotheists who claim their deity knows everything and can “read the thoughts of our hearts,” shows that this practice of verbal prayer and expressing one’s intentions rather than just having them or even focusing upon them is not only what allows people worshipping to come together in communal efforts, but it also makes it certain that these things are indeed “out there” in a way that other sentient beings–including the gods–can then respond to. (It’s yet another reason why “just believing” isn’t good enough, and practice/action/deeds must be done to support and reflect those beliefs, etc.)

      Does that make sense? I hope so…

      • It does make sense. I will experiment with praying aloud. Thank you.

  8. […] P. Sufenas Virius Lupus comes this meditation on polytheist ethics and the question of atheist […]

  9. I like the hospitality model, and I think the logic of your argument is sound so far as it goes. I can understand why a polytheist would feel like they may not be fulfilling their host duties to the utmost if they allow in a guest that does not acknowledge the guest of honor. We can guess that guest of honor would feel uncomfortable to say the least.

    At the same time, I think it’s important to trace this to the crux of the matter. The argument essentially relies on theory of mind, i.e. our ability to imagine another subject’s perspective. Any test that requires such consideration will be an *automatic* failure for an atheist, who doesn’t consider the deity to be a subject. So, applying this logic really comes down to whether a person is comfortable with the presence of atheists or not. If not, then it’s time to weigh priorities: does practice hold a higher priority (in which case atheists can practice as well as anyone else) or do the feelings of the deity take priority (in which case atheists might have to be excluded).

    I can imagine at least two tradition-based ways to further flesh out the problem.

    From a reconstructionist perspective, are there records of atheists being excluded from rituals for the deity in question? I’m not personally aware of very many such cases, although there may be some. On the other hand, there are *tons* of cases of excluding convicted criminals and other ritually impure individuals, which would therefore seem rather more important to a deity than belief styles.

    From a devotional polytheist perspective, I can only imagine asking the particular deity in question how they feel would be the best route (as I think someone suggested already in a comment above). They might be offended. On the other hand, they might not. If a movie star goes to some remote village, he doesn’t get angry at the villagers for not thinking he’s anything special, because he knows the villagers don’t believe he is. In the same way, the god might not care if the atheist acknowledges him or her, because the god knows the atheist doesn’t believe that way. Deities might be more humble and self-aware than the average person in the kind of guest-host scenario above.

    Personally, if a polytheist chose to exclude atheists from a ritual, and the reasoning made sense from a polytheist perspective, then out of compassion for that polytheist I would respect their decision. I wouldn’t agree with it, but I would respect it. That’s just me.

    Nevertheless, if one is losing sleep over something like this, then I guess it comes down to weighing priorities and engaging tradition.

    • It’s very easy for you to ask these questions, I suspect, because no matter what, you don’t stand accountable to anyone for the results of these thought processes. You don’t think there are gods that hold people accountable, thus the question is pointless for you; however, we not only acknowledge the existence of gods, but we are also (because of our devotional relationships to them) held accountable for our actions, especially the ones that directly impact the deities in question. Hence, it is very important for us to consider, and I have lost sleep over this because of it.

      There is actually precedent for exclusion of groups that were perceived to be atheists from certain practices: the mysteries of Glykon, as celebrated by Alexander of Abunoteichos, were convened with the caveat that neither Christians nor Epicureans could partake of them–and, in the mid-second century, both groups were regarded by some polytheists as atheists (though Epicureans were more like deists than atheists in our modern sense).

      However, the matter of the gods being concerned over belief styles is, yet again, a perception on your part due to the creedal nature of (and obsession within) atheism. The gods don’t care what atheists believe, in most cases, unless those atheists’ conduct that is reflective of those beliefs is disrespectful–and even then, it’s not the atheists’ beliefs that they would object to, it’s those atheists’ conduct.

      It’s interesting to me that your theorizing above in regards to what a deity’s answer might be in terms of allowing or not allowing atheists in a ritual, strangely enough, favors the atheist position and therefore the “right” of the atheist to be there, despite what the polytheist convening a ritual might feel. Thus, even in exclusion, you can feel vindicated that the god in question–even though that god doesn’t exist, in your view–is still “on your side.” How intriguing…Considering that I actually acknowledge the existence of these deities, and I am not even going to attempt to theorize what they do or do not feel about it (because it would be presumptuous and even hubristic for me to do so), is what has prompted me to air these thoughts in the first place. I’m not sure what the best course of action is, and the gods have not made a preference that is overarching plain to me at this point, so I’m thinking this aloud (in writing!) and am hoping to get some useful conversations going about it.

      I reiterate, there isn’t a problem in any of this as long as respect is maintained and the obligations of hospitality (at least to the hosting humans involved and the respect due to them for hosting, from the atheist perspective, since the gods are irrelevant to their views, as you’ve reiterated above and as I assumed from the start), and the atheists present do not make nuisances of themselves…but, the same would go for people of monotheist positions, monist positions, and even other varieties of polytheist or animist who, e.g., decide to take over the ritual and start talking about their gods or their traditions simply because they feel they can or should, when they are not the ones being honored on that occasion, etc. If someone from another group that venerates Antinous showed up at an Ekklesía Antínoou ritual and started preaching that “Antinous is THE Gay God!” and that all other gods are inferior to him, they would likewise be given one warning to knock it off (if I was feeling particularly charitable and compassionate), and if they didn’t, they would be quickly ushered out.

      Practice and the feelings of the deity, in my view, are not separate matters: I can only speak for myself, but I know what precedents exist for Antinous considering something respectful, and considering something disrespectful, and I have specific prohibitions I have to abide by where disrespect of certain sorts are concerned, and ways to respond to them that are in accord with Antinous’ personality and teachings. As long as respectful presence and decorum are maintained, there is never a problem.

      I think one of my major problems with Rhett’s formulations on his Humanist Pagan blog post is not so much a theological one, but one that has to do with (again!) conduct and practice. He essentially says that paganism is a culture rather than a religion, because there are “no rules” as to what is or isn’t proper to pagans, and anyone making rules about belief or lack thereof as “religious tests” for participation (e.g. the exclusion of atheists) are, essentially, “not following the rules,” namely that there are no rules. It’s a circular argument, and is easily contradicted by a very blatant fact: there are actually rules about membership, conduct, and practice in some traditions, with some individuals, within certain groups, etc. To say that “there are no rules” and therefore no one should have such rules is to, well, be making a rule. Do you see how contradictory that is? And do you likewise see how entirely disregarding of and disrespectful to established practices it is?

      And, the fact that your arguments here, and Rhett’s, essentially amount to “We’re here, and you can’t keep us from doing whatever we want, including coming to your rituals…and even your gods–who don’t exist–would not mind that we’re there”…well, do you see how very definitively entitled that makes all of you sound?

      But, again, that having been said, if you or any other atheist (pagan or not) showed up at one of my rituals, and didn’t cause a stir nor make any trouble for those convening the ritual or for others participating in it, there wouldn’t be a problem. I know many atheists have been present at our rituals, and in fact the very first Ekklesía Antínoou ritual I conducted on October 30th of 2002 had a total of four participants: myself, a cradle Irish Catholic, an Irish atheist, and a Swedish goddess-centered pantheist. No one was disrespectful, no one failed to participate to any degree other than their utmost, and it was a wonderful time for all by the accounts I was given afterwards.

      I find your statement about your compassion for a polytheist that excludes you leading you to respect their decision extremely condescending. The word “compassion” gets slung around in ways that are often smug, arrogant, and so removed from the realities of humans in a given situation (and, being a “Humanist,” I would have thought such matters would loom higher for you than they would for most) that it is very divergent from the spiritual ideal that has been taught by various religions. It gets used to make the person who is supposedly showing compassion in some way superior to those for whom (in their Bodhisattva-like wisdom, we are to believe?) they have compassion. What you’re expressing isn’t compassion, it’s pity, and that’s a very different thing, and one so far from actual respect that it is an offense to both terms, in my view.

      The fact that I have not (before now) excluded ANYONE from my rituals is not out of compassion for them, it’s out of actual respect that I have for the autonomy of individuals. If someone feels they should be there at one of our rituals, then I assume they’re there for good reasons, and I don’t have to know what they are, and it only becomes a problem if they start to be disruptive. (The Westboro Baptist crowd could show up furtively to one of my rituals [i.e. without offensive signs], and if they started to preach at us, I would have them removed, but only after I uttered the “Spell Against Homophobia” directly into their faces as loud as I possibly could, hopefully to accompanying voices of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” or some similar song!)

      This is all theoretical at this point–I have no idea whether or not some future public rituals will have an added caveat to them or not, and I won’t know until the day of the ritual whether that is the case. (Deities, like humans, do change their minds–and they’re allowed to, just like we are!) I see no reason to not continue with my established policy of admitting anyone and everyone, including atheists. Everyone by now should know what the rules are–and, yes, Rhett (though I know you’re not him, but since he used the “Yes, Virginia…” phrase as his post’s title, it seems appropriate to return the gesture here…!), there are rules–and should know therefore what they’re getting into if they decide to come to one of my rituals. If they decide to test things and encroach upon boundaries that they know are there, that’s up to them, but no one has indicated they will at this point, and I have no reason to assume they will until they do. Until such an occasion arises, our doors remain open.

  10. An interesting discussion justifying exclusion. No atheist should feel entitled to intrude where they aren’t in alignment with the program. But exclusion is kind of politically incorrect these days, so just be sure to make a sincere attempt to explain their exclusion to your atheist friends.

    • Did you read the entire entry? I am not, nor do I plan to, enact any policies excluding anyone–including atheists–from rituals I hold, provided they are respectful and not disruptive to the ritual.

      The atheist friends I do have tend not to want to come to rituals anyway, so there isn’t really a problem in relation to your second point either.

  11. I think it’s interesting that you haven’t actually brought up here that Rhett has attended one of your rituals in the past, and that I believe the three of us, certainly you and I, had a conversation about our experiences of the ritual, the structure and content, and why it was effective and moving for both of us. It could have provided some interesting data points for this conversation. And to reiterate, I’m also an atheist with a deity practice.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Amy.

      Because of conversations we’ve had in the past, I specifically didn’t mention your attendances or your experiences, because that conversation conveyed to me that I didn’t have your consent to do so.

      I did allude to Rhett’s having attended, though, when I said that two of the three above-linked-to individuals had been in ritual with me, that Anomalous Thracian had been, but that Morpheus had not been. I didn’t think to do so would violate anyone’s consent that I don’t currently have to discuss ritual attendance or experiences.

      I also wasn’t sure what your specific theological position was; in all of the times we’ve spoken, we’ve rarely addressed personal theologies. I had thought you were more in the agnostic than atheist category, so I wasn’t sure if your own position was either relevant to this discussion, or whether or not I had permission to discuss it.

      Because you and Rhett have had positive experiences at rituals I’ve given (whether attributed to the existence of deities or not), I think it is important to still allow all people–atheists or otherwise–to attend our rituals, until I’m either given other directives by the deities concerned, or until someone who is an atheist attendee becomes disruptive (and then that individual, and not all atheists, would be asked to leave…and such an individual wouldn’t even be banned permanently unless they were violent, homophobic, or some other very unpleasant characteristic). In my ramblings above (in which I had no idea where they were going until I got there in the end–and I apologize and take full responsibility for not making my “working it out as I go” methodology clearer in what is written above), I was most concerned with violation of my own obligations and duties, and rather than feeling regret over admission of atheists in the past, I decided that without further direct information on the matter from the main gods concerned, I had not erred (and, in any case, I had no idea of Rhett’s theological position at the time, by any means, nor yours).

      I’m questioning the situation and the issues involved and am thinking aloud in the above; I’m still conflicted over the issue, and am by no means settled on it, but failing any major divine telegrams meanwhile, I am not planning an Alexander of Abunoteichos-esque “Go away, profane monists and atheists!” announcement at the beginning (or in any part) of future rituals.

      I admit that I am not at all happy with how some atheists (including Rhett) have voiced an entitlement to attendance at any rituals they deem fit for reasons that I find specious (e.g. that there are no rules, therefore making rules is against the rules, as Rhett essentially argued; or, as Brandon argued in the comments here, that he finds it likely that the gods would be in favor of allowing atheists to be present–but given that likewise he says atheists will never allow that gods actually exist, that’s pretty spurious as well, in addition to being rather condescending…”Let’s use the mind-games these foolish polytheists are playing to convince them we’re in the right, even though the means by which we do so is something we find ridiculous”…it’s like a bad Star Trek episode and trying to get around the prime directive or something!).

      On the other hand, because I have seen first-hand how emotionally impactful attendance can be for some atheists (and I am thinking in this case only of you and Rhett’s attendance at Lupercalia in 2010, because that’s the only time I know that atheist attendees were deeply moved by the experience that I can verify by their own accounts rather than my own assumptions), and I freely admit that I do not know everything, and especially don’t know the content of other peoples’ souls nor what fate has in store for them, I’m far more willing to be for a policy of “allow” rather than “prohibit.” I fully acknowledge that because I know and like and respect both of you, and suspect that neither of you would be disruptive if you were to attend again (and, needless to say, were not disruptive nor disrespectful when you did attend in the past), that I’m very willing to let the matter stand as “still open and allowing” for the foreseeable future. If Antinous frowns upon me having done so, then I have an even bigger debt to him to rectify, and I’m happy to do so; I am not aware of such an increased debt at this point, but that doesn’t mean it might not come down the pike eventually. Nonetheless, it could go either way, and until I know for certain which way it goes, I’m being mindful while still attempting to uphold the obligation of hospitality to all.

      I hope that is clearer than what I wrote above, and if you have further thoughts on the matter, I’d be very interested in hearing them. Again, thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. Well, I don’t think you are characterizing Rhett’s position on any of this in the way that I would or in the way that he would, but I am not going to speak for him, and he is not interested in engaging with this thread. I think that is unfortunate, but I completely understand and respect his decision. I think if you had wanted to be able to discuss his ritual experiences, or even to understand his perspectives a bit further, or to clarify his perspective, you certainly could have approached him. Rhett has no entitlement regarding which rituals he should or should not attend, and while we as Pagans have no overall “faith test”, I don’t believe he has ever asserted that people should not set whatever guidelines they wish for their practice or ritual attendance.

    I do think that it’s a shame, though, that this emerging vein of Paganism /Polytheism, appears to be promoting a real lack of sophistication regarding the varieties of atheism/non theism and the varieties of religion experience and understandings of deity. I admit that much of this is probably due to the current face of contemporary political atheism being cast so much as a response to Abrahamic excesses, that the varieties of atheistic and non theistic religious frameworks are lost. Also, a lot of Pagans might do well to put down the fantasy fic.

    • “Also, a lot of Pagans might do well to put down the fantasy fic.”

      Was that comment really necessary? If you want people to discuss the varieties of non-theism in modern Paganism, you could show us (polytheists and ‘fantasy fic’ pagan) respect as well. It’s a two way street:/

      • Please see my response to Lupus below. Also, just for the record, I am atheist with a deity practice.

    • I was on board with much of what you expressed here, Amy–having re-read Rhett’s posts and thought about them a bit further–until that last sentence in your comment here.

      I (and many other polytheists) do not engage in discussions on the atheist and humanist (etc.) pagan blogs and such because we tend to feel that’s an invasion of their space; in Rhett’s latest post, he had several caveats and forewarnings on not posting things that might contradict certain aspects of his position. In order not to fall into doing so inadvertently–and I can only speak for myself here–I thought it better to lay out my thoughts in this forum, rather than doing what is too rampant on the internet these days, i.e. swooping in and in essence trolling with all kinds of arguments that won’t go anywhere. As I practice the silver rule where these things are concerned, I don’t do those sorts of things because I likewise hope that others won’t do them in my and my gods’ online spaces; alas, it still happens here, but not as much as it does to some other polytheists. But that’s another matter entirely…

      I do regret mischaracterizing Rhett’s arguments. As he is not engaging in this conversation, please convey my apologies to him.

      I don’t read very much fiction at all (fantasy or otherwise), but I think it’s certainly disrespectful and quite dismissive to berate pagans for being into fantasy fiction (and are you suggesting the existence of the gods is fantasy fiction likewise?) while calling for a greater amount of sophistication in these arguments where atheist positions are concerned.

      I also wish that our (meaning you–Amy–and I’s) online interactions were as pleasant and as easy as our in-person ones have always been! 😉

      • Point of order– “Yes, Virginia, I am an Atheist Pagan” was originally published at my own blog (link withheld so that I don’t end up moderating new threads there) in June of 2011. B.T. Newberg approached me in 2013 with a request to republish it on Humanistic Paganism, which I welcomed. The republished version contained a disclaimer, added by Mr. Newberg, with my consent, and which was added to reduce noise in the face of some sort of apparent controversy with which I am wholly unfamiliar.

        So, no, I did not ask that I be contradicted on Humanistic Paganism.

        The disclaimer reads as follows– “Note from the editor: As always, the views and opinions expressed by individual authors on this site do not necessarily reflect those of or of all Naturalistic Pagans. Please remember that this site is for constructive expression and dialogue. Comments of a harassing or inflammatory nature will be deleted.”

        Contradicting an author does not actually run against that disclaimer. People did respectfully disagree over there, I offered responses, and things were just fine.

        At the end of the day, I am glad that you took things to your own blog; I believe that that’s a better practice in general. What I am severely disappointed by is the fact that you clearly know how to find me and talk to me and you seem to indicate that you’re pleasantly acquainted with me, so you could have dropped me a line, talked to me about what I’m saying, what I’m not saying, my goals, my thoughts, whether or not you could say I had attended one of your rituals at Pantheacon, etc. You’d have had my permission, and I’d have reminded you that I openly and passionately wept through the call-and-response liturgy.

        This very, very easily could have ended up with deeper understanding and possibly even grown into at least a pair of articles where we both talked about this, in a filial spirit, from our own perspectives. There would have been dialog, understanding, and maybe even some bridges built. It was a good opportunity, and that opportunity was wasted, as was the modicum of goodwill we developed in the comment threads of “Care and Feeding of your Atheist Pagan,” which is actually the sequel to “Yes, Virginia, I am an Atheist Pagan.”

        You made a post hoc apology for using a blog post to think out loud. It would seem to me that, if you truly regret posting inchoate material, it’d be easy to rectify it by removing whatever it is you no longer stand behind, or by issuing some sort of retraction or errata. In the future, though, if you’re someone who “thinks in the post editor” as I do, you may want to explore the “save as draft” feature of WordPress and consider even having a dialog with a trusted friend about your goals for the article and where it stands now. Both of my essays went through a very long on-and-off process of revision prior to publishing them on my blog. “Yes, Virginia” lived as a draft for nearly three months, and “Care and Feeding” went through three complete rewrites until I found a voice for the essay which matched the level of serious personal vulnerability that came with exposing myself and my experiences online. I sincerely hope that using that using things that personal and vulnerable to make hay over here has been productive to your path.

        You can’t build things with regrets, though, so I don’t care either way. As I recently stated on my blog, I am taking all of 2014 off from writing about Paganism, unless it comes up as an incidental subject in other things I write about. To be frank, what’s happening here is a prime example of why.

        I really don’t have more to say, so I’m happy to let you and anyone else who replies have the last word. Best wishes that your path leads you to good things.

      • I do appreciate your responding here, Rhett.

        There’s still a fundamental misunderstanding on your part (and several other individuals) on what the point of this post was, however.

        Yes, I was working out my thoughts as I went along and was making this post, in essence, to determine what it is that I feel and think about a particular issue…and, where it went and what happened with it was a surprise to me, as I didn’t expect it would end up where it did (which, in my reading of it and in my intended meaning behind it, was a non-alteration of my own policies, in absence of further directives from my gods, on the admission of atheists to rituals).

        In working out my own thoughts and feelings on these matters, I have one and only one matter to take into consideration: being honest about what it is that I think and feel. Bringing in the experience of someone else–however positive it might have been–actually isn’t going to help me determine what I think and feel. It’s not that I am inconsiderate of others (in fact, it’s usually the opposite–I’m over-considerate of others, often to my direct detriment)…

        Instead, it’s that I’m quite certain that when you decide on a given day whether or not you’d like an apple or an orange, you don’t take into consideration what your across-the-street neighbor likes better, or what the Florida Orange Council prefers, or what the thoughts of the British Concerned Climate Change Scientists on the particular Terry’s Chocolate Oranges that they had at their conference in June of 2011 happened to be. In that moment, with all that is at stake in making that choice between the apple and the orange, all that matters is where you’re at with it at the time. If there is a nice plate of other fruits and attractive garnishes surrounding the apple, it might make it look more appealing; if there is a big pile of tarantulas crawling all over the orange, it might seem less appealing. It may be even more problematic if both of the things in that previous sentence were true, and yet you still wanted an orange in that particular moment.

        I’m sure you can plug in the possibilities for what means what in relation to the present situation with that extended conceit.

        There are consequences for choosing one or the other of the options (exclusion or non-exclusion based on atheism) in the case of a devotional polytheist, and my awareness of that–and, perhaps even more so, my lack of awareness of it previous to having the thoughts which lead to this post–was my preoccupation as I wrote this post, and it is still foremost in my mind now. Whatever conversation we might have had over the matters related to this post might have been, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that I feel conflicted and am sorting out what my thoughts and feelings happen to be here (however erroneously and incorrectly I might have done so at various stages of the discussions in the comments). In a conversation we might have had, I may have been totally reassured that you are not remotely entitled in your wish to participate in polytheist rituals, or that my construction of the argument that “there are no rules, therefore don’t make rules, because it’s against the rule that there are no rules” was severely off, and so forth; but, I still have to stand before my gods and take whatever consequences result from doing something that they might not approve of. It’s a very spidery orange indeed, but at the end of my decision-making process, I’m still going to reach for it, it seems. Maybe the spiders won’t care and will scurry away when they see my hand coming; maybe they’ll jump on my face and bite me and kill me. Unfortunately, I need to call in external help to speak spider most of the time, as my gods don’t usually communicate such matters that directly with me (or extremely rarely so).

        I find your “advice” on how to prevent things like this happening in the future to be, in a word, patronizing. The point of airing this in public was to air it in public rather than sit, stew, and steam over it privately and have it take up significant portions of my mental space for weeks or months. Talking it over with colleagues…well, the fact is, most of my colleagues agree on certain points (whether they are points I raised here or articulated–well or poorly–is for them to affirm or deny), and so it wouldn’t necessarily have helped me to do so with them. It is somewhat cathartic for me to write about these things publicly, I feel, which is why I do it and why I did it in this case. I also am a firm adherent of being honest whenever possible, and thus altering this post, or retracting it, is not an option for me–it accurately reflects my thoughts at the time, and I don’t think there is anything to be ashamed of in that (even though I do regret the uncharitable readings I gave to your position in the discussions in the comments–I make mistakes, and I am not very keen on whitewashing my mistakes for the sake of my own good public image; if there are confusions about my position on these matters that are not answered by these discussions in the comments, then the person making assertions about my viewpoints without that wider contextual knowledge is in error). It’s the way I prefer to do things, it’s the way that I understand the practice of filidecht (where all utterance is public, right or wrong, no matter the consequences), and I don’t think it’s a bad way. That it is not your way, nor the methodology you followed in your own posts, is from my viewpoint interesting to note–and that’s about it.

        You have objected to my thinking and feeling process that lead to this post, and have suggested I alter it; you have given me advice on how I should handle things like this in the future, and would have been better served to have done so in this case. Am I incorrect in stating that on these matters, you have a problem with both my beliefs and my practices, and wish they would change? That’s unfortunate…and also ironic.

        All of that said, I stake my existence on the fact that it is never too late, good things can always come from difficult situations, disagreements do not have to be doomsday events, and that where there is good will and a willingness to struggle together rather than separate, there is always the possibility of excellent outcomes. No, it’s not always successful, but I tend to have better luck on this than I do with many other matters. If I have had a very heated argument with someone, it often ends up making my connection to them much stronger–if my emotions are running high (as they have in the present instance), it actually shows that I have an investment in what is going on; this is not mere mind-games for their own sake. If you’d like to try with me to move to a better and more productive result for all of this, publicly or privately, I’d be very willing; if you are too upset over this to even consider it, I do understand, and am sorry to hear it.

  13. I do not *for a moment* think that the existence of the deities is like fantasy fic. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite, and I feel a lot of Pagans actually seem to take a very limited and reductionist approach to their characterization of deity which is what led to that comment. I believe that Pagans in the US, like the rest of the population, would do well to explore a wider range of religious writings and explore comparative frameworks for religious practices. I also think more people should learn more about different modes of atheism. I just don’t think that Pagans on the whole, again like the rest of the US population, engage in particularly sophisticated or informed discussion about religion.

    As for Rhett, apparently those disclaimers were not put there by him. And I still feel that if you want to have a deeper understanding of someone’s experiences or perspectives, particularly before writing about them, you should just ask. Think of how much more awesome the conversation could have been.

    • You directed me to this comment…and it still doesn’t address that what you said above was /unnecessary/. If you’re calling for more nuance, you need to give some as well. You could have, instead of making a snide quip about fantasy novels, said that you don’t feel ‘Pagans on the whole…engage in particularly sophisticated or informed discussion about religion’. That is an entirely different sort of statement.

      We begin having different sorts of discussions when we change our words. I agree we need more nuance. I think that change needs to come from all of us.

      • Fair enough. Point taken. And although I have absolutely no issue with fantasy lit itself, I really do think that many Pagans would do well to increase their range of reading. I am frustrated with the rhetoric of people so awfully certain about the nature of deity in this community.

      • I understand! And I do agree that we could increase our range of reading – but that’s cause I think everyone should do that! Actually, this makes me think of the problem with Pagan 101 books, and I might write more about reading in Pagandom on my own blog. So, thank you.

  14. […] writing in the last month or so is great coverage of the concept of divine hospitality (here, here and here), or “how to treat your gods like they are real”, in ritual and engagement […]

  15. […] reading this post by Anomalous Thracian, and this by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus some wheels in my head got to […]

  16. […] time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or […]

  17. […] of my entry), which is something that has been getting a lot of returned attention of late (with PSVL recently writing about it in reference to atheistic attendance in polytheistic hospitality, etc). I […]

  18. As a seeker of truth, I’m confused as to how one can tell with any degree of certainty that what polytheist holds to be gods are nothing more than demons in disguise. How can I tell? We all know that humans are subject to being deceived, including our feelings and emotions, and that the deities, be they benevolent or mean, are far above humans in so many ways, that we may be subject to their deceitful schemes unawares. Indeed, this entire planet or sector of the universe may be the playground of a band of mischievous gods conducting research on how gullible humans can really be. What prevents this from being the case? Invoking the names of deities that are supposed to be kind wouldn’t seem to help this dilemma as they too could be part of the research or game to deceive me. Please don’t be offended, but in the end is it conceivable or possible that polytheists are all duped? If I’m to jump into a pond of some worldview, be it polytheism or any other, I’d like to be able to jump into one that I can have a high degree of confidence that isn’t loaded with those who seek my harm rather than my good. Help!!

    • I think there’s several things going on in your response here.

      First, why should you have to jump into any worldview at all if you don’t want to, or don’t currently hold it? No polytheist would be asking you to do that unless you were genuinely interested in doing so, and most likely it wouldn’t be the best of ideas to even consider it unless one either already had some experience of the gods (which is what happened to many of us, whether we sought it or not), or wanted to have such an experience (which some others do, and eventually go on to have, while others don’t).

      Second, there’s a real easy yardstick to look at whether or not polytheist devotional activities are motivated by beings who are benevolent or malevolent (although, in fairness, very few gods are 100% altruistic or “pure good,” and we recognize that): does this activity that has been suggested hurt anyone? If it doesn’t, and is only an inconvenience (in time, money, effort, or attention) for those who are the devotees, then it’s a fine thing to do; if it does, then it’s probably a good idea to get further clarification via divination and outside assistance with discernment than to just go ahead unthinking and unblinking toward whatever-it-is.

      While I do suppose your question is conceivable (indeed, you’ve conceived it, so it is!), but if that’s the reason that you’re either not trying polytheism, or you’re choosing to deride polytheists, then that isn’t a very good reason, and is likely due to monotheistic conditioning and cultural assumptions that have gone unquestioned. They used to tell us that our gods were demons, then fictions, and now in our post-psychological world, they say we’re crazy. Your suggestion is something of a species of all three, to one degree or another. I’m not saying (nor is any other polytheist I know saying) “We’re ABSOLUTELY RIGHT and CAN’T POSSIBLY BE WRONG,” but we are most certainly saying “This is very definitely right-for-me and works-for-me,” and it is interesting how often (even within paganism and polytheism more widely) that gets interpreted by others as “Well, you think everyone should be exactly like you,” when most of us have never said anything of that nature at all.

      It’s also interesting how often the phrase “don’t be offended” get invoked right before someone asks something really quite offensive; so, just be aware that such is the case in the future. That’s about as nice as I can possibly respond to the suggestion that the main god I worship, Antinous, who–though not well-known in the wider culture or even amongst polytheists, and very definitely being a deity that is not in the “first rank” of the most powerful, influential, or even necessarily “significant” of gods outside of his own small circles of worshippers and devotees–has done nothing but bring more love, good will, compassion, understanding, zeal for justice, and philanthropy into my life than anything else ever has, may just be a huge dupe and a cosmic experiment on the part of higher beings who just want to fuck with people.

      But mine is only one opinion among many, and if this is something that genuinely interests you, it would be a very good idea to ask qualified others as well before you were to make any decisions–if indeed that’s what you’re seeking to do–on this matter.

  19. […] time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or […]

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