Can atheists be Pagans?
To me, the answer to that question seems easy. Of course they can. But when I brought up the subject recently, I realized the answer wasn’t nearly so clear-cut for many people ... and that a few objected vehemently to the very suggestion that these two philosophies were compatible.
One person even suggested that I was doing Paganism a grave disservice by even suggesting such a notion. This person had spent a good deal of effort convincing some folks who identified themselves as Christians that Pagans weren’t “godless.” To say that Pagans could be atheists, she said, was to prove these Christians right! (I found myself wondering why I, or anyone who holds a non-Christian belief, should care about how a Christian might judge that belief.)
Certainly, not all Pagans are godless, just as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The majority are, in fact, theists - and the majority of those are polytheists, believers in many gods. But there are some Pagan pantheists out there, too, along with some monotheists, some agnostics and yes, even some atheists.
In fact, a survey I conducted online last summer found that the vast majority of respondents identified the most important element in Paganism as “reverence for nature.” Given three possible responses, a whopping 87 percent chose this answer. In second place, with just 10 percent of the vote, was “worship of the gods.” (The third option, “practice of magic(k),” received a paltry 3 percent.
When asked whether worship of the gods was a fundamental component of Paganism, a majority - 53 percent - said it wasn’t. While the size of the sample for these questions was significant at more than 600 people, the sampling was not scientific. Nevertheless, it shows clearly that a significant number of people don’t think polytheism is essential to Paganism and - even among those who do - most don’t think it’s the defining element.
Reverence for nature fills that role.
Few people showed greater reverence for nature than the late Carl Sagan, an agnostic who made a career of exploring - and marveling at - the wonders of the universe. In fact, he was so astounded by the beauty and complexity of the universe itself, that he saw no need to go seeking gods or goddesses to explain it. His philosophy was that no concept of a creator or overseer could possibly match the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature itself.
This is the way the Pagan atheist views the world, and the universe at large. It’s not some dry, clinical and bitter philosophy. It’s a vibrant, dynamic view of life and the environment that births and sustains it. In fact, many Pagans view the universe as a sort of living organism - either metaphorically or in actual terms. The parallels are, indeed, fascinating. And, in fact, many Pagans believe that the distinction between natural and supernatural is a false one - that nature is the totality of all there is, and that it’s meaningless to speak of anything being somehow outside of nature.
How could we even conceive of such a something in any case? We’d have absolutely no frame of reference for either conceptualizing or experiencing it.
The role of deities
All of which raises the question of gods and goddesses. What, exactly, are they? Are they supernatural entities - beings outside or somehow above nature? This is certainly the Christian worldview - a view that places its deity outside of nature and, in doing so, casts nature itself in a subordinate role. Nature is but a creation, a tool at the disposal of a superior being who created it either for “his” own enjoyment or for the purpose of allowing other creations (humanity) to exploit it.
I know of very few Pagans who approve of exploiting nature for the sake of human greed and narcissism. Most, in my experience, view humans as part of nature, not separate from it - part of an intricate web of life, not somehow above or beyond it. Gods and goddesses, likewise, are most often viewed as part of the fabric of nature, rather than somehow disconnected from it. On the contrary, they are connected in the most intimate fashion possible. Poseidon is the sea personified. Deities such as Osiris, Aphrodite and Freya exemplify the very principle of fertility. Zeus’ lightning and Thor’s thunder are in the storm.
The ancients didn’t fully comprehend how the forces of nature worked, so they viewed it in terms they did understand - anthropomorphic terms. They put a human face on nature, attributing violent storms to an angry god's tantrum or fertile fields to the benevolence of a goddess.
One difficulty many atheists have with these conceptions is practical. If we believe that we are at the mercy of a deity’s emotions, it’s only human nature that we’re going to try like hell to influence those emotions. We’re going to try to put that deity in a good mood. This is how the concept of sacrifice developed, as an attempt to placate (or bribe) a deity by offering him/her something we ourselves might enjoy - often in the form of food. There were a couple of problems with this assumption.
First off, it was arrogant to think the forces behind the elements needed anything from us, and it was presumptuous to assume that - if they did - they’d enjoy the same sorts of things we did. Second, instead of placating the forces of nature, the assumption led us to actually destroy elements of nature itself. We sacrificed things that were never ours to sacrifice. We killed animals and burned them on altars. We even went so far as to kill humans. And if our sacrifices weren’t “accepted” (the rains didn’t come or the land remained barren), we blamed the priests who conducted the sacrifices and killed them, too.
While we don’t conduct human sacrifices today, we still ostracize people who don't believe the way we do on the grounds that they're an offensive to our patron deity or deities. The Christian concept of hell falls into this category, as does the shunning of family members still practiced in some faiths. Indeed, Christian dogma is built on a foundation of the need for sacrifice - both homicidal and deicidal, but it’s hardly alone. Those who practice a variety of other faiths still sacrifice animals in the hope of propitiating or manipulating the gods.
Marvels and contradictions
These are the kinds of practices that the Pagan atheist finds saddening, because they do unnecessary damage to nature itself - something humanity has done far too often. Indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose god was originally a storm deity in a polytheistic tradition, often justifies brutalizing nature on the grounds that this god gave human beings the right to do so. It seems contradictory (perhaps even sadomasochistic) that a god of nature should have given humans the right to destroy his creation for their benefit. Or his. Or both.
I wrote the book “Requiem for a Phantom God” to expose just such contradictions in the dominant form of monotheism practiced today in the West. Although I think polytheism has an ethical advantage on Abrahamic monotheism - as I explain in that work - I’d be less than fair or honest if I didn’t acknowledge similar contradictions where I see them within Paganism, as well.
It is precisely because of a love for nature that a person can identify as a Pagan and an atheist with absolutely no contradiction whatsoever. The Pagan atheist views nature itself as the magnificent framework of which we all are a part - and has no need to put a human face on it. To do so is to look at it through a clouded lens, rather than taking it at its own marvelous face value.
“I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point,” Sagan once remarked, “but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.”
Misconceptions and metaphors
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Pagan atheists are just a bunch of bah-humbug types who revel in their own bitterness and adhere to a boring and rigid existence devoid of beauty and reverence. There is, of course, plenty of bitterness and negativity out there - but these attitudes can be found in people of all paths. No faith has a monopoly. In fact, Pagan atheists celebrate nature. Though we don't believe in anthropomorphic deities who stand as guardians to the forces of nature, we revere those forces on their own terms and, when others speak of Isis or Demeter, we respect their right to do so. We may even use such divine names ourselves, not in reference to unseen personalities, but as symbol and metaphor - a rich form of human expression - to characterize nature itself.
We don’t begrudge others the use of terms like “the goddess” or “the lord and the lady.” On the contrary, we see them as a poetic homage to the wonders nature and an acknowledgement of the masculine and feminine principles that are so prevalent across our natural world. We see no contradiction between such poetic reverence and the scientific assurance that thunderstorms aren’t the product of a storm god’s wrath, but rather the something that occurs when warm, moist air rises rapidly in the atmosphere.
When it comes right down to it, arguing that atheists don’t belong in the Pagan world is like arguing that Protestants aren’t real Christians or that Sufis aren’t true Muslims. It’s the opposite side of the coin that argues “all Pagans are Wiccan.” No, they’re not. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be Pagan, but neither do you have to be a theist. It’s not a prerequisite. There’s room enough in this vibrant community for a wide array of different expressive forms, including Pagan atheism.