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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pagan Atheists: Yes, We Exist

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.

Sagan’s example

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. 

Sacrificial offerings

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.


  1. I found the article very presumptive, many of the arguments are typical of the atheist arrogance usually aimed at the straw man of Christianity. The idea that we humans have always exploited the earth I find insulting, our ancestors lived in a world where they had to chop trees, kill animals and fight each other, just to survive.

    I also found your conclusion that offerings were somehow assumed to be 'needed' by the gods to be naive. At Christmas, do we need others to buy us presents?
    We usually do not, in fact in material terms we would often be better off without gift giving. The value of the offering, like the gift is best summed up by the old adage 'it's the thought that counts'.
    I would like to end my criticism by stating that it is an arrogant and short-sighted man who believes that there is nothing to the universe beyond what he sees. I do hope that perhaps, the difficult to perceive may make itself known to you one day.

    1. How ironic to call out the author's "arrogance" when you can't even see beyond yours. Short-sighted would be if you had actual proof for your gods, which you don't. What you have is vague notions, questionable experiences and outdated references. If there was anything else, there wouldn't have been justification for posts like the aforementioned and things would've been far different in the modern world, and especially science.

      Before casting the first stone, first make sure there's not a landslide coming your way.

  2. Hi there. I have to say I really enjoyed reading the post :)
    I think that most pagans do view the God/Goddess/Gods as personifications. Personally, I think like this and I practice paganism by "worshiping" nature. I always think of the Goddess as Mother Earth or attribute certain aspects of nature to either the Goddess or God (I'm a duotheist, not a pantheist, though like you said, this can be said for polytheists as well). According to this, I could even call myself an atheistic pagan, though I think I still lean a bit too much towards the religious side of paganism to call myself that :)

    All in all, very interesting :) would you mind if I used some of the statistics you mentioned in one of my future posts? I was thinking about writing a post on the importance or the God and Goddess (or rather the religious side) in Wicca.

    Witch's Cat

  3. Thank you for this post. I am also a "Sagan Pagan". And I believe that many ancient Pagans were also not theists. Our need for belief is a result of being reared in a Christian society.

  4. While I am not an atheist -- I identify as a dharma Pagan -- I agree with much of your philosophy when it comes to reverence for nature and inspiration through scientific inquiry. There are many ways of being Pagan, with many overlaps, and it's important that we cultivate respectful pluralism within the Pagan movement. So mote it be!

  5. I'm glad to see this idea getting a bit more traction these days. I wrote my own personal statement on this over at my blog back in 2011 after having experienced friction admitting my atheism at a Pagan gathering. Believe it or not, most Pagans eventually understand my point of view, and most of the flack I get is from other atheists who think I'm just trying to have my cake and eat it, too.

  6. A number of months ago I ran into a coven of atheists, to say I was surprised would be understatement. While the path I follow IS Wiccan, I do see that these individuals hold as critical ( what I call sacred) many of the important Pagan concepts. Welcome to the family!

    Blessed are those following their own path to truth and insight!

  7. ****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 sums up how I feel for the most part. I could not tell you the last time I cast and circle and did some elaborate spell, or what others would consider "spellwork" at all. I CAN tell you however, that I was humbled by the sunrise just this morning and spoke to the moon last night.

  8. In most pre-Industrial societies, community sacrifices are in part a means of re-distributing food, wealth and prestige. They reinforce social bonds, and in the case of the Potlatch in the Northwest, serve as a mechanism to check inflation. Of course this doesn't get into the extremely rich interpersonal and mythic dimensions of these actions.

    I vividly remember the Beatified Painting of Sagan on the cover of Skeptical Enquirer the month following his death. He even had a halo of stars.

  9. I was glad to read your post here. I am also an Athiest Pagan. (Heathen actually). Thankfully, no one I know has any problem with this. I think athiests in general get much flack from theists as it idifficult for either side to understand the other. Many people seem taken aback when I tell them that prior to finding paganism, I was atheist. Why not? Why cannot I have an altar to Odin? Just because I do not beleive he exists as a actual being does not mean that Odin himself is meaningless as a symbol.

  10. About the Celts of Spain Strabo wrote "... the Galicians are atheists, but not so the Celts and other peoples that border on the north with them ..."

    Greetings from Spain

  11. Great post! I feel the same way. I identify as a "Naturalistic Pagan" because it is a positive statement of what I am, not a negative one of what I am not. I like the name "Sagan Pagan" from an earlier comment too. Over on the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group, we have hundred of members (but a much smaller core of the most active posters, of course). Feel free to check us out:


  12. I don't view offerings as placating or bribery. I give so They may give. It is a reciprocal circuit. And I believe the Gods need me as much as I need them.

  13. Check. Count me in that number.

  14. I thought it was a very interesting article, and I am glad to hear him describe a little of his belief in such a way... HOWEVER, for all of his descriptions of Paganism today, I found very little of it accurate.

    THREE QUESTIONS from a survey of Pagans were referenced in the beginning of the article: worship of Gods, reverence for nature, and practice of magick. There is a BIG difference between worship and reverence... what about people who revere Gods and worship nature? What about people who believe in something monotheistic? They would have selected the next best thing, which is reverence for nature. I wouldn't say his poll is accurate at all, but it lacks precision and specificity. In addition, there is a very LARGE presumption here that a Pagan's reverence for a higher power involves anthropomorphizing that power, giving it a face and name, and human-like characteristics.

    Anyone who has heard me talk about my beliefs remembers that, while it's comforting to imagine your talking to a being with a face like yours, deity is boundless and eternal, and personification is limit I choose not to use in my rituals and day-to-day life. So, what about those people that revere nature AND who see a consciousness in its energy patterns and life force, but who DON'T slap it with a face and name (or do so very loosely)? I acknowledge the existence of Pagan Athiests totally... you love nature, and there's nothing eminently conscious behind it. But what about those who believe in something less conventional, and less in the structures and categories of what is defined as "typical" labels: athiests, theists, monotheists, duotheists, polytheists, etc. I have a friend who acknowledges multiple Gods, but they aren't Gods of any Earthly pre-existing pantheon, and they have no human form. She doesn't fit the pre-conceived notion of a polytheistic... her beliefs are more dynamic.

    I'm rambling at this point, but the one thing to take away from my statement is: don't assume everyone is a Pagan Athiest because you don't know how to draft a questionaire correctly. I talk to a lot of people about their ACTUAL BELIEFS and how they view nature and the divine... very little of what they've described falls in the narrow concept categories you've created. But I'm glad you've found your stride. Congrats!

    1. My grammatical errors are going to drive me crazy...
      "accurate at all; instead, it lacks precision..."
      "to imagine that you're talking to..."
      "is a limit I choose not to apply..."
      "of a polytheistic... her beliefs..."
      Sorry, I'm OCD about these things!

  15. Excellent article. I edit a community blog for naturalistic spirituality called HumanisticPaganism.com, and would love to showcase your article by republishing it at our site. Please let me know if you would be amenable to this by emailing humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks!

  16. I have tried the religious part of paganism and Wicca and found myself uncomfortable with it. I have been an actual Atheist for a long time, even while working at being a christian, I did not believe on faith but wanted proof (none given, of course). I tried to explain how I was an Atheist pagan to a new friend and luckily he accepted it well, saying whatever gave me peace was important. And it does. Looking into the night sky and wondering over the magnificence of nature makes me feel like a part of a wonderful system.
    I found your article insightful and well-written despite what others say. I wish you'd put it on facebook so I could repost it with "this is me" and let it explain to my friends what I am. While I am attempting to publish books about a Witch and at some point in the series they encounter the goddess Gaea, she is the only goddess mentioned. And that is because she is the Earth Mother, the mother of Elementals that help keep our world in balance.
    Thank you for speaking out on a vital subject.

  17. Stifyn, I don't know why you make such a big deal of it. I believe in no Gods or Goddesses, revere nature and believe the 'spirit' if you will of nature, resides in everything. But I just call myself a Pagan, plain and simple and always have - no need for labels and everyone accepts me as such without argument. I respect their path and they mine.

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  19. Hello! I know this was written a while ago now, but I've just found this article and I'd just like to thank you for writing it.

    It IS a big deal - certainly for me, and I'm sure it will be for lots of others too. I was brought up Catholic, and while my family was never particularly devout, growing up in a Christian environment where Christianity is seen as 'normal' made it difficult enough to come to terms with the fact I felt I probably wasn't a Christian, let alone countenance that I might be pagan.
    It's taken a long time for me to explore what I might identify myself as, and it is IMMENSELY reassuring for me to find there are whole communities of people who feel like I do and hold the same things dear. I realise there must be plenty of people who are happy to explore their own beliefs quietly as individuals, but a key part of this for me is that I believe our stories, traditions, folklore and rituals that mark key events are actually the important bit of religion - it is the expression of our understanding of the world, the expression of our creativity and coming together as a community that is the magical bit of religious practice. I believe humans all over the world have created religious practice for thousands of years because it is good for us as a species, and it is part of what I find wondrous about our little corner of nature. I have desperately wanted to find a community of other people who feel similarly, and have been lucky to find some newly made friends who feel that paganism should be an inclusive practice, and enjoy exploring rituals that are simple and allow all contributors to engage with them at their own level.

    Unfortunately the reputation of paganism in the mainstream is still that it consists of the deluded and weird, and I am trying to gently introduce my loved ones to the notion that there is more to it than that!

  20. I've called myself an atheist for years, but I've considered myself a Pantheist for a while now, ever since I first learned about it. It seems like what you're describing is in fact Pantheism.
    Can you explain the differences?