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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pagans and Atheists: Plenty of Room for Constructive Dialogue

The following is a response to Ian Corrigan, author of the blog titled “Into the Mound,” who posted his own response to my article “Pagan Atheists: Yes, We Exist.”

First, I’d like to thank the author for his thoughtful tone and encourage readers of this article who are interested to read it. For the purposes of brevity, I'm only quoting excerpts here and don't wish it to seem as though I'm taking anything out of context.  This is the kind of intelligent give-and-take that I appreciate; disagreements can be stated without bashing or belittling, and everyone can walk away enriched by the experienced.

I’d like to begin by reiterating my position that the original piece was not meant as a condemnation of polytheism. There are quite a few rather bitter atheists who seem as intent upon proselytizing as fundamentalist Christians , and I think that’s too bad because their sour attitude obscures the message they’re trying to get across. I’m not suggesting that everyone “convert” to atheism, merely making a case for the acceptance of atheism within a Pagan context.  There are Pagans who are dismissive of the idea that one can be both a Pagan and an atheist; I take issue with this. I simply believe the Pagan umbrella is big enough to offer acceptance to both views (along with others and many variants).

There are a few things Mr. Corrigan and I seem to agree on. When it comes to the nature of the universe, I am very much of a mind that the entire thing is a unified whole. Mr. Corrigan’s statement that the gods are “part and parcel of nature” seems to be in agreement with this principle. On the other hand, I believe that living beings are also unified wholes, in agreement with the pattern of the universe as a whole. This isn't materialism (a term Mr. Corrigan uses that doesn't represent my personal view). I view it, rather, as integration.

I’m not “discarding half the business,” to use Mr. Corrigan’s phrase, I’m arguing for a unified view.

The idea that the spiritual and physical are somehow separate hearkens back to dualistic ideas found in the teachings of Zoroaster, the Gnostics and others. Adherents of such ideas soon began to argue that one facet of nature was one how superior to the other, and people wound up condemning the material and exalting the spiritual.

I personally think this was a big mistake.

On the other hand, I'm not advocating the opposite approach (condemning the spiritual and exalting the material). Far from it. What I’m proposing is an integrated approach that breaks down such distinctions because all are equally a part of nature.

In suggesting that the spiritual is dependent upon the material, I'm not at all suggesting that the material is somehow superior. The fact is that, when it comes to that quality we call “life,” the material is equally dependent upon the material. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other is precisely the process that leads us to ignoring one or the other and missing out on the wonders of the whole.

An exception to the rule: There are times when one must, of necessity, focus on some specific component of a system. For instance, if a certain part of the body is ailing, we focus on restoring that part to health; it doesn't do us much good to take an aspirin when a bone needs to be set or pop a few Vitamin C's for a case of bronchitis. But in general, it’s most respectful to refer to a person rather than his component parts.

To say that I am both spiritual and physical misses the point. I am also a nose, a psyche, lungs, emotions and a whole assortment of other things. But I’m not any one of them to the exclusion of the others. I’m the whole. I’m me. Period. Just as the universe is the universe. The more we divide and subdivide our realities into various categories with convenient labels, the more, I think, we miss the grandeur of the unified whole and how it all works together. The parts are interrelated and interdependent, as in an ecosystem. When you focus on one to the exclusion of others, you run the risk of throwing everything out of whack.

Do spirits exist apart from the material? I have no experience of such, but neither am I arrogant enough to say that this isn’t possible. To be an atheist, as I use the term, is to be “without gods” - not to deny their existence, but to deny any experience of such existence. Any attempt to prove a negative is an exercise in futility. But I can say I have no personal knowledge of gods, and that all my experience points to the idea that systems - whether they be human communities, ecosystems or individual organisms - function as integrated wholes rather than in isolation from one another.

I am not, myself, aware of spirits functioning in isolation from bodies, but consider this: bodies do not long function in isolation from what people refer to as spirits, either. They decay and become something else entirely. Recognition of this process is part and parcel of many Pagans’ beliefs. Again, this does not mean that spirits can't function without bodies; it merely means that, in my experience, they don't.

Another point on which I differ with Mr. Corrigan - and an important reason I cannot, personally, adopt his approach - is the primacy he appears to place on worship. In his article, he defines a god as “a mighty spirit who answers worship with blessing.” I have a hard time with this. The gods, in this conception, strike me as either  1) self-indulgent types who thrive on flattery or 2) supernatural on-off switches: you worship, they bless. I don’t generally trust individuals who need their egos stroked, and attributing this sort of behavior to a god does not, to me, make it any more acceptable. On the other hand, if they merely respond to human actions - you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours - that seems to demean the whole idea of godhood.

If beings called gods and goddesses exist as a part of nature, beyond the world of archetype and symbol, does that make them in any sense superior to other elements of nature? I would argue that the answer is no. Part of humanity’s problem, in my view, is the arrogance that places man/woman above the rest of nature, demanding obeisance and arrogantly proclaiming that the rest of the universe exists to serve us. In essence, it’s an attitude that insists on the sort of dynamic Mr. Corrigan appears to invoke: nature must serve us, or or we’ll withhold our blessing.

We cut down forests and drill oil, in essence demanding that nature to our will. This has nothing to do with nature. Earth will compensate, and the universe will continue. To nature, a human's well being has no greater value than an ant's or a redwood's - all are a part of the whole. And if gods exist and are a part of nature, as Mr. Corrigan believes (and as I would believe, if I were to believe in gods), I doubt they're any more important to nature than an ant ... or a human.

I don’t think the earth, the animals, the plants, etc. exist for our convenience any more than we exist for the convenience of some other element in nature (gods or goddesses). The very essence of our egotism is that we demand things be done our way rather than nature’s way. If gods do the same thing, what makes them better than humans? Mere power? And if that's all it is, does might make right?

I find Mr. Corrigan’s description of European sacrificial rites a positive contribution to the dialogue: “The tradition of animal sacrifice, at least in Europe, was a community barbecue in which a food animal was killed, butchered and cooked, with the gods getting the bones and fat and the humans getting the parts we could use.”

Thid practice. as presented. does, in fact, seem to be a noble tradition: Do not waste what you can use, and leave what you can’t use for a different purpose. I can't argue with this reasoning. I would, however, ask why entirely spiritual beings - if they exist - would have need of any physical elements. If they were, in fact, integrated beings as we are, the question would be moot. But if, as the author states, a god is a “mighty spirit” and the spiritual is “distinct from the material,” what need does the god have of anything physical?

Mr. Corrigan expresses a belief that some spirits “enjoy putting on our likeness” - becoming corporeal. The belief that gods could take human form was, indeed, widespread among the ancients. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, this can occur. It is still insufficient to answer the question of why one should sacrifice a physical substance to a deity while that deity was in incorporeal form. One could be expected to offer a deity an invitation to dinner when he/she had taken on human form, because then (presumably), he/she would be able to enjoy it. But this is no less than the spirit of hospitality encourages us all to do for corporeal individuals who are “merely” human.

Then again, if deities can take human form, isn't that an argument - in itself - for integration rather than division? I think that's a question worth asking.

I’ll boil this all down to four points as follows:
  • I disagree with Mr. Corrigan’s emphasis on a dichotomy of nature that consists of natural/supernatural or spiritual/physical. I prefer to view the universe and the individuals within it as integrated wholes (which I think fits nicely into the “as above, so below” pattern Mr. Corrigan quotes in his article).
  • I disagree with the conception of gods as those who exchange blessings for worship. If such beings exist, I expect they’re infinitely more complex than this. (I honestly suspect Mr. Corrigan does, too, and I don't mean to represent this as his entire opinion on the matter.) And if they aren’t, I don’t have much respect for them.
  • I don’t personally find any evidence of deities in my own experience; others testify to such experience. That doesn’t make either of us any less worthy of respect or any less Pagan. It just makes us different, and we’re both equally entitled to express our thoughts on the matter.
  • I’m not seeking to denigrate polytheism or any other form of theism. In fact, I believe there is much commonality Pagans of all stripes can enjoy, whether they’re polytheists, pantheists, humanists, atheists or what have you. Rather than seeking to exclude any of these folks from the table, I think we should be welcoming one another as those who can contribute to a constructive dialogue for our mutual edification.


  1. Good points. I think I'll refrain from another whole article in response. A couple of things:

    I agree that seeking to mitigate the western matter/spirit dualism is a valuable goal. However I tend to look at religion as a body of skills (I look at art the same way). It has specific goals - to connect the apparent psyche with transpersonal experiences and resources. To me that makes it a specialty of the psychic/spiritual component of both the self and the cosmos, in the way that athletics are a specialty of muscle strength and coordination.

    Paganism (and magic) already goes a long way toward healing the dualism - we regularly embody the spiritual as part of our practice. Being a skeptic I find it entirely possible that we're dealing with psycholinguistic phenomena here - I just find that it behaves like more than that. In any case religious phenomena certainly happen in/to material vehicles - our nervous systems, and the many artifacts of spirit we create/discover.

    I am unwilling to make dualism between human will and 'nature's' will. I do not believe that nature is a unified being with a single will or intent. Nature doesn't want, like or need anything at all, and in fact every human act is subsumed in human nature. We, too, are part and parcel of nature, and what we do is what nature does. Our strength and wisdom problem means that we are now strong enough to truly screw things up (as opposed to screwing up small areas, as in previous epochs) and so we must grasp for the wisdom to manage our strength. All of that is as nature hath metaphorically decreed. Every animal shapes nature as their own nature allows - we have the same rights that a beaver has.

    Nor does nature respond to entreaty. However, very often specific beings inside nature do. I find it hard to imagine having relationship with nature as a whole (no person there) but I can be in relation with the sun, that mountain, my grandmother's ghost. Again, I'd be inclined to call *that* Pagan religion, rather than any attempt to relate with 'nature' as a universal.

    Yes, I could go on. :)
    Nice chat!

    1. IanC,

      Thanks for the feedback. If I suggested there was some sort of dualism between humanity and nature as a whole, that wasn't my intent. That's why I referred to "the rest of nature" and stated that, whatever we do, "Earth will compensate, and the universe will continue."

      And I agree that nature doesn't respond to entreaties, but then again, I'm not personally interested in entreaties. My personal experience is that entreaties directed toward deities are pretty much hit-and-miss affairs. I suppose one could invoke some variant of the "Pascal's wager" argument and state that, "well, it doesn't hurt to try." I just prefer to try things that, in my own experience and in scientific trials, gives some indication that it produces results.

      Yes, that's the skeptic in me. I don't demand proof, but I need evidence, and the evidence I see is just highly ambiguous. I agree with you that it's hard to imagine having a relationship with something impersonal. But I'm not suggesting that I have a relationship with nature in the same sense that I do with my wife or even my cat - and that's fine with me. My relationships with those I love are sufficient for me in that regard.

      I know my wife and my friends will respect my feelings; that's more than I can know about nature or the gods. That's one reason I suspect that deities are anthropomorphic representations of elements of nature: they seem to respond to entreaties in the same way impersonal nature does - in a chaotic, unpredictable and almost random manner.

      Worship, as you've described it, strikes me as far too much like a human attempt to control other elements of nature by attributing human characteristics to it, which is precisely what I don't want to do personally. I will admit, it's hard not to do so, as certain things are hardwired into our psyches (the Fusiform face area comes to mind). But just because we are hardwired to recognize faces, for instance, that doesn't mean a pattern that resembles a face in a cloud or a piece of toast actually IS a face.

      At any rate, I'm starting to ramble on, and I want to emphasize that I appreciate the cordial dialogue. My most profound disagreement lies not in the details of the discussion, but in the fact that I think the definition of Paganism should not depend on one's relationship to deities, as everyone's relationship to them is different - even those who may view them as archetypes or metaphors, and who see no evidence that they exist.


  2. Atheists don't proselytize; that's a religious concept.

  3. Regarding Corrigan's definition of gods as beings who respond to worship with blessings... I can't speak for him, but my first thought was that this was meant to distinguish gods from other supernormal beings who are not considered to respond to worship: Titans, Jotuns, Fomori, etc. I didn't think it was meant to reduce gods to "on/off switches" to get blessings as out of a vending machine.

    Oh, and btw, "Into the Mound" is the title of Corrigan's blog, not his post.

  4. Thank you for this representation; in my opinion this is how atheism ought to be. I am a polytheist myself and I really do not care what other people believe so long as they don't attempt to beat me over the head with it. Unfortunately, my experience with internet atheists had thus far been of the sort that decide to define all religions by the one(s) they are pissed off at and make very obnoxious blanket statements that generally amount to insulting mine. I'm extremely glad to see someone writing thoughtfully and setting a very good example...there really isn't any reason why we shouldn't all be able to get along like grownups without name-calling and trolling. Good on you!

    1. Well, all religions do have commonalities that atheists tend to find a little absurd, like that whole believing in gods thing.