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Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

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Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Fri Feb 07, 2014 3:33 pm

A Very Quick Introduction to Non-Deity-Centered Paganism

I’ve seen at least one or two relative newcomers to the forum ask about if they can be pagan if they don’t believe in gods or goddesses, or what the relation is between paganism and science. I hope to address at least a few of these questions here, since I sincerely believe that Paganism is a very all-encompassing umbrella with room for a lot of different ideas on divinity and supernaturalism.

To begin with, I’d like to share a model of Paganism by John Halstead, the Allergic Pagan. He posits that Paganism has different “centers”: Deity-Centered, Earth-Centered, and Self-Centered. Deity-Centered is fairly straightforward, comprised of Pagans who worship a Goddess, God, or goddesses and gods. Earth-Centered folks revere nature and seek to connect with the natural world. Finally, the Self-Centered group desires to transform the individual spiritually and psychologically, perhaps by seeking to unite with the greater divine “One” (it does NOT mean that people who fall in this group are selfish, necessarily). Later, Halstead added a fourth center of Paganism, “Community-Centered”, where people participate in Paganism because they enjoy the community, or because their family practices Paganism.

Very few people only devote themselves to one center of paganism only; most people can probably easily identify with two. Many people find themselves a mix of all four. But what I’d like to call to attention in this post is people who don’t find themselves particularly attracted to the Deity-Centered aspect of paganism, or perhaps don’t believe in the supernatural in the traditional sense.

Alternative Conceptions of the Divine

Some people may be uncomfortable with more traditional notions of deities (without getting into a big theological debate, I’m going to characterize this very broadly as an external supernatural being who has powers over this realm and who may or may not want to be worshipped). Many Pagans turn to Paganism precisely because they are uncomfortable with, or have never seen proof of, these supernatural beings but were demanded to “have faith” in them by an organized religion. But simply because we don’t believe in the concrete existence of deities doesn’t mean that we cannot find other ways of seeking and appreciating divinity and the sacred in the world. Pagans have many alternate ways to relate to the divine, and I’m going to list just a few of them (none of which are mutually exclusive):

Animism: The belief that natural physical entities, such as rocks, trees, and streams, have some kind of spiritual essence worthy of respect (how intelligent this spiritual essence varies depending on your belief); this was a fairly common belief among ancient religions.

Monism: The belief that everything has a single source, or a divine essence that underlies all things

Pantheism: The belief that everything in the universe put together is Goddess/God/the Divine, or that the universe is identical to Goddess/God/the Divine. Pantheism does not hold that the Divine is personal, or anthropomorphic (i.e. takes the form of a human).

Panentheism: The belief that the Goddess/God/the Divine is a part of everything in the universe, but also extends beyond the universe (panentheism means “God is in the world”)

Soft Polytheism: The idea that the gods may be aspects of a single divine spirit or essence, personifications of natural forces, or psychological archetypes (as opposed to hard polytheism, which holds that gods are each distinct, supernatural beings that have an independent existence from us)

Naturalism: The belief that there are no supernatural causes in the universe, only natural ones, and that science is the best route to understanding these natural causes

Atheism: A rejection of the belief in deities, or the belief that no deities exist.

Humanism: A philosophy and ethical stance that emphasizes the experience and agency of human beings, usually over the supernatural.


Why Paganism?

Here's just a small list of reasons off the top of my head why Paganism may be right for you, even if you do not believe in the literal existence of deities:

- Because you draw inspiration from the spiritual practices of ancient traditions such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Norse, Celts, Indians, etc.

- Because you find mythology from the ancient world powerful and meaningful, even if not literally true

- Because you want to celebrate ancient gods and goddesses, perhaps not as literal beings but as a kind of poetic homage to the greater Divine

- Because you are inspired by an earth- and nature-based religion, which celebrates the natural rhythms of the moon and sun and cares deeply for the environment and nature

- Because you follow Pagan ethics

- Because your family or culture has a traditional witchcraft tradition that you are interested in practicing

- Because you are interested in a spirituality that ties you to where you live and the earth around you

- Because you want to practice magic or witchcraft

- Because you grew up in a Pagan family or environment and you would like to continue carrying on the tradition

- Because you experience awe and wonder at the beauty and complexity of the universe -- the natural is already pretty amazing by itself, without needing the supernatural

- Because you are interested in a spirituality which honors the sacred in the feminine equally with the masculine

- Because pagan rituals are interesting, powerful, effective, and fun



Suggested Readings

Adventures of a Non-Deist, or Why I Don’t Believe In The Gods - thank you, Frozenlight, for bringing this to our attention!

Humanistic Paganism, a blog about integrating naturalism and Paganism (it makes for a confusing blog name, but it’s a great blog!). While naturalists hold that there is no evidence for supernatural forces in the universe and that science is the best way to understand our world, Pagan myth, ritual, and meditation is nevertheless incredibly powerful psychologically

The Allergic Pagan, my personal favorite Pagan blog, where John Halstead writes extensively about Jungian Neopaganism and the numinous power of archetypes (among many other things)

Atheopaganism, a spiritual path that explores the awe and wonder of the universe outside the context of deities. This blogger also outlines 13 Principles of Atheopaganism and many non-theistic rituals.

Talking to the Gods as an Atheist Pagan, by Amber Magpie

An Atheist’s Magical Practice in Detail, by the Spiritual Atheist Witch. Is it possible to practice magic even if you don’t believe in supernatural forces? (spoiler: yes!!)

Interview with an Atheist Pagan

Pagan Atheists - Yes, We Exist, in which Stifyn Emrys explains how atheist pagans like himself experience marvel and wonder at nature, in lieu of believing in deities

The Care and Feeding of Your Atheist Pagan, a post directed mainly towards theistic Pagans about how not to alienate and marginalize non-theistic Pagans, and does a great job of dispelling many myths about atheistic pagans along the way.

I am sure there are many more, but these are just the ones I’ve found particularly helpful. Please feel free to chime in the comments with more suggested reading material!

---

Anyways, for all you Pagans who are struggling to reconciling Pagan practices and lack of belief or interest in the gods, I hope you find this very short introduction to be helpful. If you’d like to discuss this further, please feel free to discuss or comment below or PM me. Wishing you many blessings on your spiritual explorations!
~ Xiao Rong ~ 小蓉 ~ Little Lotus ~
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby loona wynd » Fri Feb 07, 2014 4:26 pm

That is very well written. I am an Animistic Hard Polytheist who also believes in a divine force that is in and part of all of creation. Though I believe that force is so unknowable that I do not worship it. I worship other deities that are knowable and experiential. I guess my point is that being a polytheist doesn't preclude the belief in animism or pantheism. I do still think you make a point about how one doesn't have to have deities in their religion to be pagan.
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby -Dark-Moon- » Fri Feb 07, 2014 6:02 pm

I love your posts, Xiao. Very thoughtfully written.

I might add that the ancient Hindu texts the Rig Veda state that 'We created the Gods' and that thus they are simply divine projections of ourselves.

'Magic/ritual' is simply one method we use for access to them.

The only thing that can be truly known in this incomprehensible universe, is ourselves. We, our consciousness, our experience, is the universe.

Out of the void, we are the creator.

We are 'God'.
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Fri Feb 07, 2014 7:05 pm

Thank you both!

-Dark-Moon- wrote:I might add that the ancient Hindu texts the Rig Veda state that 'We created the Gods' and that thus they are simply divine projections of ourselves.


That's a beautiful way of putting it! I will have to write it down : )
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Heartsong » Fri Feb 07, 2014 7:56 pm

Xiao, this is an amazing post!

I'm the most intrigued by "community-centered" paganism. Since I've taken up studying and working with runes, community has been an inescapable theme, and in my research regarding Norse mythology and Northern European culture, it's been popping up quite a bit. It's made me think that perhaps the other three centers that John Halstead proposes stemmed from this "community-center". It would make sense to me when I think of how much value was placed on the importance of community, and what the term meant in ancient cultures (which I suspect was far more significant in people's minds than it tends to be today).

Even today, many people come to an understanding of the most fundamental concepts (spirituality included) through facilitating a discussion with others, like this forum for instance. :flyingwitch:
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Sat Feb 08, 2014 5:28 pm

Thanks, Heartsong! I think you're totally right - it seems to me that "community-centered" was probably the main center (or perhaps the only one) in ancient pagan religions, from which relationships to the self, the earth, and the deities were natural outgrowths. But in modern times, when very few of us are born into hereditary pagan traditions and many of us come to paganism after having rejected an organized religion, it makes sense to me that we wind up coming to paganism through our own separate centers and then form a community. But it's also a very cool opportunity to make new traditions from scratch!
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby loona wynd » Sat Feb 08, 2014 8:47 pm

I often wonder if communities can include online communities like this forum. They are places where we can gather together and discuss our beliefs freely. We can and do support each other through many difficult times. We learn from each other and grow from each other. While we may not ever physically interact there is definatly a bond formed on sites like this. So what do you think? Do you think creating websites and social media outlets where we can have these sorts of discussions counts as community?
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Sat Feb 08, 2014 10:17 pm

I do consider forums like this one to count as communities, since I think they are all part of a broader modern pagan movement that is gaining increasing acceptance (which is wonderful!) Although I have yet to see a functional online coven or ritual ...
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby loona wynd » Sun Feb 09, 2014 7:05 pm

Xiao Rong wrote:I do consider forums like this one to count as communities, since I think they are all part of a broader modern pagan movement that is gaining increasing acceptance (which is wonderful!) Although I have yet to see a functional online coven or ritual ...

I know there are Cyber covens. They do exist. I'm not sure how they work ritual wise though. Unless they are all trained to the point where they can meet in one place astrally and have the ritual together there and that way. It was believed that in older times that was how witches went to their sabbats-by leaving the body to travel in spirit to the place of the sabbat.
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Klia » Sat Feb 15, 2014 10:00 pm

Thanks for posting! I thought I already saw this thread, must have missed it!

There's so much information here and I love that people can fall into different categories, if not all. Makes it more personalized, doesn't it?

I like the self-centered aspect. We do what we can, better ourselves, so we can be closer to the Divine. But of course they are all interesting and just as important. =)
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Tue Feb 25, 2014 5:37 pm

I wanted to highlight DE NATURA DEORUM: “The Lord and Lady for the Non-Theist” by Rhys Chisnall, about how one can invoke the Lord and Lady as very powerful metaphors for life and death:

The Lady

For example when we say the word “Goddess” or “Lady” or use a specific name for her in ritual, or when we are speaking with other Crafters, we are communicating a whole raft of experiences, and those experiences are subjective to the person communicating them. It may be we are communicating the experience of the summer months, the feeling we get when we see the hawthorn blossoms in May, crowning the trees in white and filling the air full of their heavy “feminine” scent. The Goddess is the experience of when the bluebells carpet the woodland floor in a blanket of blue, and elsewhere there is the white of ransoms and that wholesome smell of garlic. She is the sight of the buds of the oak and ash which have started to leaf and the sound of a vixen barking in the night to her cubs. She is experienced in the morning air, which is filled with the dawn chorus welcoming the returning sun. She is how we feel when we contemplate the hatching of eggs, when new life comes into the world in the shape of chicks which are fed and nurtured by their parents, and when they fledge to repeat the cycle the following year. She is heard in the hum of insects that dart between the blossoms, transferring pollen in the sexuality of biological reproduction.

She is also a metaphor for how we feel about the growing wheat that stands knee high at midsummer, amongst which is the blaze of scarlet poppies. She is a symbol of the metaphorical blood sacrifice that all life makes. It is a source of wonderment to me that, even in the 21st century we are still reliant on this domesticated grass for food. The agricultural year, although most people are not directly involved in it, still underpins everyone’s life. We all still require food, which all comes from natural sources, no matter how much processing occurs between plant and plate. No matter our socioeconomic status, from teachers to bankers, we still all depend on these prairies of wheat.

She is experienced as the skylark that sings above the fields, leading the predator away from her prone eggs on the ground below. She is the buzz of the bumble and honey bee as they fly from wild flower to wild flower collecting nectar and spreading pollen. She is experienced in the dance of pond skaters that glide so effortlessly across the water surface tension of ponds. She is how we experience the potential of the season ahead. She is our wonder at the productivity of nature as the complex patterns of life renew themselves. She is our wonder at the culmination of life as it moves towards its potential. She is the very potential of life herself [emphasis added].

She is experienced in the bounty of nature, the yellowed corn in the field and the fruits and berries that swell upon the trees. We wonder at how they carry the all the genetic information for the growth of new life. Imagine the acorn, a small nut that contains within the recipe for the pattern that will, along with the influence of its environment, create a majestic oak tree. She is our experience of the berries as they fill the hedgerows and woods with the colours of red, green and black, making a tempting feast. She is that temptation that feeds the myriad number of animals, mammals, birds and insects, powering life through the complex machinery of metabolism, which is the release of energy. She is the experience of life, which despite the second law of thermodynamics, is complexity out of simplicity. She is the experience of the waning year, as the days grow shorter. She is seen in the maturity of the year. She is feeling of the autumn mist of the morning, the sight of damp dew sparkling on the grass and the fruiting bodies of a myriad number of fungi that emerge from the soil, some of which is edible and some deadly.

She she is no bed of roses, or if she is, then they bear thorns. To my mind, the rose is a wonderful symbol for the Lady and for life. It is a metaphor for a metaphor. Its flowers are exquisite and beautiful, as life can be beautiful, but the rose also has savage thorns. They remind us that life has its painful inevitabilities. She is the metaphor of the rose beyond the grave. We do not literally survive death, though perhaps we do metaphorically through our actions, through our children, through what we leave behind, through our influence, and through the minds of others. However, more accurately the metaphor of “the rose beyond the grave” points to how the greater pattern of life in continues once our own individual patterns have gone. The process of life goes on, so we identify with the whole.


The Lord

The Dark Lord is the experience of the primal roars of the red deer as they proclaim their power to each other in the testosterone driven autumn rut. The experience seems, to my mind, like the stags are calling to the Dark Lord and calling in the coming winter. Poetically, he is the experience of pure raw maleness and the un-tempered power of male sexuality.

He is also experienced in the cutting of the corn which, in the myth, gives up its life so we can eat. He is also experienced in the seed of the grain, which continues within the new generation of wheat when planted the following year. He is the wonder of the secret seed of life through death, the continuation of genes and the continuation of life.

He is the experience of the delight of the changing of the leaves, as the year is in full wane and the temperature drops. The trees are drawing in the chlorophyll from the leaves changing them from green to the autumn colours of russet and brown. He is in the experience of change and the experience of death. He is experienced when we feel the sudden change of temperature as the sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier each day. He is how we feel when we wake up for work and it is still dark. He is the mumbling and cursing as we get up and head for work in the dark. He is heard in the lonely call of the sand piper on the winter mudflats or in the calamitous squawking of high flying barnacle geese as they migrate down from the Arctic overwintering in the UK. They inspired the myths of the Wild Hunt led by the “horned leader of the hosts of air”, Woden the Wild One, riding on his eight legged horse Sleipnir (the coffin with four bearers totaling eight legs). His voice and his wild nature are experienced in the autumn storms that lash the countryside stripping the leaves from the trees and battering the countryside, knocking tiles from roofs and blowing over even the mightiest of trees.

Then he is experienced as the winter. In the midwinter, he is the feeling of the liminal time between the old year and the new. He is the experience of the death of the old year and the still point in-between time, at the moment when he is born again with the new year in the cold and the fire of Yule. He felt in the hard white frost that crystallises like diamonds on spider’s webs and covers the grass that gleams in the morning’s faint light. He is how we feel when we consider the stone cold frost that stops the little hearts of those small creatures that sleep beneath the earth. He is how we experience the transformation of the landscape in those magical times when the snow falls and covers the land. He is seen in stories like Jack Frost, Father Christmas, and Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith ...

As the Lady is experienced as life, so the Dark Lord is the experience of death and change [emphasis added]. He is experienced in the contemplation of evolution by natural selection. This is the process by which simplicity gives rise to complexity. The process is powered by death, when those organisms whose genetic makeup does not give them the adaptive edge in the environment die without passing on their genes. Through death and sex, the environment feeds back into itself to create increasingly complex patterns. To my mind, the Dark Lord is experienced in the silent barn owl that swoops down to deliver taloned death on an unsuspecting careless rodent. He is seen in the wolf pack that doggedly runs down the deer to bring a cruel and painful death. He is seen in the great white shark that strikes from below in a devastating display of power and razor sharp teeth. He is the experience of the hunter with the high-powered rifle, killing in the name of sport ...

For the non-theist, the power of these symbols lies in the experiences that we ourselves have, rather than in any external supernatural agents. So for the non-theist Witch, Lord and Lady, God and Goddess are still appropriate words to use, despite the risk of being misunderstood. But we must also remember that this does not mean that they are the only appropriate metaphors for the experience of numinous. [emphasis added]


This blog post also delves into the Triple Goddess and more, but I would be practically quoting the whole thing otherwise! Anyways, very well worth a read, and a fascinating take on how we can invoke the Lord and the Lady in all of their wonder and glory even as non-theists.
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby ness » Thu Apr 17, 2014 5:50 pm

-Dark-Moon- wrote:I love your posts, Xiao. Very thoughtfully written.

I might add that the ancient Hindu texts the Rig Veda state that 'We created the Gods' and that thus they are simply divine projections of ourselves.

'Magic/ritual' is simply one method we use for access to them.

The only thing that can be truly known in this incomprehensible universe, is ourselves. We, our consciousness, our experience, is the universe.

Out of the void, we are the creator.

We are 'God'.

Vedas have been somewhat contradictory while it comes to defining Individual soul and Supreme soul and lot left to interpretation. But "Aham Brahm Asmi" (This soul is Brahman) is something many philosophers have tried to understand and explain.
If anyone is interested in reading more about Indian vedic school of thoughts, you can go here.
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Christyness » Tue Apr 29, 2014 8:18 am

Thank you for this post. I've toyed with the idea of practicing paganism for years. In the beginning I was a Christian, which caused me a lot of inner conflict and kept me from practicing. Later, I became an atheist, and I still am one.

I'm coming into a frame of mind, however, where I want to reconcile my atheism with my feeling of being drawn to paganism. And this post will definitely help me clear up some confusion. :)
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Xiao Rong » Tue Apr 29, 2014 9:05 am

Welcome, Christyness! I definitely struggled with that too when I first came to Paganism. Actually, the first time I explored Paganism, I wound up deciding that it wasn't the right path for me, precisely because I had a hard time reconciling my atheism and the supernatural (although, granted, I was 12 at the time). When I came back to it years later, I discovered the idea of using Pagan mythos as metaphors and of centering experience over blind faith (which always turned me off from Christianity), which helped clear up a lot of things for me. If you want to talk more about your path, please feel free to PM me!
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Re: Paganism: When There Aren't Any Gods

Postby Lightbringer » Sun May 04, 2014 11:02 am

I have to chime in, too! This is a great post! I've always felt off-kilter with the idea that I follow an "earth-based" religion, because I don't really do that much with nature (I'm such an urban girl) and, more importantly, I try to remember that the Earth is just a tiny speck in the rest of this giant Universe. So I love that other terms have been coined! I think I am a combo of deity- and self-centered Paganism.

loona wynd wrote:
Xiao Rong wrote:I do consider forums like this one to count as communities, since I think they are all part of a broader modern pagan movement that is gaining increasing acceptance (which is wonderful!) Although I have yet to see a functional online coven or ritual ...

I know there are Cyber covens. They do exist. I'm not sure how they work ritual wise though. Unless they are all trained to the point where they can meet in one place astrally and have the ritual together there and that way. It was believed that in older times that was how witches went to their sabbats-by leaving the body to travel in spirit to the place of the sabbat.


I believe there is an example cyber-ritual at sacred-texts.com. I remember seeing one in their Internet Book of Shadows. They performed it in a chat/instant messaging session. I think this was popular before there was a large enough in-person community to make physical rituals happen on a regular basis. I think cyber-covens were more popular too, but I can't be sure.
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