An Atheist's Views on Neopaganism
By Peter A. Taylor
When Carol and I were first planning our wedding, there were a lot of Pagan elements that Carol insisted on putting into the ceremony that I really wasn't all that crazy about. But we trusted one another. There are things I do that she doesn't understand, and so I figured I don't need to understand everything she does. Later, I took Sam Keen's advice: If men and women want to get closer to one another, they need to read one another's books. That's how I came to read Starhawk's book, Truth or Dare, which was sort of my introduction to Paganism. I'm still not sure I should call myself a Pagan. The last time someone asked me what religion I was, I said I was a Jungian atheist. Maybe I should say I'm a poly-atheist. I also like the word "Heathen" because it sounds nice and ambiguous to me.
Anyhow, I wanted to explain what Paganism means to me, so I came up with twenty dogmas that define my version of Neo-Pagan thealogy. We put these in your Orders of Service because we don't have time for me to go over all of them, but there are a few I want to point out to you.
***** Inserted into order of service: *****
The 10 dogmas of Peter Taylor Heathenism:
Life is complicated.
Metaphors are helpful.
Metaphors are dangerous.
The more different metaphors I use, the more helpful they are, and the less dangerous they become.
The gods and goddesses make sense if I think of them as psychological metaphors.
The more seriously or literally I take a metaphor, the more dangerous it becomes.
A bad metaphor can be misleading even if I don't take it literally.
Body and spirit are not separable.
Conflict is just as fundamental a part of human existance as cooperation.
Honesty is more important than loyalty or obedience.
10 more minor dogmas also common to most Pagans:
Everything is sacred. Divinity is immanent in all things.
The war between the sexes is a bad idea.
The environment is a vitally important charitable cause.
The mainstream culture spends too much time thinking in terms of warfare, divine unity, mechanical things, and things that are made by hand or manufactured, and too little time thinking in terms of living, growing, giving birth, diversity, and symbiosis.
We like hugs, nature, celebration, robes, drumming, exuberance, sex, humor, our bodies, dreams, dancing, and ritual.
We're not into asceticism.
We don't believe in original sin.
We don't like hierarchy, dogma or victimless crime laws.
The unconscious speaks to us in various ways, particularly dreams, and we talk back to it in various ways, particularly rituals.
We're not interested in salvation, because we don't believe in anything we need to be saved from.
***** End of insert *****
For the deluxe version of this sermon, I have added
2 extra bonus dogmas:
Balance is an essential part of spirituality.
At least one of these dogmas is wrong.
(I also note that most Pagans are far more focussed on environmentalism than I am.)
Dogma #18 says that we don't like dogma. Dogma #3 says that metaphors are dangerous. This includes the Gaia metaphor, that the entire Earth is a single living organism. Gaia helps illuminate the connections between all living things, but she also tends to obscure conflict. So go ahead and use this metaphor, but don't get too attached to her. I'm going to spend the rest of my time explaining why I think Paganism is worth supporting, but if you want the short version, see dogma #10: Honesty is more important than loyalty or obedience. To my way way of thinking, this is a one-line summary of Starhawk's book.
Hopefully, none of this so far sounds all that terribly controversial. But that raises more questions: "Why use words like 'Paganism' and 'Witch?' If these are all just metaphors, why not stick to familiar metaphors and stories from the mainstream religions that most of us grew up with? Why cause unnecessary shock and confusion?" Part of the answer is that, despite my misgivings, I regard the word "Witch" as a gauntlet thrown in the face of bigotry. I think I'm providing a public service by stimulating people into thinking from a radically different perspective than the way they were brought up. Another part of the reason for avoiding mainstream religious metaphors is that too many people take them literally, which I think is destructive, and I don't want to encourage people to stay in their familiar destructive ruts. Also, part of the answer is that I have a bad attitude towards my childhood religious training. Some of it was good, but some of it was very bad. I think there are some good reasons for my attitude, and that by the time I eliminate the parts of the Bible I don't like, there isn't much left. Last, but not least, is the fact that my childhood religion, Christianity, is monotheistic. I could argue that with the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and various angels, saints, and devils, Christianity isn't really monotheistic, but the point is that all things are supposed to be subservient to a single divine will. I don't get to choose between the differing opinions of several gods. Part of my problem with this is that I can't paint a very good picture of my soul if I only have one color to work with. Worse than that is the problem of evil. Why is there conflict? Why is there chaos? If there's only one god, and two people get into some sort of serious religious conflict, at least one of those people has to be in some way "ungodly." It's possible for a monotheist to learn to tolerate the "ungodly," but it's easier for me to treat people I disagree with with respect if I can say that they're godly, too; they just follow different gods.
Starhawk explains the rise of what she calls "patriarchal" religion in terms of military competition. I prefer Sam Keen's term, "the warfare system," but I like many of Starhawk's ideas. I recommend her book, and regret that I don't have time to do it justice here. Suffice it to say that obedience is a crucial military virtue. The god of my childhood Christianity demanded obedience, not just in my actions, but in my thoughts and feelings as well. I perceive much of what's wrong with the world in terms of misplaced loyalty and conflicts between honesty and obedience.
So what am I to make of my mainstream, childhood religion? Should I follow my mother's example and try to interpret away or ignore any parts of it I don't like? Try to eat the chicken and leave the bones, as she advised me to do? Or should I start over from scratch, so to speak.
My answer is that, even if I don't take it very seriously, a bad metaphor is still a bad metaphor. Just as Sam Keen says the warrior metaphor is horribly overused, and we should try to avoid using it for a long time, so I think the metaphor of a single divine will is horribly overused, misleading, and dangerous, and we should try to avoid using it for a long time. Other things being equal, I want to get away from the metaphors, images, and stories of "the warfare system." I want to learn how to think differently. I want to start over.
What am I looking for in a religion? For one thing, I want a religion that honors both male and female, and brings them together. In Wiccan metaphors, I want the Lord Cernunos and the Lady Ceridwyn to start sleeping together again. That's not the same thing as giving Jahveh a sex change operation. I also want a religion that honors diversity. Monotheism, on a good day, encourages people to look for underlying unity beneath superficial differences, and to honor the underlying unity. Polytheism encourages people to honor diversity itself as being divine.
But for me, the most important aspect of a religion is how it teaches us to deal with conflict. I'd like a religion that puts more emphasis on respecting other people's boundaries, and less on obedience to a single divine will. I'd like less emphasis on divine unity and more on divine chaos. I'd like less polarization, less of dividing things into divine good and "ungodly" evil, and more emphasis on balance, holding the tension between divine opposites. I'd like less emphasis on power and miracles, and more on honest self-awareness. I'd like a model of how society should be organized that relies less on a central authority and more on individual choice, an interdependent web rather than a chain of command. I want to get away from the idea of the One True Path. I want a spiritual road map with lots of roads on it.
An example of what I mean by a spiritual road map was a men's ritual at a Pagan gathering this past April that had a coming of age ceremony for boys. The leader of this ritual made specific statements about what male maturity means: not abusing power, being prepared to take responsibility for causing a pregnancy, being graceful and faithful in playing a secondary, supportive role in producing a baby, and being nurturing of the next generation. He also divided men's lives into stages analogous to the triple goddess, Maiden, Mother, and Crone, or in this case, Youth, Father, and Senex. Responsible parenthood shouldn't be just for women. By contrast, in this church, we seem to be afraid to set any specific standards of maturity for fear that someone's feelings might get hurt, or that this might be a form of psychological domination. The general practice in the popular culture seems to be not to talk about maturity at all, except as a euphemism for old age.
I enjoy "lurking" on a Pagan Internet news group. For me the literal-mindedness of fundamentalist Christianity is still a more important issue than its monotheism, so I hesitate to change labels from atheist to Pagan. But the Pagans are really more fun for me to hang out with than atheists. They have what I think are healthier attitudes, and I like the experiential aspects of Paganism. I am a person who can split hairs of logic, but I'm also a person who can dance around a May pole in the rain. As the followers of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, like to say, "It's an ill wind that blows no mind."
1. Dogmas no. 14 and 17 look very suspicious to me now.
If "original sin" means literally that people should be punished for what their distant ancestors did, then it is indeed silly. But if it means metaphorically that human nature is inherently problematical, I agree.
Keen's talk of the "warfare system" seems quite unfair, rather like blaming WWII on Polish militarism. It seems to me in observing the current "War on Terror" that people who refuse to use force when it is needed are almost as much to blame for the world's problems as people who want to use it too often. Furthermore, in so far as people are too predisposed to violence, this looks to me suspiciously like metaphorical original sin. I knew long ago that human nature was "broken" in some fundamental sense, but I used to think that Christianity (and traditional religion in general) was part of the problem, whereas I am now more inclined to view traditional religion as a necessary, if imperfect, "patch." Statistics seem to bear this out (see "The Market for Martyrs"). Refusing to deal with violence responsibly looks to me like immaturity rather than bad religion in most cases.
2. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable around Pagans in recent years because, in practice, they typically can't or won't separate cosmology from psychology. I take a very dim view of this.
3. I now think this article greatly overstates the importance of theology. I suspect that theology is to religion as car dealers' advertising is to automotive engineering: it seems to be all but worthless as a guide to how the product actually performs. If Christian theology actually had the negative effects on people that I have argued it had, atheists (and Pagans) should be better adjusted and should generally behave more reasonably than Christians. Judging by the people I know, I don't see any such pattern. My suspicions about the irrelevance of theology are reinforced by Laurence Iannaccone's writings. In Dr. Iannaccone's analysis, theology seems to be less important than dietary restrictions and religious dress codes, and certainly less important than the regulatory environment (see "Why Strict Churches Are Strong" and "Deregulating Religion").
Instead, let me suggest a theory of "conservation of irrationality." There appears to me to be a strong negative correlation between the people whose religious views make sense and those whose political views make sense. My explanation for this is that (1) much of the irrational behavior associated with religion is related to people having a craving for ego justification, (2) changing a person's theological beliefs has little effect on his tendency to crave ego justification, and (3) politics is the continuation of religion by other means.
4. The difference between a good religion (or pseudo-religion) and a bad one may be like the difference between cowpox and smallpox. Cowpox is technically a disease, but it won't kill you, and it keeps you from getting smallpox, which will kill you. Modern mainstream Christianity seems to provide its adherants with the ego justification they need, with side effects that are decidedly less destructive than those of Islam or Marxism. (George Orwell suggested something along these lines in his 1945 essay, "Notes on Nationalism.")
5. In thinking about religion, I have had a sense that I am looking at the wrong variables, even before reading Iannaccone. Is the problem with analyzing theology that it's too superficial and irrelevant, like advertising, or that it's too flexible to analyze?
Is Islam inherently less flexible than Christianity? Is the theology really that different? Or are the problems with Islam mainly the result of the political environments is which it has developed?
Is Islam the religion that I have accused Christianity of being?