Care and Feeding of your Atheist Pagan

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and in my mind, I’ve done it under a number of different titles.  It started life as “What is an Atheist Pagan, Anyway?”  Over time, though, I’ve realized that’s really not the most satisfying tack for such an article.  Nobody elected me Emperor of Atheist Pagans, so I can’t make statements about what we all are.  Finally, a series of email exchanges with one of my fellow mystic friends brought the structure of this article to its forefront, because I’ve noticed that there is a predictable mutual confusion in our interactions.  The reason why I feel something of a “care and feeding” style article is better is that the theme is a bit more fun, casual, and personal.  I can’t speak for others, but I don’t require actual care and feeding, though I do sometimes enjoy being a pet.

So, let’s start back at the beginning.  If you’re reading this, and if you’re Pagan, and if you’re associated with a somewhat diverse Pagan community, there is a distinct possibility that someone you know through that community is an atheist.  This may or may not come as a surprise to you.  Amidst the vast diversity of people working with different pantheons, with the God and Goddess, with the divine intelligences of Qabalah, the hordes of spirits in Goetia…there are a few of us who went up to the smorgasbord of divinity and actually concluded our plates were beautiful when empty.  We are among you, we know your gods and your spirits and all the rest, and we might even use them, but we don’t identify with them as being our gods.  We might not even consider divinity to exist “out there.”  But we still find a deep, powerful connection to the practices, to the blending of ideas and thoughts, to the experiences we gain, and from the community we keep.  We might even use some of those gods you do, but just think about them differently.  I’m one of them, and I use the term “atheist Pagan” to describe myself and the others like me I’ve met on the way.

And I think there’s one thing I think we could agree on (other than agreeing that we’re atheists), and that’s this– other Pagans don’t always know what to do with us.  There are a number of very good reasons why this happens, and I’m not going to hash them out too much here.  Instead, I’d like to just focus on some things that you, my dear reader, can do that could mean a lot to any of the atheist Pagans in your community.  Please keep in mind that you might have some atheists in your community right now and not know it.  I’ve met more than a few who don’t speak very loudly about their atheism.

So, without further ado, care and feeding of the atheist Pagan in your life.

Do not challenge your atheist Pagan about why he or she doesn’t believe in your gods/deities/spirits/etc.

I know it may seem really strange to have a conversation with someone who’s a Pagan and an atheist.  You might also genuinely want to know how this person came to reach his or her particular perspective.  It’s totally fair to ask in a warm and friendly way, the way you might ask your Asatru friend what attracts him or her to the Norse pantheon.  It’s very important, though, that you not ask your atheist Pagan as if you’re demanding he or she defend his or her choices.  Don’t ask like you’ve encountered something weird.  Go back in time a bit to when you to identify yourself as Pagan to others.  No doubt you remember some people in your life treating you like you were full of strange ideas because you wanted to believe in many gods (or in some all-encompassing deity of nature, or some other non-mainstream theology).  It sure must have felt exhausting to have to explain and defend yourself over what was, quite honestly, your truth.  Atheist Pagans go through this, too.  We often get it from Pagans over our atheism, from other atheists for our Paganism, and from mainstream people over both.  Beyond that, consider this– Pagans want the tolerance of diversity.  This means monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and atheists, too.

Don’t tell your atheist Pagan that he or she isn’t “really” an atheist or “really” a Pagan.

This actually comes up more than you might think, usually in the nicer version of “you’re not really an atheist.”  It’s almost meant as a compliment, often from someone who’s taken crap from particularly adversarial atheists in the past.  There’s a stereotype about atheists that we’re all loudmouths who won’t rest until we’ve destroyed everyone’s favorite spiritual beliefs and paved the entire noosphere over with a fresh coating of empirical materialism.  Atheism is actually a very, very simple standpoint– you become an atheist when you have no deity, and that’s it.  The definition itself is very, very general, and throughout history, there have been many, many different ways to arrive at that state.  An atheist might believe that deity does not exist, that the metaphysics of the universe simply does not define a place for deity, that deities exist but should not be treated in the customs one gives deities, or any of a number of other positions.  Most of the atheist Pagans I’ve had the pleasure to meet do tend to have a pretty strong materialistic streak to their worldviews (and, honestly, most Pagans do, in general), but not many of them are not out to constantly openly criticize every religious belief or superstition they come across.

On the other hand is the assertion that atheist Pagans aren’t “really Pagan.”  While atheism and Paganism may seem, to some, irreconcilable, there isn’t a theological test associated with being Pagan.  Generally, Pagans are respectful of one another’s pantheons while focusing on their own.  This doesn’t actually preclude having a personal pantheon with zero gods in it.  Atheist Pagans are like any others who don’t necessarily share your personal pantheon.

Don’t presume your atheist Pagan is less spiritually capable or fulfilled.

How I got to be an atheist is a fairly long and winding story, so I’ll give you the “tl;dr” version– I was finally honest about myself that “the gods” just “weren’t there.”  I spent several years trying very hard with a number of practices, and had a lot of very interesting experiences along the way, but I just never really felt anything that really left me feeling strongly driven to the reality of deity.  This is the opposite experience of most Pagans, but it’s just as real and credible.  It actually takes a lot, in a community that takes its spirituality so personally, to admit that.  I just don’t feel the same connections others do, and it’s inauthentic and painful for me to make myself try to be any other way about it.  The first thing Pagan theists tend to inject into this is that I’m “just blind.”  This is basically an assault on my own sense of authenticity, and the only authority to that position is that the theism is seen as the default.  If atheism were the default position, theists would be accused of hallucinating their deities.  So, no, I’m not “just blind,” and neither is any other atheist.  Because the theistic position is the default one, pretty much all atheists have explored it and explored what it might mean to them, and they ultimately reject it.

Don’t assume that our lack of gods means we’re ignorant, stubborn, or magickally handicapped.  It’s easy to think that, because you see or hear spirits or deities or whatever, that we must be “blind” or “deaf” to them.  The metaphor is a problematic one, especially since it actually claims that anyone with a different experience (a Buddhist, perhaps) is just as “blind” to your reality.  An atheist Pagan may not experience the same things you do, but in the incredible mess of subjectivity that makes up human perception, remember that it’s really hard to hold claim to having the objective opinion.  Also, remember Christians used to claim the default position and ascribe madness to those who talked to ghosts or received messages from old gods.

Don’t presume that being an atheist means rejecting all magick, all religion, or all new age thought.

This is yet another stereotype.  Certainly, some atheists are just like that.  That sort of atheist, though, is also probably not going to get a lot of joy out of also wanting to be part of the Pagan community.  Again, atheism is mostly a position about the existence of deity, and that particular question can be addressed in many ways.  The question of deity has little to do with the question of the soul, of an afterlife, of the existence of magickal “energy,” of the mechanism and efficacy of astrology or other means of divination, or really any other subject that’s applicable to most magick, mysticism, or other Pagan practices.  On these subjects, atheist Pagans have just as much philosophical, cosmological, and practical diversity as anyone.  Your atheist Pagan may enjoy taking part in many of the “conventionally Pagan” practices out there, and may do so for reasons very much like your own or ones very different from you.  You can’t conclude a person’s complete magickal identity based solely on their perspectives about divinity.

Do understand that your atheist Pagan is attracted to Paganism.

That may seem really strange to you, but there is probably a lot more going on in your own flavor of Paganism than you realize.  There can be all sorts of wonderful reasons an atheist may continue to choose a path mostly regarded as Pagan.  Your atheist Pagan may feel very strongly acculturated to Pagans and their ways.  He or she might follow a path that doesn’t include the worship of deities but which is heavily built from the fabric of contemporary Paganism.  He or she may work with a “sacred non-entity” much like Tilich’s “ground of being.”  He or she may actually still work with deities but see them as emotionally moving fictional characters or symbols.  The reasons are myriad, but there is one thing for certain– your atheist Pagan hangs around you because he or she wants to.  There is something in the connection you share that’s important.  That goes for your common community, too.  It may seem strange because an atheist Pagan seems at odds with stereotypes about atheists, but there are already many fine atheist communities out there, and yet there are many atheists who’d rather be with the Pagans.

Do invite your atheist Pagan to your rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.

Have you ever gone with one of your Christian friends to a church, or perhaps to a temple with a Jewish friend or to a mosque with a Muslim friend?  Maybe you went along to a Buddhist temple once or to…oh, I don’t know.  Maybe you even hung out in a Scientology center or drummed with some Hare Krishnas because someone you knew and liked asked you along.  No doubt, you were respectful of your hosts and possibly participated a little.  Maybe you even learned something.  Many, if not most, atheists are just as capable of joining in a religious service at a level somewhere between respectful detachment and enthusiasm.  One of the most wonderful things about the Pagan community is its diversity of ideas and experiences available for those of cosmopolitan mindset to enjoy.  Just because someone doesn’t experience your closest deity doesn’t mean he or she won’t enjoy experiencing your expression of that divine connection.  Rituals are stimulating and fascinating things to be a part of.  Anyone who’s going to proselytize about gods not existing at a ritual is a real jerk, and since you probably don’t have jerks for friends, your atheist Pagan is probably not a jerk, either.

Let’s say that your atheist Pagan passed up on coming to your big Freya working.  That doesn’t mean the invitation wasn’t welcome!  It’s nice to be invited to things.  It’s a sign of friendship.  It shows you’re thinking about that person and wanting to see them happy.  That alone is worth it.

Do ask your atheist Pagan about his or her story, and be open to sharing yours.

It’s not a fast or straight path to an atheistic position, let alone one that still carries the Pagan flavor.  Like many Pagans, your atheist Pagan is probably very happy to talk about his or her path.  It’s probably one that’s very personal, idiosyncratic, and heterodox, and since atheist Paganism, unlike Wicca or Golden Dawn or other paths, doesn’t really have any manuals, your atheist Pagan has been finding his or her way alone for quite some time.  We like sharing our truth, just like other people do.

At the same time, there’s a good chance an atheist Pagan you know wants to know about your own path, your own history, and your own truth.  Most Pagans I have known geek out on spirituality, even if it’s from an informally anthropological point of view.  Empathy and friendship carry an aspect of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Don’t be afraid to lend yours.

Do feel free to compliment your atheist Pagan from your own worldview.

I don’t mean to sound like a braggart, but I do get compliments on the way I comport myself in ritual.  When I feel a connection to a working, I am absolutely voracious for it.  I just want to take it and make every last little bit of it become part of me until performing that working is as natural to me as making a cup of tea.  I want to live in the working.  I want to blur the lines of where I end and where my performance begins.  In my own little cosmology, I don’t really consider (or, despite years of working on it, even experience) common magickal concepts like “energy.”  In fact, my adopting a paradigm that doesn’t really focus much on energy is due to my own lack of experience for it…or at least in my not experiencing it in the way so many others around me have.  But, when someone comes up to me after ritual and says I was working the energy well, does it bother me?  Of course not.  I know those people are speaking their truth, and that they ultimately are trying to tell me how my own work made them feel moved.  That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.  Of course, not all people are the same, and I’m sure you’ll find some atheist Pagan out there who will get uncomfortable or try to correct you, but it’s still a far better thing to try to share yourself with others than to not; the latter means not making an important personal connection with someone in your community.

Conversely, a compliment from an atheist might not share your own spiritual vocabulary.  Remember, though, that the compliment is still genuine and meant with love, and it is not a dismissal of your own experiences simply because it doesn’t reflect your experiences.  You may genuinely feel you’re “running the energy,” while another person might think you’re “a talented performer.”

Recognize atheism as a philosophy that shapes, rather than contradicts, spirituality.

Ultimately, this is what all the other things come down to.  There have been atheists who’ve strongly contributed to every major religion of the world.  Yes, even Christianity.  If you haven’t read of the existentialist Christianity of Paul Tilich, you should check it out.  Atheism has, over the past century or so, seen a very serious restriction in its definition.  There are many reasons for it, not the least of which are religious interests in America using politics to attempt to restrict science and science education.  In a broad historical perspective, though, there have been atheist philosophies within every religious tradition and several religious traditions that classify the cosmos in such a way that there’s simply no room for deities to exist.  Your atheist Pagan might take a highly psychological viewpoint on divinity, or may believe that divinity isn’t an entity and thus not subject to existence, or may think divinity is simply “the absolute,” or may simply not really feel concerned with questions about divinity.  Much as atheist philosophers have shaped the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and various aspects of Christianity, atheists in the Pagan community are there, keeping things from becoming ossified into some canonical form of religiosity.  Our lack of commitment to existential divinity is a feature, not a bug, and there’s a good chance that we were quite welcome to the discussion before we brought up that whole atheism thing.  Let us hang out.  Tell us if we’re telling you what your spiritual reality should be; let us have our spiritual reality and speak from it.  We’ll get along fabulously.  I promise.

21 thoughts on Care and Feeding of your Atheist Pagan

  1. That is an interesting model, and I will have to read it more thoroughly and see how it can make better reference material going forward. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. On the one hand, I understand what you’re communicating here, and I agree with the motives behind doing so. Everyone deserves respect, and as long as everyone acts respectfully, there is little to be worried about.

    On the other, I’m having some difficulty with a bit of the wording you’ve used, which I think is accurate wording to your own position, and yet it cannot be viewed as anything other than disturbing for those in the devotional polytheist category (like myself). You wrote toward the beginning of your post, “we know your gods and your spirits and all the rest, and we might even use them, but we don’t identify with them as being our gods.” Again, I see what you mean by that, and I think I understand what it means to you, but in what you wrote that followed and your suggestions for how to “care and feed” for atheist pagans, it sounds like you’re asking for an all-access pass to our technologies while totally disrespecting the important and essential people in them, i.e. our gods. The entire language of “use” sounds exploitative to a devotional polytheist when it is in reference to our gods.

    People would tend not to be friendly toward someone that they knew didn’t care for them or respect them, and that just wanted to use their car or hot tub or computer all the time, and rightfully so; we’d be even less inclined to allow someone to do that with the possessions of a friend of ours; and we’d be even less inclined to do it if the “user” actively stated that they didn’t believe our other friend existed at all, and that their opinion on the non-existence of our other friend should remain unchallenged while we meanwhile invite them over to clean out our other friend’s refrigerator and watch their HDTV.

    While this might just seem like a clever metaphor, it’s not exactly metaphorical when it comes to the gods, since polytheists, animists, and other more theistic varieties of persons see individual personhood as pretty essential to our notions of the world outside of humanity. Oftentimes, the spiritual technologies we’re using are things directly given by our gods, which makes the issue of their possession and ownership by those gods all the more parallel to the extended metaphor above.

    So, while I don’t think there’s anything useful to be gained by trying to argue with you on your a-theology or the validity of your experiences (and, let me reiterate, I accept both as perfectly good and valid for you and I recognize the authenticity and honesty of your experiences), and wouldn’t even attempt to engage in such an argument, at the same time, knowing your viewpoint, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that no matter how respectful you might be in a given ritual, you’d still be disrespecting some of the beings involved in it. Keep in mind, I’d never say to you personally “Get out of here!” because I know you a bit, and I like you and what I know of you; but at the same time, this is one of those areas where differences in belief does end up making a very big difference in how the practice of modern paganisms take place.

  3. I think that, perhaps, there are some linguistic issues here. I actually wrote this article two years ago and recently edited it for posting. At the time, I was using “use” in the sense of “engage with,” and I think that if you were to consider it again from that light, perhaps you’d find it a more comfortable series of words.

    At the same time, though, if I come into your ritual, show respect to the representations of your deity, and participate well, why is it so terrible to know that, once I leave, I don’t have the same metaphysical framework upon which to hang those experiences? Is it truly exploitative to enter “your house,” make deference and respect and worship as you do, and authentically represent the way it was experienced later?

    All of that said, though, if it does you a disrespect, the honest truth is that I’m quite sorry you feel that way and I’m happy to live and let live.

    • That very simple wording change does, in fact, change everything, and makes a huge amount of difference.

      The way you described it following that, I’d have no problems with that at all.

      I have not felt, nor do I feel as a result of what you’ve written here (pre- or post-changes of “use” to “engage with”) that you’ve been disrespectful to me, my gods, or my rituals to do as you’ve described in your response here.

      So…all of that to say: “Nothing to see here”…?!? 😉

      • Indeed, then, nothing to see here. I’m not trying to make a call for appropriation so much as one for access and a certain cosmopolitanism, at least in the sense of social and shared ritual goes. If, inside, I see coming to one of your public rites as supporting the legacy of a chosen historical figure and the implications this legacy has for the present, I am still there, still paying my respects, and still engaged with what is on the offer. I see that as valuable.

          • Now that you mention it–! I may be able to take you up on that sooner rather than later, as I might be able to manage a trip down to the Bay Area again in late March/early April. I’m working on it, and seeing if it might be possible to do some workshops and such down there while I’m there to offset costs of the trip, etc. But, yes, I might very well be coming to your town soon, so tea and talking should certainly happen! :)

    • Thanks for this. I consider myself an a-theist wiccan, (meaning: nontheistic) ,a-theist humanist, a-theist quaker, and a-theist buddhist. Meaning, I support all the progressive, inclusive, non-sexist, lgbtq-welcoming, peace-seeking, environmentalist ‘religions’, as a way for people to come together who share those progressive views. But I see no reason to conjure up ‘gods’ or supernatural wishfulfillment as a ‘reality’, instead of a metaphor. most ‘progressive’ pagans I know are also pantheists, or animists, or support positive shamanistic or aboriginal beliefs, meaning practices of ‘do no harm’, and ‘listen to the world and it’s creatures’. variety. And then, with these voices and guidance, they then ACT, whether in environmental activism, social justice, or simply bearing witness to corporate greed and evil. I respect those pagans deeply, and admire their political commitment but also their ‘faith’ in forces that give them strength. You can’t respect and worship ‘nature’ unless you’re also in on the pipeline action, the gmo fight, the farmed salmon, working against the Kochs and their propaganda, and trying to stop Monsanto and Exxon.

      So I’m among you too. And I know where your gods come from (anthropologically) and their paths from neolithic and bronze age and pre-sumerian migrations (vinca, anyone?) through all the great empires and their reinterpretation by bards and artists along all the trade routes. It’s artists that define the gods, of course. Tyr keeps his (inherited) hammer from the etruscans, and his thunderbolt, doesn’t he? tho it came from Sumer and before. The god/s and their symbols morph, and are hidden, and the symbols and avatars live today (from advertising icons to religion to pratchett to gaiman). And I’m the atheist pagan in your midst who sees all this as COMMUNAL HISTORY and METAPHOR, and something to BE NOTED. But not supernatural. Spiral dance is good for bonding, and meditation is good for centering. And ritual is good for putting intention and sorting out noise. That’s why there are ‘atheist pagans’ like me in the Catholic Church, and other ritualistic ‘religions’. We think our own thoughts, know jesus is the ‘dying god’, the green man, know the mass is about attis, mithras, balder, or every sacrificial king hung on a tree, and we know the Mother is Ceres, Persephone, Kybele, Ishtar, Tiamat, Erda, Isis, Al-ah, Shekinah – and we know that the Morae are the Morrigan/ and Kali is dancing. And of course the catholic church invented saints and martyrs to keep polytheism. After all, it all comes from from same place between the rivers… And we know these are all platonic metaphors, and the cosmos is infinite, still expanding, and Brian Greene’s parallel universes are unfolding. But we don’t ‘believe’ that devotees are ‘moving’ energy, calling down the moon, or doing ANYTHING that would be noted by these concepts inculcated as metaphors’. Because in the beginning, man created god/s, not the other way around. We don’t think invoking or summoning is real, or that ‘prayer’ works, because we know we are simply incidental carbon-based mammalian creations of a vast universe, (see the universe song, by monty python) and we are simply amusing our brains and senses with our small reflections of the pattern of the dance. We won’t tell you this, because we think you’re rather charming. And ‘belief’ in your ‘gods’ makes you happy.. So be it. So respect your gods by fighting for the nature forces you say you respect. Unless you’re on the gotterdammerung end of the practice. (remembering that armageddon is also an invented metaphor). As terry Pratchett said – if we didn’t save the hogfather and the universe and stop the apocalypse, would the sun have risen? No. But a burning ball of gas would light up the sky at dawn, of course.

  4. I, too, find that your choice of the word “use” with respect to the gods sets my teeth on edge. Changing that word to “engage with” relieves that discomfort, but does not alleviate my confusion. Why would you “engage with” someone whose very existence you deny? I’m sorry, but being an atheist does not, in my experience, mean that you follow no gods, it means that you deny their very existence. Declining to follow/worship a god, but accepting that a god (or some gods) may exist is agnosticism, not atheism.

    I am a pagan, but my husband is an atheist. He came to his atheism *through spiritual experience,* (you can read about it at ) and he actually helped me to find my way to my path. So I don’t deny that you could have mystical experiences and still be atheist. But I’m not quite sure that’s what you’re actually describing here.

    I have a feeling you may find me to be a “brick wall.” I’m not sure I am capable of understanding where you’re coming from. And that’s okay with me, but if it’s possible, I would like to try to understand something of it before I give up entirely. :)

    • I think part of where communication may be breaking down is regarding what, and how, I might “engage with” a deity and what that means for my sense of something existing. On top of that, please be aware that I also wrote this particular article to be somewhat generic and not specifically about my own cosmology. But, for a good example of how you work with things that “don’t exist,” I’d refer you to an older article on this blog where I discuss that and on Jonathan Korman’s response to it. Another good example was given above in the conversations with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus– the workings he’s publicly presented involve a cult of a historical figure, and I see that figure’s legacy as relevant today and worth preservation and encouragement.

      I’ve encountered the occasion for deity work in more social settings, most notably being with the OSOGD, where every office comes with a specific godform, and having done most of the offices, I’ve had to spend time internalizing that godform to be functional in ritual environments. Whereas I’ve had contemporaries approach this process as considering the deity a “real thing” to approach, communicate with, interact with, etc, I tend to approach the deity from a sense of its roles and relationships within the ritual space. I put on my godforms one abstract at a time. Granted, there’s a notational difference between a “god” and a “godform,” but I’m trying to be illustrative of a process and not debate smaller issues.

      In more private settings, deity work tends to feature less. In those spaces, I am more likely to work with abstracts, emotions, the rhythm of seasons, memory, etc. This isn’t strictly to do with an atheistic cosmology, though. It’s far more to do with my preferences for presence and immanence. A good example of this was my presenting of Hermetic Tea Ceremony at Pantheacon 2012, which is a ceremony of interpersonal communion and experience of nature manifest through the shared making and consuming of tea. This works from a symbol set Pagans would identify as based on the classical elements rather than on deities, and uses a ritual structure immediately recognizable to almost any Pagan.

      I hope this helps clarify my own experience to you.

  5. Thanks for writing this. As a long-time atheist who once explored paganism but ultimately abandoned it largely (but not entirely) because of the perceived inherent theism, it’s interesting to hear your approach.

  6. Hi. This is a fantastic article. I’m the editor of the community blog for naturalistic spirituality that Editor B mentioned above: Our mission is to amplify the voices of naturalists such as yourself, and one way we do it is featuring their writings. I was wondering if you would be willing to republish this as an article at our site? If so, please email me back at [address deleted]. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for this posting. As a new druid-in-training and a long-time atheist, I am finding it an absolute minefield to navigate this path. Responses have ranged from the confused to the openly hostile from both sides, and I have been feeling like giving up. Thanks for reminding me that atheist pagans are out there, no matter what certain hardcore polytheists think!

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. It well past time that both theists and non-theists in the Pagan community start looking at each other as resources rather than threats. We have a lot to teach each other.

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