I have been reading an interesting exchange of posts between John Beckett and John Halstead on Patheos Pagan, and today I read a post by Mark Green of Atheopaganism in response to this.
Mark Green: “Castles in the Air”
John Halstead and Mark Green represent an atheistic branch of Paganism. They value the Earth-centered approach to Paganism and they think of Gods and Goddesses as mere ideas, or perhaps archetypes. On one hand, I have some understanding of this point of view. I did go through a phase of a kind of Pantheism myself a number of years ago, but where I am today, and with the experiences that I have had, I am having a hard time understanding how this view has religious value.
Let me explain what I see as the purpose of religion, and why I have to agree with John Beckett’s point of view that we must put the Gods first when it comes to religion. This does not minimize the problems of the world, the environmental crises, the violence, and the social disparities. These are huge issues that must be addressed. We must focus on them and take action in our own life to save our world. But I believe that is true for people of all religious persuasions and is not exclusive to Pagans and Polytheists.
The purpose of religion is not to provide morality. It can, but I think that’s a slippery project. The whole discipline of Ethics built on Reason (and not instructions from a God) comes directly out of the Polytheist traditions of ancient Greece. I am completely in agreement with the common Atheist saying that if you need the threat of eternal punishment to prevent you from being a bad person, then you are already a bad person.
The purpose of religion is not to provide answers about the afterlife. Again, it can, but I also find this slippery. There is certainly no consensus among Pagans or Polytheists about what happens after death. I don’t think agnosticism about what happens after death is incompatible with Polytheism. My general view is that we should concentrate on the world at hand.
When it comes to morality and afterlife concerns, keep in mind that Polytheists don’t believe that their Gods and Goddesses are omnipotent or omniscient. Their powers are greater than humans and their vision goes beyond what we know, but that doesn’t mean they infallibly know the future or even that they can be trusted in all things.
Religion may foster communities, preserve traditions, provide support to members. All these are great, but they’re not essential or exclusive to religion.
What religion provides – and no other institution provides – is an encounter with the Divine. Not the “idea” of the Divine, but the actual Divine. If you think Gods and Goddesses are “ideas”, you clearly haven’t met one. Anyone who knows a God or Goddess, who has had an actual encounter with one, knows that they are not just an idea. They are individual, unexpected, and specific. Encountering a God is not abstract. It is not really otherworldly. It’s immediate, specific, and real.
To encounter a deity, a power greater than oneself, does not require or imply that the God or Goddess is eternal or otherworldly. Gods and Goddesses can and do die in many Polytheist traditions, and they may or may not be reborn. I have encountered and very much believe in genii loci (spirits of place) in beautiful natural places. I encounter them in forest preserves and lakes not too far from my home. If these places were destroyed, bull-dozed, polluted, paved over, I think these spirits would be gone. There’s nothing in a parking lot to nourish them, and they would no longer exist there. They are immediate and of the world, and my concern with preserving natural places and the larger environment is absolutely one with my concern for them. This is not “other-worldly”.
I happen to have had many other encounters with Gods and Goddesses, and this is what keeps me connected to my religious path. It seems to me that atheist Pagans miss the most essential part of being a part of the religion (or the religious tent) of Paganism. If the Gods and Goddesses are just “ideas”, then perhaps they can just be dismissed. But if you only encounter them as ideas, you have missed the unique and powerful experience that Polytheist practice can provide.