Halstead, we meet again. Upsal, if you’re doing a response to this, let me know and I’ll reblog it, but I kinda have to go with this one. Because really, it’s too good to pass up.
Already we start off. He’s not unnamed. The author is listed as Jon Upsal’s Gardener at the bottom of the post. But blogger is an inherently broken system, which is why I switched to wordpress, so I’m not going to fuss about this too much. Still. 4 secs, Halstead. 4 secs of research.
His question is essentially “Why the heck do you call yourself Pagan?” Since I don’t know the author’s name, I will call him Jön. Jön’s question is a genuine one, and it is one I have heard several times in the last few weeks. Jön’s question is addressed not just to me, but to other atheist Pagans and Humanistic Pagans out there, so I encourage others to post their responses as well. And to that end, I will be cross-posting this response on the HumanisticPaganism.com blog next month. The blogger, NaturalPantheist, and social media coordinator for has already posted his response here.
Calling in for backup already? I suspect you underestimate what’s about to happen Halstead. Everyone of the Atheistic Pagan side of things can swarm around and hit Upsal’s post, but you’ve already got so many theistic eyes on you that mine is doubtful to be the only counter response. Still. discussion is good. Cleanses the air. Or fills it with cries to Odin and Mars. Either way, I’m good.
So the question is: Why do we call ourselves “Pagan”? Why not just call ourselves atheists or humanists? What does the “Pagan” label add to our identity? Implicit in Jön’s question is the assumption that the term “Pagan” implies a belief in the literal existence of gods. And it is that assumption that I need to address first.
I’m really happy Halstead is going to address this part first. I mean, an atheistic Pagan? On a logical level, that makes about as much sense as an atheistic christian. The fundamental essence of a religion is the worship of Gods. To deny the existence of Gods is to deny the foundation of said religion(s). I mean, that is why Atheists tend not to accept religiously based arguments. Although, as we go through, we will see why and how Halstead has come to his…conclusions.
1. Theism was never a necessary element of contemporary Paganism.
I guess it makes sense to assume that all contemporary Pagans must be polytheists, given that ancient pagans were polytheists. But I have always found this assumption to be odd, given the history of the Neo-Pagan revival. Following Sarah Pike, author of New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, I date the beginning of the Neo-Pagan movement to 1967, which was the year three of the most important early Neo-Pagan groups were organized. In 1967, Feraferia was incorporated, the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn was founded, and the Church of All Worlds filed for incorporation. Literal belief in gods was not a requirement for membership in any of these organizations. Even if you date the Neo-Pagan revival earlier to Gerald Gardner, literal theism was not a requirement for British Witchcraft either. Even modern Heathenry (which also began in the 1960s) was historically ambivalent about the nature of the gods.
In this, Halstead is historically correct. The Neo-Pagan movement did start out with no real foundation in Deific Worship, even Wicca emphasized more a “god and goddess” figure as primal forces (depending on which school you were with). And, as he says, Heathenism was fairly ambivalent towards defining the nature of the Gods.
What Halstead fails to mention, however, is what happened around the late 90’s to early 00’s. There was something of a split, or a fracturing, or however you want to term it. People started rejecting the term Neo-Pagan and went for simply Pagan. You saw a massive influx of people turning to or coming to more reconstructionist Paganisms, as well as more Deific Paganisms, where emphasis did turn towards the importance of the Gods. But more on that later, probably.
In any case, since that time, Pagans have always held a wide variety of beliefs about the nature of Pagan deities. Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest have famously described Pagan theology as a multi-colored triangle with three extreme positions which subtly blend into one another. The red corner represents the view that the gods “are personal, named, individual entities, with whom one can communicate almost as one would with human beings.” The blue corner represents the view that the gods are “humanlike metaphors or masks which we place upon the faceless Face of the Ultimate, so that through them we can perceive and relate to a little of It.” The yellow corner represents the view that the gods are “constructs within the human mind and imagination.” Atheistic or Humanistic Pagans tend to fall more into the yellow part of the triangle.
So when you get down to it, two thirds of Paganism believes in some manner of divine beings, and one third thinks it’s all stuff in our head. However, again, historically Halstead is representing things correctly here. Those have been the three main points of view in Pagainism. I’m sure Halstead would claim that the blue camp has more in common with the yellows rather than the reds, but that’s ultimately going to come down to personal perspectives.
Bridger and Hergest’s model was published in the first issue of The Pomegranate in 1997. But atheistic/humanistic Pagan is much older than that. Writing in 1979, Margot Adler observed in Drawing Down the Moon that, for some Neo-Pagans, the gods are “not to be believed in or trusted, but to be used to give shape to an increasingly complex and variegated experience of life.” In fact, nowhere in Adler’s opus is there any indication that belief in literal gods is a necessary element of Paganism. Reading Drawing Down, it is possible to walk away with the impression belief in literal gods is more the exception than the rule among Neo-Pagans. Maybe this is a reflection of Adler’s own bias, but she was a professional journalist, so I’m inclined to believe her.
I’ve never read Drawing Down, and I will admit, this is probably a failing of mine. So I can’t say if Halstead is correct in his impression of her writings or not. I’m personally going to lean towards he is biased towards his own perspective, however, based on past experience with Halstead. Now, I don’t doubt that Adler’s book permits the practic of non-theistic paganism. However, I don’t know if even at that time non-theism was more the rule than theism in Paganism, or if she is implying that. I will say this though, even if she is implying that. The fact she is a professional journalist doesn’t lend her much “believably” with me because I have seen in recent years just how unethical some “professional” journalists can be when they have an agenda. I suspect Halstead may be seeing what he wants to see, but then that is a failing we all have, myself included. Such is the nature of Bias.
Another useful way of thinking about this is the Three Centers model of Paganism, which views Paganism as a Big Tent with three “poles”: Nature, Deity, and Self. Individuals may find themselves closer to any one of these poles or anywhere in between. So a Pagan may identify with the Nature or Self pole (or both) and not with the Deity pole at all and still be a Pagan.
I’m actually going to point out a problem here that Halstead is doing. When he first brought up the Three Pillars they were the Gods, the Ultimate (All of Existence as I’ve heard it), and the Self. Now here though, he claims that they are Gods, Nature, and Self. The best I can tell is he’s talking about the “blue” pillar and switching its identity (Ultimate and Nature are tow different things). Now, maybe the two are the same in Halstead’s mind, but to me it feels like a bit of a power grab. “Self and Nature are together, we do not need Gods to be Pagan! Paganism can function with just these two pillars!” Perhaps that is my bias showing, but…it just feels that way an awful lot.
I’m going to beg people’s indulgences on this. Halstead’s got five points to this and while I know this is going long, I’d like to split this into two posts, so I’m going to go ahead and address point two as well.
2. Not all contemporary Pagans are reconstructionists and not all ancient paganism was theistic.
But what about the ancient pagans? Didn’t they believe in literal gods? It is difficult to say what exactly ancient pagans believed about the nature of the gods. The terms “theistic” and “atheistic” are products of a post-Enlightenment culture, and we should beware of projecting our categories backwards onto peoples far removed in time and space from us. But even if ancient pagan were theistic in the sense in which we understand it, not all contemporary Pagans are trying to reconstruct the ancient pagan past.
Here Halstead seems to be trying to create at least one false dichotomy and make his argument for both by proving “one.” At least by the title of the point. The truth is, these are two separate issues. Of course, not all modern Pagans are reconstructionists, but then the issue here is about theism vs atheism, and there are plenty of non-recons who are deeply theistic. Recons have gotten some bad raps over the years, and it feels like Halstead is trying to make a play here. “Only recons are polytheists, and we all know recons are problematic for their racism/sexism/etc.” And while Halstead is not saying that himself, I have heard a lot of “Pagans” say those things about recons as a way to deal them out of a conversation. And by not acknowledging non-recon theists, Halstead is also basically attempting to say “only those backward looking recons believe in actual gods, but the rest of enlightened people don’t.”
The other issue is “were ancient pagans theistic.” Here, Halstead tries to dodge it seems. “We don’t really know”, “these are modern terms and we shouldn’t project,” “not all pagans want to do it that way.” Now, there is truth to the debate of how theistic ancient Pagans were. Historians have fought over this for years, with their own personal biases saying for or against. Most often though, those with the least bias have tended to lean towards level of believe was influenced by social standing, but we do know from historical examples that a great many ancient Pagans were deeply “theistic.”
One of my favorite examples of this is Lucius Sulla Felix, better known as the first dictator of Rome. He was a deeply religious man, who broke sacred Roman law and marched his legions into Rome itself, on the behest of the Goddess Bellona. So deeply personal was his belief in the Gods that he was willing to undo centuries of Roman traditions and Law because She commanded it.
But the debate will forever linger on.
Isaac Bonewits famously distinguished between Paleo-Pagans, Meso-Pagans, and Neo-Pagans. A fourth category might be called “Retro-Pagans”. In contrast to Retro-Pagans or pagan reconstructionists, Neo-Pagans attempt to blend what they think were the best aspects of ancient pagan ways with modern humanistic, pluralistic, and inclusionary ideals. Polytheism may are many not be among the elements which Neo-Pagans choose to include in this blending. Humanistic Pagans, for example, draw inspiration from ancient pagan myths and rituals, but attempt to do so in a way is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to modern people. As a result, some Humanistic Pagans may use theistic language in a metaphorical or Jungian sense, while others exclude theistic language from their practice altogether.
I can’t help but feel the term “retro-pagan” is practically an insult here. Certainly, the tone leaves one with feelings that “neo-pagans” are the superior choice, for they take the best parts of ancient Paganism and add them to modern humanistic, pluralistic, and inclusionary ideals.
The Gods, on the other hand, are purely superfluous to such things as pluralism and inclusivity, and might be used if emotionally or intellectually satisfying as stories, but probably not. And us retro-pagans, with our non-pluralistic and exclusivity clearly are the wrong choice. Bro.
It is also important to note that, atheism was not unknown among the ancients. Humanism, philosophical naturalism and paganism have a shared history, spanning centuries. Both humanism and naturalistic science flowered in Classical Greece, for example. While they declined throughout the Christian Middle Ages, they enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance, which also saw a renewal of pagan imagery and symbolism. Some ancient pagans — like the Stoics and the philosopher Plutarch — adopted allegorical interpretations of their myths and metaphorical understandings of the gods. See, B. T. Newberg’s Naturalistic Traditions series, Luc Brisson’s How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, and Anne Bates Hersman’s Studies in Greek Allegorical Interpretation.
I thought we weren’t suppose to project ideas like theism and atheism. But hey, standards. Whadda want? Now it is true, Humanism as an idea did exist all the way back in Pagan days. In fact, modern humanism came from philosophers studying ancient Paganism. But there is little historical evidence to show that “atheistic pagans” were the norm in any ancient Pagan society. Even Greece, birthplace of so many modern ideas, was a deeply religious land. It was, after all, a land filled with demigods, and one doesn’t get pregnant by a metaphor. Although I’m sure Zeus would accept that challenge.
We’ll carry on in Part 2.