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An Atheist's Views on Neopaganism

Peter A. Taylor

Originally presented August 14th, 1994 as part of a lay-led service at
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
under the auspices of CUUPs: First Church Pagans
(Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans)

Converted to html on April 22, 2000. Some of this material has become a bit dated.
Afterword added June 8, 2004. Some of this has become very dated.
Even more disclaimers and retractions added 8-29-2010 and 5-17-2011.

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:

  1. Life is complicated.
  2. Metaphors are helpful.
  3. Metaphors are dangerous.
  4. The more different metaphors I use, the more helpful they are, and the less dangerous they become.
  5. The gods and goddesses make sense if I think of them as psychological metaphors.
  6. The more seriously or literally I take a metaphor, the more dangerous it becomes.
  7. A bad metaphor can be misleading even if I don't take it literally.
  8. Body and spirit are not separable.
  9. Conflict is just as fundamental a part of human existance as cooperation.
  10. Honesty is more important than loyalty or obedience.

10 more minor dogmas also common to most Pagans:

  1. Everything is sacred. Divinity is immanent in all things.
  2. The war between the sexes is a bad idea.
  3. The environment is a vitally important charitable cause.
  4. 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.
  5. We like hugs, nature, celebration, robes, drumming, exuberance, sex, humor, our bodies, dreams, dancing, and ritual.
  6. We're not into asceticism.
  7. We don't believe in original sin.
  8. We don't like hierarchy, dogma or victimless crime laws.
  9. The unconscious speaks to us in various ways, particularly dreams, and we talk back to it in various ways, particularly rituals.
  10. 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:

  1. Balance is an essential part of spirituality.
  2. At least one of these dogmas is wrong.
(I also note that most Pagans are far more focused 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.

[Update, 8-29-2010: I recently read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Central to Smith's thinking about morality is the idea of people evaluating their proposed behavior through the eyes of a hypothetical "impartial spectator." This reminds me of C. G. Jung's idea of an "objective psyche," but the impartial spectator functions as a sort of objective conscience. How important is it to have effective social norms rather than uncoordinated selfish chaos (below the level of formal law)? How important is it to have a general understanding of what current social norms are (even as we argue about how these norms should be changed) rather than trying to form a society out of a host of conflicting tribes? One doesn't have to be a monotheist in order to appreciate Smith's ideas, but Smith and monotheism dovetail very nicely. I found Smith very persuasive.]

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."

[Full disclosure, 8-29-2010: Carol is still involved in Paganism within the context of the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church (BAUUC), but it has been a long time since I've had anything much to do with it.]

Afterthoughts (6-8-2004):

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.

[Addendum, 9-8-2010: On the other hand, I basically agree with David Horowitz' view of the consequences of people like Saul Alinsky taking the idea of "class warfare" seriously. See Horowitz' Rules for Revolution. The "class warfare" meme really is evil. There is a spectrum, analogous to Herman Kahn's "escalation ladder," going from collegiality through mockery, bullshit, character assassination, and lying, to violence. Taking a warfare metaphor seriously makes it way too easy to rationalize climbing this "escalation ladder."]

[Addendum, 8-29-2010: Dogma no. 20 is wrong, at least in one sense. I want to be saved from some of the excesses of my own self-deception. I also want to be saved from the consequences of my neighbors' self-deception.]

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"). See also my book review of Guenter Lewy's Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and its Discontents.

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. (See my more recent essay, The Market for Sanctimony, or why we need Yet Another Space Alien Cult.)

I may be taking too narrow a view of why this "conservation of irrationality" occurs, but I am not at all original in noticing that it does occur. Blaise Pascal wrote,

There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man....
Emile Cammaerts, commenting on G. K. Chesterton, wrote,
When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything.

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. (In fact, Paul seems to have warned against this in 2 Corinthians 3:6: "The letter kills but the spirit gives life.") 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?

More afterthoughts (5-26-2011):

Maybe my next "Pagan" ritual should be a ritual of removing the chip on my shoulder about Christianity. I don't believe in God, but I believe in sin. Envy and false witness really are sins. This is important. (An Alinskyite "community organizer's" job is largely to incite envy, and as David Horowitz suggested, it is quite easy to rationalize false witness once you start taking the idea of "class warfare" seriously. See p. 10 of Rules for Revolution.)

Getting people to be trustworthy is a non-trivial problem. Someone from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reportedly said,

But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.

The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.

The linked article goes on to say,

Lawson refers to a quote in the book from a prominent Wenzhou business leader, a Mr. Hanping Zhang, who argues that "an absence of trust had been one of the main factors holding China back; but he feels he can trust his fellow Christians because he knows that they will be honest in their dealings with him."

Tribalism is another factor. hbdchick thinks that the Catholic church made Europe non-tribal (i.e. civilized it) by banning cousin marriage. The process took something like 500 years. She isn't holding her breath while waiting for democracy to flourish in the Arab world.

Christianity also puts quite a bit of emphasis on forgiveness and atonement, to the point of having formal, ritualized procedures for them. One of my favorite movies is The Fisher King, which is in large part the story of a quest for forgiveness. This is not the same thing as preaching that other people need to mend their ways. Does atonement mitigate problems associated with escalation of failure?

Joshua Orsak, in Conversational Theology, discusses the tension within the Judeo-Christian tradition between "particularist" and "universalist" views of God. To what extent does God play favorites? Joshua (p. 45) quotes Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
To my ears, this sounds absurd. I tend to see churches in terms of Edmund Burke's "little platoons," and the more universalist religious claims strike me as romantic nonsense. But what a nice contrast this makes with Alinskyite identity politics.

There is also the problem of humility. Richard Fernandez, quoting Mark Lilla, wrote:

"Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics." But that underrated the ambition of the ideologues. Once God had left the room the stakes went too high: and God's vacant throne glittered irresistibly before them.
You're not worthy of sitting on that throne, whether it's empty or not. Politicians aren't worthy, either, and neither is the state. It doesn't matter whether God exists or not. Idolatry is still a sin.

When humility fails, Christianity also has at least some built-in support for separation of church and state ("Render unto Caesar..."). Islam doesn't have this. Similarly, the social sciences tend to degenerate into quasi-religious "scientism," which also lacks any principle of separation of itself from the state.

Separation of church and state does not mean that religion has nothing to do with teaching morals or that morals have nothing to do with how people vote. James Madison wrote in The Federalist no. 55,

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
This is a rare case where I think Madison got the wording slightly wrong. He wrote of "human nature," but I think in addition he should also have said something about culture. Hidden assumptions about political culture are what make laughingstocks out of libertarians who write about immigration policy. Political culture is also what makes the difference between liberal democracy and the tyranny of the majority. Guenter Lewy describes this as "moral capital."
The urgent task for believers and nonbelievers alike, I submit, is to replenish the moral capital that was accumulated over many centuries from a unique stock of religious and ethical teachings, a fund of treasure that we have been depleting of late at an alarming rate.

I have mentioned several claims here that Western civilization is more or less dependent on Christianity. I'm not entirely convinced of any of them, but I don't think they are at all absurd. Do India and Japan disprove these claims? What about the differences between the Anglosphere and former French and Spanish colonies? Dierdre McClosky claims that the Industrial Revolution was caused by a cultural change that initially took place in the Netherlands, in which commerce, for the first time in history, became respectable. (More here.)

A biomedical engineer once told me that the liver is very complicated, and making an artificial liver would be extremely difficult. I'm afraid that it would be similarly difficult to form a non-supernatural based institution that can perform the same function as Christianity in accumulating moral capital. To switch metaphors, in discarding the supernaturalism of Christianity, have I thrown out the baby with the bathwater?


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