Pagan Atheism – is it a Contradiction in Terms?By Silverspear
There is a popular cliché that if you ask two pagans what is
paganism you will be offered several different answers. One might be tempted to
assume from this that pagans are somewhat vague as to what they believe and
would rather hedge their bets on the issue. But the varieties of answers given
are not as evasive as they would seem. There are many belief systems that fall
within the description of paganism. Some subscribe to animism, others to polytheism
or pantheism, and some indeed to a form of monotheism where the idea of a
Supreme male God has been supplanted by the concept of a single Supreme
Goddess, at least amongst certain feminists.
But is it possible to call oneself a pagan and reject any
belief in a God, Goddess, or any sort of Creator or deity? As oxymoronic as pagan atheism might seem, a case can be made for such a position and the purpose of this
brief article is to examine the rationale behind such a view. Historically,
pagan beliefs are based on pre-Christian ideas, and the general practise in
ancient pagan cultures was recognition and worship of various deities. The
Ancient Greeks, for instance, believed the gods dwelt no farther away than the
top of Mount Olympus. But having said that, some Milesian philosophers of the sixth
century BCE rejected mythological explanations in favour of naturalistic ideas;
Nature was self-contained and there was no need to postulate anything outside
Modern paganism can be in agreement with this view. We
exist in a culture where scientific knowledge of the universe is exceedingly
advanced and which has displaced the variety of creation myths of old, along
with the anthropomorphic gods who allegedly were responsible for such creation.
No longer is the sky, for example, believed to be a canopy extending over
the four corners of the earth, which is how one ancient culture perceived it.
Despite a degree of admirable knowledge of the universe that some ancient enquiring cultures gained, their view was indeed parochial by modern
standards. Could they have imagined in their wildest dreams the sheer enormity
of it all? If you go out at night and
look through a hole roughly equal in diameter to a coin, what you will see is
simply a small area of dark sky. But encompassed within such a restricted area
are around 100,000 galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Now stand on a
hilltop and look around at the sky with unrestricted vision and the mind can
only boggle at how many galaxies and stars are actually out there.
If science should one day confirm the suspicion of some
that the Big Bang
is just one event in a succession of Big Bangs, will that settle once
and for all the probable non-existence of a Supreme Creator? To many,
apparently not: their faith will remain unshaken. Why should this be? One
explanation is that rationality has very little to do with religious belief.
Most believers seldom have adopted their views after having sifted through
facts and weighed up the evidence; they often became religious for emotional
reasons or because of an allegiance to family or cultural traditions. There is
a well-known saying: one does not think oneself out of that which one did not
think oneself into in the first place. And so, once having embraced particular
religious beliefs humans are highly skilful at defending them, even in the
light of strong evidence to the contrary.
An example of this curious anomaly is the "five arguments for
the existence of God" postulated by Thomas Aquinas; arguments long dismissed by
most philosophers and theologians as flawed in one way or another. Space does
not permit in an article of this length an examination of these arguments in
any detail. They are well publicised and can easily be found on the Internet or
in philosophical literature. But basically a common thread running through
these arguments is that since physical things exist there must be a First Cause
to account for their existence, which of course is said to be God. However,
such a conclusion raises the obvious question: If it is possible for God to
exist without a cause, why cannot the universe exist without a cause?
Introducing a pre-existing and transcendent God into the
equation also raises the question as to what was God doing prior to Creation. Was
he pondering on making something out of nothing? If indeed plans were afoot then he is a thinking God. But thought is the faculty of reason, and we are
told that God knows everything there is to know, which means that God has no
need to apply reason. Thought is also a process, which implies passage of time.
But if God is eternal, which he has to be by token of being God, then it’s hard to reconcile eternal attributes with time,
which basically is a measurement of change or decay within matter.
God, we are also told, is an eternal spirit not subject to change.
But what does 'spirit' mean?
The term implies that somehow spirit is separate and distinct from what we call
the material world, and yet somehow this mysterious essence is said to permeate
all living things. This idea creates huge philosophical and theological
problems in attempting to satisfactorily explain how that which is spirit can
interact with something perceived as fundamentally different in nature as
matter. Furthermore, such dualistic thinking not only devalues Nature but also
encourages the paradoxical view that Nature, despite being the product of an
allegedly perfect Being, is essentially imperfect. Material objects do display
impermanence, at least according to our perception of reality, but there is no
reason to deduce from this that Nature is imperfect as a consequence of this.
Pagans recognise that entropy is the price paid for the existence of life. The
alternative would be stagnation.
So why not leave matters at that, and simply subscribe to
atheism? Why embrace any form of pagan 'spirituality'? The short answer is that
modern atheism, apart from justifiably rejecting the existence of God, is also
historically linked to humanism, an ideology that erroneously elevates humans to a status above other life-forms on our planet; a view that most pagans entirely reject. Atheism in
Western culture also dismisses out of hand, and even attacks, anything that
seemingly smacks of the paranormal or unexplained. However, the so-called
'paranormal' is not intrinsically irrational; cultures the world over from the
dawn of mankind have experienced phenomena that cannot be explained, at least
so far, in rational or scientific terms and to reject, as modern atheism does,
such a wealth of anecdotal evidence seems utterly irrational in itself.
A much more rational view of Nature is that all living
things generate ‘soul’, or life energy, which probably can be described as
Animism. This is quite different to the idea that some numinous and transcendent spirit binds all things together. Life energy, or soul, has to be a product of
the physical world we all inhabit. As to what constitutes ‘soul’ remains a
mystery, but Pagans often speak of the ‘spirit of place’, meaning the energy
generated by a specific location and which can be felt by sensitive
individuals. Tropical regions generate an entirely different energy to cooler,
northern regions, which means that nature-based spiritualities indigenous to
such localities are products of their own environment. There can be no standard
‘one size fits all’, which is why there are no pagan missionaries intent on
rescuing tribal cultures from ‘superstition’ and ‘ignorance’.
At the end of the day, humans have to begin by recognising
and accepting the way Nature really is rather than the way we would like it to
be. This means removing from the equation the idea of a transcendent God
or Supreme Deity because, as this article hopefully has demonstrated, theistic
ideas create far more problems than they seek to solve. The fact is that Nature
created us, supports us, and one day will destroy us. We need look no further.
Nature is our ‘God’.