Pagan Atheism - is it a Contradiction in Terms?
There is a popular cliche 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 of it.
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.
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.