Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: Atheism

Reclaiming the term “Polytheist”

A lot has changed over the last couple of decades. Take, for example, the definition of the term “polytheist”. When I first came into Asatru, there were two types of polytheists – hard and soft. Hard polytheists believed in the literal existence of the Gods as distinct entities. Soft polytheists believed in the Gods as “aspects” of either two meta-Gods (most often the “Lord and Lady” or “The God and The Goddess”) or of a single meta-God.

This split had a lot to do with the complete overwhelming of the Pagan and Heathen communities by Wicca and Wiccanate ideas. With so many Asatruar at the time coming from a Wiccanate background, it made sense that a lot of them would retain that sort of “All Gods are part of The God” idea.

Today, however, perhaps owing to the growing self-confidence of Asatru and other reconstructionist faiths, the shadow of Wicca has receded somewhat, and those Asatruar who see Odin and Thor as aspects of a single male divinity, and Freja and Sif as aspects of a single female divinity, are few and far between. So the whole hard/soft thing has lost some relevancy in recent years.

However, the hard/soft dichotomy has been replaced by something of a struggle for ownership of the term “polytheism” by two factions who could not be more on opposite sides of the spectrum. On the one end, we have the atheistic Pagans who claim the term based on a loophole in the dictionary definition:

polytheism /ˈpälēTHēˌizəm/ noun
The belief in or worship of more than one god.

So because the dictionary differentiates between belief and worship, they claim the term can equally apply to them, even though they do not believe in the existence of one (or more than one) God. Personally, I don’t think that’s what the authors of the dictionaries intended; if so, then the definition of the words “theism” and “monotheism” would mirror that of “polytheism”, which they does not. Theism and monotheism are merely listed as a belief in a god and/or gods.

It’s my belief that the “or worship of” phrasing was included as an example of lingering (probably unconscious) Christian bias that no one could actually believe in such silliness; at some level the worship of Zeus and Thor was just play-acting. But that’s just my own possible explanation for the asymmetricality of the definitions.

On the other end of the tug-of-war rope, however, we have the devotional polytheists, who feel that any expression of polytheism that does not put their type of polytheism first and foremost is somehow a “betrayal“:

In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition… 

And by that, what the author means is “whatever I say the Gods tell me at this moment, is what you should believe they want.” That, of course, isn’t putting the Gods first. It’s putting those who claim to speak for the Gods first, and is the worst sort of “revealed religion”, setting up a spiritual dictatorship of those who claim to speak with (and therefor, for) the Gods. That cannot be the chief universal expression of our religious faith, even though it is rightly an important expression of our religious faith for some.

For some it may well be perfectly appropriate to listen to the Gods and act on their instructions, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, as the primary motivator in their religious life. For yet others, religion is about connecting with our fellow folk, and that must be seen as just as legitimate a religious enterprise, because it is just as much a way of serving the desires and interests of the Gods as anything else. “Man is the joy of man”, if we are to believe Odin’s own words (Hávamál 47).

And where does that leave me, and the vast “silent majority” of Asatruar like me who, while we absolutely believe in the literal existence of the Gods as individuals, but who have other priorities in our religious lives than god-spousery (!) and following what self-proclaimed oracles say?

All I can do is to try to reclaim the term “polytheist” and bring it to its proper place between the two polar opposites. It means more than a hollow aping of religious ritual in honor of figments of the imagination, but so too does it mean less than a slavish devotion to what a self-proclaimed prophet says the Gods told her last night.

Those of us between those two poles must simply carry on believing in the Gods, and honoring them as well as the land-wights and alfs and house-wights and our ancestors, and enjoying the company of our fellow Asatruar, and forging and strengthening the bonds of friendship between us during sumbel and elsewhere, and studying the lore that has been left to us, and practicing the magic that our ancestors practiced, and building hofs and groves and sacred enclosures, and through martial prowess, and singing songs in praise of our Gods and our fellows, and trying to make the world a better place for our folk.

And we are polytheists none the less for all of that.

Subverting Paganism


transitive verb
– to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
– to make (something) weaker or less effective 
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that’s relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the “atheistic Pagans”, agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was “subversive”. A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

“Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don’t believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe.”

Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Atheists could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I’ll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are “going along to get along”, and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being “subversive” (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he’s being “subversive”, he’s even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of “subvert” includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that “this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm… has made its way into contemporary Paganism”. The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn’t “make its way” into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Gerald Gardner in the 1930’s and 40’s, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the “modern age” (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead’s own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to “make its way” into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic (“I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.”), he must change… dare I say subvert… the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can’t believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can’t conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don’t try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don’t be a bad guest.

Reviving culture vs. religion

I know it seems like I’m on a Sarenth Odinsson roll lately, but honestly it’s something of a coincidence. In this case, he wrote a (first) reply to my post on atheist pagans, pointing out an aspect of the discussion (religion vs. culture) that I myself thought of while I was writing my post, but it was getting so long that I didn’t include it. So I’m glad Sarenth caught the same thing, because it shows I was communicating my point properly:

these were intact cultures with room for non-believers, whereas, for our purposes, we are strictly reviving our religions, and the culture will follow after.  We simply have a different demographic makeup.  Americans don’t have the investment in anything like an Althing culture, Gebo is practically nonexistant as a feature of regular life here, and that is with contracts and contractual reinforcement. I think there’s room for non-believers in our culture, but there’s also a reason I don’t invite them to my Northern Tradition Working Group or Study Group.  These are polytheist religious groups. [Emphasis, and double-spaces after periods, in the original.]

What are we reviving?

Now, I can’t speak for Sarenth specifically, or anything outside my own experience of American Heathenry, but from my perspective we are indeed trying to revive more than just a religion. It would be impossible to do otherwise, because in the ancient Heathen mindset (and, indeed, in much of the Medieval and pre-modern mindsets), there really wasn’t any distinction between religious and non-religious activity. Religion permeated every aspect of life, from farming to warfare to weaving to metalworking.

And many of us in the Heathen community are trying to recreate that sort of mindset. A magical mindset where the spirits of stone and stream and tree are everywhere, where there really is a tomten in the corner, and where the birds sometimes fly in a particular direction because the Gods want to tell us something.

We are creating a subculture within the larger host culture, somewhat more isolated and self-sufficient than the norm. We do embrace the concept of the Germanic gift-cycle, and we really do embrace the Germanic ideals of honor and courage, and practice all those things and more among ourselves, even if the larger host-society does not. We can still invest in those things, and bring up our children with those ideals, even if the broader culture does not.

Note that this is not to say that we are completely isolated and off the grid (although some Heathen groups do tend more in that direction than others). I still watch television, and I’m still looking forward to the next Star Wars movie (no, seriously, I already have tickets for the premier of Episode VII), and I still have a full-time job that doesn’t involve blacksmithing. But at the same time, we can live in the broader culture and still retain those aspects of our own subculture that define us as Heathens. We’re not the only religious minority to do so, and it’s certainly not impossible.

Just because we don’t live in a Germanic “honor culture” doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace such a thing ourselves, and live by it. In a lot of ways, that’s why we’re so baffled by, and often hostile to, today’s über-Politically Correct culture, with its victim mentality, “microagressions”, and expectation that any offense is something that should be dealt with by getting someone from the outside to either prevent or punish the transgression. It’s just not how we think. It’s not our culture.

And I daresay the reason the atheists still want to count themselves among us (in hyphenated form, sometimes) is because they value that culture.

So when he says “these are polytheist religious groups”, I counter that a polytheist religious group includes culture as well by definition, and a re-creation of the ancient mindset that accompanied it, because ancient culture and religion were inseparable. And, need I say, orthopraxic.

Host culture to subculture

It is also the case that, in ancient times, there really wasn’t anywhere for an atheist to go. The only options were, operate within the host society (which at that time was overwhelmingly pagan and polytheistic) or suffer outlawry or exile (and even then, it’s not like there was some atheist colony somewhere they could go to; it was pagans everywhere you turned). In today’s society, there really are options, including simply embracing the host culture and abandoning the Heathen (or Pagan) subculture.

So in that respect, I can see how someone might object that, now that there’s an option for atheist pagans to choose, they’re not doing so. They’re sticking around in the Heathen/Pagan subcultures, and in some cases, trying to change them. I get that, and it’s the “trying to change them” aspect that I specifically disagree with. If an atheist Pagan or Heathen does remain within one of those subcultures, it must be with the implicit understanding that the subculture is as it is, and isn’t there for the atheist to turn it into something it’s not. If that’s their goal (and I think it is, at least for a small but vocal number of them), then they really should abandon ship and create something of their own, and stop trying to change what the rest of us have, and believe.

So on that point at least, I think Sarenth and I can agree.

Freedom of conscience

A week ago, I suggested that the contretemps between those who do not believe in the existence of the Gods  and those who insist upon it for membership in “the Pagan community” (whatever that means) can be resolved by understanding that Paganism (and Heathenry) is a collection of religious practices, rather than a collection of religious dogmas; the essential difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy.

Alas, it seems that answer isn’t sufficient for some folks, who insist that proper ideology is necessary for proper practice:

My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought.  One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought.  Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning.  I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts.  In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought.  The reverse is also true.  Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship.  Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings.  In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire.  This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.

Did someone say, “orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy”?


Now it should be noted that Sarenth and I are using different terms, and it’s entirely possible that our disagreement comes from the fact that he’s specifically talking about the “separatist Polytheist” community that has arisen in the last couple of years, and I am specifically talking about the broader “Pagan/Heathen” communities.

I realize that there are many on the deep end of polytheism (the ones who engage in god-spousery and so forth) who are consciously trying to distance themselves from the broader Pagan/Heathen community, and I get that and their reasoning. And if it’s the case that Sarenth is using “Polytheist” in that more separatist sense, then indeed he wasn’t responding to my argument, because my argument was talking about a different community than he is. But for my purposes, I’m going with the dictionary definition of polytheism:

belief in or worship of more than one god

Which leaves the room open for both those who believe in, as well as those who simply observe the outward modes of worship of, many Gods.

The origin of the split

It may be of interest that the split between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, at least in the modern Heathen community, originally stemmed from the vicious fights within Asatru between the folkish and universalist camps. At the time (the mid-late 90’s) Theodism was actively engaged with the Asatru community, and tensions were high, and the fights within Asatru threatened to spill over into Theodism and tear it apart along similar lines.

Garman Lord (the founder of Theodism) came up with a perfect solution; the concept of “freedom of conscience” as a foundational precept of Theodish Belief. That is, everyone was allowed to believe whatever they wanted to believe in terms of ideology, theology, etc., as long as they “practiced the King’s religion”. At one stroke, the wind was taken out of the sails of those (on both sides) who wanted to impose their ideological and theological choices on others.

It’s not something found in Asatru as a rule, but it’s certainly something to think about in the broader context of the current debate. Especially when we’re not talking about specific organizations (which can of course be exclusionary along any lines they wish), but broad definitional categorizations like “polytheist”, which no one person or group of people can claim to own, no matter how much they might want to exclude people who disagree with them, be it on politics, theology, or some other ideological question.

A thought experiment

That said, I submit the following thought experiment as a way to explain why an insistence on orthodoxy, that is, “right belief” is simply impossible on a practical level.

Imagine two self-identified Heathens, Einar and Eirik. Both are members of an Asatru tribe, both attend a Yule gathering. Both have many friends in the tribe, and bow their heads respectfully during the blót to Freyr while they are sprinkled with blood, both sit at high places at the sumbel, both give gifts in hall, and both make beautiful and impassioned toasts in honor of Freyr, their ancestors, and their host.

One of them believes the Gods have a real existence outside of ourselves, and one of them believes the Gods are merely mythological archetypes.

Which is which?

Unless you can answer me that question, then I submit that the answer doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t care. It’s impossible to police, as long as the non-believers take my advice from a week ago and simply go with the flow, as it were. That’s apparently what they’re interested in, supposedly.

The empathy of understanding

Which does raise a question. I did ask a while ago why atheist pagans didn’t just call themselves atheists, and insisted on remaining within the Pagan and Heathen communities. While I did get some answers (from John Halstead in particular, who started this whole conversation), I am still no closer to understanding their reasons. Heck, they’re even writing a book on the subject, and I have no idea why they call themselves Pagan.

But you know what? That’s not remotely the point! I don’t have to understand their position to understand that they might well have a reason. I’m not their judge. So when Sarenth says something like this:

Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. 

I have to hold myself back from yelling at the screen, “it doesn’t make sense to you, but it might make sense to them!

That attitude is really emblematic of a complete lack of empathy. “I can’t understand it, so there can’t possibly be anything to understand.” That’s the attitude that leads some leading separatist polythieists to call non-believers “degenerates“.

That sort of attitude does somewhat undermine Sarenth’s arguments that “adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today”. I’ve certainly never said any such thing, but I can see how, with that sort of attitude and name-calling, others might.

Tradition, not ideology

What I am saying, however, is that orthopraxy does not, in fact, stem from orthodoxy. Orthopraxy stems from tradition and custom. Just as the house-wight doesn’t care if the homeowner believes that Jesus is the son of God as long as he gets his bowl of porridge with a pat of butter every Yule-eve, so too do the Aesir not care if the people making offerings to Them honestly believe in their heart that They exist, or whether they have doubts, or whether they adopt a more intellectual understanding of Them.

And how can we tell? One of the elements of blót is the taking of auguries and omens to see whether the offering has been accepted. Not all of us have the benefit of Gods talking in our ears all the time, after all… Does your kindred or tribe or whatever harbor respectful unbeliever practitioners within its midst? If that really was something the Gods didn’t want, it would be reflected in the luck of the tribe. I’ve never heard of a systematic study being done, of course, but I would think if that did happen, the circumstantial evidence would quickly make the situation clear.

The modes of disrespect

Now, I do agree with Sarenth on one key point, when he says:

Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.

That’s certainly true, and I made the very same point in my earlier post. Those who go out of their way to disrespect the Gods (whether it be in an insulting verse, like Helgi Skeggjason did, and got outlawed for) or by making public statements referring to our “sad little gods” (like John Halstead did, and apologized for, and then proceeded to start hurling insults at people, rather than the Gods, which is… better… I guess), do deserve to be shunned and ostracized.

But they should be shunned and cast out not for their beliefs, but for their actions. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people go quietly about their business as Pagans and Heathens, believing that the Gods are archetypes, yet still being productive, even honored, members of their communities, because they’re simply not assholes about it. Hel, they can even make the case, on a philosophical level, as long as it’s done with respect (and engaging in discussion about the reality of the Gods is not, in and of itself, disrespectful; if done properly, it can be a tool for getting to know Them on a deeper and more meaningful level).

But I would also point out that trying to define away people for what is in their hearts, rather than what they have done, is equally as obnoxious and harmful as getting up on a rock and shouting “the gods don’t exist, and you’re fools for believing that they do!” Deeds, not thoughts. Actions, not beliefs. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

Einarr or Eirik? If you can’t tell the difference, then they’re both doing it right.

Atheism and Asatru

There is quite a brouhaha going on right now on a bunch of blogs; a battle between those who believe that a literal belief in the Gods (led by, but not made up exclusively of, those who count themselves as Devotional Polytheists, and who practice a very extreme form of belief that includes practices such as being a God-spouse) is a natural prerequisite for being Pagan (or Heathen), and those who espouse something variously called Atheistic Paganism or Humanistic Paganism.

Fair warning – this post is going to piss off both sides, because I think they’re both wrong.

Atheism in Pagan and Heathen societies

From an historical point of view, it is entirely the case that non-belief in the Gods was accepted, if not particularly widespread, and did not necessarily exclude one from the general Heathen society in which they lived. This was stated explicitly in Örvar-Oddr’s Saga:

“But what are you doing here? Are you truly Heathens?”
Odd answered, “We know nothing about any faith, other than believing in our own might and main, but we don’t believe in Odin.”

And even more clearly in Hrafnkel’s Saga:

The news was brought east into Fljótsdalr, to Hrafnkell, that the sons of Thjóstar had destroyed “Freymane” and burnt the temple. Then said Hrafnkell: “I deem it a vain thing to believe in the gods,” and he vowed that henceforth he would set his trust in them no more. And to this he kept ever afterwards, and never made a sacrifice again.

Doing so didn’t lower either of their reputations in their communities. It was an accepted thing. Belief in Heathen Gods was not a prerequisite for membership in a Heathen society.

The Classical world was also home to many disbelievers. The Greeks had their Atomists and Sophists, while the Romans had their Epicurians:

This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature’s aspect and her law,
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things)

Again, the Pagan Greeks and the Pagan Romans did not run the adherents of these philosophies out of town on a rail. While they were never mainstream, neither were the Epicurians subject to the same sort of persecution that befell the Christians (against whom, interestingly, the charge of Atheism was laid, which is something we shall turn to below). Belief in Pagan Gods was not a prerequisite for membership in a Pagan society.

So, if belief in the Gods wasn’t necessary to be a Heathen or a Pagan, what was?

Practice vs. belief

The answer lies in the nature of Pagan/Heathen society and religion. Paganism and Heathenry are orthopraxic religions (or, perhaps more correctly, are collections of orthopraxic religions), as opposed to Christianity, which is an orthodoxic religion.

Orthopraxy, which informs the Pagan/Heathen worldview, means that what one does is what’s important. As long as you maintain the sacrifices, speak the words, participate in the festivals, and in general don’t work to actively disrupt the religious life of the community, all is well. You don’t have to believe in the reality of the Gods, as long as you act like you do. This explains the Roman tradition of maintaining religious festivals and observances even though the people doing them had completely forgotten why they were being maintained.

Orthodoxy, which informs the Christian (and Muslim) worldview, means that what one believes is what’s important. You can go to church every Sunday, you can mouth the words, but unless you truly believe in your heart what your faith tells you to believe, you’re damned. You have to believe in the reality of God, and acting like you do doesn’t satisfy. This explains the Christian paradox of welcoming the most heinous criminals and bad actors, as long as they have a “sincere” conversion in their heart.

Taking it too far

But, of course, ancient Pagan and Heathen societies didn’t have limitless tolerance for deviants from the norm. While they were tolerant of non-believers, the tolerance of their societies had limits, and they were not afraid to smack down those who crossed those limits.

According to Njal’s Saga, Helgi Skeggjason, a new convert to Christianity and an advocate of forcible conversion for others, read the following poem before the Althing. He was subjected to outlawry for his efforts:

I dare mock the gods.
I believe that Freyja is a bitch,
And that Odin in a dog,
Or else the other way around.

The Greeks similarly had issues with non-believers who took their (non-)beliefs into the realm of actions aimed at mocking the Gods and interfering with the religious practices of those who did believe, rather than merely indulging in philosophical discourses:

It was about that time [415 BC] that the poet Diagoras of Melos was proscribed for atheism, he having declared that the non-punishment of a certain act of iniquity proved that there were no Gods. It has been surmised, with some reason, that the iniquity in question was the slaughter of the Melians by the Athenians in 416 B.C., and the Athenian resentment in that case was personal and political rather than religious. For some time after 415 the Athenian courts made strenuous efforts to punish every discoverable case of impiety; and parodies of the Eleusinian mysteries were alleged against Alkibiades and others. Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped. (J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought, pp. 173 – 174)

This is also why the Christians were subjected to persecution early on by Roman authorities. They refused to participate in the Religio Publica (the public aspects of Roman religious life). This was famously spelled out when Roman authorities required all citizens and subjects to make an offering to the Imperial cult. The Christians refused. They were therefore subject to censure not because of what they believed, but because of how they acted. They refused to even make a pretense at following the religious mores of society.

The general idea is clear. Hold whatever beliefs you want. Even espouse those beliefs. But don’t go out of your way to insult believers, or the Gods, or  in general be a jackass about it.

Live and let live. Believe what you want, but respect the beliefs of the majority, don’t go out of your way to be disruptive, and behave like a normal person. What a novel concept!

The current debate

On the one hand, folks like Lucius Svartwulf Helsen, Ossia Sylva, and Galina Krasskova are wrong when they posit that Paganism not only implies, but requires, polytheism (and anyone who disagrees is a “degenerate”).

Surely, if tolerance of non-theism was suitable back before the imposition of Christianity in Pagan Rome and Greece, and Heathen Iceland and Norway, so too should we, as the people who say we’re attempting to reconstruct the ancient beliefs, be okay with atheists who are willing to uphold our practices as if the Gods existed, and believe what they will, but not be jerks about it.

If we, as polytheists, are at all confident in our beliefs, surely we can endure in the face of people who believe differently than we do being in our midst, as long as they are respectful in doing so. Such is the price of hospitality; sometimes you are hospitable to people you don’t agree with. Pericles, Augustus, Egil, and Ragnar were able to deal with it. We should be, too.

So yes, you can honor the Gods, and thus be a Pagan or Heathen, and not believe in the literal existence of those Gods.

On the other hand, folks like John Halstead are wrong because they violate that very concept of respect. Hospitality goes two ways, and if one wants to enjoy the benefits of the hospitality of others (in this case, using the Pagan or Heathen labels, and participating in the Pagan and Heathen communities, even though the vast majority of those who do believe in the literal existence of the Gods), then going out of your way to insult the majority, and in general behave like a complete asshole in the vehemence with which you espouse your views, is contra-indicated.

John Halstead probably would’ve been outlawed (at best) had
he pulled this shit in 10th century Iceland

In addition, Halstead (and, admittedly, others who do not share his atheistic views) are also wrong because of their insistence that Pagans (and Heathens) should share their often radical environmentalist views, often to the exclusion of all else, and certainly to the exclusion of acts of piety that don’t revolve around them. This, despite the fact that environmentalism is most certainly not the be-all and end-all of many forms of Paganism and Heathenry (even though it might form a part, even an important part), which Halstead and his ilk seem to want. You keep wanting to get under the Big Tent of Paganism, but that doesn’t mean you get to crowd out those whose political beliefs differ from yours.

Paganism and Heathenry are about honoring the Gods. It’s about the praxis. You attend the rituals and festivals. You bond in fellowship with your fellow Pagans, even if you don’t agree with what they believe, because it’s not about thoughts, it’s about deeds. You don’t go around mocking the Gods, or mocking people (and saying they’re mentally ill) because they believe in the Gods and Their influence on the physical world, and you certainly don’t keep banging some drum saying that other peoples’ reverence for the Gods is distracting them from what’s really important, which is your own personal agenda.

To sum up, Polytheistic Pagans and Heathens (of whom I count myself as one) don’t get to insist that all Pagans and Heathens must be “hard polytheists”, because Pagan-ness is defined by actions, not beliefs. Atheistic Pagans and Heathens don’t get to insult and mock the Gods and those who believe in Them, because being part of Pagan society means adapting the outward norms of that society, including a “ceremonial” acknowledgement of the Gods.

Just stop worrying about what other people believe, and concern yourself with how they behave, and everything will sort itself out. And that goes for both sides.

A question for John Halstead

Well, to be honest, I’d welcome some answers from anyone who identifies as a pagan atheist, or humanistic pagan, or religious humanism, or whatever the heck they call themselves.

Why do you include the word “pagan” in your self-identification?

The reason I ask is that Mr. Halstead has been on a bit of a crusade lately, both on Patheos and Pagansquare, beating the drum that Pagans (and, presumably, Heathens) who actually believe in Pagan gods are misguided at best, and actively harmful to his favored causes (which he conflates with his own definition of atheistic paganism) at worst.

So it begs the question, why does he, and why do they, bother to call themselves Pagan in the first place? Why not just call themselves atheists, or humanists, or whatever? What additional value is there in the hyphenated identity for them? I’ve had my own bouts of denial of the divine, and never once was I tempted to undertake some sort of hybrid approach. It’s a mindset outside of my experience.

Is it to mark their belief in the importance of nature? That doesn’t work, because there are plenty of environmentalist atheists. I’d be willing to bet the intersection between those two groups was pretty significant, actually.

Is it a cultural thing? Do they feel an affinity for the neo-Pagan subculture that has evolved since the 1960’s? If so, there are plenty of hippy wannabes who don’t use the Pagan label.

Is it about the rituals? Well, here he might have something, if he’s just looking at rituals as psychodrama (although I’m sure he won’t enjoy being reminded that Anton LaVey got there first in his Satanic Bible and Satanic Rituals). But if it’s about the plain efficacy of ritual, it still doesn’t explain why he doesn’t take the final step and just start his own religion, with its own rituals that hit the psychological buttons he feels are their purpose, but which doesn’t rely on any supernatural agency for its undergirding premise, and thus distance himself from those Gods-believers he seems to despise so much.

So I ask; John Halstead if he happens to read this (which I doubt), or any atheist Pagan who happens across this; why retain the “Pagan” label when all it does is link you with a bunch of people who do (at least on some level), in fact, believe in the existence of our Gods and Goddesses, who believe in the efficacy of our prayers and rituals beyond mere psychological impact, and condemns you to what will surely be a lifetime of writing and talking about the differences between you and us, despite your conscious use of the term, when all that fuss and confusion (and, to be honest, implicit attempts to “convert” Pagans to your purely materialistic point of view) could be avoided by simply dropping the moniker?

Or is that the whole point, on some level? To use the hyphenated term as the camel’s nose to try to bring some self-identified Pagans around to your point of view? Again, I don’t claim to know. And thus I ask.

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