Belief vs. Worldview

January 20, 2015 at 4:44 am 14 comments

I’ve been reading with interest (and at times annoyance!) about the next round of debate over the place within the “Big Tent” of Paganism of folks who variously identify as Atheo-pagans, Humanistic Pagans, Naturalistic Pagans et al. To begin with, I’ll just say, like it or lump, these folks exist, and they can and will believe what they want, call themselves what they want and practice as they choose, whether it fits with other people’s personal or collective visions of What Paganism Really Is ™ Here are some of my thoughts sorting out things that I think actually matter, and things that we should not waste our time worrying about. Civil questions and comments that add to the discussion in a constructive way are encouraged, from a variety of viewpoints.

Belief vs. Worldview– I consider myself loosely, an agnostic with a polytheistic worldview. I use agnostic in a broader sense that I’m not sure about the existence of deities, or if they exist, what their nature is. Most agnostics have a monotheistic worldview- they are unsure or believe the existence of one god is unknowable. But leaning towards a polytheistic worldview, feels right to me in a way that a purely scientific materialist mindset does not. I frankly also have stronger leanings towards atheism when I am feeling depressed, but a healthy spiritual life seems to help me with my mental health. I think there are a lot of Pagans out there, who if it really came down to brass tacks, are a bit more tentative in their beliefs in deities, spirits and ancestors. But they practice, and they have some type of Pagan worldview. I think this would be an important question to (politely!) ask non-theistic Pagans- is your worldview primarily Pagan, as you understand the term, or is it primarily scientific materialism with some Pagan elements included? I could also ask the same question of Christo-Pagans, Buddho-Pagans, Judeo-Pagans, and UU Pagans. 

Lived Values Follow Worldview– hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project- the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values. I know other folks who have a non-deity focused philosophy that use other starting points- Humanistic Jews still use Judaism as a starting point for their worldview and value system, UUs who identify as Christians, Jews and Buddhists draw from those traditions and so forth.

Your Tradition/Organization/Ritual etc. Your Rules– I can tell some people are getting worried about the Wrong Kind of Pagans joining their traditions, rituals, organizations et al. OK, this is something that has not changed- every Pagan tradition and organization has its own rules and requirements for membership, initiation and so forth. While it’s true Pagans tend to focus less on theology, and more on practice, most groups still have some philosophical concepts that they expect prospective members to agree to, though they are often more like principles than creeds. In some pagan groups, belief in magic and astrology might be more important than literal belief in deities. We’ve already had for a long time, included people in our communities with these beliefs- ceremonial and chaos magicians and witches alike, can be of many different theologies, but it is their magical practice that draws them together. I think the brouhaha is that people are becoming more assertive in their beliefs and in using labels that specifically describe them.

Rituals, even open public ones, still will often state borders and parameters that participants agree to- like for example, this ritual requires consumption of alcohol, standing for X period of time. Most Asatru are not going to want you to raise the horn to Zeus, and most traditional Wiccans are not going to want you invoking the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Likewise, we may end up having rituals run by humanist pagans that won’t appreciate someone asking for healing energy or prayers in the middle of it. Many traditions and groups also may have different expectations for what’s appropriate belief-wise for basic layperson or guest participation vs. being a candidate for initiation, clergy or leadership positions.

Superior ain’t Just a Lake– Other grumpiness surrounds perceptions (whether distorted or accurate) of non-theistic pagans claiming superiority, that their paganism is better, more rational and other people should jump on their bandwagon. In case that this is true, this is indeed contrary to accepted norms of Pagan-dom, however they are not the only ones making these claims. Others have stated variously that monism, hard polytheism, and particular traditions are the Real Wicca, the Real Heathenry, Hellenismos, Druidry or Paganism in general.

Science, Critical Thinking, Reason, Logic et al are Good Things and Should be Part of Paganism!  Many folks have stated that they became humanistic pagans in part due to widespread problems with sloppy thinking, bad scholarship and hostility towards science in Pagan communities. Interestingly, many polytheists and reconstructionist, the very folks who often argue the loudest with HPs, share many of the same concerns. If we stop shouting at each other, we might actually find some commonalities! However, non-theistic pagans and non-theists in general do not have a monopoly on logic, intelligence, being scientific etc. and many religious people are scientists and do not see an inherent contradiction.

Cultural Imperialism and other Isms which can influence science, Pagans, Christians, and atheists/humanists alike Are Bad!  This is another one where examining our worldviews is really important- science can be a useful tool for many things, but are beliefs that can’t be proven by science necessarily bad? Religion and spirituality are inseparable parts of many cultures, and the cultural identity of individual people. I think a failure to recognize and appreciate this, is in part a major reason for the overwhelming whiteness of the organized atheist movement. Atheism can be the ideological flip side of monotheism (some say the next evolutionary step) and science can be used in oppressive and unethical ways, as can every religion human beings have created.

Cultural imperialism is also a big problem for Pagans- with issues of cultural borrowing or theft, labeling of indigenous religions as “Pagan” when they may not identify with that term, and so forth. Is use of the term Pagan by humanists and atheists cultural appropriation? I think that may depend on their relationship to Pagan communities. If they are participating and contributing in positive ways, and not tearing down other’s beliefs, while standing up for their own, no. Frankly I will take 10 atheist pagans who reliably show up to rituals and events on time, help set them up, publicize them, answer questions the public asks, plays nicely with pagans of other traditions, over 1 pious polytheist, Goddess-praisin’ Wiccan or what have you that just bitches and moans on the internet.

Links to others folks thoughts on these matters (linkage does not imply my personal agreement, just showcasing other views)

Atheism & Paganism– Ian Corrigan, ADF Druid

Religion & Smart People- A Reasonable Response to Unreasonable Smugness– John Beckett, UU & OBOD Druid

In Support of Theologically Diverse Community– Lon Sarver, Dionysian Hellenic polytheist

An atheist Pagan, an animist and a devotional polytheist walk into a ritual– John Halstead, Jungian neo-pagan/ humanistic/naturalist pagan

Stop It!– Matt, naturalistic pantheist and ADF member

Atheopagans & Scientism– Finnchuil, Celtic polytheist

*edited for formatting & readability

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Holda, Lady of Hearth & Spindle Approaching the Runes

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Samantha  |  January 20, 2015 at 5:18 am

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. It shed some light on my own inner beliefs, and how they can work separately or together. The post also, I thought, gave a very good argument.

  • 2. G. B. Marian  |  January 20, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Excellent points, all of them. I also really like the Beckett article.

  • 3. Atheopagan  |  January 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

    It is not colonialist, nor bigoted to recognize that folkways may not be based in facts. There are reasons why science has enabled humans to do things that other attempts at making sense of the world have not allowed them to do, and the primary one is that science actually delivers information which is highly likely to be true, whereas tribal and traditional approaches have a far less precise batting average. It is not bigoted to say so. Facts cannot be bigoted.

    I replied to Finnchuill’s offensive and poorly-reasoned post on his blog (presuming he allows my response through moderation). I heartily disagree with your endorsement of it. Egalitarianism is a core value of Atheopaganism, and we practice no cultural appropriation of any kind. I, at least, am largely uninterested in a backward-looking tradition attempting or believing it is attempting to model or replicate practices from ancient cultures or indigenous traditions. I am interested in creating culture based in the modern world and looking to the future.

    • 4. Aine  |  January 20, 2015 at 9:55 am

      Do you mind me asking what scientific discipline you are trained in? I would assume one who tosses around science so frequently would be trained, at least somewhat…you speak so often on belief and culture that I assume you are educated in a softer science, such as anthropology or sociology? Though I do feel if you were, you would have caught that it is the false divorcing of religion and culture in many traditional and indigenous groups that is colonialist. The argument was not that traditional religions are science-based or more accurate than science. Perhaps you got that confused with the later statement of fact that science has been used for unethical purposes?

    • 5. caelesti  |  January 21, 2015 at 1:22 am

      I will re-read and re-evaluate his post, I’ve removed my endorsement of it, though there is still a link at the bottom (to provide a range of views) I agree with some of his points, but he does get a little too post-modern for my tastes. Science and religion have different purposes and are different ways of knowing. That said, the findings of science can certain inspire and inform our spiritual paths. I started reading your blog and find it very interesting. The Atheopagan principles are certainly ones which we can all learn from, and I admire the creativity and thought that you put into your rituals. I have had widely varying beliefs throughout my time as a pagan, and I can sympathize with your journey and the many foibles you’ve observed in Neo-Pagan subcultures & communities. I am definitely more in favor of inclusivity rather than policing of thought and practice.

      • 6. finnchuillsmast  |  February 11, 2015 at 2:32 am

        And of course, I have never said that science can not inspire our practices. However, it is not the One Truth that he insists upon. His 7th principle of celebrating diversity is obviously not in practice as he belittles polytheists and our “offensive” to him views.

  • 7. Aine  |  January 20, 2015 at 9:59 am

    “Frankly I will take 10 atheist pagans who reliably show up to rituals and events on time, help set them up, publicize them, answer questions the public asks, plays nicely with pagans of other traditions, over 1 pious polytheist, Goddess-praisin’ Wiccan or what have you that just bitches and moans on the internet.”

    Same, tbh…and the more these arguments pop up, or the more behaviors I see contradicting supposed ‘polytheist values’ make me care less about the theology of people joining me in founding the religion that I am…what matters more is who shows up to the work and their quality of work, not whether our beliefs match up just right. I’ve also noticed that some of the ‘community’ sprouting up around shared theology can become dicey when one wants to explore outside the ‘approved’ theological ideas, which is of course something I don’t find useful…

    • 8. caelesti  |  January 20, 2015 at 1:29 pm

      While piety is certainly a virtue, I think hospitality is a far more important one, in every culture & religion. Politeness & civility are the basis of well, civilization! Excluding and marginalizing people as we so often do in modern society leads to violence, mental illness, drug abuse, general abuse, crime etc. Not saying that will happen with Atheopagans, Christo-Pagans, Pop culture pagans, Lokeans et al when they are excluded, but it sure doesn’t help.

      • 9. Rhyd Wildermuth  |  January 24, 2015 at 12:30 am

        Hospitality is a primary virtue, yes.

        I suspect you may not be privy to some of Mark Green’s other discussions, though. In the PACO environmental forum, he railed against indigenous and poor tactics (roadblocks, sabotage) as being immature, asserting that we should play by the rules of the government and act like grown-ups.

        He also said people should stop pretending their imaginary gods want them to save the planet.

        Worse have been his discussions on-line. In all cases, he comes in as the ‘adult’ in the room, ready to teach all the immature savages how to be ‘taken seriously.’

        So. If I were to invite someone into my home/group and that person came in insisting everyone is wrong, delusional, and immature, I’m a shit host if I don’t ask him to leave.

        As I’ve stated elsewhere, the issue isn’t ‘belief’ versus non-belief. The issue is the colonialist and authoritarian attitudes some of them have (Halstead’s been tame now that he’s been working with others, but Mark Green’s more than made up for it). The issue is his insistence he’s the bearer of the One-Truth and there to make sure everyone else conforms to his middle-class, white, straight bourgeois Materialism.

      • 10. John Halstead  |  January 29, 2015 at 10:37 pm

        To Rhyd: I prefer to think that I am being slowly “untamed”. 🙂

  • 11. Jon Cleland Host  |  January 23, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Good post and good discussion. In my rituals, based on Naturalistic Paganism, I’m actually fine, in most cases, with someone asking for healing energy or prayers. Yes, focusing on the practice and the community is more important the doctrine, unless that doctrine is harmful itself (like, say, espousing faith healing instead of doctors, or racism,etc.).

    • 12. caelesti  |  January 24, 2015 at 2:53 am

      Reply to Rhyd- Yes, this recent discussion on various blogs is the first I’ve seen of Mark Green (as well as on Halstead’s blog) It helps that John Halstead is a UU like myself with a liberal Mormon wife, so he’s had to become accustomed to playing nicely with others about matters of theology. The mainstream environmental movement tends to be very white & class-privileged, as does the atheist movement, and clearly there is a need for folks from both groups to learn more about indigenous, poor/working class perspectives. I am definitely no more fond of secular fundamentalism than theistic fundamentalism, and neither has a place in either Greater Neo-Pagan-dom or UUism. Once again, I’m reminded of my theory about people who want to extend “acceptable whiteness” to include Paganism. (Atheism is definitely “acceptably white” despite all the whining…) Need to write more about that.

  • 13. Yvonne Aburrow  |  March 9, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Great post. I particularly like the distinction between belief and worldview.

  • 14. Authority in Religious Traditions | Dowsing for Divinity  |  February 10, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    […] All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview: […]


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