Someone posted a quote from this article on one of ADF’s discussion lists, specifically the section on the arrogance of sacrifice. This produced a lively discussion, to which I contributed some of the opinions below. Someone asked me further questions, and so I’ve tried to put all my stuff on the subject in one place. Not easy. To keep this from running to 5k words I have severely snipped the original text. By all means read Stifyn Emrys’ whole article.
People have a right to their opinions. Opinions about religion and politics often get elevated to the confused term “Beliefs”, and folks are extra-sensitive about their beliefs. Nevertheless I have this philosophy hobby, and philosophy is all about vivisecting beliefs and opinions to see how the connections work.
First let me propose my definition of religion. I’m quite aware of the various discussions about it in academe, but I have arrived at my answer and I present it:
A religion is a system intended to bring individuals into relationship with the transpersonal. As usual, there’s a difficult word in there. I used ‘transpersonal’ to be more inclusive than ‘spiritual’ or than ‘divine’. Either of those terms would serve equally well, until we approach atheism. To include atheism we must stretch to find a materialist model that describes the work of religion as it exists in the world. That isn't really the purpose of this article, however. Here I want to discuss the value and utility of atheism as a basis for spiritual practice or for religion.
To set out my basics early, I would hold that religion in the human species is in no way an error, and is a pro-survival trait of our species, re-appearing in every single iteration of human culture in every age. Discussions of what to do ‘instead of’ religion are off-target. Along with that I hold that most human religious behaviors – ritual worship, meditation, magic, divination – are reasonable and productive, and needn’t be discarded.
I understand, in principle, how a materialist might choose to involve themselves in religion. Social duty and pleasure, an enjoyment of the aesthetic of ritual and spiritual art, a concern for human well-being could lead to participation, even if doctrinal (another word for opinion) agreement wasn’t present.
The author in italic:
Certainly, not all Pagans are godless, just as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The majority are, in fact, theists – and the majority of those are polytheists, believers in many gods. But there are some Pagan pantheists out there, too, along with some monotheists, some agnostics and yes, even some atheists.
I appreciate that the author begins by attempting not to muddy the waters by a simple division into theist/atheist. I, for instance, do not think that there is any being or mind that created the cosmos and now rules and manages it. I don’t think that omnipotence or omniscience is possible for manifest beings, and so I don’t expect to find those qualities (in any absolute sense) in my gods and spirit allies. I don’t expect the divine to transcend the natural, but I do view the spiritual as distinct from the material. I do operate on the opinion that there is a distinct kind of reality that is called by tradition ‘spiritual’ in which independent intelligences dwell without fixed material form. I consider that portion of reality to be ‘natural’. I never use the term supernatural to refer to non-material reality. I hold a certain sort of hope that material science will someday locate this sort of reality, but it may remain a poetic reality forever. That’s ok with me. Poetry is as real as engineering, just of a different kind.
When I am in a skeptical mood, I am fine with approaching the gods and spirits as metaphors and symbols. Even in my most distracted and heart-blind moments I have the comfort of ritual and powerful images. My philosophical upbringing began with modern hermeticism and Neo-Platonism, and so I am fine with ‘archetypes’, etc. In practice I don’t find it to be a sufficient model for the phenomena that surround religion, and both scholarship and my own experience leads me to be willing to think that there are spirits as separate from me as I am from my chair, ‘out there’ in the natural world. That has been the general opinion of humankind for our history, based on repeated observation and interaction.
So that’s the kind of ‘theist’ I am. I’d guess that the ‘theism’ of many of those Pagans is as complicated as my own.
The author makes the point that ‘reverence for nature’ is the most broadly accepted descriptor of modern Paganism, and that a majority of Pagans did not see ‘worship of the gods’ as the defining characteristic. I would be interested in a number of how many of those Pagans were materialists, however. There are a lot of Pagans who interact with some sort of non-material or parascientific reality but pull back from ‘worshipping gods’, often because of some reaction to words like ‘worship’.
However I agree that nature is the primary revelation/presence of the divine to mortals. We can learn what the spiritual world is like by observing the material world – as below, so above.
Few people showed greater reverence for nature than the late Carl Sagan, an agnostic who made a career of exploring – and marveling at – the wonders of the universe. In fact, he was so astounded by the beauty and complexity of the universe itself, that he saw no need to go seeking gods or goddesses to explain it. His philosophy was that no concept of a creator or overseer could possibly match the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature itself.
Of course no concept of a creator or overseer is required for theism – certainly not for polytheism. The ancients had various tales of creation, which usually involved several actors in a multi-stage drama. Various gods create various things, and nobody is in omni-charge of the whole burrito.
Modern atheism inherits a great deal of bad mythography and misunderstanding from its nineteenth-century roots. Every year internet readers are subjected to the ridiculous claims of parallels between the Jesus story and those of Horus, Mithras, Krishna, etc. Not only do those tales have little to nothing in common with those of Jesus, they don’t resemble one another. One of those misunderstandings is that religion’s purpose is to explain the material world. This might have been true in the very earliest days, before humankind assembled a few hundred generations of observation of nature (that is, the early stone age or before). Of course until very recent days religion, magic and science were all the same thing – the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and ability.
In any case the gods worshipped by mortals have seldom had the explanation of natural things as their primary meaning. Thor isn’t primarily the presence of the thunderstorm; Thor is the farmer’s friend, the power that turns the storm aside, the power that protects the human settlement from the rage of untamed nature. Aphrodite is a certain sort of love, but Greek magicians called on much less pleasant spirits when they wanted to drive a lover to their beds. The gods could dwell in material things, of course. Some were embodied in specific trees or pools, etc. and they were conceived as dwelling in/as their idols. Still it is far too simplistic to assume that iron age Pagans were worshipping personified natural forces.
The personification of specific natural presences – the ones that bring that sense of awe and reverence – seems a hard-wired neurological thing. The perception of intelligences within the beauty and power of nature is not, in my opinion, one that should be explained away or dismissed as neurological error. Rather it should be the basis for further effort at clarifying perception, and for establishing relationship. That’s religion, in my opinion.
This is the way the Pagan atheist views the world, and the universe at large. It’s not some dry, clinical and bitter philosophy. It’s a vibrant, dynamic view of life and the environment that births and sustains it. In fact, many Pagans view the universe as a sort of living organism – either metaphorically or in actual terms.
Most Pagans, I suspect, would agree that living organisms have a spiritual component. The spiritual components of nature are the gods and spirits. Discussion about what the gods and spirits ‘really’ are is not directly relevant to their worship, imo. We are taught about them both by poetry and by experience, and we respond to both.
Doesn’t a materialist approach to religion guarantee that one is discarding half the business? If the goal is to honor/relate with nature, how can choosing to ignore the spiritual component aid the process? No specific opinion on the metaphysical/neurological basis of the phenomena is required in order to work with them. I generally advise atheists to take up the work of formal worship of the gods and/or spirits for a few years, and see how they feel.
The role of deities
All of which raises the question of gods and goddesses. What, exactly, are they?
Since I never consider the monotheist worldview in these matters I’ll answer directly. To do so I will first resort to describing my mythic understanding of the cosmos.
A god is a mighty spirit who answers worship with blessing. The world is full of spirits – intelligences of various kinds. Some of them have incarnated as humans sometimes, some as other material forms. Some of those spirits have formed relationships with mortals. The tales tell of a great first family of beings, who helped carve out a place of ordered life where humans could dwell and thrive. We remember those names and they are understood as the greatest of the spirits. Those are the beings that mythology places in the ‘gods’ category.
In religious practice ‘god’ is a category with permeable boundaries. Linguistically it is from Germanic roots meaning ‘that to which we sacrifice’. Any spirit that gains sufficient respect and honor, around which a cult of worship grows, is functionally a god whether or not they are accorded the status of that old first family.
Are they supernatural entities – beings outside or somehow above nature?
No, they are part and parcel of nature. My own inclination is to think that they arose out of natural processes just as we did. They exist in non-material ways, by our present ability to measure. For materialists one might think of gods and spirits as information bundles ; ).
The ancients didn’t fully comprehend how the forces of nature worked, so they viewed it in terms they did understand – anthropomorphic terms. They put a human face on nature, attributing violent storms to an angry god’s tantrum or fertile fields to the benevolence of a goddess.
I think the ancients knew that the goddesses’ blessing relied on their own skill and diligence at farming. The perception of blessing is a subtle thing, again quite possibly more poetic than material.
My own opinion is that the intelligences put on a human face to speak with us because that is the most reasonable thing to do. It both conforms to our neurology and allows them to participate in our understandings. ‘As below, so above’ as they say – the spirits that respond to humans are the spirits that enjoy putting on our likeness.
As a side note, I suspect that we are at risk of lumping together divergent levels of cultural development, engagement with nature etc. The amazon tribesman’s understanding of the forest seems likely to be very different from that of the Gaulish farmer. Of course the land is very different, so you’d expect nature-based religion to vary.
One difficulty many atheists have with these conceptions is practical. If we believe that we are at the mercy of a deity’s emotions, it’s only human nature that we’re going to try like hell to influence those emotions. We’re going to try to put that deity in a good mood.
I find the emotional tone of this a little puzzling. I am not in a ‘subject’ relationship with any of my gods. This is North America – I don’t have a king or lord. The gods are mighty beings, they don’t need my subservience or obedience. If they want something done, that’s what happens. I don’t consider that there is a providential divine will that orders existence – rather we are all going about doing our own wills. The gods may occasionally want something specific to occur, but usually they are just going with the flow, resting in the woven hammock of fate, if you like.
Now, non-deity spirits are often more demanding in traditional religions. The Dead want our memory and our offerings in most every culture, and the land-spirits are more involved in whether any specific field will bear well than are the gods. A great deal of ancient cult was spent on these sub-deific beings (though, recall the operative meaning of ‘a god’).
So, yes, I’d say that some effort is put into keeping the spirits happy and participating well in our efforts. Isn’t that what one would do in any relationship? The Pagan relationship with nature is not one way – we give back in ways that matter. Again, back when proper plowing technique was part of the sacred lore preserved in rhyme, etc., material effort was joined with spiritual effort in prayer and ritual, producing anthropomorphized relationship. How can materialism be anything but a mere rejection of half the traditional work? How arrogant is that?
This is how the concept of sacrifice developed, as an attempt to placate (or bribe) a deity by offering him/her something we ourselves might enjoy – often in the form of food. There were a couple of problems with this assumption.
First off, it was arrogant to think the forces behind the elements needed anything from us, and it was presumptuous to assume that – if they did – they’d enjoy the same sorts of things we did.
We presume nothing. We learn from those who succeeded in the past. Religion is not reasoning from abstract principles, without experiment. It is not invention. It is not fiction. Religion is the relationship that we build with our personal experience of the divine, usually using some of the methods prescribed by whatever religious system we work in.
One of the most universal means of establishing relationship is through the mutual giving of gifts. This is the basis of sacrifice in the Indo-European world, at least (The emotional tone in the Middle East and S Asia might have been different). The gods and spirits are invited to a great feast shared with the folk, and enthroned and fed as noble guests. In turn they give noble gifts to the folk – the gifts the gods can give – improved luck, health, wealth and wisdom, as they say.
This formula – mutual giving - occurs in nearly every polytheist religious system on the planet. It is as natural as air, and in my opinion my philosophy must accommodate it, rather than trying to bend the nature of religion to accommodate my philosophy. It would be arrogant to think that I know more about how to establish relationship with the divine in nature than the whole stream of human religious technique.
We’ve talked about why our gods like the things that we like – it’s because they like us. The gods aren’t some cosmic autocrators, concerned with the splash of the quantum sea and the fall of the sparrow. They are specific wise, mighty spirits who have made alliance with our folk, to our benefit and, by all accounts, to theirs. The Greek tales specifically say that when human offerings ceased the gods grew weak and sick. There’s no reason why mutual dependence should preclude worship. I don't expect my gods to transcend human need.
In polytheism, the divine is not limited to the highest or ultimate existence, to the most original or to the first cause. Usually the first cause has long disappeared into retirement or death. Our gods are this generation’s gods – the kind of spirits that answer the kind of people who call them. That is one reason for the persistence of tradition. We inherit established relations with spirits who have consistently blessed us, rather than relate only with those that our own skill and virtue might allow. In polytheism it is the proximate divine that is the object of religion, not the ultimate divine. There’s no point in invoking spirits who don’t like the things that we can offer – the world is full of spirits who do.
Second, instead of placating the forces of nature, the assumption led us to actually destroy elements of nature itself. We sacrificed things that were never ours to sacrifice. We killed animals and burned them on altars. We even went so far as to kill humans. And if our sacrifices weren’t “accepted” (the rains didn’t come or the land remained barren), we blamed the priests who conducted the sacrifices and killed them, too.
Nature kills everything. Death is not the enemy of nature, or even of life. Death is a holy power, part of the Big Story, which is due a place in our work and worship. There is not the first principle, either spiritual or rational, by which a nature religion could exclude death from its work.
Nature(and/or the gods) gives humans the power to shape reality to a limited degree. It is that power on which we have based our species’ survival, that power that gives us gain and now, as our strength outgrows our wisdom for a moment, gives us peril. It is as good to employ that power for religious goals as it is for material ones. Thus we shape matter into temples, bring the gods into images and develop relationships with the spirits. We also have the power to make live things dead – a power which must be carefully managed.
Finally, it is not possible to live without killing and/or eating the bodies of the Dead. The order of the cosmos decrees that life depends on the death of others. This must be met with honor and wisdom if we are to understand the world in which we live. The business of sacralizing some forms of death seems entirely reasonable to me, and not in the least extreme or offensive.
The traditional animal sacrifice, at least in Europe, was a community barbecue in which a food animal was killed, butchered and cooked, with the gods getting the bones and skin and fat and the humans getting the parts *we* could use. To me that seems honest and honorable, as is the modern practice of offering food and drink to our noble guests at the rites.
Marvels and contradictions
These are the kinds of practices that the Pagan atheist finds saddening, because they do unnecessary damage to nature itself – something humanity has done far too often.
Killing an animal does no damage to nature. Nature will proceed as it will, and we’re all doomed to die. Killing a food animal in a ritual fashion in fact does poetic and psychological honor (at least) to nature – both to the beast, and to the object of the rite, and to the human power to shape through deeds. The management of the need and reason to kill is a huge discussion, but I’m entirely willing to grant animal sacrifice a thumbs-up.
We don’t need to be given the right to manipulate matter. We have the power to do it, and if we were ‘given’ it we were given it by nature. We were also given a variety of other skills, some of which we call wisdom. The strength-to-wisdom ratio *is* the concern of the social management function of religion, in my opinion, but it isn’t really what we’re talking about here. The question here isn’t ‘will we change nature’ it is ‘how will we change nature’.
It is precisely because of a love for nature that a person can identify as a Pagan and an atheist with absolutely no contradiction whatsoever.
How does one resolve the universal natural human relationship with gods and spirits? There certainly isn’t a sufficient materialist explanation at present. I find materialism to be an inadequate description of nature.
The Pagan atheist views nature itself as the magnificent framework of which we all are a part – and has no need to put a human face on it. To do so is to look at it through a clouded lens, rather than taking it at its own marvelous face value.
If science took nature at face value we wouldn’t know what an electron is. There are subtle realities behind face value, both material and, I think, spiritual.
I could see a sort of seer who prefers to not approach the gods in human form. There are/were whole traditions of polytheism that are ‘aniconic’ – that do not represent the gods. However most of those archaic systems eventually settled into anthropomorphized gods – I can’t see how that amounts to an error, as long as one likes the results.
Misconceptions and metaphors
My main problem with atheism as philosophy is that I find modern atheism to be mainly a creaking 19th century leftover, applying a steam-age understanding of religion to the modern world. As a modern Pagan one of my goals is help craft modern systems that can restore the conscious human relationships with the spirits that have been lost to the western world through the two waves of Protestantism and Scientism. I hope to loosen the grip of mechanistic rationalism on the west at the same time as I work to loosen the grip of fundamental monotheism. The rest of the world has continued along, adapting spirit-models of religion to modernization, even as atheist bully-gangs wreck temples in India right next to the Christians.
Philosophies that claim to teach one “How Things Really Are” are usually BS – that applies to one’s college physics prof as surely as to one’s preacher. But I’m a skeptic…
We don’t begrudge others the use of terms like “the goddess” or “the lord and the lady.”
Kind of ya.
I never make it my business to ask someone who comes to a rite what they really think about the nature of the gods, unless it involves more than one beer afterward. Hell, my own answer would vary depending on my mood. But I don’t think such things matter. We do the rite, some of us have a hot spiritual experience, some less so, we all get a good blessing and we eat. *That’s* the Paganism that matters to me, not issues of whether one thinks the gods are metaphors or daemons.
But I have to critique atheism/materialism as an inadequate explanation for the natural world of religion, and as at best the base of one foot on which to build a spiritual practice.
P.S. Stifyn wrote a thoughtful response to my response here, and I left a short response. Dialogue is good : ).