You hear a lot in the Pagan community about how people left one religion, usually Christianity, to explore other paths and came to rest on some form of Paganism. They’re always interesting stories about how people adapted to having different kinds of gods in their lives and how they related to those gods (in the case of polytheists). Rarely have I heard about people who started as atheists and converted to a Pagan religion.
I always shy away from the word ‘religious’. It carries connotations of door-knocking Jehovah’s witnesses and memories of kids at school arguing for creationism. It usually means Christianity whenever someone asks me if I’m religious. I can’t say I’m not religious – because I am – and I can barely say I am religious, because people automatically assume I’m Christian, and usually a crazy one at that.
I also have problems with the word ‘faith’, because it often means that the object of faith has no evidence for existing, and that the one holding faith is ‘holding out for a hero’ (that ain’t never coming). But faith means so much more than that, and it too has meaning outside of a Christian context.
I grew up as an atheist. I still have a very strong atheistic mindset. But as I became more and more religious, I had some serious problems squaring my experience of the Divine with my fundamental beliefs about how the world works.
So, What Kind of Atheist Was I?
I never could, and still cannot,
– believe in Russell’s Teapot. I can’t go off of blind faith that something exists just because someone tells me it does or because I want it to. I need experience to believe something.
– believe in an omniscient, omnipotent Being. Quite apart from the Euthyphro problem, and the problem of “why does bad shit happen if our God is good”, I cannot conceive of any reason why a being in this world would care about little old me and do anything to change, guide, or improve my life. Why would God be personal? Are we so egocentric that we think a God cares about us personally? I am not the centre of the world, just as the Earth is not the centre of the universe.
Hence my long-term atheism. Maybe some of you can relate. I rejected the idea of an afterlife, reincarnation, and the supernatural. I also refused (and this is crucial to my argument here) to believe in a soul, a spiritual dimension, or that anything could have a spirit. What you see with your eyes here on Earth is exactly what it is. A thunderstorm is a thunderstorm. The common raven is Corvus corax. Nothing more.
Now, these deeply-held beliefs about the way the world was structured (not humanocentric, not sympathetic, purely materialistic) began to disagree with experiences I had. Some huge changes occurred in my life and happened in such a serendipitous, smooth, positive way that they could not be coincidence. Timidly I posited the idea of Fate to myself, but still rejected the idea of a God or Gods who reached down and did things in this world. At this point I thought: Fate is okay: it’s impersonal. Gods are a problem.
One of the first experiences I had with a God was with Heimdall. He appeared and helped me when I needed it most. Similarly to the situation with Fate, I could not believe that it was a coincidence. (Coincidence is a fantastic argument for atheists. I used to use it all the time.) A God had appeared to me and helped me, just like I thought could never happen. Wow, issue. Either I claim it was a coincidence or I accept the idea that maybe there are larger things at work here.
I went with the larger things at work, and there my Heathenry really began.
Gradually I became more and more religious. I started to see another aspect to all things beyond the physical. Trees had a different presence, the sky’s moods affected me deeply, and I started to believe that this was evidence of a spiritual level to all things. I also veered into a perception of my relationship with my Gods that was dangerously personal; I had entered into the realm of thinking that I could, on some level, communicate with my Gods and they would communicate to me, and that they were watching over me. You can see how this would clash with my aforementioned atheistic mindset.
Eventually the shit hit the fan. Cognitive dissonance. Something had to give. I had a crisis of faith – but in this usage of the word, faith really did mean belief without evidence. I had believed that my Gods engaged with and cared about me on a personal level. At least, that was my conclusion about my experience. So, what now? Either change my fundamentally atheist mindset, or change the way I thought about my religion to accommodate my experiences.
My crisis of faith only lasted about 36 hours, but they were 36 shitty, shitty hours. I will write about it in detail elsewhere, but what brought these 36 hours to a close was a ‘sign’ that I was on the right path. What are the chances of me encountering this sign when I needed it so badly? It wasn’t the work of a sympathetic God. It wasn’t put there for my benefit. I just happened to be in the same place at the same time.
I decided it was the work of Wyrd. Wyrd, that impersonal, objective web across time and space that connects all things. And here was the solution.
How Do You Square the Existence of Gods?
It took me a while to cement everything in place. Gods do exist, they’re not just metaphors drawn up from the wells of human culture. Gods are beings in this world, much as we are, but they exist differently. They have their own natures and their own characters, and they act accordingly. Whether we meet them or not is purely according to Wyrd. Whatever is, should be. This solved the problem of personal Gods: they are not personal, they are simply doing their thing, and sometimes we are lucky enough to be there when they do. When Heimdall first appeared and helped me, it wasn’t because He saw me and wanted to help, it was because He was doing His thing and I happened to be in His way. It was neither coincidence nor divine concern; it was Fate.
The idea of Fate, or Wyrd (I realise the terms are not exactly parallel) is the one thing tying down my Heathenry. It is the reason I am a Heathen and not an atheist. Things have happened to me to make me believe that this is the path I’m supposed to be on right now. Whether or not I’ll stay on it doesn’t matter.
I am a Heathen. I blót to my Gods. I revere my ancestors. I acknowledge the land wights. I feel my Gods every day, sometimes to a greater or lesser extent, but I know that They are always somewhere around us. The thunderstorm is a thunderstorm, yes; but in its powerful presence is also Thor. The common raven is known to science as Corvus corax, but every raven is a spirit living in a bird form. The only real leap of faith (and arguably logic) in my religion is twofold:
- That there is a spiritual aspect to all things, and we humans can learn to sense this spiritual dimension.
- That some events in our lives are fixed.
See, atheism? There are no problems here with an asshole Creator, no problems with impossibly all-knowing, all-seeing, otherwise perfect beings, no problem with the source of immorality, no problem with judgment and punishment. We live in a rich and dynamic world and it’s up to us to live our lives well and in harmony with our surroundings, be they people, animals, plants, or Gods.
What this mode of thinking requires is a shift primarily in the definition of ‘God’. For too long has ‘God’ or even ‘the Divine’ meant the monotheistic Creator god of Judeo-Christian belief. I cannot speak for all Heathens (in fact I am sure many will disagree with my views – power to you), but the difference between atheism and paganism for many people is often only in perspective.
Summary/For Those Who Skipped to the End
I am not an atheist. Gods are very real. I was able to shift from atheism to Heathenry with not much more than a restructuring of my understanding of the world. Outwardly, my practice has not changed at all. But internally, I am now able to analyse my experiences without that uncomfortable feeling of “I could totally be wrong, and can therefore not sit well with this” that often stops atheists from religious experience. Now I am Heathen and happy, and I no longer feel so empty.