Why Religion?

As an atheist, I always thought science and rationality and lack of emotion were the way to go. As a Heathen, I still think that. The big difference is that Heathenry has injected a strong sense of Romanticism into my life, and it’s made everything more worthwhile.

You hear about fundamentalists who reject science and choose to (literally) believe the Word of God instead. Now, I grew up around these people (fundamentalist Christians, that is), so I know they exist. The reason I mention these people is to draw a stark contrast between their style of worldview (everything was created by God and science has been infiltrated by the Devil) and an atheist (read: New Atheist/anti-theist) style of worldview (all religion is deluded and science has all you need to know about how the world works), which I absorbed as a kid, and which is still floating around in my head nowadays.

Science is great. It’s impartial (when not overlaid with politics) and honest and open-minded. The scientific method is the best tool we have for understanding how this world works on a physical level. I used to think the physical world was all there is. So I thought science was the best and only tool to learn about the world. And I couldn’t take these fundamentalists seriously when they clung to their book and said that dinosaur fossils had been placed in the earth by Satan. But other people, less literal religious people, thought that science didn’t have a heart or soul. They said, “doesn’t science just take all the fun and beauty out of natural phenomena?” Maybe for some people it does. For me it didn’t. Just because I knew how a rainbow worked didn’t make it any less fucking amazing. If anything, it made it more beautiful, knowing how exactly the colours came to be. I saw a world. I looked to science to tell me how it worked. I was impressed with the world and with science.

But none of the explanations had any feeling of profundity. “Why do you need profundity, you drama queen?” Well, first of all, life is depressing and I am extremely depressive, so it’s nice if the world isn’t an empty husk, and second of all, I had an instinct that things in our world were deeply important somehow. Unfortunately, science didn’t explain or expand on this instinct; it just said, “this is all there is and this is how it works”. And that felt okay, but it didn’t sit well.

Back to religious/Christian belief. Christian teachings, as I understand them, tend towards the idea that everything was created by their God, and that things happen for a reason. Everything is part of a divine plan. People who believe in intelligent design believe that things are the way they are because they were made to be that way. As an atheist, I thought this was ridiculous and unnecessary. How could you believe some man in the sky made things the way they are? Clearly things just happened this way because it was the best way for them to happen. If we’re talking evolution, well, the organisms that didn’t have the best traits simply died out. Good enough for me. (For about 16 years, that is.)

From my perspective now, I can understand wanting to believe that things were put together with a whole in mind. It would mean that existence had meaning, that we weren’t all limited to our lives and our deaths. I can see the beauty in a divine plan. I can even understand a little why someone might reject evolution for a Creationist standpoint: it’s much neater and fuller-feeling. But I feel that these viewpoints are still too closed and limited. You need a mix of the two. You need to satisfy both the mind and the spirit.

Now, there are a lot of Christians, maybe even a majority, who accept science alongside their religion, and these are the people that I can agree with more. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I don’t want to make this some kind of debate. What I want to say is this: science gives us empirical knowledge. Religion and spirituality give us a framework in which to place that knowledge to give it coherence. In other words, science informs our spiritual understanding of the world. They are two very different systems, and they fit together beautifully.

I’m going to talk about Heathenry now, because I’m not a Christian and I don’t understand Christianity very well, and Heathenry has waaay fewer problems reconciling with science than Christianity seems to (lack of dogma and centralisation, mostly, but let’s not).
Heathenry presents a lot fewer theological and practical issues for me. I can wangle it around and find a way to be comfortable with that religion. There are a lot of different ways to believe, a lot of different views you can hold, different ways to practice – reconstructionism vs modernism vs syncretism, hard vs soft polytheism, magical vs non-magical, et cetera. No matter what I believe, I can call myself a Heathen if I share Heathen culture. I could be an atheist, for Thor’s sake, and still be a Heathen.

So while theological belief and ritual practice are important and helpful for me, there is something else to Heathenry that is really enriching, really worthwhile, and that is the culture, the worldview, the poetic, Romantic way of seeing life and the world. That is part of the religion, no doubt. You can embrace it as little or as much as you want. I go all the way.

That Heathen Romanticism lights up my world. It sets a layer of beauty and sanctity and wholeness over everything. I breathe easy. I see connections between myself and the trees and the buildings. I can live and die happily, under Mani and Sunna, under the brain-clouds of Ymir, among his broken bones, on the coast surrounded by his salty blood. Everything has a presence, and nothing is merely mundane, even if it is mundane.

I go back and forth on the nature of divinity. But this way of living in and loving the world is something that has made my life worth living. I really, really mean that. I despised this world for so long. Now I am content to live in it. This worldview doesn’t just come for free (at least, not for me) – it came with reading and learning the myths and stories and taking them into myself. Connecting with them and letting them nurture me. Thinking “the natural world is beautiful” is one thing. Looking around and sensing the glow of life and being awed by it every time is something totally different.

Here’s a simile that I hope will make my point clearer. You hear people talk about love. How it feels, how they fall head over heels, how it makes them do crazy, brave, wild things. So much human energy has been spent pertaining to love. If you’ve never experienced love, you can intellectually understand these sentiments, and you can understand that love must be a very powerful force, even though you do not comprehend its gravity. It makes sense. You get it. But if you’ve actually fallen in love, you do comprehend its weight. You feel it. You experience it. You see it from every angle, not just the flat, one-sided, intellectual “love seems to be important to humans” viewpoint. You live it. It’s a part of you, all of you, not just your brain.

My life as an atheist was like life without comprehending love. It made sense, it was fulfilling enough, but there was no luster, no gloss of beauty, no brilliant sheen over existence. There was no heart in it. Like the eddying myriad emotions of love, Heathenry has made my life lustrous and brilliant. It’s lent a beauty to all things – all things – and it’s helped me appreciate all of existence with my heart and soul. I already appreciated these things with my brain, but now I’ve finally learned how to feel and live.

How the Hel Did I Get to This Point?

I feel like I made a huge step today. In the midst of conversation I told someone I was a Heathen without hesitation.

Just a year ago that wouldn’t have happened. If I was chatting with someone and we got to the topic of religion and they asked the inevitable question, my knee-jerk response would be “No, I’m not religious”. Because I was so used to being an atheist for so long, and because I was scared to say “Yes, I am religious; I am a Heathen”. Something has changed inside me to allow me to say to a near-stranger, without hesitation or crippling anxiety, that I am a Heathen.

It wasn’t out of the blue. We were talking about History Channel’s Vikings, which I enjoy immensely, and I said I was relieved with the way they handled the religion of the period (that is, with respect, surprising comprehension, and research befitting a History channel. With the exception of the weird-ass priest guys. What’s with everyone licking their palms? Seriously). We talked a little bit more on the topic, and my interlocutor said something like “I find any of those religions, Norse, Greek, as _____ as any other”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear the word he used to describe them. It started with a p and it had three syllables, is all I know. (Update: I since asked him what word he used. It was ‘plausible’.) From where I was sitting, I thought he could have meant one of two things: all religions are silly and useless, or all religions are equally useful (as good as one another). I realise those two statements aren’t mutually exclusive.

Whatever his sentiment, I knew that my moment had come. I lifted the hammer around my neck and said “Well, I’m a Heathen. This is a hammer of Thor”. Amazingly, amazingly, he seemed to know what I was saying. And you know something else amazing? He wanted to know what it was about. What I did. Holidays? Rituals? Daily activities? How I got to this point? And I told him. And it was wonderful.

I think he might have researched paganisms before, since he knew what I was talking about, but he indicated that although he admired the Hellenic gods/myths, he couldn’t bring himself to be a believer (he didn’t use that word, but more delicate phrasing). I assured him there were a lot of atheist pagans, if he was interested, and that basically one’s own practice was one’s own practice. One can do whatever feels right.

I wasn’t trying to proselytise, and I believe we were just having a [great] discussion about religion. Maybe he was interested. Maybe he wasn’t. But it was a good chat.

It got me thinking, how exactly did I get here?

I’ve written about this before so you’d think I could just go back and read it again. I told my conversation partner that I’d gotten into Norse mythology and decided that it felt like home, and that just reading it wasn’t enough; I needed to live it. And that’s true.

But what events actually happened to make me a “believer”? How can I believe that my gods exist, in whatever form? How the heck did I go from staunch cold-hearted atheist to devoted gods-loving Heathen?

My journey into Heathenism was facilitated by Heimdall, the gatekeeper and warden of the gods (and I only just now realised the symmetry there – real tears are in my eyes). I was probably ten or eleven. I remember seeing an image of him (okay, it was in Age of Mythology, chillax), with his name above it, and just staring at him. For ages. Not knowing why his name felt so familiar, why that image struck me, why it felt like he was important somehow. (You know, I remember thinking that that particular artwork didn’t suit him, as though I knew what would have suited him. Isn’t that a strange thing to think?) Looking at that image now, it’s nothing special. It doesn’t even look like him to me. But it’s the first conscious memory I have of somehow truly connecting with a Heathen deity, and that memory has always stuck out to me. It’s one of those memories you never forget.

Here's the image, copyright Ensemble Studios. It's the biggest one I could find.
Here’s the image, copyright Ensemble Studios. It’s the biggest one I could find.

Fast forward five or so years, and I was interested in Pagan religions. I don’t know what prompted it. I began to research, went through Wicca, somehow realised there must be a similar revival thing with the Norse myths, and came upon Ásatrú. Well, dang, thought I. This really makes a lot of sense. Who would have thought there were other people in the world with the same values as me? I was interested. But I had still problems with the idea of religion and being religious.

A year or two later, I had some rough times. In retrospect I can recognise depression. Maybe some other thing. My life was a dark tunnel for two continuous years, and it just got darker. More and more frequently, I was afraid, truly afraid that I was going insane. That I was so angry and empty that I would snap. I really didn’t have a good hold over myself. Needless to say, I developed and even willingly enforced some terribly unhealthy mental habits.

Here’s where the inexplicable ‘blank’ in my conversion comes along. Somewhere along the line, in that hateful, awful tunnel, I found Heimdall. I don’t know if he horned in on my life or if I went to him for help. I think I might have held him in my mind all that time, and realised what he stood for. I think part of me knew that I should strive for what he stood for. That I should follow his lead. This rational, healthy part of me battled with the depraved, angry part for a long time. I won some. I lost most. I started talking to him like he was real. I started asking him for strength. I started apologising when I broke my promises to him, and I started asking for second chances. (More about all that in a later post.)

Basically, he became a deity instead of a mythological figure. He was a force in my life, whether it was all in my head or not.

It was a long time before I started winning more often than losing. I still lose from time to time, though I don’t fall as far as I used to. By the time I started becoming healthy again, I was a full-blown Heathen, albeit not a totally hard polytheistic one.

I guess the answer to the question “how did you get to this point” is that I had been brought low, down to the ground, and by the time I was able to stand up again, I had been reforged entirely – as a Heathen.

From Atheism to Heathenry

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.

What Changed?

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:

  1. That there is a spiritual aspect to all things, and we humans can learn to sense this spiritual dimension.
  2. 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.