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.