Godless Paganism

Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans
Edited by John Halstead
Lulu.com, 2016

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Review by Holli Emore.

Most of us think of 1964’s “most hated woman in America,” Madalyn Murray O’Hair or, scientists like Stephen Hawking, when we hear the words atheist, agnostic or humanist.  And yet a new volume paints a beautifully-nuanced picture of today’s non-theistic Pagans.  In a crowd of recent years’ anthologies of Pagan writers on various subjects, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, edited by John Halstead, stands out as a significant contribution to the field of contemporary Pagan theology.

Nearly seventy-five essays are organized under inviting sections like Non-Theistic Pagans: “Yes, We Exist!”; Analyzing with Apollo: Rationality, Critical Thought, and Skepticism; Dancing with Dionysus: Emotion, Passion, and Mysticism; Not Your Fathers’ God: Non-Theistic Conceptions of the Divine; Who Are We Talking To Anyway?: Non-Theistic Paganism and God-Talk; Just LARPing? Non-Theistic Pagan Practice; Bringing It Down to Earth: Non-Theistic Paganism and Nature; Origin Stories: Becoming a Non-Theistic Pagan; Looking Back: Non-Theistic Pagans in History; and Looking Forward: Non-Theistic Pagan Community.

Unlike common stereotypes, the writers presented in Godless Paganism choose to call themselves (if they choose a label at all) by names that illustrate the variety in this growing segment of the Pagan world – Atheopagan, Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagan, Buddho-Pagan, or Gaian, for example. Many of them share their personal stories in the anthology. The reader may be surprised to find familiar names among the contributors.  That’s because their spiritual trajectory has often moved from beginnings in one modern Pagan tradition or another into a personal understanding of existence which has left theistic belief behind, even when the outer practice is maintained. In this, the contributors reflect the most common pattern for most of today’s Pagans, that of being raised in a more-or-less mainstream religion before embracing some path of Paganism.

At a time when many are being loudly vocal about what they call hard polytheism, Godless Paganism is refreshingly non-dogmatic. By telling their own stories, the writers show that just as in any religious/spiritual group, there are infinite shades of gray in both experience and practice. Nowhere did I encounter a writer insisting that Pagans who believe in or otherwise honor a deity or pantheon are wrong. In fact, I was struck by the authenticity of this passage by Halstead:

“It is probably true that not all questions can be answered by the scientific method.  Many issues which concern Naturalistic Pagans may fall into this category.  In such cases, humility is what is called for, not faith.  The paucity of scientific evidence is not a justification to believe whatever one wants.  Naturalistic Pagans believe that, when science has yet to answer a question, we must place the question in the category of the ‘as yet unknown’ and suspend judgment. In the meantime, though, our condition of ‘unknowing’ may be enriched by our individual subjective  experiences. But we should remember that we can submit even our own experiences to the scientific method: experiment, observe, draw tentative conclusions, compare with others, and then repeat.” (page 48)

From philosophical, to poetic, to science- and environment-focused, the essays of Godless Paganism thoughtfully address many current Pagan topics: place-based practice, reciprocity, mystical experience, devotional practice, transcendence as a lateral phenomenon rather than horizontal, Jungian archetypes, the gods and the chthonic forces which underlie them.

I heartily recommend Godless Paganism as an enjoyable read, a complement to personal devotion and practice no matter what one’s beliefs, and a volume which will be useful to many who are pursuing Pagan academic studies.

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