Monday, January 5, 2009

Why Paganism? or: Why Not Atheism?

I really didn't mean for this post to take so long. Being the sort of person I am, I don't feel like I can start on a project like a blog without setting down, in the first place, what it is that I'm trying to do. My goals may change, but the initial direction needs to be put in place.

The question "What is paganism" is too big for me to really summarize in a single post. I have a hard time summarizing in one post just what my paganism is. Instead, I thought I'd propose my general attitude toward religion in general in terms of the biggest intellectual challenge to any Western religious person: atheism.

This is not some purely intellectual problem only of interest to academics. There are atheists in the world. They are not just a bunch of disillusioned ex-Christians who, bitter about the failure of their own religion, dismiss all religions. Nor are atheists just scientists who misapply their method in an irrational attempt to impose control and order on the world. Atheism is frequently the result of thoughtful, intellectually curious religious people trying to figure out their religion--and finding no reason to believe in it.

This is not just something Christians and Muslims grapple with. Just recently, Deo of the popular pagan podcast Deo's Shadow announced that he was ending his podcast not only because of increasing demands on his time, but because he has come to atheism:
Making deòs Shadow was usually a joy, and as the show grew more popular, we had many opportunities for new experiences which helped us to grow as people. One of the interesting side-effects of such growth is that one can end up growing out of that which induces the growth. We’ve moved on from Paganism and are now practicing atheists. (link)
So why atheism? He explains himself:

Having subsequently dropped Paganism, the question would seem to be: why not replace it with another spiritual perspective? I submit that this is the wrong question. The question ought to be: What accounts for anyone ever taking up another belief system having dropped a previous one? I think there are probably two good reasons for holding a belief. The first is evidence. The second is training. When it comes to religious belief, we lack the first independently of the interpretations furnished by the second. “Training” could mean simply being raised in a particular religious culture. Or it could mean being brainwashed by a cult… or, less ominously, being immersed in a religious culture that eventually becomes second-nature.(link)

So why adopt paganism as a belief system? It's not as if we were brought up to believe it. And it's not as if paganism has intrinsically more evidence than any other religion. (And all religions, one might point out, do make claims that contradict others. Polytheism is directly contradictory to monotheism; there cannot be many gods if there is only one God.)

Such is Deo's reasoning. Educated in philosophy as he is, he could probably go much further and expound argument upon argument, precisely elucidating every point, demonstrating his reasoning quasi-mathematically in terms of the predicate calculus. And he would probably be right. His arguments would probably work, and would probably stand up to logical criticism reasonably well--by my lights, at least.

So what exactly am I saying? It probably sounds as if I'm affirming the truth of atheism. That I'm saying it's unreasonable to believe in gods, that there is no strong evidential or a priori reason to affirm the proposition that gods exist.

That's exactly what I'm saying. But I call myself a polytheist anyway. Here's why.

I can affirm that the atheist position is correct. I can examine their arguments and agree with them. But in addition to this, I would also like to say that atheism misses the point.

Atheism analyzes religion as if it's a collection of logical propositions to assent to. A set of claims that one either believes, or does not believe. But is this really what religion is? Is this what religion is supposed to be? A Christian will say that, even if there's more to it, religion requires at least that. I disagree.

I have said that I am a polytheist. On the surface, this does seem to imply that my religion requires assent to at one proposition, belief in at least one claim: gods exist.

But what does this mean? It is consistent with Epicureanism and Neoplatonism, Stoicism and Academic skepticism, just to name a few examples from ancient Greek philosophy. It is consistent, as well, with the claim that the gods are Jungian archetypes. It is consistent with the claim that gods are anthropomorphizations of natural physical or elements. There is, essentially, no particular metaphysical or existential proposition that can be derived from the statement "gods exist," and the statement does not depend on the truth of any metaphysical or existential proposition.

When I say "gods exist," I am affirming the value of a number of kinds of practices, like sacrifice and prayer. I am saying that there are divine mysteries to be experienced but never told, tales of gods to be told which can be interpreted in many useful, pleasing, or even life-changing ways.

Where does the requirement to assent to a proposition come in? Atheism, on my view, misses the point.

1 comment:

  1. (Ist Andrew, in case you were wondering. :P)

    I'm not entirely sure what to say. I mean, I agree that yes, making the entirety of religion about the existential quandary of whether or not a being worthy of worship exists misses the point. However, I think I have to agree with the Christians (as you've said) that you still have to deal with the existential quandary.

    Then again, I have a strange view that I probably should elaborate upon someday...>> (Goes to update blog.) Do you subscribe to any particular metaphysical theory of this nature and, if so, what might that be? I bet you'll talk about that in another post, but eh, still curious.