Watching Tennis (A Short Essay on Religious Conversion)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 25, 2012 — 110 Comments

Some people love watching the sport of tennis, but I am not one of them. This should in no way reflect on that no-doubt fine sport, the talented people who play it, and the fans of said talented athletes. I’m sure it’s a deficiency on my part, nobody’s perfect, right? Similarly, I just can’t get too worked up over the ongoing theist-atheist tennis match, the way some read so much meaning into every “point” scored by each side, how “heroes” and “villains” are created, how “experts” in the commentary box try to explain how one point was more devastating than another point, or how one player’s career is on the decline. Worst of all is when a prominent player on one “team” decides to switch teams, then things really start to heat up!

Such was the case when fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco, formerly on the atheist channel here, decided to convert to Catholicism. Faster than you could say “Bristol Palin” traffic to her blog went insane, and CNN dubbed her a “prominent atheist blogger,” much to the chagrin of  prominent atheist bloggers (it’s a Catch-22, if CNN is reporting on your conversion, you must be prominent, because CNN is reporting on your conversion). Now, everybody has an opinion about Ms. Libresco, with many giving interpretations as to this conversion’s importance, or lack of importance. One Catholic blogger even opined that “heaven is roaring with joy” over this conversion (which makes one wonder what sounds heaven makes when a Catholic becomes an atheist, but I digress).

"Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman poses with Leah Libresco.

"Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman poses with Leah Libresco.

For my part, I was just going to ignore the whole thing. As a Pagan I have no real emotional investment in atheists and Catholics debating over conversion, or the significance of Libresco’s turn towards Rome. It’s like, well, like watching tennis. I can intellectually understand why some people get worked up about it, but it isn’t my game. Indeed, Pagans, in general, don’t much care about conversions. Patheos columnist Carl McColman, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism,”still has plenty of Pagan friends, despite becoming a Catholic (the same is true of Pagans who’ve become atheists). We believe that a person’s relationship to the gods is their own affair, and it only becomes an issue for us when those converted decide to turn against us. To use their conversion as a means to sell books about our defaults, or to demonize us. Sadly that is an all-too-common phenomenon.

Carl McColman at the Hill of Tara.

Carl McColman at the Hill of Tara.

For many Pagans, when we hear that one of us has converted to Christianity, we wonder when the book is coming out. You think people love atheist-turned-believer stories? Well, there’s a certain segment of Christians that just can’t get enough ex-Pagan/ex-Witch narratives. Books with titles like “Taken From the Night,” or “Generation Hex,” or “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers.” Some of these narratives have elements of truth in them, but most are exaggerated or fabricated to make for a more dramatic telling. The simple truth, you see, is far too mundane. The truth is that thousands of people, perhaps even millions, shift in and out of different religious identities every day. It’s as common as crabgrass, and it really means little to the larger trends that are driving religion.

Those trends show that the biggest growth isn’t in atheists, but in people who refuse to label their religious beliefs. The “nones,” who now comprise around 16% of the population in the United States, and a possibly influential majority in certain states. Atheists only account for around 1.6% of that 16.1%. Only slightly bigger than the modern Pagan movement here. Meanwhile, Christianity in the West is in crisis, especially in America, where it’s becoming increasingly politically polarized. In the anxiety that is created by this situation, the still-dominant but increasingly worried religious majority starts to look for signs of “winning” the ideological/theological struggle. It starts to worry that maybe their impressive numbers are inflated, that there are far more heretics in their ranks than they ever suspected. It starts to see a minor atheist blogger converting as quite a big deal.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

As to this current ruckus, let me quote Stephen F. Roberts who famously opined that “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Early pagans called Christians atheists because they didn’t merely prefer their god over other gods (henotheism), they said those other gods were demonic figments of their god’s dualistic evil counterpart. Once they grasped real power, Christians went on a campaign of eliminating those other gods, actions that would make the most militant atheists of today blanch (censorship, destruction of religious property, social pressure, and when those didn’t work, killing). Those gods that couldn’t be completely destroyed were either (literally) demonized or sanctified. That some are now trying to finish off that “last” god no doubt creates a unique tension for monotheists.

Into that tension steps an atheist who converts, who says, let us add one god. Who swings the door in the other direction, towards theism. The problem with that is that it creates its own tension. Christianity is still very much in the game of eliminating all the other gods, of stressing that there is only one god. But once you say, there is at least one god, one power in this universe that is beyond humanity, you open the door to the questions that any reasonable person would then ask. Is there more than one power? What came before Christianity? Why God and not Goddess? Is the Christian conception of God the correct one? What if the moral universe Catholics like to claim was actually acquired from other religions? Why would an inquisitive person stop at mere Christianity? The answer is that reasonable people ask these questions all the time, and certain Christian institutions spend a lot of time and money to stop people from finding the answers.

I wish Leah Libresco well, and I wish her happiness. While I profoundly disagree with Catholicism, thinking it a flawed and troubled faith, I hold no ill will towards its adherents, so long as they are committed to coexisting in a pluralistic secular society with us Pagans. I hope that her faith can develop away from the tennis match that this has all become, complete with cheering sections on each side. If you ever decide that maybe your world needs more than one god, feel free to drop me a line.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    “[...M]akes one wonder what sounds heaven makes when a Catholic becomes an atheist”

    Hell giggles with glee?

    • LeohtSceadusawol

       A man dies and goes to heaven. He’s greeted by St. Peter and is getting
      the grand tour. As they’re walking through paradise, the man sees a
      curved wall that seems to go up forever. Disturbed, he asks Peter, “What
      is that wall for? I thought we were all united in heaven?” St. Peter
      drew close and whispered to the man, “That’s for the Catholics. They
      think they’re the only one’s up here.”

      • Mdkpubs

        St Peter is Catholic. All in Heaven are Catholic, even if they were gifted Heaven due invincible ignorance of Catholcism on earth. Jesus personally started His Catholic Church on earth. His Catholic Church exists on earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven!

        So, your joke is on you!

        • Faoladh

          Hahaha! Nice parody of Catholic arrogance. I love the way that it presumes that “heaven” refers to a specifically defined otherworldly location in a presumptive cosmological scheme, rather than being a Germanic word that derives from the sense “the stony vault of the sky”.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

          Saint Peter was a Jew.
          Just like Jesus.
          Just saying, is all.
          (Wasn’t my joke, just an old joke I remembered.)

          Also, you fail with the purgatory line:
          http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1100116.htm

          Know thy enemy. ;)

          I suppose I could go really overboard and address the fallacy that human souls go to Heaven upon death. They actually go to Paradise (if they’ve been good.) (Heaven being the Empyrean -  the abode of YHWH and the loyal angels.)

          ‘S fun growing up a good Christian, isn’t it? :p

          (I kinda get you were being humorous, but I have never been able to resist correcting Christians.)

  • Gina Pond

    For me, the important point you make here is that there’s the “cheering sections” on either side. Being both Wiccan *and* Christian, I can tell you I get a lot from both sides of the street. There are Christians who think I should give up my witchcraft, and pagans who have treated me like a traitor. Granted, those are the more extreme examples, and are few in number, but the assumptions still rankle. It’d be really nice on either side if people just said “Good luck on your journey!” and leave it alone.

    But, well, we’re humans…*sigh*

    • LeohtSceadusawol

       ”we’re humans…”
      There are other(kin)s who’d disagree. ;)

      • http://hellenicpolytheist.wordpress.com/ Pythia Theocritos

        And those “kins” are delusional. 

  • kenneth

    It’s generated the buzz it has because it’s a duel between the fundamentalists of atheism and Christianity. Because she is an ivy-league intellectual, Catholics are calling it a huge “victory.” Catholic apologetics says that any decent open minded person with a brain cannot arrive at any conclusion other than becoming Catholic. They got hubris, I’ll give them that! Atheist see it as a bitter betrayal because any acceptance of theism is an abandonment of reason to them. 

     From where I stand, it’s just one person’s journey and has no greater implications for anyone than their choice to become a vegetarian or to switch careers. Her conversion should not even be particularly surprising to anyone paying attention to her writing. For a long time, she’s been Catholic in all but name.  The Catholic worldview on ethics, the nature of existence etc. have had a clear appeal to her for many months now. One of her biggest fans was Mark Shea, a guy so Catholic he makes Peter look like a slacker!

     Libresco struck me as one of those people who was 99% of the way there but just had trouble accepting the label and all of the real and perceived screwiness that didn’t sit well with her intellect.  I understand that process well. I was pagan from the time I could walk, but it took a few decades to learn there was a name for it, and then to fully own it. Her conversion is no skin off my hide. If anything, I get a kick out of it! Whatever they may say in public, the leadership of that church is ill-prepared to deal with someone who is smarter and more articulate than them and who asks tough questions! 

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    There is very little difference between having no Gods and only have one measly little God. In fact, from the standpoint of traditional Pagan piety, they are one and the same.

    When Christians first came on the scene they were often labeled ἄθεος, “atheist”.

  • Donald Michael Kraig

    Jason, among your many, many brilliant posts, this is certainly one of your best.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Thank you! 

  • Chris

    Very well written and thought out. Granted I had to reread the “converted to catholicism” several times to make sure I was reading that right…..

  • Kilmrnock

    I donot know anything about this blogger …………and to be truely serious don’t really care . Jason i believe you hit this nail right on the head …………..her personal journey no matter how odd or twisted is no concern of ours .And really has no effect on  us in the pagan community at all …………as she wasn’t one of ours .Even if she was , still has no real effect on the rest of us .Not unlike you i really don’t care and btw i don’t get tennis either .      Kilm

  • http://www.PeterBeckley.com/ Peter Beckley

    I think the two sides are so fired up over this because they think religion is something you can win at, like politics, or even war; no one wins, there is always more religion, politics and war.

    • happydog1960

      That’s a great observation, Peter. The whole argument between atheists and Catholics over Leah’s conversion has the same feel as people arguing over a football player who left one team and signed a contract with another team. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Beverly-Owens/100000137858298 Beverly Owens

    I enjoy reading the former witch and “beware of the occult” type books they sell at the christian stores.  They are often amusing they are so ridiculous.
    Of course, sadly, some people take them as unmitigated truth.

    Like my family.  Sheesh.

  • Genexs

    Good post. Besides the headache I get on the left side of my head when reading angry-Atheist blogs, I think what upsets me more in the Atheist vs Religion meme is the elevation of every philosophical flight of fancy into some sort of existential crisis.  For some egotistical reason, this crisis requires a bowel-shaking catharsis for resolution. Deciding if it’s a good thing to put a coin in a homeless person’s cup presents challenges of such titanic proportions, it will take 30,000 words of nuance argument, at least 160 angry rants in the comment section, or else cracks will open up in the earth the sun won’t come up. Worse yet, various mathematics theorems just might  go by the wayside.  But, I suppose one must do what it takes to feel good about their place in the universe

  • Hawkeye4077

    It seems to me that she has always been ‘wishy-washy’ in her commitment to anything.

    • KhalilaRedBird

       Is there something inherently good or bad in maintaining a personal commitment to a mindset or philosophy?  — particularly if that mindset or philosophy is proving incongruent with what you are experiencing as your relationship with the Universe?  And whether one maintains the commitment despite the discrepancy or does not, whose opinion, other than one’s own, is worth caring about?

    • Faoladh

      So, what you’re saying is that she isn’t a fanatic, and not completely sure of everything? Good for her! Doubt and constant questioning are important to the fulfilling religious and ethical life, in my opinion.

      • Hawkeye4077

        Being a ‘fanatic’ as you put it is not the question. Constant questioning is always a good thing but there comes a time where you need to take hold of your beliefs and  stand by them.

        • Faoladh

          As the man said, convictions cause convicts. “Beliefs” are the enemy of virtuous living.

          Or, to quote the Principia Discordia, “It is my firm belief that it is a mistake to hold firm beliefs.”

        • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

           What time is that? 9 am tomorrow?

          • Faoladh

            NO! IT IS 3PM THURSDAY, HERETIC!

          • LeohtSceadusawol

            You know, there’s more than one timezone.

          • Faoladh

            LIES! I am standing by my beliefs!

            I mean, I will once it is 3pm on Thursday.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             For me, 3pm Thursday is about 32 hours away (It really should be 33 hours, but we’re on British Summer Time, right now.)

            For my brothers (who currently live on Australia’s east coast) 3pm Thursday is 23 hours away.

            Keep time local!

      • kenneth

        She’s a classic seeker and a young one at that. What is she, maybe mid-20s? It takes that long to get a baseline reading of who you are, let along what you are. Anyone who is completely sure about spirituality or anything at that age is “certain” simply because they haven’t done the homework. 

  • LeohtSceadusawol

    I have noticed that the ‘religious’ debate always seems to be monotheism vs atheism.

    Atheists often have a far more dogmatic view of deities than those of faith do.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

       I dunno. I’m functionally an atheist and not terribly dogmatic about it? :-)

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         Often does not mean always, or even most or usually. :p

        You know what I mean, though.

        • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

           :-D

          How can one stir up crap if people keep being reasonable?

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I believe in you. I’m sure you’ll find a way. :D

    • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

      It’s easier to be non-dogmatic when people aren’t trying to oppress you.

      I was a pagan once (Wicca in the Dianic tradition).  Now I am not. Wicca still interests me, but I can’t maintain a belief in a divinity.  I don’t have any antagonism towards Wiccans.   I find their faith (practice) and their faith (ability to believe) beautiful.  But they aren’t also trying to kill and jail atheists, seeking to legislate against gay marriage, trying to block women’s access to birth control and abortion, preventing sex education in schools, lying and saying condom use causes AIDS in the areas of the world with the highest incidence of AIDS, promoting legislation in other countries to make homosexual sex between consenting adults a capital crime, writing laws to restrict the teaching of science in science class, blocking advances in medical technology, promoting their faith with my tax dollars, and so forth. Yes, I have a lot of antagonism toward Christian churches.  I don’t see that likely to change anytime soon.

  • kittylu

    I would love to believe that it was just a tennis match but in the past few years its become clear what all the money of the Holy See is going to- child molestation cover ups and trying to change the law to reduce the statue of limitations for child sex crimes as well as changing the law so that hospitals and schools vaguely affiliated with the Catholic church can discriminate against their employees and clients.  Its not good when a hospital refuses to provide a medical procedure due to religious belief.  Thats not medicine.  And our tax dollars are going to this.  I can’t say I agree with the athiests goading tone but atleast they are a reliable voice for church state separation.

  • http://theroundearthsimaginedcorners.blogspot.com/ Rosemary Zimmermann

    That was very well-written and thoughtful, thank you.

    I tend to get sucked into the theist-atheist battles because atheists telling me that only stupid people could POSSIBLY believe in any kind of divinity, and a smart person who DOES believe in the divine isn’t just wrong, like all of us are every day, but EPICLY STUPENDOUSLY IDIOTICALLY DELUDED . . . that pretty much inflames every bone of my peace-loving body with an unquenchable fury.

    So I get sucked in, and it isn’t good for me, and I need to stop. 

    Deep breath. 

    • BlackCat

       I know exactly what you mean. :/ When you have people throwing around things like “sky fairies” and “I need scientific proof” (and of course, “you have a mental illness”) it does make you want to argue. Or at least in my case, get really tense whenever I meet an atheist in real life and never mention anything pertaining to religion around them.

      (At least my silence has convinced my militant atheist grandfather that I’m an atheist too – but boy did him telling me that most of the world is stark raving mad and should be locked up and treated for their mental illness (ie. religious belief) before being allowed to rejoin society made me uncomfortable.)

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Leah Libresco offers a valuable case study in the fluidity, complexity and ambiguity of religious identity.

    One thing that comes out clearly is that Libresco obviously never seriously considered any options other than these two: (1) believing in the “god” of the Christians, versus (2) not believing in the “god” of the Christians. In other words, she uncritically accepted from the start the Christian “framing” of the question divinity. This is the whole problem with people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. They passively accept the Christian conceptions of divinity and sacredness, and aggressively oppose any suggestion that religions other than Christianity have anything different to offer.

    So the question is, will the “others” and “nones” begin to move decisively in a direction that is both away from Christianity and toward some other form of religiosity? Humans are religious by nature, and “none of the above” does not suffice to scratch the religious itch. Not only do we feel the urge to have some positive religious identity, we also feel, just as strongly, the urge to be part of some religious community that reflects and reinforces our own religious identity.

    • Crystal Kendrick

      ” obviously never seriously considered any options other than these two:
      (1) believing in the “god” of the Christians, versus (2) not believing
      in the “god” of the Christians. In other words, she uncritically
      accepted from the start the Christian “framing” of the question
      divinity.”  I find this to be true of many athiests, though of course not all.  They rejected the belief in a single god yet never really rejected Abrahamic concepts and constructs.  I was a reactionary athiest for a brief stint, but I worked very hard to consciously whittle away at the belief systems of Christianity that are found in our culture.  That’s when I realized I was a Pagan/polytheist.  It’s amazing what you find when you decide to clean your mental house.

      • Genexs

        True. Much atheist framing is based on a reaction against an Abrahamic or monotheistic worldview. However, some of the more strident in the new crop of atheists (mentioned by Apuleius above) project an absolutism which mimics that of the worst foaming-at-the-mouth bible thumpers. Perhaps it’s the ‘chasing dragons for too long syndrome’, as they’ve come to resemble what they’ve detested the most.  Is that why  Leah made the jump to the other side? To her, there was no place else to go. They can’t even see us.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

           Yet, because of their close proximity to monotheism, their standard arguments do not work against polytheism.

    • Gareth

      I’ve encountered atheists who are so very Christian in their beliefs, yet totally blind to this. They throw augments  developed with a Christian world view in mind (e.g. the problem of evil and suffering) at my Paganism which are totally ineffective, their augmentative enzyme is the wrong shape and utterly fails to breakdown my position. Naturally in the minds of such people  the problem is not their lack of understanding and inherent Christian bias, it’s that my Paganism isn’t a proper religion and so can be brushed off as a mere silliness on my part. Either that or they ignore everything I say, continue arguing as though I’m a Christian and convince themselves that they were victorious (after convincing themselves there was something to be victorious about in the first place). 

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        What you’ve described is incompetent evangelism, incompetent because they haven’t walked two yards in our shoes. There are some frequent fliers on this board who want to make evangelism competent.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        I think there are basically two kinds of atheists: those who deep down inside are Christians and those who deep down inside are Pagans.

        Most atheist make it clear which kind they are. The first kind adamantly insist that all religions are the same, while at the same time they will often argue that Christianity is superior to other religions.

        The second kind (Pagan atheists) concentrate their criticism on Christianity and acknowledge that other religions are more tolerant and rational than Christianity.

        The acid test is how an atheist regards the suppression of ancient Paganism by Christianity starting in the fourth century. Many atheists actually see this as a positive thing, a sign of “progress” away from ancient superstition! On the other hand, many atheists find themselves in sympathy with ancient Pagans, and these are often openly admiring of Julian and others who actively resisted the rise of Christianity. A good example of this kind of atheist is the scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann.

        • Brian Scott

          Most atheists seem to take the piss out of Christianity, while ignoring other religions. Sure, they may get riled up about Islam every once in a while, maybe even some of the less savory expressions of Judaism in Israel that’s occurring now, but Wicca, Asatru, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Daoism, Celtic Reconstructionism… background noise, at best.

          (Actually, I think a lot of atheists like Buddhist philosophy, but also reject a lot of physical/metaphysical descriptions that come along with it, like reincarnation, Asuras, Naraka, etc.)

          • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

            In this country, and in most countries in the West, which is the only place where this can be debated, Christians are in charge for the most part.  Show me a Buddhist community in the US actively seeking to oppress non-Buddhists, and I’ll oppose them.  Show me a Muslim principal in a public school trying to include prayers in Arabic at the graduation ceremony, and I’ll protest that.

            Most discrimination and oppression comes from the people with privilege.

          • Brian Scott

            I agree with that. My response was more in illustrating that the “Christian atheists” and “pagan atheists” dichotomy seems like an inaccurate model of latter day atheism. I mean, while I personally find non-Christian and non-Islamic faiths to generally be more tolerant, there are atheists who hold all faiths in equal disregard (neither “Christian” nor “pagan”), some who don’t care at all (the so-called apatheists), some who hold specific pagan beliefs in disdain (the whitewashing of certain Christian activity in Africa and its associating with child witch killing by appealing to a “primitive” African spirituality), etc.

    • BlackCat

       I know exactly what you mean! I once overheard an atheist and a Christian arguing in the hallway at my university. When the Christian brought up other belief systems (naming Buddhism and Shinto), the atheist shot them down by saying “all religions are bad because they each think they are the only correct one and want to convert everyone else.”

      I almost interjected, but then I would have been late for class. (And I didn’t really want to argue with them anyway, since one of them was comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and necrophilia.)

      • Harmonyfb

        I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a discussion like this:

        A: Religion teaches you (insert most extreme right-wing Christian doctrines)

        H: Um, my religion doesn’t teach that.

        A: ::handwave::   Whatever.   If you’re religious, you want (pick a negative outcome)

        H: Dude, there’s a bunch of us here whose religions do not
        teach that stuff
        .

        A: ::talks louder::
        H: Stop pretending that “religion” = right-wing
        Christianity! GAH!

        • LeohtSceadusawol

           Don’t get angry, get conniving.

          I have a hobby – convincing atheists that fairies exist. Using critical thought and (bad) science.

    • LeohtSceadusawol

       I’d disagree with your last paragraph quite strongly.

      I would go as far as to say that the fastest growing religious identity in the UK is apatheism. Or would be, if the people actually thought about it.

      I have had more conversations with the ‘never really thought about it’ and ‘what does it matter?’ crowd than I have with other people of a ‘Pagan’ inclination.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        ” I’d disagree with your last paragraph quite strongly….”

        As far as the popularity of “apatheism” goes, I think that is only a temporary, transitional phenomenon. Non-monotheistic religions do not aggressively seek “converts”, and the whole paradigm of “conversion” is really foreign to the way human spirituality naturally works. Therefore I don’t think we can expect people in large numbers to convert away from Christianity to something else. The first step has to be rejection of Christianity, followed by a period “wandering in the wilderness”, if you will. Then, taking their own sweet time, people begin to find alternative paths, and that, in turn, takes quite some time to sort out (which paths will gain traction, which ones will just be fads).

        It will take even more time still (generations) for non-Christian religious traditions to really take root and bloom in the West. We have been through the spiritual equivalent of  clear cutting, followed by the spiritual equivalent of “paving paradise and putting up a parking lot”. Right now we are just in the phase of the first weeds beginning to break through the cracks in the pavement and out into the light.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

           Maybe it is time for Pagan evangelism, then?

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I do Pagan evangelism all the time. When someone shares something that is bothering them and they clearly care about, I try to find something to say that will point them to a deeper look. That deeper look could set them on a life-altering path of examination, which might lead them to a new path that could be Pagan.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I meant the hard kind – standing on street corners preaching about  Óðinn.
            I use ‘retaliatory evangelism’ myself. Someone stops me in the street and asks if I would ‘have a moment to talk about God?’ I always ask which one.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Leoht, last Xmas I encountered four men dressed in burlap-and-twine fakes of Middle Eastern desert clothing, who wanted to know if I had an opinion about Jesus. I said I regarded him as an unsung Jewish prophet in the tradition of the prophets. My interlocutor opted for Son of God. We traded Biblical supports for a while until business called me away. These guys had just pulled up in Oberlin and were about to embark on evangelization of the town. Welcome to Oberlin…

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I call Jesus a Nephilim.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            I do think that Pagans should be more outspoken in our critique of Christianity (surprise!). We should encourage the movement away from Christianity by providing an intellectually coherent analysis of the shortcomings (to be diplomatic) of Christianity, formulated in a way that highlights the differences between Christianity and most other religions (Islam being the primary exception there).

            But rather than promoting one particular religious tradition, this kind of “evangelism” encourages people to consider a variety of religious alternatives and to make their own choices.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I think that a greater awareness of non-Abrahamic religions is something that is important to foster in society.

            If nothing else, it will stop a lot of ignorance and misinformation.

    • Sagrav

      As a non-believer, I really can’t see what any religion, Christian or otherwise, can offer me.  I want hard evidence of the existence of a supernatural being before I will be willing to believe in one.  Christians cannot provide this evidence, and neither can pagans.   

      This is the standpoint that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other prominent atheist spokespeople are coming from.  The problem isn’t that they’re starting from a Christian viewpoint that causes them to fail to grasp the concepts behind pagan belief systems.  The issue is that atheists have no good reason to believe in gods, demons, ghosts, fairies, kami, or any other supernatural being unless real evidence is provided of their existence.  

      It wouldn’t be hard for a god that wishes to have more worshipers to accomplish this.  Simply talk to us.  Not in the form of vague feelings of “goodness” during prayer.  Not in the form of vague “signs” like unseasonable weather or the like.  Actually appear in physical form in front of a group of humans, speak to them, demonstrate supernatural abilities, and allow the proceeding to be recorded and broadcast to the whole of humanity.  That’s it.  Kind of a small thing to ask of beings that supposedly control the underlying fabric of the universe.

      • Faoladh

        What does “belief” have to do with anything? See, there’s one of your problems right off. You accept the monotheist assumption that one must “believe” something. Then you work from the atheist counter-assumption that it is sufficient to not “believe” in something. It’s a conceptual circle-jerk. Try Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many for one presentation of an alternative.

      • Gareth

        For many Pagans these ‘beings’ are a mythopoetic expression of the universe. The language used is a reflection of feelings and relationships with the world around us; it’s deeper than a metaphor but different to the way a fundamentalist Christian believes their god exists. Also we don’t dispute scientific explanations of the world and we’re not all that concerned if you believe gods exist or not. 

        • Faoladh

          Exactly! If you feel the need to engage with the gods, then do it. If you don’t, then don’t.

        • Huntressa

          Yes- it’s closer to the language poetry than science :)  Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on it are what struck me as some of the most clear explanations: “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.”

        • Brian Scott

          Though I am an atheist I always found value in this expression of paganism. Eric S. Raymond’s “Dancing with the gods” is what broke me out of the “investment in belief” mode of thinking of religion, which is what got me immensely interested in various neopagan religions in the first place.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Your demand for “hard evidence” is typical of modernist/materialist sophistry. Your own belief system, to the extent that you would even be able to articulate it, is obviously based on a variety of entities and concepts (such as “mass”, “force”, etc) for which you can provide no more independent proof than I can of the Easter Bunny.

        Not only can you provide no independent (that is, non-circular) “proof” for the existence of matter and energy, but there is no basis whatsoever for the modern superstition that the mind is somehow (magically?) produced as a side effect of the physical activity of the brain.

        In fact, our direct experience of reality by way of the mind is the only thing of which we can be certain (and even if we try to doubt the reality of that experience, this “doubting” is obviously taking place within the mind, therefore it only serves to reinforce the reality of the mind). But don’t take my word for it. Here is what T.H. Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”, and the originator of the concept of Agnosticism) had to say about this back in the day:

        “What, then, is certain? What even, if such a being
        exists, is beyond the reach of his powers of delusion? Why, the fact
        that the thought, the present consciousness, exists. Our thoughts may be
        delusive, but they cannot be fictitious. As thoughts, they are real and existent, and the cleverest deceiver cannot make them otherwise.

        Thus,
        thought is existence. More than that, so far as we are concerned,
        existence is thought, all our conceptions of existence being some kind
        or other of thought. Do not for a moment suppose that these are mere paradoxes or subtleties.
        A little reflection upon the commonest facts proves them to be
        irrefragable truths. For example, I take up a marble, and I find it to
        be a red, round, hard, single body. We call the redness, the roundness,
        the hardness, and the singleness, “qualities” of the marble; and it
        sounds, at first, the height of absurdity to say that all these
        qualities are modes of our own consciousness, which cannot even be
        conceived to exist in the marble. [Huxley then proceeds to analyze various perceived qualities of the marble, including its color, its hardness, its roundness, its position, etc ....]  Thus, whatever our marble may be in itself, all
        that we can know of it is under the shape of a bundle of our own
        consciousnesses.

        Nor is our
        knowledge of anything we know or feel more, or less, than a knowledge of
        states of consciousness. And our whole life is made up of such states.
        Some of these states we refer to a cause we call “self;” others to a
        cause or causes which may be comprehended under the title of “not-self.”
        But neither of the existence of “self,” nor of that of “not-self,” have
        we, or can we by any possibility have, any such unquestionable and
        immediate certainty as we have of the states of consciousness which we
        consider to be their effects. They are not immediately observed facts,
        but results of the application of the law of causation to those facts.
        Strictly speaking, the existence of a “self” and of a “not-self” are
        hypotheses by which we account for the facts of consciousness.”
        [source]

        The observant reader might notice that Huxley is starting here to sound like some sort of Buddhist or something. And, indeed, Huxley was a student of Buddhist philosophy and held the Buddha in high regard.

        • Brian Scott

          “Your own belief system, to the extent that you would even be able to articulate it, is obviously based on a variety of entities and concepts (such as “mass”, “force”, etc) for which you can provide no more independent proof than I can of the Easter Bunny.”

          Very weird view of naturalism. Mass, force and such are abstractions representing phenomenological operations in the universe. Their strength is in their predictive power (which fails under certain conditions, hence the need for quantum mechanics as a more accurate model).

          “but there is no basis whatsoever for the modern superstition that the mind is somehow (magically?) produced as a side effect of the physical activity of the brain.”

          It seems rather unparsimonious to assume the mind is a “side effect” of physical activity rather than being… well, said physical activity. To dualists who think the brain is meat with no personality of its own (so to speak) it may seem nonsensical, but it’s no more weird than speciation being a “side effect” of natural selection.

          It’s actually a bit funny you mention Buddhist philosophy because I find it very compatible with materialism: the refusal of the dichotomy between “self” and “non-self” being applicable to a rejection of mind-material dualism.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Brian Scott: “It’s actually a bit funny you mention Buddhist philosophy because I find it very compatible with materialism: the refusal of the dichotomy between “self” and “non-self” being applicable to a rejection of mind-material dualism.”

            “Matter” has no more ultimate reality than does “self”. Huxley himself made this observation in his 1893 essay “Evolution and Ethics”, in which he stated that “the same metaphysical tour de force” applied by the Buddha to the notion of self should also be applied to the notion of “matter”. Here is a direct quote from Huxley:

            “the ‘substance’ of matter is a metaphysical unknown quantity, of the existence of which there is no proof.”

            So far as I am aware, T.H. Huxley did not believe in either the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But he held that consciousness has unquestionable ontological priority over matter, energy and all of the other putative entities and concepts associated with the “physical” realm.

          • Brian Scott

            And when this ontological prior tells you to not walk over a cliff? When it tells you that sex feels good? When drugs will show you a reality which is so different from your usual one?

            The mode of Huxley is the same as Lebresco: the idea of metaphysical “substance”. I’m not certain that’s a cogent idea, that it has any meaning. Why end the chain of events there, after all? Why not metametaphysical “substances”?

            This is why I bind my terms in operationalism. Whether “matter” exists and “self” exists and so on just gets into existential navel-gazing as we then get to decide what “exists” means.

        • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

           Funny how those entities that have no proof manage to provide the basis from which the computer you used to type your retort was created. Scientific method, for the win!

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            One can provide various indirect arguments for the existence of computers (arguments that I see no good reason to reject, and many good reasons to accept).

            But as you well know, Al, “proof” is reserved for the decidedly non-physical realm of mathematics (and even there, all “proofs” are subject to the now well-known loopholes illuminated by Messrs. Hilbert, Goedel and Turing).

            All coherent and logical world views must be axiomatic. That is, they all rely on fundamental assertions that must simply be assumed and can never be “proven” except through resort to circular arguments. Everyone has understood this perfectly well at least since Euclid. It is only quite recently that certain half-educated would-be intellectuals have convinced themselves that they, and they alone, possess a world-view that assumes nothing and in which everything, including the most basic concepts, is “provable”, or, for the slightly better educated, “verifiable”.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            You’re missing my point. Rail against the blindness of science and materialism all you want but it is a bit hypocritical to do it on the Internet using a computer, two things that only exist because of science and its focus on reproducible results and testing hypotheses. Compare this against the thousands of years of very little progress in technological development for that. The Greeks, for example, had the technological antecedents for a steam engine but couldn’t quite put it together. I, for one, like that I can get an MRI and have an issue diagnosed rather than just sleeping in a temple of Asclepius and hoping that I get better and have nice visions. I rather like having computers, etc. None of these things would exist in the world that went the way that you seem to wish.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Al: ” Rail against the blindness of science and materialism all you want but
            it is a bit hypocritical to do it on the Internet using a computer , two things that only exist because of science and its focus on reproducible results and testing hypotheses.”

            Newton was a serious student of Alchemy and Astrology and he even produced his own English translation of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Leibniz was an ardent proponent of the concept of philosophia perennis. Kepler was deeply immersed in and strongly influenced by Pythagoreanism and Hermeticism. Galileo learned about “the scientific method” from his father, one of the most celebrated Pythagorean philosophers of his day. Francesco Patrizzi, who was “perhaps the earliest European proponent” of the concept of a “finite material universe” in which matter exists within “void space” (source, see p. 199), was also student, and in all probability a great adept, of Hermeticism, and he produced a complete Latin translation of the Chaldean Oracles.

            The point being that there is nothing inconsistent, let alone “hypocritical”, in embracing a scientific world-view while eschewing the crude and incoherent ideology of materialism.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             Prove your computer exists.

            If  you can’t prove that, you can’t prove that the internet exists.

            If you can’t do that, you can’t prove that we are debating on the internet.

            If you can’t do that, you can’t prove I exist.

            Of course, I’d settle for you proving that you exist.

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         I love the term ‘non-believer’. It is so inaccurate. Everyone believes something. Even if that something is an absence.

        As for your evidence… You do not want evidence of the existence of a ‘supernatural being’. You want evidence to support your definitions of a ‘supernatural being’ and, more than that, you want it to support your criteria for the nature of its/their existence.

        You want to know what I want? It isn’t your belief. Just your respect.

      • Harmonyfb

        I want hard evidence of the existence of a supernatural being before I
        will be willing to believe in one.  Christians cannot provide this
        evidence, and neither can pagans.  

        You know, it sounds to me as if you’re starting from the Christian standpoint which says that religious adherents are invested in you believing anything. The truth is that Pagan faiths are not. Believe, don’t believe, whatever. Just don’t act like a jerk and we’re all good.

        It wouldn’t be hard for a god that wishes to have more worshipers to accomplish this.  Simply talk to us.

        Again, with the Christian viewpoint (‘god’, singular, the assumption that being worshiped is the point of a deity, etc.)

        My gods? Perfectly capable of calling to their people without help. And more than that – they have called to me. Clearly, unambiguously, in person, and on more than one occasion (as well as communication through dreams, visions, and ridiculous coincidences). If you haven’t experienced such a call, well, maybe it’s not really important for you to worship any deities. ::shrug::  Nothing wrong with that.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

           I am of the opinion that, if a person has not been ‘called’ by a god, it is because they have nothing of value to a god.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

             Sort of like Donald Trump then?

            What does the person get out of this deal?

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             That depends on the exact deal.

            You can have belief without veneration, after all.

            I believe in a great many deities. I don’t actually venerate any of them.

            I am a nontheistic (hard) polytheist – Believe in multiple gods, but don’t have one myself.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            LeohtSceadusawol, I believe in George W. Bush and George Soros too. Doesn’t mean that I involve them in my theology.
            Again, what is the point of worshipping these gods or, in your case, of believing in them if you don’t worship them?

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            “What does the person get out of this deal?”

            Iamblichus posited that our experience of the Gods is so immediate and intimate that it cannot be considered a variety of “knowledge”, properly speaking, because “knowing” assumes a “knower” separate from the “known”.

            If we must speak of “knowledge” concerning the Gods, though, then Iamblichus said that this knowledge is
            1. “innate”,
            2. “coexistent with our very essence”,
            3. “superior to all judgement and deliberate choice”, and
            4. “subsists prior to reason and demonstration.”

            Moreover, in “knowing the Gods”, we thereby “possess that very thing which we are.”

            But then how can we explain the fact that some people reject the Gods?

            Sallustius, only a little later than Iamblichus, had this to say: “Nor need the fact that rejections of the Gods have taken place in certain parts of the earth and will often take place hereafter, disturb the mind of the wise: both because these things do not affect the Gods, just as we saw that worship did not benefit them; and because the soul, being of middle essence, cannot be always right; and because the whole world cannot enjoy the providence of the Gods equally, but some parts may partake of it eternally, some at certain times, some in the primal manner, some in the secondary. Just as the head enjoys all the senses, but the rest of the body only one …. It is not unlikely, too, that the rejection of the Gods is a kind of punishment: we may well believe that those who knew the Gods and neglected them in one life may in another life be deprived of the knowledge of them altogether. Also those who have worshipped their own kings as Gods have deserved as their punishment to lose all knowledge of the Gods.”

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            Nice bit of dogma there. Thanks for that.

            I’ll note that you didn’t actually answer the question that you quoted, Apuleius.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            Of course, the Buddha also taught us that the gods were irrelevant, didn’t he, and I know you go on Buddhist retreats, Apuleius. Even gods die and suffer.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

            I don’t understand the question.

            What is the point in believing in a tree, or in grass?

            You believe it exists because you have reason to believe it exists.

            I have my reasons for belief. Of course, other would call me delusional, but that is their belief.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            Yeah, but I can mow the grass and sit under a tree.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             You mean you can experience a tree and grass?

            What of someone who can’t experience either of those things?

            Does the sky cease to exist for the blind?

            At the end of the day, experience is all anyone has.

            The nature of the experience is not all that important, compared to the fact that there was an experience.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

            That isn’t much of an argument for believing in invisible entities though. You can verify that the grass and the sky is there and even most people will agree it is. That isn’t true with Zeus.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             Most people declare as Christian.

            I wasn’t aware I was trying to objectively prove the existence of gods, as people commonly consider them.

            My point was not that the ‘gods are real’ in the whole ‘voyeuristic beings of awesome cosmic power’ sense, but that people value their experiences and that a great many people have experiences of deities.

            They may not be able to convince anyone else, but they don’t need to, do they?

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Al, the point of worship was neatly summed up for me by a feminist Christian theologian lady. I asked her why she believed in God, and she said, “Because of the intense love I feel when I pray,” with consistent body English.

            Feeling that is a reasonable point of worship.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Al: “I’ll note that you didn’t actually answer the question that you quoted, Apuleius.”

            Iamblichus: “An innate knowledge of the Gods is coexistent with our very essence … and we possess that very thing which we are in knowing the Gods.”

            To my mind, this does answer the question of “what does a person get out of” knowing the Gods.

        • Brian Scott

          “You know, it sounds to me as if you’re starting from the Christian standpoint which says that religious adherents are invested in you believing anything.”

          This is a rather unfair assumption. I’d say it’s standing from the viewpoint: what predictions can you make based on the proposition “there are gods”.

          So there are gods. What is the result?

          • Harmonyfb

            So there are gods. What is the result?

            That…there are gods. The world goes on. What result were you expecting?

            In my religion, the Gods are not omnipotent and super-natural, but part and parcel of the universe. Sacredness is an innate and integral part of the whole, not something that is imposed from without.

            Maybe the question you mean to ask is “what is the result for their adherents?”  In my case, the result is a love of the natural world, cherishing my family, an ongoing struggle to treat all people as worthy of love (easier with some than others), passion for the written word, and a deliberate lifestyle which listens for the whisper of the numinous in everyday life.

            It’s also resulted in an interest in interfaith discussion and a lot of baking.

            It also means I sometimes have ecstatic experiences which give me insight into the universe and open me further to touch the Divine.

            What their existence means for you?  Well, in your daily life, nothing, unless you choose to approach them. The Gods are sufficient unto themselves – they don’t need your worship or regard. Life will go on, and so will you. ::shrug::

            It’s the monotheistic worldview which posits that there are negative consequences for not believing in a particular deity.

          • Brian Scott

            I think you’re misunderstanding me. It’s not about the value of believing with respect to said gods’ reaction, or rather, it may be, but that’s just a specific instance.

            “There are gods” is the hypothesis. Possible results may be “you can experience them in ritual”. Another may be “you can invoke them to achieve your goals”. Another may be “I enjoy worshipping them”, another “I must propitiate them to avoid misfortune” and so on.

            By the way, this isn’t so much about you needing to convince me or the OP, which from what I understand you wouldn’t be interested in anyway. It’s just an explanation of how we’re trying to navigate an infinite sea of hypotheses space, which includes interacting with members of our community who do believe.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             To answer that, I will go with the (much easier) dragons.

            Dragons exist.

            This is fact.

            Now, let us test this.

            First, define what it is we are to test:
            Dragon – of the genus ‘draco’
            Dragon – mythological creature of yore.
            Dragon – pejorative term (usually for a woman).

            Now, all of these definitions exist.

            So, the next question must not be ‘do dragons exist’, but ‘how do dragons exist’ (as in ‘what is the nature of a dragon’s existence?’)

            This is where we get variable answers.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             The result would be that there is another form of life.

            How about if we said ‘extraplanar entities’ instead of ‘gods’?

            That would be the scientific term for them, after all.

          • Brian Scott

            The language isn’t what’s important. :P

            As I mentioned below, the statement wasn’t a presupposition, it was a hypothesis.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             And, going with that hypothesis, I don’t see a need for a result.

            It really is not much different to saying “So there are dragons. What is the result?”

            The result is that there are dragons.

          • Brian Scott

            The point of hypotheses is the result. H0 is different from H1, and the way I determine which I hold in greater confidence is by the result. The hypothesis “here be dragons” is differentiated from the hypothesis “here be no dragons” by the results of testing said hypothesis. The trick is finding out if your test can differentiate between hypotheses.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             Ahhhh. Going with the ‘good science – bad English’ phrasing.

            It is less a statement ‘There are dragons’ and more a question ‘Are there dragons?’

            For dragons the answer is ‘yes’.

            For gods, the answer is also ‘yes’.

            But that question is not important.
            What is really important is the question ‘How are there dragons/gods?’

          • Brian Scott

            Well, the point was that “yes” is a rather blase answer. That’s why I was referring to results: the answer is “there are greater than x confirming results” (what should happen if there be dragons) and “there are lesser than y disconfirming results” (what shouldn’t happen if there be dragons).

            I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your second question, though. Do you mean “how did the dragons/gods come about”? Or “why (telologically speaking) are there dragons/gods”?

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com/ Chas Clifton

    Every time that you post that map, I wonder why no one notices that, based on religious affiliation, West Virginia must be every bit as secular and progressive as Washington and Oregon are purported to be. Is Charleston, W.V., the new Portland?

    • Crystal Kendrick

       I noticed, but I live there.  It was surprising at first, but then on reflection perhaps not so much.  Two very different things are going on simultaneously here.  We have a faction of people who are very dogmatic and extremely outspoken that have been carefully cultivated by outside exploiters but historically WV has been populated by people who want nothing more than to be left alone and at certain points in time the populace could be rather progressive.  It really defies its externally applied stereotypes.  The older generations approach to changing social values was usually along the lines of live and let live, with the general response being, “It ain’t none of my business.”

      • http://blog.chasclifton.com/ Chas Clifton

         Thanks for your perspective. It’s kind of what I thought.

  • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

    I often find myself wondering if other faith groups spend as much time talking about someone else’s religion as much as we do :-/

    • Gareth

      They do.

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         ”Paganism? It’s the Devil!!!”

  • http://twitter.com/thesexyatheist KTSA

    Those are really nice words to say for your homie. I wished her luck and I wish her luck. Awesome.

    Kriss

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    And, of course, “Wicca’s Charm.”  That was a horrid book!

  • pagansister

    People change religions or leave them altogether, everyday.   No big deal.