[This is a guest post by Brendan Myers. Brendan Myers, Ph.D, is the author of eight books on environmentalism, ethics and social justice, and spirituality. He has taught philosophy at six different universities in Canada and in Europe, and provided policy research for the Government of Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and various private clients. His work has been featured by the Pacific Business & Law Institute, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, as well as numerous cultural societies, environmental groups, interfaith groups, and humanist societies around the world. And he’s a decent songwriter too.]
About a year ago, I was attending a semi-private gathering of pagans in eastern Ontario, Canada. One of the people there was an atheist and we were talking about why she enjoys attending pagan events. At one point, intending to be cheeky, I called out to the group, “How many other atheists have we got here?” Eleven people, out of twenty, put their hands up.
Now, my little observation that evening is nothing like a scientific study of changing opinions in the pagan world. But that was not the only place where I’ve observed this trend. Not all of us join the pagan world because of an interest in magic, or because of a transformative spiritual epiphany, or because of a traumatic experience with some other religious group. Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.
From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers. Some still practice magic (you don’t have to be religious to do that), but will approach the matter with a critical, scientific eye. And speaking of science, they tend to be interested in astronomy, quantum theory, evolutionary biology, and the like, and will take inspiration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and from Bill Nye right alongside Starhawk or Crowley. Those whom I have met tended to be in their 30’s or older, educated, earning a lower-middle class income, and raising small families. (As an aside, a lot of them are cosplayers too!) Social, political, and moral causes tended to be more important to them than supernatural ones. For instance, an associate of mine who recently declared himself a Humanist Pagan told me that avoiding genetically modified food improved his health more than reiki treatments and aura cleanings. And he felt afraid to admit that to his pagan friends! Finally, many of the humanist pagans I’ve met tend to think of themselves as artists and musicians (or whatever) first, and as pagans second – as THW has observed about artists like Austin Osman Spare, or Dead Can Dance.
But they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals, and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations. They are a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome, and their place in the modern pagan movement may still be marginal and unclear, but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless.
(This isn’t a recruitment drive, by the way. I just thought the pagan world might like to know that these people exist, and that if you haven’t met one yet, you probably will soon.)
For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just. Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.
Finally, if I may speak personally, I also noticed that some pagans have treated me as a spokesperson for humanist paganism. Perhaps that is because my books are about universal philosophical problems like loneliness, fear, global warming, and social justice. Also, I don’t write about magic or ritual or how to talk to the gods (although I do write about Druids). The role of main spokesperson for humanist paganism probably belongs to B.T. Newberg, more than to me, because he manages the Humanistic Paganism blog and FB page. But for my part, I find that human rationality is profoundly spiritual; an instrument not just of practical knowledge but also of enlightenment. I study Druidry to be a better philosopher; I don’t study philosophy to be a better Druid. Perhaps that makes me a humanist pagan. But if so, I will still toast the Great Queen with my drinking horn. Hail!