Godless gather under the full moon

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HEALDSBURG, Calif –The light of the full moon which shines down on the mighty redwoods here will, in August, illuminate a gathering of non-theistic Pagans as the second annual Moon Meet is convened. Hidden deep in the forest, they will share meals, share knowledge, and share sacred space in much the same way that other Pagans do.

[Wikimedia Commons.]

Event organizer Mark Green prefers the term “Atheopagans” to describe this particular subculture-within-a-subculture, but that relatively new term describes a mindset that has been part of the contemporary Pagan movement for decades. He wrote about becoming Pagan in the 1980s for Witches & Pagans issue 35: “Several prominent voices in the community at that time were clearly in the gods-as-metaphors camp,” he recalled, also noting that he “found deep meaning and joy in celebrating the changing of the seasons, in the ritual circles that I shared with community . . . and environmental values that were the community norms.”

As the landscape of Paganism has shifted and matured, some non-theists have felt the need to openly identify with that worldview, and to seek like-minded folks with whom to spend time. Nearly 1,000 people are members of the Atheopaganism Facebook group, where a need to gather in person arose, echoing Green’s own desire to build community ties. That need manifested last year as Moon Meet, at least for a small number of the Facebook participants. Despite only having 19 attendees, the event was enjoyed by them and financially sustainable, which is why it’s going to happen again.

“We’re a subculture of a subculture,” Green acknowledged, and “we’re sparse on the ground.” Moon Meet has low overhead, and costs only $90 per person with meals included. It’s also in a somewhat remote location that requires attendees being shuttled from the parking area in four-wheel-drive vehicles. While there’s a limited amount of indoor sleeping accommodations for those who need it, the event “isn’t very wheelchair-friendly,” Green said.

Meals are produced in the house on the land, with attendees pitching in to help the site owner, who enjoys cooking for groups. That serves a twofold purpose: it minimizes fire danger in an area where that’s a real threat, and it gets everyone together to eat. Community is one of the values attendees cherish, and shared meals help strengthen those bonds.

The size of Moon Meet makes it a flexible event. Only one workshop is offered at a time during the day, but it’s fine to enjoy nature or the company of other people instead. There’s a bardic circle on Friday night, and a ritual Saturday which is designed by the attendees that afternoon. A discussion about the future of Atheopaganism is held Sunday afternoon before the event is closed down.

Despite the size of Moon Meet, there are standards of behavior. Attendees must sign a non-harassment and there’s a process for addressing violations. There’s also a blanket policy of no photography, because atheist Pagans “are in two closets,” Green pointed out, and safeguarding their privacy is critical.

Last year, most of the workshops focused on skills for ritual, and Green may himself offer one on ritual design this time around. He finds ritual to be important, even if gods are not included. For one, it’s “about connection to the all-that-is, the great cosmos and community, but also to become better and happier people. As we do, we can help to create a better world.”

Green said that concerns about appropriation are minimal, because “we don’t really draw from other cultures.” Atheopagans are consciously forward-looking, he said, and “not rooted formally in anything in the past. We’re observing the ritual technologies and techniques used over time, from the Roman Catholic church to the plains Indians, to see commonalities,” such as flickering candlelight being more conducive to the mindset than fluorescent tubes. “It’s more about the technologies than the cultures.”

Some Pagans and polytheists bristle at the notion of atheist Pagans, but Green is thankful that the controversy of several years ago seems to have died down. “Most people have accepted that [Paganism] is a big tent, and this fits,” he said. “It’s fine that others go other ways.”

Part of what sparked controversy could be that there are different kinds of atheists, and not all of them view the world in the same way. The findings of a University of Tennessee study revealed at least six different kinds. The anti-theists are the most open about their position. Green describes them as “nakedly hostile to anything about religions, [they’re] really loud and really obnoxious; Richard Dawkins is a classic example. They’ve given atheists cover for coming out, but they’re so abrasive I don’t think they have ever encouraged a theist to rethink that position. The tone is difficult.”

Another part of the spectrum is what’s been called ritual atheists, who fall into the broad category of “spiritual, but not religious.” These are the ones — about 12% of all atheists, he said — that Green wants to meet. “They’re looking for quasi-religious experiences in life, to give meaning and build community.” Those experiences include rites of passage and others which take place in a ritual framework. Paganism has accumulated more than 50 years of contemporary ritual experience and technique, he said, and that’s something atheists lack.

The anti-theist tone is “angry, uncomfortable, and pointless” in ritual space, Green said, and thus isn’t a focus in ritual design, the goal of which is “celebrating life and the universe, trying to be the best people we can in the short time we have available to us.”

While Green has experience putting together events and wouldn’t mind Moon Meet growing in size, he also wants his fellows to have the tools to organize their own events locally. “The carbon footprint of travel is huge,” he said, and as an environmentalist he wants to see choices that allow for a lesser impact. To that end, he’s published a guide to event planning on his own blog.

Information about Moon Meet is available here; the exact location will be provided to those who sign up.