What’s A Nice Atheist Like Me Doing At Gods & Radicals?
“The Sources” by Emy Blesio (oil on canvas)
Recently, some criticisms of the Gods & Radicals community have included condemnation of the inclusion of a self-proclaimed atheist — me — among the contributors.1
What’s an atheist doing at Gods & Radicals? It’s a fair question.
The truth is, while I am an atheist, I am also a non-theistic humanist, a Gaian pantheist, an archetypal polytheist, a naturalistic animist. And which one I answer to really depends on how you ask the question or what aspect I am choosing to emphasize at the time.
I am but atheist north-north-west.
When the wind is southerly, I know a god from a geist.
My worldview does not accommodate supernatural beings that exist separately and independently of human beings — and in that sense I am an atheist.
And yet, my world is full of gods. Let me give you an example …
Each morning, I wake up and greet the rising sun with arms upraised and an invocation of Indra, adapted from the Rig Veda, on my lips:
Scaling heaven, splendor encompasses you,
Chariot-Borne, sun-bright, and truly potent,
You pour forth, bursting the clouds,
Giving life to sun and dawn …
You say the sun is no god? What is it else that rules outside our selves?
I saw that there are, first and above all,
The hidden forces, blind necessities,
Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
Various or one: for great and strong and good
Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
What is it else that rules outside man’s self?
— Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book”
Do I believe the gods are real? Of course! What could be more real than the sun?
For ages, humankind, we’ve wanted to celebrate what brings us life. What is this thing that allowed us to emerge. …
The Sun. The Star.
That right there is the source of all of our myths and allegories and hopes and dreams. It gave life to the world; gave birth to life.
Its core burns at ten million degrees and it consumes millions of tons of matter per second – we ourselves are made of remnants of its fallen siblings.
The preconditions for our humanness, that, certainly, is what god is right? ‘Let there be light!’
— Jason Silva, “What is a God?”
But you say, it’s impossible to interact with this god? Not so. I interact with it every morning when I open my eyes to the growing light. I interact with it every time I step outside and feel its warmth on my flesh, my cells absorbing its rays. I interact with it every time I take a breath of air which is warmed its radiation. I interact with it every time I eat a vegetable which transformed its energy into life-sustaining matter.
True, the sun does not hear or respond to my prayers. You might say it is indifferent to me. And yet, in a sense, I am an extension of the sun. I am its energy transformed into living matter. I am the light of the sun made conscious, capable of reflecting back on itself, seeing and appreciating its own warmth and beauty. “Indifference” does not seem a fitting word to describe this relationship.
“I want to know why beauty exists, why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?”
— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat
Why does the sun hold such beauty and power for us? Because there is a sun within us too, an inner sun god. Indra, to whom I call in my invocation, is just one of the names of this god. He is the power of the sun personified.2 Indra is my internal sun — the part of me that is called forth by the sight of the rising sun. The sun god without speaks to the sun god within, and the sun god within responds.
Have you ever felt the sun rise within you? Words like “archetype” and “symbol” are inadequate to capture this experience.
You say this Indra is not real because he is “in my head”? It’s true it is all in our heads, but if we think this makes them less real, then, as Lon Milo DuQuette has written, we have no idea how big our heads really are.
For the pioneers of modern psychology, Freud and Jung, the deepest levels of the psyche merged with the physical body and the physical stuff of the world. Ecopsychologists like James Hillman and Theodore Roszak extend Freud’s id and Jung’s collective unconscious and draw the rational conclusion that what these terms imply is literally the world.
The most profoundly collective and unconscious self is the natural material world.
— James Hillman, “A Psyche the Size of
What meaning does the phrase “merely psychological” have if the psyche is “the size of the earth”, a literal anima mundi which suffused with subjectivity, interiority, intimacy, and reciprocity.
But you say this Indra is not real because he is not separate from me? But if that’s the case, then you and I are not real either, because we are not separate:
We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson
Our interconnectedness makes us more, not less, real. From this perspective, the more we emphasize the separateness of the gods, the less real they become.
What does any of this have to do with being a “radical” or with anti-capitalism?
In order to answer that, I need to explain briefly the relationship between capitalism and the disenchantment of the world.
According to Morris Berman, “The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment,” which Berman defines as “nonparticipation” and “alienated consciousness.” A disenchanted consciousness sees everything else, even living beings, as objects — objects to be bought and sold, in the case of the capitalist form of disenchantment.
Capitalism is one of the driving forces behind the disenchantment of the world. It alienates workers from the products of their labor, but it also alienates us from the physical world, from nature (including our own bodies). Capitalism disenchants the world by reducing everything to resource and commodity, fungible and without intrinsic meaning.
Nothing we come upon in the world can any longer speak to us in its own rights. Things, events, even the person of our fellow human beings have been deprived of the voice with which they once declared their mystery to men.
— Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture
This disenchantment of the world happened, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature — gods and spirits can be objectified too — but when we stopped feeling our connection to nature, when we lost our sense of essential participation in the world.
The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short was a place of belonging. A member of the cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.
— Morris Berman, The Re-Enchantment of the World
The re-enchantment of nature, then, is a means overcoming capitalist alienation. It means relating to nature once again as our home — in the deepest sense of that word. (The prefix eco- means “house”.) It means cultivating a profound awareness of our interconnectedness — our kinship — with every other living being — and, yes, even with the rocks and other unconscious, yet animate, matter.
So let’s go back to my morning ritual …
When I raise my arms in greeting to the sun, I am re-storying myself to my proper place in the universe. I am re-placing myself in the vast cosmic drama which began billions of years ago, when stars were born and died, and spread their life throughout the universe. I am re-calling the time when the rays of the sun gave life to our first simple-celled ancestors. I am re-membering how my body and yours evolved in response to the sun — how our sensory organs were shaped by a long and delicate process of interaction with the world around us, how our eyes were shaped by and then finely tuned by the light of the sun and its reflections off of the myriad surfaces of the natural world.
… when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big—but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson
I am also reviving the energetic process which sustains my life today. I am re-cognizing my kinship with all other life — both human and other-than-human, both plant and animal — all life that depends on the energy from the sun — as well as to the winds and waters whose cycles are driven by the sun’s rays. And I am re-connecting the experience of the light and warmth outside of me to the experience of psychological light and warmth inside of me — as above so below.
This simple gesture of greeting the sun is one way of re-enchanting the world. Ritual gestures like these work together as an antidote against the disenchantment of capitalism …
… the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
— Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”
Doing this reminds me of my place in the cosmos — not a “stranger in a strange land”, not a exile from heaven, and not a mere consumer of widgets and producer of GDP — but a child of Sol and Terra, kin to wolf and salmon, redwood and moss, earthworm and parasitic wasp. Knowing I am a part of this earth, and it me, and that my destiny in continuous with it, helps me see capitalist alienation for what it is. It helps me find ways to resist that alienation and to imagine a different kind of life.
So am I an atheist? Yes, but that’s not all I am. I am also a worshiper of many gods … and a radical too. And as surely as the earth is my home, so is Gods & Radicals.
With gratitude to Rhyd Wildermuth and others who have defended my participation in this community.
1 I am not the only non-theistic writer at G&R.
2 Indra was a sun god in his earliest form in the Rig Veda. In later forms, he became a god associated with rain and lightning.
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.