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

the Earth”

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.


Endnotes:

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

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.


Both issues of A Beautiful Resistance are available not just in print, but as digital downloads as well.  Follow these links for Everything We Already Are  and The Fire is Here.

 

A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.