They’re not all the same: Meet some other hard polytheists

In my last post, I used Jason Mankey’s interview of self-described atheist Pagan Amy B. as an opportunity to introduce you to three other non-theistic Pagans, bloggers who described themselves variously as naturalistic, atheistic, non-deistic, and pantheistic, all of whom express a deep sense of reverence toward Pagan ritual. I was already thinking I should write a companion post highlighting some hard polytheists and deity-centered Pagans. Then I saw that Jason had written another post, entitled “Holier Than Thou Paganism”, in which he takes issue with the ideological exclusivism of a certain hard polytheist and I knew I needed to write this post.

There is an unfortunate social phenomenon which causes the most outspoken, and sometimes the most outrageous, individuals in a group to draw more attention to themselves and thereby come to be seen as more representative of the group than they really are. For example, recently there has been some attention given to Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and pastor E.W. Jackson’s statements about yoga being Satanic. (He has since tried to soften that position.) In my early years as reactionary Pagan, just after having left Christianity myself, it might have been tempting to take statements like this as representative of all Christians. But Jackson is not representative of even a majority of Christians, and it’s irresponsible to suggest that he is. I’m glad to say that I have at least come far enough that, when I read Jackson’s statement, I just felt sorry for all the Christians are embarrassed to be associated in any way with Jackson.

Now, nothing Jason wrote suggests that that one polytheist is representative of hard polytheists. But, at one point, not too long ago I’m embarrassed to say, I would have been tempted to take Jason’s post about one hard polytheist as evidence that all hard polytheists are ideological exclusivists. I am fortunate enough now to have had enough exposure to a variety of polytheistic perspectives to know better. So, allow me to introduce you to the recent writings of three bloggers who might be described as hard polytheists or deity-centered Pagans, each of whom has written compellingly about the need for “Big Tent” Paganism (or “Big Sandbox” Paganism, if you prefer).



Sunweaver’s column, Making Light, can be found at Agora on the Pagan Patheos channel. Sunweaver is a Hellenic Polytheist and a priestess of Apollo. She is not a Reconstructionist, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word. But if you have any doubts about her hard polytheistic chops, read her post, “Help me, Joe Campbell, you’re my only hope”:

“… seeing the myths as metaphors doesn’t mean I believe the gods are just characters in a story. They are my gods. I speak to them, I feel their presence, I know from experience that they are Real. They are not real to me like Samwise Gamgee is real. They are real to me like my cat is real, but they often speak to us in metaphor and story.”

What I love about Sunweaver’s writing (aside from the fact that she say the word “archetype” without spitting) is her “strong” approach to tolerance. “Strong” tolerance is when a person appreciates that the value of freedom of speech is not just that everyone gets to express their opinion, but that we all grow from listening to each other’s opinions. While a person with “weak tolerance” will wait their turn and let you talk, so that they can have their turn talk, a person with “strong tolerance” will actually listen and let your opinions affect (but not necessarily change) their own.

Sunweaver’s recent post entitled, “All Religions are UPG”, caught my attention. Sunweaver observes that, “It is good and healthy to have one’s beliefs challenged, since it provides opportunity to apply some critical thinking and to develop stronger and more nuanced beliefs.” I feel exactly this way about my interactions with hard polytheists, who have taught me about the importance of piety and devotion in worship, even in a non-theistic context.

I also like that Sunweaver is willing to go out on a limb, and share her personal experiences, but without claiming that the experience need be normative for others. She writes about participating in a ritual (not her own) which involved characters from Alice in Wonderland, and in which she was asked to be the White Rabbit.

“Whether that was a thoughtform, a new divinity, an expression of an archetype, an old divinity in disguise, or something else, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the manifestation was as real as it gets in religion, but I have no evidence that the White Rabbit was present except for my experience. …

“I cannot say that any experience of the divine or other non-corporeal subdivine entity isn’t real, even when it’s Batman. I’ve never experienced Batman in this way, but others have. I can’t say those experiences aren’t real, only that this has not been my experience.

I think we would all do well as a community to learn that last sentence well and repeat it often: “This has not been my experience.” That sentence manages to be both humble and authoritative at once. It makes no claim on any other person, but neither does it surrender the authority of one’s own experience.

Sunweaver goes on to explain that the divine is just too vast and varied to be captured by any one theology:

“The same goes with any religion that is not my own. I have never experienced Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior, but others have and it brings them fulfillment. Seems legit. Same goes with Hinduism, Islam. Baha’i, and a whole list of other religions that come with experiences of the divine that I haven’t had. The divine is a pretty big thing and to say that I know all that is contained within it is pure-D-hubris.

“I’m not saying that all religions are make-believe; I’m no atheist. I’m saying that the divine is big enough to contain all concepts and that no one person has the one true way to the Truth. We can’t know the entirety of what the divine is.”

“… no one can tell me what to believe but me. Likewise, I can’t tell anyone else what to believe or what’s True about the divine. I have found this attitude to be foundational to interfaith work. In this way, I’m able to simultaneously hold firm to my own beliefs while accepting that others can find Truth and fulfillment in their beliefs. My rightness does not hinge upon my neighbor’s wrongness.”

This attitude is what drives Sunweaver’s local interfaith work and her defense of the construction of the Muslim mosque in Murfeesboro, Tennessee. Sunweaver has helped shatter any stereotypes I had about hard polytheists, and I thank her for it.

John Beckett

John Beckett

John Beckett’s blog, Under the Ancient Oaks, can be found at the Pagan Patheos channel. It seems like John is always writing about something of interest to me and with a depth and nuance that I aspire to (but rarely achieve) in my own writing. John calls himself a Pagan, a Druid, and a Unitarian Universalist. He is a graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a leader in CUUPS, and an interfaith advocate. John is also a hard polytheist:

As a hard polytheist, I believe there are many gods and goddesses who are real, distinct, individual beings. I don’t believe they’re metaphors or archetypes. I don’t believe they’re all aspects of one great God/dess, although I will occasionally use the language of soft polytheism if it helps me relate to someone who takes monotheism for granted.

“I believe this because my experience of Isis is very different from my experience of Danu, my experience of Morrigan is different from my experience of Cernunnos, and my experience of Osiris is different from my experience of Brighid. When I read the stories of my ancestors, it’s clear they thought the gods were individual beings too. Monotheism is a nice idea, but you need only look at the number of people who cry ‘where is God?’ to understand that the world we live in is better explained by many gods and goddesses of limited power than by one all powerful God.”

Elsewhere, John writes about his relationship with the gods being at the core of his identity as a Pagan:

“… I am a Pagan because I have experienced the old gods and goddesses for myself. I met them in story, in ritual and in practice. I prayed and they answered. I quietened my mind and they spoke. I invoked and they graced me with their presence. I made offerings and they responded. I asked and they gave… and sometimes, they asked for something in return. In relationship with them I have found peace and purpose.”

But to describe John as deity-centered would be incomplete. John has his feet planted pretty firmly in all three centers of contemporary Paganism as well. For example, he writes here about his earth-centeredness and he writes here about the practice of magic as using the conscious will to affect the unconscious will. And John’s warning against the misuse of science by many Pagans could have been written by a naturalistic Pagan: “Claiming scientific backing or proof for spiritual ideas where none exists isn’t just bad science,” writes John, “it’s also bad religion.”

What I like about John’s writing is that he consistently seeks to balance seemingly antithetical concepts and to hold them in a creative tension: concepts like faith and doubt, belief and practice, and truth and meaning. For example, in a post entitled, “The Tension of Uncertainty: Faith and Doubt”, John argues that we need to avoid the errors of both One True Wayism and the All Ways Are Equally True fallacy, both of which try to deny the existence of uncertainty. Instead, he argues, we should

“… investigate, experiment, read and study and practice, and through trial and error or through Grace or through good luck find a path that is meaningful and helpful to us. Then we devote ourselves fully to that path – not because it’s certain, but because it’s meaningful and helpful. This is what faith is – not ignoring our doubts or pretending they don’t exist, but honoring our traditions and living according to our values in spite of those doubts.

Similarly, John talks here about hard polytheists needing to walk a fine line between creating the gods in our own image and freezing the gods in a time and place that no longer exists.

And in a couple of posts, here and most recently in a post entitled “Yes, Belief Matters!”, John discusses the orthodoxy-orthopraxy debate. But instead of choosing one side, he advocates seeing practice, experience, and belief as a “virtuous circle”, each mutually reinforcing the other:

Belief comes as we try to interpret our experiences. What do they tell us about ourselves and our place in the grand order of things? What do they tell us about our place in the community? What do they tell us about how we should live our lives – what is of ultimate importance and what is trivial? Why did this practice generate this experience?

The meaning we take from our beliefs motivates us to practice deeper and more frequently. More and deeper practice generates more and deeper experiences. More and deeper experiences further reinforce our beliefs.

In this perspective, beliefs are not divorced from experience; rather, beliefs arise as we interpret and contextualize our experiences. While John emphasizes that practice, not belief, will give rise to experience, he warns against the notion that beliefs do not matter to those who have experience. Personally, I think that those who claim to be skipping the belief step in John’s practice-experience-belief circle are really just overlooking it. John writes:

“Unexamined axiomatic beliefs didn’t work for me then and they don’t work for me now. I can’t simply take the reality of gods and goddesses as a given. I need a theory, a framework of belief. I don’t need proof, but I do need reason.

Religious experience is important. But experience by itself is literally meaningless – it has no meaning until we interpret it, and we interpret our experiences based on our beliefs.

In another post, John discusses truth and meaning, how both are important, but also why it is important to keep the two distinct:

“Discerning the truth becomes even more difficult when you move into spiritual and theological questions. … Because we do not know and likely cannot know the truth, we are free to explore these concepts and to come to the answers that are most meaningful to us.

“For most people, though, the Big Questions of Life are intertwined with questions of personal and group identity and with emotionally charged experiences and issues. Meaning becomes so strong it is mistaken for truth. This false certainty shuts off the search for truth – why continue to wrestle with difficult questions if you’ve already found the answer?”

Personally, I think the reason why some people claim that they do not have any use for beliefs is that they are mistaking meaning for truth. Because he does distinguish meaning and truth, John is able see “The Good in Other Religions”:

“I believe objective truth is real but impossible to know with certainty. In the absence of certainty, we are free to choose the religious and spiritual path that is most meaningful to us. And equally, we are free to respect the choices of others.”

As he explains in an earlier post: “While I will preach against fundamentalist religions of any flavor, there is value to be found in Christianity and Buddhism and Islam and atheism and virtually every religion known to humanity.” And I think this is why John is comfortable being a “Big Tent” Pagan:

“… I’m in favor of ‘Big Tent’ Paganism. When someone says ‘Pagan’ I want that to include hard polytheists, humanistic Pagans, Nature worshipers, hedge witches, shamans, ancestor worshipers and anyone else with similar beliefs and practices. That doesn’t mean I want us all doing the same Wicca-lite ritual at the Solstice. It means I want us talking to each other, cooperating with each other, and learning from each other.

Joseph Bloch


Joseph Bloch is a Heathen. His blog, Heathen Patriot: Thoughts from a Heathen Libertarian (formerly GOPagan: Thoughts from a Heathen Republican) can be found at PaganSquare. In spite of being myself a Neo-Pagan and politically liberal, I am an unapologetic subscriber to Joseph’s blog, and I find myself agreeing with him surprisingly often.

Joseph is a hard polytheist. He believes in the literal existence of the gods, makes offering to the land spirits and house gods, and honors the shades of his ancestors. But Joseph’s religiosity could be described as community-centered or folk-centered, as well as a deity-centered, as he explains here:

“Many Pagans (and, I would argue, the majority of Heathens) find sacredness not in ‘nature’ as a whole, but within the interpersonal, family, and tribal structure. …

“When I hold my daughter in my arms, that is sacred. When I hold high a horn of blessed mead and toast to an ancestors, that is sacred. When I grasp the oath-ring and swear an oath to do something on behalf of my family or my tribe, that is sacred. When I make offerings to the landvættir in thanks for all they have done and continue to do for myself, my family, and my tribe; that is sacred. The bonds between members of a tribe are real in a way that is quite literally inexplicable to those who do not share those bonds, and it is here that the sacral nature of faith can be felt. The sacred bonds between the tribe of the Gods and the tribes of men, and those between the men and women of a tribe, are palpable.”

Most recently, Joseph’s blog caught my attention with a post entitled, “The Excluders”. There, Joseph takes issue with recent proclamations made by some regarding who is entitled to call themselves “Pagan.” He explains that Ásatrú went through a similar phase about 15 years ago, but since then a more tolerant atttide has developed. Joseph describes an example of what I have characterized as “strong tolerance” above:

“… all sides have come to the realization that those with whom they disagree aren’t evil monsters out to promote some sort of political agenda while merely wearing their religion as a mask to cover their true aims. On both sides of any issue there are people who have much to contribute to the commonalities within the Ásatrú community, and to attempt to exclude them, ultimately harms the very people who yearn to ban those with whom they disagree …”

Joseph takes the position that no one has the right to define anyone else out of Paganism. “Just because I disagree with the form your Paganism takes doesn’t mean I get to say you’re not Pagan.” This means that Pagans “will be forced to share that label with people with whom they disagree vehemently on a vast array of subjects.” This is something that those Joseph calls “the Excluders” refuse to do:

“To do so would be to admit that their beliefs are not necessarily Objectively True, and for a certain type of person, that admission is simply unacceptable.

“For that person, the only solution to the conundrum is that those who disagree with them must either be deceitful or ignorant. No other possibility exists, for if it did, it would open up the door to the possibility that they themselves were not correct, and the sort of fragile mindset of the excluder cannot embrace even that possibility. There are no honest and good-natured differences of opinion; there is only deceit or ignorance. In their zeal to be Right, they feel justified in trying to define Pagans who hold other opinions out of existence, in the name of removing the deceitful or the willfully ignorant.

Naturally, the excluders are a very small minority within Paganism. But they are a vocal one, all the more so because of their insistence that their pronouncements of exclusion be adhered to by others.”

Joseph’s recommendation is to simply ignore the Excluders.

Paganism, in Joseph’s view, is by its nature inclusionary, even if sub-groups within it choose establish boundaries:

“And that, I think, is a good thing. Paganism should be open and inclusive. We should be able to endure the fact that some of our fellow Pagans will disagree with us on many things, some of them quite fundamental, both religiously and outside the bounds of our faith. By doing so, we open ourselves to new insights, knowledge, and points of view that we might otherwise have missed out on. And that would be a shame indeed.”

And Joseph practices what he preaches. While Joseph openly acknowledges that he is not himself a fan of eclectic Paganism or of Christianity, when he weighed in on the Christo-Pagan debate, Joseph defended the eclectic inclusion of Christian deities in Pagan practice. He may not like it, but he does not attempt to exclude anyone from Paganism by virtue of their eclecticism or their borrowing of Christian motifs.

But Joseph is not exactly what one would call a “Big Tent” Pagan. For one thing, he does not identify as Pagan. For another, he questions the usefulness of the Tent/Umbrella/Sandbox metaphors. In a threepart series, Joseph deconstructs the idea of the “Pagan Umbrella”, arguing that neither theology, nor ritual practice, nor lifestyle, nor participation in email discussion lists and web bulletin boards is sufficient to create true Pagan community.

But rather than leading him to an isolationist attitude, Joseph reaches the surprising conclusion that instead of seeking Pagan solidarity, we should acknowledge our differences and engage in interfaith practice with each other (and with other faiths).

“Perhaps the goal should not be Pagan solidarity after all. Many disparate ‘Pagan’ groups have nothing at all in common, and may even be quite at odds in terms of theology, ideology, and goals. Perhaps a more effective route, rather than trying to lump scores if not hundreds of ‘Pagan’ groups and faiths under an umbrella already straining to contain them all, we might instead move towards focused interfaith outreach.

“In fact, I would argue that attempts to create Pagan solidarity are just that, but without conscious acknowledgement of that term and thus lacking in the awareness needed to make it effective. If we shed the ‘Pagan’ label, and do not insist on ‘solidarity’ with faiths and individuals with whom we have little if anything in common other than a mutual desire to practice our faith in peace, we can open up a world of possibilities.

“Rather than trying to force some sort of solidarity with Ásatrúar, Dianic Wiccans might find it more effective to reach out to Quakers, or Disciples of Christ, or Episcopalians on some issues, and Seax Wiccans or Reclaiming Tradition for other issues. Ásatrúar might find more in common with Mormons on issues that are near and dear to their hearts, and Druids or Hellenes on others. Reclaiming Tradition Wiccans might make common cause with Deep Ecology Catholics in some instances, and Blue Star Wiccans in others. …

“I think interfaith dialogue that extends both within and without what is now called ‘Paganism’, targeted on specific issues and with specific groups, makes a lot more sense than some ill-fitting ‘Pagan solidarity’ that, in some cases, makes for some very odd bedfellows indeed.”

This is, in my opinion, a challenging and exciting vision of Paganism that Joseph presents.

While I was preparing this post, Joseph posted another great piece entitled “The Great Silent Polytheist Majority”. Rather than taking sides in the recent online debates, Joseph points out that the polytheists in general have been poorly represented by those presuming to speak for them on the Internet. For one thing, the voices on the blogosphere can hardly be aid to be representative of any community.

One way that polytheism is misrepresented on the Internet, according to Joseph, is the “intense ‘devotion is everything’ attitude” seen among some polytheistic bloggers: “Read the Pagan and Heathen polytheist blogosphere today and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who married Loki or who chats with Dionysus over breakfast.” But, according to Joseph:

“It is a misnomer (an understandable one, given the participants on that side of the discussion) that all polytheists must by their nature be God-spouses, engage in ritual ‘horsing’ (possession by spirits, including one or more Gods), consult with Them multiple times every day on even the most trivial matters, and, most important, insist that anyone who does not indulge in such über-piety (or—Gods forbid!—deny Their existence) is somehow less of a ‘real’ Pagan/Heathen than they are.”

Most polytheists, says Joseph, exercise a greater degree of skepticism toward claims that a person is regularly literally possessed by a deity and used as a conduit for divine pronouncements.

Does this mean that hard polytheists do not believe in direct contacts with the divine? In most cases we do, but it is usually accompanied by a lot of cross-checking, soul searching, and other verification to make sure it’s not just our imagination run away with us.

If Joseph is right about this, then I could safely say that there more common ground between humanistic/non-theistic Pagans and hard polytheists than one would ever think by reading Pagan blogs.

But Joseph’s larger point is to point out that most polytheists have been silent during this debate:

“We can be pious without our piety consuming our lives. We tend to be more live-and-let-live (at least when it comes to excluding people from using the Pagan label entirely), and we cringe when we see people on the extreme of our side of the argument say things like “Paganism that isn’t Deity centric isn’t Pagan just like many atheists cringe when they see people on their side of the argument say things like “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment.

“Folks on the atheist side have spoken up, to their credit, saying that they, as a whole, don’t share that dismissive attitude. I hope that I can do at least a little to help foster the notion that those of us on the other side of the debate don’t all share the exclusionary attitude similarly on display by a (vocal) minority.

And that, I think is a perfect conclusion to this post. Each of the hard polytheists above represents a challenge to the image of hard polytheist as an ideological exclusionist. Each of them demonstrates that hard polytheism is not at all incompatible with with “Big Tent” Paganism and/or interfaith work. I admire each of them and am proud to share the Sandbox with them.

We’re not all Amy B.: Meet some other non-theistic Pagans

When saw that Jason Mankey interviewed atheist Pagan Amy B. at Raising the Horns, I was first excited, and then horrified.  Personally, I tend to avoid the label “atheist Pagan” for the same reason that many non-theists avoid the term “atheist”.  I’ve seen “atheist Pagan” used closely with “secular Pagan”, which does not describe me at all.  But even though I don’t identify as one, there is much that I have in common with self-described atheist Pagans, including a commitment to philosophical naturalism and humanism.  So, that was why I was excited to read Jason’s interview of Amy. And then I read this:

With no belief in the supernatural, why do you go to rituals?

Because I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment. Mega-church worship services and high Catholic masses can be dazzling, but for sheer joy and fun, Pagan ritual has them all beat. Properly done, Pagan ritual involves an all-body experience and lots of theatricality.

When I read that, I thought, “Crap! This will confirm the worst fears of theistic Pagans about non-theists.”  I commented on Jason’s blog and expressed my concern, and I was glad to see other non-theists speak up as well. It’s my hope that those reading the interview will appreciate that Amy is just one type of non-theistic Pagan, and is not necessarily representative.  For one thing, she describes herself as a “secular humanist”.  While I am a humanist and a humanistic Pagan, I’ve never described myself as a “secular” anything.  Indeed, my Paganism is a reaction against secularity.  Amy’s ritual-as-entertainment approach, I think, is a function of her secularity, more than her atheism.

In any case, this is not a personal criticism of Amy B.  She is entitled to believe and practice as she sees fit.  I have no problem with her self-identification as a Pagan.   And I would probably enjoy doing ritual with her.  I just want to emphasize that not all non-theistic or a-theistic Pagans are secular or aesthetic Pagans like Amy.  Many non-theistic Pagans, including myself, have a deep sense of spirituality and treat ritual as something sacred.

But rather than tell you more about what my own beliefs and practices, I’d like to instead introduce you to the recent writings of three non-theistic Pagans who have written about their beliefs and their practices.  You may or may not know them already.  They are non-theistic type Pagans whose approach to the gods and ritual, while non-theistic, nevertheless is more reverential than what Amy B. described in her interview with Jason.

Áine W.

On her blog, The Spinning of the Wheel, Áine W. describes herself as a naturalistic Pagan, a pantheist, an an atheist.  Throughout her posts, Áine tries to balance her “pantheistic leanings” with her atheism.  She explains that her spiritual practices are largely metaphorical, and she feels that religious ritual is beneficial psychologically.  She writes about reclaiming ritual as part of her reclaiming her Pagan identity: “I believe that one of the core reasons for my spiritual leaning stems from an innate human need for ritual, particularly when connected with mythologising or storying the universe.”  Áine’s evolving practice is strongly influenced by her Wiccan background and by Glenys Livingstone’s Pagaian CosmologyShe gives an outline of her evolving core ritual here.

Áine explains, in her recent post entitled “Choosing Metaphors: theistic language in non-theistic spiritual practice”, that as a pantheist, she acknowledges “divinity”, but not “deity”.  Divinity, for Áine, is the Cosmos, the universe, or existence, which she calls “Gaia”.  In spite of her non-theistic beliefs, she does use anthropomorphism in her rituals and devotions.  For Áine, deities are “metaphors of physical phenomenon or abstract concepts” which she meditates on, dedicates words to, and lights candles for.  She is comfortable using theistic language because “it adds meaning to my rituals and my feeling of connectedness with what I consider to be the divine.

In an earlier post this past May, entitled “Emotional Pantheism: where the logic ends and the feelings start”, Áine writes about how she has tried to balance her secular life and her spirituality, or her logical side and her emotional side, represented respectively by her atheism and her pantheism.  She explains that, while she does not “believe” in divinity, she does feel it:

“… although there are theological and philosophical theories and intangible concepts that excite me and are meaningful to me, I’m not sure that I could be said to believe in divinity in any real way.

“But when it comes to how I resonate emotionally, I have very strong pantheistic feelings. Although I may not see divinity as something that can even be defined, let alone proven, I feel as though the universe is divine. It is not something I believe in the way that I believe in science and physics and the physicality of my day-to-day existence. But it is something that I feel at my very core. It is an emotional response to awe, to beauty, to mystery. And that emotional response is very strong in me.”

While she is not willing to take leaps of faith logically, Áine is willing to take emotional leaps of faith, by opening herself to experience the trans-mundane without judgment.  She concludes: “So when I perform ritual – when I light my altar candles and utter words of dedication and devotion – I am not merely marking a changing season or an astronomical event. I am, emotionally, reaching out the divinity that I see in the Cosmos.

I love Áine’s distinction between logical atheism and emotional pantheism, and how she is able to bring these together into a kind of uneasy balance.  There is a kind of ambivalence about spirituality in Áine’s writing that I really identify with.  Like my own, her relationship with these two sides of herself is constantly evolving.  In a post entitled, “Symbiosis: the two of cups”, she writes:

“I still somewhat see my spirituality as my shadow, or a part of my shadow self. It feels sometimes like an outpouring of everything I have been rejecting as I mature – irrationality, reverence, magic, possibility. I become, in ritual, a version of myself that nobody else ever sees, something that is quite opposite to much of what I feel makes me myself. Through ritual and reverence, I reach out a hand to that part of me that revels in mysticism and the unknown, that thrills at the thought of dark mysteries. I experience the dark joy of life.

In spite of this ambivalence about her spiritual side, it is clear from Áine’s writing that she is a deeply spiritual person.  And her approach to ritual, whether it includes anthropomorhism or not, is profoundly reverential.



On his blog, Endless Erring, Treeshrew describes himself as an aspiring “naturalist druid” and “atheist druid”.  He explains that does he not believe in gods, spirits, or magic, but loves nature and finds the universe amazing.  He believes that science is the best way to understand reality, but contemporary druidry helps him create a “a sense of meaningful relationship with the inter-connected natural world of which we humans are a small part.”

Treeshrew defines his own spirituality as “deep sense of awe and wonder at the natural world.”   The spiritual life, for him, is

“one fully engaged with living and one which seeks inspiration, or Awen in a Druid context, from the natural world. And whilst I do not believe in anthropomorphic gods in the sky, I do believe in the intricate connections of the forces of nature, the life-force of the universe, the energies that permeate all things.”

Treeshrew wrote about his struggle with the question of anthropomorphism in a post earlier this year entitled, “Gods, atheists and Muppets, oh my!”.  He describes his struggle to figure out how, as an atheist, to deal with the presence of deities in the prayers and rituals of his druid tradition.  Treeshrew explains that for him, “deities are characters in stories.”  But, he goes on:

Stories are important. Stories are a human universal and they connect us to each other and our past. Stories impart wisdom and teach life lessons. Stories can reveal ‘truths’ that facts alone cannot. … In ritual I am willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ just as I do when reading a book or watching a film. I am happy to enter into the immersive experience, but once the ritual is done, I return to reality. The gods and goddesses live in our minds only and we can carry their inspiration within us.”

According to Treeshrew, even though the gods are human creations, they are powerful symbols.  He writes, “What is important is that they point beyond themselves to the awesome powers of the natural world, the vast universe of which we are a part.

Through ritual, Treeshrew explains in another post, we re-enchant the world, “bringing meaning and relationship back into our understanding of nature.”  In a post entitled, “Nature Worship … what’s the point?”, Treeshrew writes that the purpose of ritual, for him, is not to interact with gods or spirits, but to interact with nature:

When we gather in a group for ritual, we interact with each other (humans are part of nature after all), and we re-enact our beliefs that nature is sacred and should be cared for. Ritual can serve as a reminder of this. I don’t perform ritual to ‘get’ something for myself from nature, I do it to align my thinking closer to nature and change the way I relate to the world.

Worship, writes Treeshrew, “is thus not a give and take business transaction, or a wish-granting mechanism, but simply an acknowledgement of something greater than oneself, and a surrender to it.”  Treeshrew writes in another post that far from being opposed to science, religious ritual helps us to experience the wonder and awe revealed to us by scientific discoveries on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.

Treeshrew’s approach to the gods as “characters in stories” need not be seen as reductive.  They symbols that point beyond themselves to the natural world and help us to experience truths that cannot be communicated in other ways.  Facilitated by these symbols, ritual enables us to “enact our beliefs” (great phase!) in the sacredness of nature and our connection to it.

Peg Aloi


Peg Aloi, also known as the Media Witch, blogs at The Witching Hour at Patheos where she writes primarily about media of interest to Pagans.  She is also a poet, singer, freelance film critic, professor of media studies, and author.  Until her recent post, “Adventures of a Non-Deist, or, Why I Don’t ‘Believe’ in the Gods”, I didn’t know anything about Peg’s theology or her practice.  Peg was an atheist before she became Pagan.  She was drawn to Neo-Paganism by a love of ritual, nature spirituality, and environmental activism.  The worship of the gods or the Goddess did not feel right to her, so she came to identify as a “non-deist” witch.

In spite of this, Peg does call on various gods and goddesses in ritual.  And while she does not worship the gods, she does have statues of them on my altars and images of them on her walls.  Peg describes them as “forms of inspiration”:

I like to focus on their characteristics and narratives to try and bring about change in my life: identifying with Pomona to bring abundance, for example, or Artemis to find peace in solitude, or Herne to connect with the wilder unspoken aspects of nature. I give them places of honor and look at them and think about them. But I do not worship them.”

Peg explains that, in spite of the eclecticsm of her devotions, ritual allows her to participate in the ancient mythology of the gods:

“Even as I write rituals, crafting them from poetry I gather from a plethora of writers or that I create myself, even as I describe the attributes of these deities and write passionate paeans to them, I do not think of what I do as worshipping these figures. I think the most accurate way to describe it is to say that I engage with the energy and imagery of these deities: I take part in their mythology, their ancient story, which has been reborn around the world.

Through ritual, the ancient names, imagery, and stories of the gods can be drawn upon to re-myth our own lives, and to effect personal and, ultimately, social transformation.

The practices each of the Pagans above is a unique and beautiful example of a non-theistic Pagan religiosity.  My own beliefs about the gods and about the purpose of ritual, while somewhat different from each, are also very similar to theirs.  They are non-theistic, but they are neither secular nor merely aesthetic.  Their approach to ritual is distinctly religious.  Their inclusion of theistic language in their rituals is neither facetious, nor a form of play-acting.  It is, rather, part of each of their attempts to reach beyond themselves to experience the ungraspable mystery of existence which is in the natural world and within themselves.

(If you’d like to know more about non-theistic Pagans, I highly recommend “Care and feeding of your atheist Pagan” by Rhett Aultman, as a great place to start.)

Where I went wrong: Virtual sacred space

Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within.

— Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I’ve had an epiphany.  For some time, I have struggled to understand why certain hard polytheists seem to feel threatened by the very presence of non-theists in the comments sections of their blogs.  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, for example, has been very clear that he considers it inappropriate for non-theistic Pagans come into his virtual space by commenting.  Each time I have read this, it just went over my head.  I didn’t get it.  I mean, it’s the internet, right?  Blogs are a public spaces.  If you want to have a private conversations, there are online forums where you can do that, where you can quite effectively exclude others.  That’s what I thought.

What I did not realize is that at least certain polytheists consider their blogs to be sacred space.  Sacred space is something that I understand as a Pagan.  And I respect it.  But for some reason, I had not considered the possibility of virtual sacred space.  (Welcome to the 21st century, John.)  This finally hit home when I saw a recent comment by PSVL on the Anomalous Thracian blog:

“… when non-polytheists keep coming into our spaces (which, speaking for myself and the Aedicula Antinoi blog, are virtual shrines to our various gods, and thus are sacred spaces to those gods and not just ‘public forums,’ thus conduct in them by everyone is expected to respect those gods) and telling us what they think, and by just stating it in our spaces …”

I read this, and I thought, “Holy sh*t!  I have tread on someone’s sacred ground.”  As a Pagan, I consider that to be … well, a sin.  I should not have been that surprised.  After all, PSVL’s blog is titled, “Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous” (emphasis added).  But, for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me that he was being literal about it being a shrine.

The anomalous Thracian made a similar comment, analogizing commenting on his blog to coming into his house and sharing uninvited opinions.  That would be a violation.  After all, a person’s home is sacred space to them.

So what happens then is this: I, the naive non-theistic Pagan, wander into a virtual shrine to the gods, a temenos, if you will, mistaking it for a community meeting place, an agora.  My very “presence”, in the form of my questions or comments, no matter how carefully phrased, is a violation.  Polytheists for whom the space is sacred respond with the emotion one would expect in response to an act of desecration, while I just think they’re over-reacting to my innocent invitation to dialogue.  And then everything spirals out of control from there.

This explains so much to me.  I could never figure out why certain polytheists claimed they had been attacked, when I felt pretty confident that they were the ones doing the attacking.  But I had invaded their sacred space.  I had failed to show the respect that I would ordinarily show if the shrine were physical.  And, in the 21st century, the fact that it is a virtual shrine really shouldn’t make a difference.

Now, we can argue about the appropriateness or feasibility of treating a blog as virtual sacred space, in contrast to a more closed virtual space, like a Yahoo group.  But the fact is that PSVL, and I think Anomalous and others, do see their blogs this way.  And I sure as hell am not going to barge into someone’s sacred space and argue with them whether or not it is sacred.  While some polytheists I have interacted with recently may feel that I have more to apologize for, we can at least agree on this at least:

I have done you wrong, by coming into your sacred space uninvited and acting like I have a right to be there.  I apologize sincerely.  I apologize for not understanding this sooner.  I will not, in the future, be commenting on blogs of hard polytheists unless I first confirm whether comments of non-believers are welcome.

Having said that, I do wish that, if other polytheists feel that their blogs are sacred space, they would indicate this in some way (as PSVL has done) for anyone who happens to stumble upon their blog unawares.  Even PSVL might benefit from a more clear statement warning trespassers that they are on virtual sacred ground.  A clear statement that the comments of non-believers are not welcome would be most effective, I think.

I will continue to (silently) visit the blogs of polytheists, because I am interested and my own practice has grown from reading what they write, and I don’t think that constitutes a “presence” (tell me if you think I’m wrong about that).  I may comment on or even link to them sometimes here on my own blog.  And I will continue to comment on the blogs of those hard polytheists who do welcome comments from non-believers.  I sincerely hope that this may help avoid similar verbal conflagrations in the future.

Mea Culpa

Much wiser and cooler heads than mine have pointed out that my last post was fanning the flames.  I had hoped to call certain parties to account for behavior I considered reproachable.  But seriously, who do I think I am?  In addition, my response could itself be construed as a personal attack.  Worse, it could be mistaken representative of other humanistic or archetypal Pagans.  I have long said that bloggers who have a significant following should be held to a higher standard. Now, I realize, that includes me, too.  In addition to the community fallout, personally, this is all distracting from my own Pagan practice, which is what I started this blog to write about.

This is me.

Time to get back to being the Allergic Pagan.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” — Pogo (Revised)


I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

— “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)”
by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger

Two things that I have learned in the latest Pagan-polytheist brouhaha over “pop culture Paganism” are:

1. Polytheism (like Paganism) is not a single or clearly defined entity.

2. I share common ground as a Self-centric and earth-centered Pagan with many polytheists.

Regarding the first point, I had previously (and erroneously) equated polytheism with reconstructionism. The variety of responses to the “pop culture Paganism” debate helped me to realize that there are polytheistic reconstructionists, non-reconstructionist polytheists, magickal polytheists, archetypal polytheists, naturalistic polytheists … and probably every conceivable variation on those categories as well.

Regarding the second point, I’ve been pleased to learn that, while I still disagree with hard polytheists about the nature of the gods, I myself have something to learn from them about devotion and worship (which I believe are not inconsistent with humanistic, naturalist, and archetypal Paganism). I am grateful to hard polytheists like P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Dver for this. I am also grateful to polytheists like Sunweaver who don’t use the word “archetype” as a slur. And I am grateful to the many polytheists who have been willing in the last couple of years to take the time and exercise the patience it requires to explain your beliefs and practice to someone who is genuinely interested.

Unfortunately, I have also encountered what I think is (at least what I hope is) the extreme, fringe side of reconstructionist polytheism, in the person of Galina Krasskova.

A little bit of background. Galina Krasskova comes to Paganism via Heathenry, which, in the past, she has taken pains to distinguish from Paganism(s). As she explains in her Master’s thesis, “Race, Gender, and the Problem of ‘Ergi’ in Modern American Heathenry”, Heathenry developed in the United States in 1968 (the same year that Neo-Paganism appeared). But, as Krasskova explains, Heathenry grew not out of the counter-culture, but as a conservative response to the social changes of the 1960s (i.e., the sexual revolution, civil rights, and women’s liberation): “Unlike Wicca and eclectic Paganisms, which also began to come of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Asatru is a counter-counter cultural reaction, in other words a reaction to the reaction.”

Margot Adler, writing in 1979, consciously elected not to include Heathenry in her survey of contemporary Paganism, Drawing Down the Moon. Since that time, people like Diana Paxson have worked to bridge the gulf between Heathenry and Paganism, and we now see a healthy blurring of the boundaries between these two communities.

Unfortunately, others, like Krasskova, have adopted a divide and conquer approach. According to Krasskova, anyone who calls themselves a polytheist or Pagan (they are the same thing to her) who does not conform to her definition of those words is the enemy. Setting aside the outright contempt that Krasskova shows for non-deity-centered forms of Paganism (which she calls “humanistic, reductionist poison” and “garbage”), she also believes that the rest of us are out to destroy her religion. And this fear breeds a dangerous hostility, even militancy, in her writing. She explicitly identifies her enemies as monists, humanists, archetypalists, and atheist Pagans, but she also has little patience for other polytheists who do not meet her narrow definition of that word.

In a recent exchange in the comments to The Anomalous Thracian’s post, “God’s of Consequence”, I asked Galina and Anomalous:

“Also, how do you account for those self-described polytheists who believe that the gods *do* come from within us, but then take on a life of their own outside of us, thus becoming “real”, i.e., thought-forms or egregores? This is not a humanist, or even necessarily an archetypal, perspective. I think polytheism is more diverse than you suggest.”

Galina’s response?

“i would say they’re not polytheists.”

And just to be clear, if you are not polytheist, according to Krasskova, you are not Pagan either. She writes:

“I would go so far as to say Paganism that isn’t Deity centric isn’t Pagan.”

“Believe what you want. practice what you want, but don’t define it as polytheism or even Paganism. … Anything that attempts to veer Paganism or Heathenry or Polytheism or any of these traditions in the process of being restored away from those indigenous roots is something to be resisted.” (emphasis added)

The “indigenous roots” Krasskova refers to is literalist, hard polytheism. Not egregores, not thought-forms, not archetypes, not metaphors — only a very literal belief in the gods as as “real, independent, sentient beings” which “exist [and always have] outside of the limitations of the human mind” qualifies as polytheism or Paganism in Krasskova’s opinion.

Of course, Krasskova is entitled to her belief in her gods, however she conceives them. My issue with her arises with her claim that, if you don’t share her belief, then you don’t deserve to call yourself polytheist or even Pagan. It is not just archetypists, monists, “pop culture pagans”, humanists, and atheist Pagans that Krasskova would exclude from the Pagan umbrella. She also seeks to exclude those polytheists who aren’t, to her mind, polytheist enough. In short, she seeks to exclude the vast majority of Pagans.

Why should anyone care what Krasskova thinks? Because of the militant and provocative language she uses in her recent post, “Deity Centered Polytheism”:

“The recent debate about pop culture paganism brought home a few facts to me. This is a struggle. We are engaged in a potentially divisive struggle. It’s a necessary one, but it’s a struggle, a call to arms nonetheless. We are fighting to establish and build our traditions, restore our lineages, and renew veneration for the Powers in a way that will outlast us and our descendants. Secular Paganism, humanist paganism, atheist paganism, pop culture paganism, archetypism, and all of these various ideologies that put just about anything but actual Gods central to the spiritual experience (combined with the expectations that we as polytheists will give these ideologies equal legitimacy and weight to our own within our own traditions) are attacks on the integrity polytheism as a whole. Our traditions were destroyed once. It will not happen again. I believe that every devoted polytheist today has a responsibility not only to honor their Gods and ancestors consistently and well, but to stand up and draw a line in the sand with the greater mishmash of ‘Pagan’ communities, a line that says ‘you take your horse shit this far and no farther.’

“Because regardless of what people on the non-Deity centric side of the fence say, there is a concerted attempt to define devotion out of Paganism, out of polytheism, and out of Heathenry. It’s an attempt to finish the assault upon our traditions that our ancestors faced. This time it’s made with words and verbal strategies, with writing and blog posts. But it’s an attack nonetheless. Calling those of us who put our Gods first ‘fundamentalists’ in an effort to seize the moral high ground of this argument will not change the fact that this is a battle for the very soul of our traditions. Our ancestors, despite what monotheistic rhetoric would tell us, resisted and fought back and I for one believe it’s incumbent on us today to do at least that much.” (emphasis added)

(Note the quotes around “Pagan”.)

Krasskova thinks she is “holding the line” against a second Burning Times. She sees all other forms of Paganism as attacks on her own form of reconstructionist polytheism. She sees non-theistic forms of Paganism as “an outright attack on our Gods, our traditions, our lineage, and our ancestors. That happened once,” she says, “it will NOT happen again.” This is not rhetorical flourish. It is not hyperbole. Krasskova is insistent that she means exactly what she says. And if you disagree with her, then the value of your life to her is nil: “Outside of my partner, my dearest friends, and my House, outsiders have value to me only insofar as they are serving their Gods rightly”.

This is dangerous talk. It is destructive talk. Krasskova sees herself as a victim. But she adopts the oppressive language of her imaginary oppressors. She is an ideologue who is seeking to transform a diverse Pagan community into her own homogenous form of deity-centered polytheism. Even Heathenry was not sufficiently deity-centered for her, as she explains in her thesis:

“The overwhelming majority of modern Heathens choose, therefore, to make not the sacred world of Gods and spirits the ‘axis around which the human world revolves,’ but rather choose instead to make the human world the axis around which the worlds of the Gods revolve, utilizing carefully structured public rituals to keep the sacred at bay.”

No one is exempt from Krasskova’s condemnation and wrath: not Pagans, not polytheists, and not Heathens.

And Krasskova is not alone. At this moment, less a day after she published her post, 171 people have “liked” her post. And then there’s The Anomalous Thracian, whose blog is where Krasskova practiced what would become her “Deity Centered Polytheism” post in the comments section. Anomalous takes his literalism so far that he believes that his gods can “literally” (his word) rip the arms off people and beat them to death with them: “… yes, literally ripping arms off. Gods. Tangible consequences. Like bears in the woods.” (See his post and his comments following his post.) Not only does he believe this — which of course he’s entitled to — but if you question it, then you reap only contempt and charges of cultural imperialism. This is who Krasskova keeps company with. And the violence that Anomalous describes in his gods lends a new disturbing dimension to the implied violence of Krasskova’s “call to arms”. This, combined with an unshakeable conviction that you know what the gods want, is dangerous.

I do not doubt the genuineness of Krasskova’s encounters with what she calls her gods (although I can’t help but doubt the reality of what Anomalous describes). But I do take issue with where she goes with those experiences. Krasskova’s “call to arms” is an extreme example of the mistake made by so many religious ideologues who take their personal religious experiences as support for the exclusive authority of their tradition over all others, and then seek to defend that claim violently against all enemies, real or perceived. Krasskova has not explicitly incited physical violence, but she comes close, and her post does leave open that possibility. At the very least, she calls for verbal forms of violence against Pagans and polytheists who do not toe the line she has drawn, verbal violence which she models in her comments and her posts.

Time out for a Big Thank You!

The is my 250th post and I am celebrating!  As I approach the second year anniversary of this blog in August, this blog had its busiest days ever in response to my posts “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” and “Hearing voices or talking to ourselves” with over 650 *views* and over 350 unique visitors in one day on May 31 and June 2.   (That’s a lot for me.)

I also recently received 500 likes!  So I want to take a moment to thank my readers.  Thank you everyone who took the time to click that little *like* button or shared me on Facebook.  I know that when I visit other blogs I often forget to do this, and it does mean a lot to us writers to know someone appreciates us. I also want to thank all of you who have sent more personal expressions, either in the comments or by email.  Your responses, like the one below which I received recently, have really kept me going.

Dear John, I discovered your blog a few days ago via Humanistic Paganism and have since read dozens of your entries (quite rare for me as I usually succumb to the temptation of half-heartedly skimming almost everything I encounter on the Internet). Your essays have given me huge inspiration: I love the depth and breadth of your writing, the intellectual grit and subjects you uncover (theopoetics, for instance), and the way you link to and quote other blogs and commenters.

Paganism has been an interest of mine for perhaps 10 years now, but I have rarely felt at home in the pagan community (I have an allergy to crystals as well as to people who use the word “energy” in every other sentence).

Your blog is extremely invigorating and I am looking forward to what you have in store for the future.

Many thanks,
[name omitted]

I especially appreciate those of you who told me that my posts have helped you feel a little less alone in your particular form of Paganism, because your responses do the same thing for me.

Also deserving a special shout out are many of my fellow bloggers whose writing continues to be an inspiration to me.  B.T. Newberg @ Humanistic Paganism, Teo Bishop @ Bishop in the Grove, Molly Remer @ Theapoetics, and Alison Leigh Lilly at Peace, Poesis, and Wild Holy Earth are an exceptional few.  The quality of their work and the depth of their insight is astounding.  If you haven’t visited their respective blogs yet, you must.

It’s been an exciting year for me.  As you may already know, I started another blog, Dreaming the Myth Forward at PaganSquare, on January 1st this year.  That blog is dedicated to Jungian Paganism and is aimed at educating Pagans about what Jungianism is really about — not the watered down version that so many are familiar with.  In more recent news, this blog, The Allergic Pagan, will be moving to Patheos within about a month or so.  The move promises exciting opportunities to interact to a greater extent with other great Patheos writers, many of whom I blog about here frequently, including but not limited to those on Pagan channel.  I will let you know the new link when the move happens.  I am looking forward to it and I hope you will all follow this blog when it is relocated.

Unfortunately I need to apologize as well.  As you know, I frequently link to other bloggers.  Recently, I made several errors with gender pronouns, using male pronouns for one female blogger, female pronouns for a male blogger, and then failing to use the preferred pronouns for a couple of trans-/meta- gendered bloggers.  (Ever have one of those days when you just can’t seem to get it right?)  It can be quite confusing as a blogger to keep it all straight.  Often bloggers, out of personal preference or genuine concerns for privacy, use online names that are not clearly indicative of their gender.  But it is my responsibility to read the online biographies of those I blog about and to get their gender pronouns correct, especially for those for whom their gender is an issue that they blog about.  My apologies to all concerned and thank you for your patience.

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