This essay was originally published at Boxing Pythagoras.
Having already related to my readers “Why I am not a Christian,” I thought I might take some time to talk about what I am: I am a godless Heathen.
It is not uncommon to find modern atheists who jokingly refer to themselves as “godless heathens.” They use the title satirically, to poke fun at the unwarranted derision laid upon a person by some Christians over the simple fact that atheists don’t believe in God. It hearkens back to a period when Christianity had actual legal authority, in the Western world, and the charge of being a “godless heathen” was a criminal offense resulting in a capital punishment. However, this is not what I mean when I use the term “godless Heathen,” as in the title of this article. To be fair, I also intend this sort of tongue-in-cheek reference, but my usage actually carries a further weight which is not generally shared by most of the other atheists that I have met. When I say that I am a “godless Heathen,” I am actually referring to the fact that I am an atheist who practices Norse Heathenry.
I understand that the thought of an atheist adherent to a polytheistic religion might seem fairly paradoxical, at first, so allow me to elucidate.
Most of the self-described atheists that I have encountered, either in person or on the Internet, tend to be Humanists. However, I have never really felt drawn to secular humanism, finding its tenets and principles to be either incredibly vague or else unnecessarily anti-religious. For example, the American Humanist Association offers this brief summary description:
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
A fuller description can be found in their Humanist Manifesto III, which basically expounds on this theme. The only positions which are really laid out are an opposition to supernaturalism, vague references to “individual participation in the service of humane ideals,” and adherence to the scientific method for the derivation of knowledge. Honestly, there’s not much laid out in the AHA’s Manifesto which I would find disagreeable, but remove the parts describing opposition to supernaturalism and even most theists wouldn’t find much to dislike. To that end, “Humanist” has always struck me as being a redundant title — I already consider myself a Naturalist, and Humanism just seems to be philosophical naturalism with a side-dish of social optimism. I have no need to adorn myself with extraneous labels.
I am a Naturalist. I do not believe claims that gods exist. Therefore, I am godless.
This, then, brings us to the second part of my phrase. Even before I disassociated myself from Christianity, I was quite enamored with Norse Heathenry, reading a great deal about the subject and conversing with adherents to the religion. Sometimes also called Germanic neopaganism, Odinism, Asatru, Forn Sidh, Theodism, or a host of other names; Norse Heathenry is an attempt to reconstruct the religious beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Appealing to a great deal of scholarship on archaeology and historical documentation, Heathens have attempted to build a modern religion which resembles that which was employed by these ancient tribes. This involves far, far more than simply learning the old mythological stories and then claiming to worship Odin and Thor and Frigga and Freyja and the other gods. Heathenry includes philosophy about kinship and ancestry and destiny and morality. Even if one were to completely ignore the theology of Heathenry, it still offers rich value to those with interest in it.
The theology of Heathenry, itself, is an incredibly complex issue, running the full gamut from supernaturalist personal theists to naturalist atheists. There are those who view the gods exactly as you might expect, believing the Aesir and Vanir to be personal beings of great power who interact with humanity. Others maintain an archetypalist view that the gods are the embodiments of certain concepts or abstracts in the world — something akin to a polytheist version of Deism or Panentheism. Finally, there are those — like myself — who view the gods as being the subjects of wonderful stories and tales from which one can derive quite a bit of value, but who do not believe that the gods are (or ever were) actual extant beings.
I ascribe great importance to my ancestors, friends, family, and Kindred. I find wisdom in the Sagas and the Eddas — particularly in the Hávamál. I have deeply pondered over the nature and implications of Wyrd and Orlog. Therefore, I am a Heathen.
When I say that I am a “godless Heathen,” it implies quite a bit more than people often realize, at first. I am not simply satirizing an insult levied by Christian detractors in order to disassociate myself from religion, as is often the case with other atheists who utilize a similar phrase. I am actually making positive claims about my beliefs and my religion. When I say that I am godless, it is a shorthand method for stating that I am a Naturalist, a Rationalist, and an Evidentialist. When I say that I am a Heathen, I am announcing my allegiance with the reconstructed philosophies, beliefs, and morality of ancient Germanic peoples.
I am a godless Heathen.
About the Author
The author of Boxing Pythagoras is a professional computer scientist and martial arts instructor, as well as an amateur mathematician, historian, and philosopher. He is happily married to a beautiful and intelligent chemical engineer, and together they live in New Jersey with their three cats. Boxing Pythagoras was started as a sort of sounding board for his ideas on a wide range of topics, from Algebra to Zoroastrianism. He has some recurring themes, including the Lessons from Odin series and frequent answers to the claims of William Lane Craig (and other apologists), but he has no qualms about completely shifting gears to discuss any topic which he might find interesting.