Note: This essay was originally published in multiple posts at Atheopaganism and is copyrighted. It has been published here with the explicit permission of the author.
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For atheists new to the “pagan” part of Atheopaganism, the frequent question to crop up is: what’s up with these rituals? Why do you do those?
And to speak to the rational parts of their minds which are commonly what they most rely on, I answer that ritual enables us to enter the Ritual State (limbic/”trance” brain state, also known to artists as “flow”). It’s pleasurable. It adds depth and meaning to life.
But there is more than that. In marking the passage of the seasons, in conducting rituals to recognize, transform and heal our personal woundedness, we gain new hope and motivation towards our goals, and express deep intentions for the future. We connect with one another, building community.
We conduct rituals to mark special events in a person’s life, such as naming ceremonies, passage into becoming an adult, marriage, or death. These rituals are powerful reminders that our lives define an arc, with recognizable waystations, beginnings and ends. Indeed, we need more such rituals than we are generally offered: rites of passage into adulthood, for example, are sorely lacking in our mainstream culture.
But the core reason to do ritual is that it feels meaningful. Ritual practices help to sacralize the experience of living. And living in a re-sacralized world is a path to bringing respect into relationships which we have probably previously taken for granted, such as our relationship to Earth-given and labor-produced food, or the relationship between the plant kingdom and every breath we take.
And according to science, for the purposes listed above, rituals work.
We do ritual because humans are ritualizing organisms. We have been ritualizing the important moments and meanings of our lives since before we were fully human. Denying this, pretending that we have somehow transcended the manifold natures of our evolved brains to focus only on the “thinky” parts, is to deny the factual nature of the human experience.
And it is through ritual, even today, that we create memorable moments of power and meaning. That we connect with our deepest selves, and each other.
But don’t take my word for it. Give it a try. Give it several, because it may seem awkward at first.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Check out the Atheopagan Ritual Primer, and the posts here tagged Ritual Technologies and Techniques. And let me know how it goes–I may have suggestions or kudos or ideas for you!
A Note of Encouragement
I want you to know that I know: ritual feels a bit silly to start with.
When you first start doing Atheopagan rituals as an atheist who has never had a religious practice, it feels contrived and hokey and uncomfortable. It can also feel good, but the discomfort often undermines the sense of rightness or meaning rituals can bring.
I know, because I went through it. It’s been nearly 30 years now, but I remember only too well how uncomfortable I was when first confronted with standing in a circle holding hands, talking in flowery language to invisible Presences, drumming and dancing…all of it, the whole megillah.
The challenge for atheists who move in the direction of ritual observances is that the atheist/skeptic community lauds the analytical part of the brain, and many atheists are accustomed to living there as much as they can. And that is the exact part of the brain you want largely to turn off during ritual.
Now, Atheopaganism makes it somewhat easier for you. As far as we’re concerned, there aren’t any invisible Presences, and personally, I avoid unnecessarily flowery language: inspirational poetry is one thing; lobbing lofty thees and thous all over the place is just…awkward.
Where I’m going with this, fellow atheists, is to encourage you to keep going. Being able to relax and surrender into the Ritual State is a learned skill; it gets easier. And the rewards are tremendous.
Ritual practice can open a whole new dimension to life that is filled with meaning, kindness, joy, love and emotional healing. It can make us wiser and better people.
So take a deep breath, and begin. Do solitary rituals so you don’t have to feel self-conscious. Work with your family, or a friend.
And try to keep a straight face. It won’t be too long before the thought of rolling your eyes never even occurs to you.
Just Do It!
I hate that this empowering phrase has been co-opted by a sweatshop-operating shoe company, but I’m not going to let them have it, either.
Paganism–including Atheopaganism–is something you do. It isn’t just about having a particular worldview, although worldviews are, of course, important.
No, Paganism asks that we act: build an altar (Focus), meditate, reflect on Big Questions, conduct rituals, celebrate the passing of the seasons in an intentional manner. It demands that we focus on what we find Sacred, and behave mindfully in a manner that speaks to that love, even if it is in simple ways. (Not every “Pagan ritual” is grand opera with ritual tools and chanting and incense and solemnly intoned Words). It is by adding this dimension of symbolic recognition and observance that we add a layer to our lives which can instill them with deeper joy, wisdom, and sense of belonging and purpose.
I think that getting started with practice can be hardest for atheists who are just starting to dabble in this Atheopaganism thing; Pagans who have come around to an atheistic perspective (or who are evolving their practices to better suit their beliefs) have, at least, somewhat of a prior basis to start from. For atheists arriving at an Atheopagan perspective, the whole formal-observances thing can be unfamiliar and alien. But pretty much everybody runs dry now and then, and needs a jumpstart: a return to ongoing practice. The below is for all of us: the Pagan now embracing Atheopaganism; the atheist just discovering ritual observances as a life-enhancing practice; and the experienced Atheopagan who ran out of gas awhile back and needs to get back into it.
First, and most importantly, do something, however small. Light a candle and whisper an intention. Build a Focus (altar), or rearrange an existing one so it reflects your current state and aspirations. Go out under the moon and sing. Get your hands into some dirt and plant something. Take an afternoon off for a hike. Just something. Something that is about your connection with yourself, your life and your world. Keep it up until it feels good. You can visit the Atheopagan Ritual Primer for ideas.
Trust the process. You know that voice in your head that says, “this is stupid and embarrassing”? To hell with that voice. Tell that voice to fuck right off. Do the Magical Things anyway. After awhile, it won’t feel embarrassing any more.
Leverage your friends and loved ones to keep your practice going, by telling them what you’re going to do. Tell them you’re going to take a hike to the spring and make an offering to the waters of the mountain, or that you’re lighting candles every night this week to remind yourself of the Sacred Charge you gave yourself at the new year, or that you’re baking bread to celebrate the time of the grain harvest. Even if most of you doesn’t believe you’re actually going to do it, you will probably act to meet the expectations of those you told about it.
Leave reminders for yourself that you are living your practice: hang a symbol from your car mirror, put something on your desk at work, wear a pendant around your neck, or a ring, or a bracelet. Ritually imbue them with meaning, and keep them in view. Remember that your practice isn’t just doing some things sometimes: it’s your life. It’s a way of living so you can be more connected to nature (and perhaps, to community), more tuned-in and happier. Reminding yourself during the mundane day-to-day moments that you also have a magical, connected, meaningful spiritual practice is a way to better integrate your life, and to keep happiness flowing even in the parts of it that are dull or pedestrian or repetitive.
Lather, rinse, repeat. If there’s a particular kind of observance or ritual that really works for you, do that some more. Everyone is different; some will get a lot out of using the random symbol set of Tarot cards for insight into their lives, while others will appreciate meditating by candlelight and yet others will offer their hopes on paper to a sacred fire to carry them off into the Universe. There are many ways to work with our minds to align our deeper selves with our hopes and to celebrate our many blessings.
Share. Not all of us have friends who are of like mind, but if you do and they’re amenable, share your practices with your Pagan friends. It doesn’t matter if they don’t do it the way you do, or vice versa–there is confirmation and strength in bringing your personal observances out into the light of another’s viewing. Unless, of course, you feel secrecy adds to the power of what you’re trying to achieve…then, mum’s the word!
There is no failure. Most importantly, remember that every day is a new day. If you’ve let your practice go fallow for awhile, you can start it right back up again. There is no “standard” you have to meet. If all you do is celebrate a couple of Sabbaths a year and that fulfills your needs, that’s a perfectly legitimate practice. If you want more, add more. Personally, I like to do something every day, even if it’s very small like just lighting the candles on my Focus and speaking meaningful words to myself for a moment. I find that the more observances and mindful, Present moments I have in my life, the happier I am.
Go forth and celebrate!
About the Author
Mark Green is a writer, thinker, poet, musician and costuming geek who works in the public interest sector, primarily in environmental policy and ecological conservation. He lives in Sonoma County on California’s North Coast with his wife Nemea and Miri, the Cat of Foulness. For more information on Atheopaganism, visit Atheopaganism.wordpress.com, or the Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/godlessheathens.21.