Book review: Godless Paganism

Godless Paganism. Image from Lulu.

Godless Paganism. Image from Lulu.

Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. Halstead, John (ed.). Lulu, 2015

I have been meaning to review this book for a while now. It’s taken me longer than I expected to read, not only because it clocks in at over 400 pages, but because the depth of thought, knowledge and experience presented in its many contributions required me to spend a lot of time thinking, making notes and digesting the ideas contained within.

I confess to being biased in favour of this book from the start, not least because I have a short article in it, but because I identify as being a “non-theistic pagan” myself, and I have often been made aware of how much of a minority opinion that is, both within wider society and within paganism as a whole, where some of the loudest voices are often those calling for a form of pagan creed or polytheistic orthodoxy.

Godless Paganism articulates an alternative approach, one where deity is not necessarily dismissed as by the so-called “new atheists”, but is reinterpreted in a non-literal, non-anthropomorphic, often archetypal way. Amongst the many contributors are Wiccans, Druids, “Godlauss” Heathens, Humanistic Pagans, Naturalistic Pantheists and even one “Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian”, so the views expressed are wide-ranging and show that non-theistic pagans are not a monolith, and that non-theistic approaches exist in virtually every pagan path.

The articles range from personal reflections to poetry, ritual outlines, autobiography, history, theology and philosophy, yet they never feel disjointed or disconnected from each other. Indeed it is striking how much the contributors have in common, and how much their non-theistic paganisms have in common with paganism as a whole.

There is so much packed into this volume, it is impossible to go into great detail in a short review, but some of the articles that really stood out for me include John Halstead’s “I Worship the Blind Goddess”, “Natural Theology: Polytheism Beyond the Pale” by Alison Leigh Lily, and “The Forgotten Gods of Nature” by Lupa.

Godless Paganism is a bold statement of “coming out” for non-theistic pagans. In his introduction, John Halstead writes of an email he received from a person who was told that they cannot be a pagan and an atheist. I’ve seen similar claims (often in more explicit language) repeated online daily, and have seriously questioned my own paganism as a result. What this book shows is that, yes, you can be a pagan and an atheist, or an agnostic, or a naturalist, or a humanist, and what is more, this doesn’t make you any less of a pagan than the most devout theist. As Joyce and River Higginbotham, authors of Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions write, “Pagans may believe anything they wish about Deity”.

I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is pagan, atheist, both or neither and would like to hear from a wide and diverse range of people who find meaning in the mythology, ritual, ethics, symbolism and spirit of paganism without believing in literal gods.



11 thoughts on “Book review: Godless Paganism

  1. Looks interesting, but why spend so much time fixating on dis/belief of beings that may or may not exist / defining yourself in accordance to your deity views? Too little time we have on this earth!

    • Well, I can’t speak for any of the other contributors but I personally enjoy thinking about theology and philosophy and looking at different interpretations of the Divine/Sacred/Whatever. In contemporary paganism, there is a small but vocal minority who say you can’t be a non-theist and a pagan, so books like this are important to counter that viewpoint and show that we exist. For me, paganism is all about enjoying the time we have on this Earth!

      • I understand. I just wish all this fixation on religion was completely unnecessary across the board, you know? Why do humans need a higher power? World would be a lot better if we all spent more time concentrating on not being dousche canoes to eachother, and less on things that may or may not exist.

        Okay, that came out as rant and I totally didn’t mean it like that. Please don’t think I’m ragging on you! Just talking.

      • I totally agree! I guess for me it depends on what that “higher power” is: whether it’s nature itself or a fundamentalist God.

        I’m pretty agnostic generally so I’m a fan of not worrying too much about things that may or may not exist, but for me paganism is more about connecting to nature, living well, experiencing the Sacred (however you conceive of it) than about “belief”. And yep, not being a douche canoe comes into that too!

        And no worries, you don’t sound ranty at all!

    • Why is it so common to refer to gods as being that may not exist? Most pagan deities are readily tangible, as noted through their names or epithets– thunder, sun, sea, earth, river, mountain, etc. Even honored beings not deified are often notes as various trees, plants, animals, etc. These all exist. Are pagans and polytheists assuming ‘god’ always means an anthropomorphic, non-corporeal entity? We don’t really need to internalize monotheistic concepts of deity, do we? Surely not when we have our own. I also do not understand the question, why do humans need a higher power. Why would anyone think we are the most powerful beings in the face of earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, hurricanes, or the sun that rises every day? We are surrounded by higher powers, whether we need or like it, or not. What does need have to do with it?

  2. I am a polytheist but was quite happily non-theist / atheist for AGES, like decades, so I totally think you can be an atheist and a Pagan, and am deeply dismayed when people claim otherwise. I do not want Paganisms to be creedal.

    • Likewise. One of the things that attracted me to paganism and Druidry in the beginning was its openness to people with different beliefs. It would be sad to see that change.

  3. “Godless Paganism articulates an alternative approach, one where deity is not necessarily dismissed as by the so-called “new atheists”, but is reinterpreted in a non-literal, non-anthropomorphic, often archetypal way.”

    I’m curious as to how this approach is defined as non-dismissive, especially when some atheist pagans have been openly dismissive of some theistic pagans’ devotion and piousness. I am also curious about your use of the term, reinterpreting. Are you inferring that all previous or other conceptions of, or engagement with the gods were inherently literal and anthropomorphic? Does literal here mean, non-corporeal, humanoid entity, as is the typical monotheistic concept of their god? If so, how does this speak to the many deities known variously via their names or epithets as thunder, river, sun, sea, earth, moon, etc? Are these too being reinterpreted here? Also wondering if the original Greek sense of ‘archetype’ is being applied here, wherein the gods themselves are the archetypes, the original beings of original qualities and abilities to which their people might aspire, and whom they might emulate, as the specific beings the gods are, when in similar roles themselves?

    To clarify my own positionality, I am a Celtic polytheist and animist who sees very little distinction between traditional polytheism and animism, and feel that the Powers can be conceived of and engaged with in a variety of ways, none of which diminishes them, and all of which can contribute to endlessly enriching conversations about them between us when we open ourselves to ideas and experiences different from our own. Thanks for your consideration.

    • Hi, and thanks for dropping by!

      Your comment is very thoughtful, and I’d like to respond to some of your points.

      Although there are some non-theist pagans who are dismissive towards theists, there is nothing *necessarily* in non-theistic paganism that involves such an attitude, and many non-theistic pagans are not dismissive, and welcome open conversations with people of all beliefs. I have also seen *some* theistic pagans be very dismissive of non-theists and their philosophical approach (words I’ve seen used in online comments include “humanistic horse-s**t”, “poison” and “atheist filth”).

      In Godless Paganism, there are many different approaches to non-theistic paganism articulated, the vast majority of which are respectful of theistic beliefs, even when they disagree with them.

      I can’t speak for “all previous…conceptions of the gods” being inherently literalist: in fact there is a chapter in GP that discusses non-literal pagans of antiquity. However, a glance around the polytheist blogosphere today shows that there are some theistic pagans whose interpretation of the gods is exactly that of the “non-corporeal humanoid entity” you mention. So non-theistic paganism is certainly a “reinterpretaion” of that particular form of *hard* polytheism.

      With regard to the deities identification with nature, as in Thunder, River, Earth etc. I do address that in my own contribution to GP, where I speak about Thor (as an example) being not “a god of thunder” but a name for the thunder itself, in all its natural power. I would agree with this view of the gods, but not that of supernatural human-like beings. In fact, I have a post scheduled for tomorrow that touches on this idea.

      In my use of “archetype”, I was thinking more of a Jungian meaning to the word, as this is a commonly recurring feature in the GP book, especially in the contributions by John Halstead. However, I think the Greek concept of the gods (as personified forces of nature, and representations of human virtues) being the original inspiration that humans can aspire to also works here too. I certainly see the gods as embodying certain virtues that I aspire to in my life, and which I can connect with through ritual.

      Animism is a very interesting philosophical position, and I can see how it can connect both to polytheistic engagement with the powers of nature, but also with pantheistic or non-theistic approaches as well. The joy of paganism is that there is no set of beliefs which we all have to share, but we can, as you point out, enrich each others’ experiences through learning and conversation.

      Thanks for giving me a lot to think about, and I hope you enjoy the book!

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