Sunday, August 06, 2006

Why I Am A Pagan


Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian" is probably one, if not the, most popular pieces of anti-Christian literature. There have been innumerable Christian responses to the article. However, none have noticed why Russell rejects the existence of God(s) because he believes Christianity to be immoral. Certainly Christianity is not the only religion on Earth! Just because you reject one religion doesn't mean there aren't plenty of others - with and without Divine elements.

This article will attempt to stay with the same points and their rejections from a Neo-Pagan perspective. There have been many Christian Apologist rebuttals to this essay but, to my knowledge, this is the first one which attempts to show, although Russell's argument argue against Christianity, Pagan polytheism can avoid these problems.

NOTE: This article is probably best read side-by-side with Bertrand Russell's article. I am using the same section headings even if they don't exactly make sense, just so that you can follow along. Maybe I will decide to interpolate the original piece but maybe I will not - who knows? Anyway, now for something completely different...

What Is a Christian?

The meaning of Christianity, Russell noted, has become much more vague in its meaning since the early days of its conception. Russell explains that a Christian must believe in God, immortality and hold some belief about Christ.

Paganism, on the other hand, has an extremely vague definition. Isaac Bonewits, a famous Neo-Pagan Druid and figure-head of the Neo-Pagan movement, says that ""Paganism" is a general term for polytheistic religions old and new..." He defines "Neo-Paganism" as "...those religions created since 1960 or so\ldots, that have attempted to blend what their founders perceived as the best aspects of different types of Paleopaganism [ie. ancient religions]... with modern "Aquarian Age," pluralist and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate as much as possible of the traditional Western monotheism, dualism, and puritanism."

In this article, "Neo-Pagan" shall be used to mean those modern religions which have tried to adopt or recreate rituals and beliefs of ancient polytheistic religions. The "big two" Neo-Pagan movements are the Druids and the Wiccans, with minority communities of Norse (Astaru), Hellenic (Greco-Roman), Egyptian, and various other types of Paganism (I even know of one Canaanite-Phoenician group).

I am writing this from a Hellenic Neo-Pagan perspective. You will probably need to keep that in mind as you read this - an Astaru, for example, might have somewhat a different outlook on life. I have tried to keep this as close as possible to something of a generic Neo-Pagan view, but that is certainly a chimera...

The Existence of God

Russell deals with the "question of the existence of God" - which God? why the Christian God of course (hence the title "Why I am not a Christian"). Being that I am a Pagan and thus believe in my own Deities and not the Christian one (just as they don't believe in mine), the refutation of the Christian God hardly conclusively denies the existence on any other Ones.

I will attempt to show how each of Russell's argument falls apart simply because of the fact that he is attempting to disprove the existence of the Christian God and thus ignores the possibility of the existence of other Gods. Were Mr. Russell a Theist he would certainly be monotheistic because he does not even take into consideration that his arguments would only hold true in monotheistic systems and fall down completely in a polytheistic one.

The First-cause Argument

Bertrand Russell states the "First-cause Argument" as this:

It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.

Russell says that "If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so there cannot be any validity in that argument." Here Russell makes his mistake - who says God is supernatural? Why is God the Creator of Nature rather than the other way around? There is really no reason except the argument that if God has always existed then why hasn't the Universe always existed?

If we take the Christian concept of God - one who is immortal and never-changing and singular - then we have an immediate problem. If the only way to conceive of time is through relationships between one thing and another, and if there was only one God who was the only thing in existence at one point in time then there would simply be no time. Therefore, when God created the Universe (and thus Time) then God would seem to have existed before Time and thus there would be no way of telling which came first - the God or the Universe. Therefore, it is just as likely that the Universe created God as that God created the Universe.

The Universe is not intelligent - it is purely a thing (Footnote: Of course, humanity trying to understand the Universe as a living being (the One) is like unto an amoeba trying to understand quantum physics (hey, maybe they do :-) or more like a single cell of your body trying to understand the entire body - because it is itself a part of the whole. I say that the Universe is not intelligent because I do not recognize it as intelligent just as the same way I cannot know if a rock is alive but just a form of life different from what I have come to know as "life". Therefore, I say that the Universe is not intelligent because I cannot conceive it to be so because of the limits of being a single part of the whole.) It does not have emotions, nor does it have any sense of morality, for it exists alone and by itself - there is none like it. It would be impossible to conceive of something that is both alone and intelligent. Therefore the Pagan concept that the Universe alone is an indiscriminate, emotion-less Creator and Destroyer of all things - including Gods. The Christian concept of God as both conscious and sole Creator of all things is utterly inconceivable. Also, the Atheist belief that there are no Gods is without merit because they don't take into consideration that humans may not be the greatest of Nature's creations.

Therefore, the argument that there must be a First-Cause is true. However, that First-Cause is not a conscious Being.

The Natural-law Argument

Natural laws are hardly an argument for or against Gods. This is partly because our interpretation of Natural laws are under constant change. Russell notes that the theory of gravity has been expanded upon much more by Einstein than the simplistic view held by Newton. Something that would hold up under the Newtonian system may not hold up under the Einsteinian system. And even today we are finding little instances where Einstein was incorrect. Because of the infinite nature of things, it is impossible to fully understand them.

Also, Russell uses the dice analogy - dice are subject to chance and there is just as much chance of the dice coming up box cars as snake eyes. However, this is no argument. For those who are total Fatalists, then the dice were fated to come up, say, 3 then 7 then 12, there is no chance in that. Unfortunately, there is no way of telling if this is happening. The simple fact that there is only one Universe and one little speck of which we can observe leads to the conclusion that it is not necessary for chances to be the same everywhere.

In fact, some new theorists believe that there are millions of universes with different laws in each one. This does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there are no meta-laws regulating the creation of laws. In fact, this does fit the Pagan view of a First God, or All who is the Creator of all things but does it without purpose, for It is not conscious.

Natural law is not an argument for or against the existence of Gods. For we all, even the Gods, live in the same Universe with the same laws. Only They are higher than us, just as we are higher than the beasts.

The Argument from Design

This is an argument that you do hear Christians (especially) use for the existence of their God. However, for one, it does not argue for the existence of Jehovah any more than it does for the existence of Gaia. In fact, that Nature and Life is under constant change argues more for the existence of a living Nature than that of a static Creator God.

I like the example that Russell uses: rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. Obviously, rabbits had white tails before man learned to shoot them and they have them for their own purposes.

However, Russell's use of Darwinian evolutionary theory does not work. He says that because living creatures adapt to their changing environment, this argues for the non-existence of a grand design. Think about it this way: what if evolution did not happen? Then when the environment changed there would be no way for the animals to survive and they would die. Doesn't this argue for the fact that there is a living Nature who cannot die out.

Russell says that "human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course...". However, one must ask two questions: "What is considered life?" and "Who cares about this planet?" The universe is decaying, but just as a tree dies, falls, decomposes, and provides food for the continuing existence of Life, so does our world die and become a basis for life somewhere else. Life cannot die, for Nature is alive.

The Moral Arguments for Deity

The moral arguments for a single, omniscient, omnipotent Deity are really the weakest arguments. Russell uses Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as the source for these arguments.

The right-and-wrong problem is really one which argues against monotheism. In the Pagan world-view no would argue that the Gods are morally perfect. The Gods' standards of morality are just as different from ours than ours are from beasts.

The monotheist has to contend with "the problem of evil", the polytheist does not. Therefore, the moral arguments for Christianity do not apply to the Pagan.

The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice

Like the moral arguments, the argument for the remedying of injustice is hardly an argument for monotheism. Also, Russell's argument is hardly and argument against justice.

The Christian's argument is that without Heaven or Hell there can be no justice. It would not be difficult to refute this argument. Even from the Christian perspective, the afterlife is not about justice. Those who are sent to Hell are not sent because they were wicked but rather because they did not apply for Divine Grace or because they believed the wrong thing. Those who are admitted by St. Peter, are not let into Heaven because of their goodness but rather because they filled out the application for Divine Grace and because they belonged to the right religion, denomination, sect, etc. Therefore, the argument for the remedying of injustice does not even hold up under the Christian world-view.

Russell's argument is also poor. He uses an analogy about a crate of oranges:

"Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, "The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance." You would say, "Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment...""

His argument does not hold up because we have not concluded that the world is innately injust. Russell says that often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper." However, not all good suffer and not all who suffer are good, likewise with the wicked. Also, we have not determined what is good and what is evil. Therefore, we cannot state conclusively that the world is injust.

Balance is a intimate part of life. People must bear the consequences of their actions. It is not the role of a Deity to provide these consequences, they are a result from the actions themselves. This is one of the most important teachings in Buddhism - the idea of kamma (or karma). Buddhists believe that when you die, you are reborn in Heaven, Hell, as an animal, or as a human. The goal of Buddhism is to get out of this cycle and into Nirvana.

Some Neo-Pagans have adopted some of this teaching of kamma. The Three-fold Law states that "All good that a person does to another returns three-fold in this life; harm is also returned three-fold.". Some Neo-Pagans also extend this to some form of reincarnation.

Whether through multiple lives in different realms, or as humans, or just in this life, whatever you do comes back to you.

The Character of Christ

Russell asks the question "whether Christ was the best and wisest of men." Like Russell, I do not take it for granted that he was. There is a very interesting book that I found on the Internet that looks at the character of Christ, as presented in the Gospels, in comparison to that of Buddha.

There are those who do look upon Jesus as being "the best and the wisest of men." One of these was Thomas Jefferson. He even compiled a book which included the Gospels in several languages with the supernatural elements deleted so as to present the teaching of Jesus as it might have happened.

I do find that the teachings of Buddha are better because they promote a healthier world-view (against all violence, meditation, respect for life, etc). Because these teachings lack a supernatural element (e.g. no miracles, no specific teachings about Gods) they are transferable to many other religions. In Japan, for example, most adults would consider themselves to be Shinto-Buddhists (following both Shinto and Buddhism) but it is pretty much a cultural thing.

Balance is an important part of our existence. We cannot deny that there is injustice in the world, but there is also justice. It is justice which, in the long run, rules everything through simple natural laws.

Defects in Christ's Teaching

One passage in this section is quite famous:

Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him...

Some people have tried to separate the "Historical Jesus" from the "Religious Christ". If one does not have any major problem with Christianity and any war to wage against it, then there is really no need to do this.

No one will try to attack the existence of Siddhartha (Buddha) because Dhamma (Teachings) still exists whether he did or not. Each one of the suttas (Discourses) opens with the statement "Thus I have heard." Buddha did not actually have to say the exact words for them to be the truth, and not everything he said is accepted by all Buddhists as truth. For example, when Mara ("the Evil One") is mentioned, he is usually conceived of as a personification of evil, not an actual being.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are conceived of by Fundamentalist Christians as being the one and only Word of God. So when the Bible says Jesus was tempted by Satan, it wasn't like when Buddha was tempted by Mara, it really happened in a physical sense.

Jesus taught some good truths but they are mixed with some things that aren't so good. I believe the Buddha's teachings to be superior.

The Moral Problem

Russell says that Christ's "one very serious defect [in his] moral character [is] that He believed in hell." He says that Christ had a "vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching..."

As a Pagan, I do not believe in Hell as a permanent place of punishment. As I stated before, I do believe that you will reap the consequences of your actions. As to the afterlife, I am essentially agnostic - it is impossible to know what will happen after we die because nobody comes back (as far as we know) to tell us about it. Some Neo-Pagans believe in a religiously-neutral "Summerland" (or "Other Side", or whatever), and others have their own beliefs depending on what their specific religion is.

Personally, I think that Hades is probably the most likely. Even the ancient Jews believed in a Hades-like "Sheol". The belief in Hell and Satan didn't come until the Persian Zoroastrianism influenced them during their contact with the Babylonian empire.

Belief in Hell isn't that bad because most people don't believe in it and so it is unlikely that it exists. However, when people say "You're going to Hell! You Pagan Devil-worshiper!" it's very religiously intolerant and wrong. Personally, I believe in Hades, but it is impossible to know what the afterlife (if it exists) holds in store for us.

The Emotional Factor

The emotional factor is the argument that "we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion." Morality and wickedness should not be tied to religion. It seems that those who are the most fanatical about the Christian religion are also the most wicked. I would give as examples Adolf Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, the Falangists (Fascists), the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc, etc, etc.

Although I think Christianity is a good religion if you don't take everything too literally and don't try to graft your own beliefs (such as racism) onto it.

I would like to make an interesting comparison here between Karl Marx and the authors of the Bible. Marx helped to put the ideas of Socialist revolution into people's minds, the Bible helped to put the ideas of spiritual and religious revolution into people's minds. Marx changed his ideas several times throughout his life, the Biblical authors had different beliefs throughout their collective life. Everyone from Stalinists and Maoists to Libertarian Marxists call themselves Marxists and everyone from Adolf Hitler to the little old lady down the street call themselves Christians. So it doesn't seem to matter what you call yourself, but rather what you do with your beliefs that matters.

Emma Goldman, in "What I Believe" said:

"Organized churchism has stripped religion of its naivete and primitiveness. It has turned religion into a nightmare that oppresses the human soul and holds the mind in bondage. "The Dominion of Darkness", as the last true Christian, Leo Tolstoi, calls the Church, has been a foe of human development and free thought, and as such it has no place in the life of a truly free people."

There is truly something beautiful in recognizing that there is something which you cannot hope to understand. That is true religion. Religion is not your set of organized beliefs. It is the beliefs which you hold more close inside of you than anything else.

It is true that "we all have blood on our religious symbols." However, that does not mean that there isn't a place for personal religion in a free society.

How the Churches Have Retarded Progress

One must first decide how to qualify "progress". Religion is one of the most primal things that we have. All over the world there is not a major (or minor) culture which has not developed without some semblance of a religion. Religion is necessarily primal, and that isn't necessarily bad.

Think about it this way: what if we are just a mass of cells, we have no free will, there are no Gods, when we die we just lose consciousness and dissolve? What if that were true? We would lose that whole sense of hope. Even Atheists have hope. Atheists are often "scientolators" - they view Science as almost a God. Isaac Bonewits wrote an interesting piece called "The Impact of Scientism on Competing Faiths." Here is an excerpt:

"One of the most popular choices is Scientism (also known as "Scientolatry" and "Secular Humanism"), which is the worship of the previous generation's scientific worldview, and the acceptance of any statement made by an elderly man wearing a white labcoat. People who are devout followers of Scientism share a number of quaint dogmas, the most important of which is the one that they don't have any. These people will always declare themselves to be open-minded and willing to be convinced of the error of their ways - and then set up the logical rules of their game to exclude all non-Scientistic reasoning or evidence as fallacious."

What makes someone think that Science is more reliable than a God? Are they not both based on faith? There are some very basic "laws" of science which, if it wasn't for faith in these laws, no science would be "valid." Secularism is just as much a religion as anything else.

What makes someone think that nothing is more evolved than something? Does not something evolve from nothing rather than the other way around? Atheism is more primitive than Theism.

Fear, the Foundation of Religion

Russell says that "Religion is based... primarily and mainly upon fear." One must ask, of course, what fear? Well, Russell says that it is "the terror of the unknown". So then what does science try to do? "Science can help us get over this craven fear". Ahh, so there is the fundamental dualism which is inherent in Scientism. Russell decides to expand on this: "...[science] has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts." Scientism is Christianity in which scientists replace priests, Secularism replaces God, Religion replaces Satan, and, in which, Science replaces Christ.

If you look at it this way, there is really no difference between those who call themselves Atheists and those who call themselves Christians.

Russell says "Science can teach us... no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky...". However, I don't believe Russell has convinced me that there are no "supports" and no "allies in the sky". So, therefore, Russell's conclusion is really no conclusion at all, as it is easily refutable with polytheism.

What We Must Do

In his conclusion, Russell decides that we must abolish religion because "It is a conception quite unworthy of free men." Why is it unworthy? Are we not slaves to the world around us? Can we not conceive that those forces which science can tell us so much about are controlled by Gods rather than by mindless force of nature.

Russell says that "We ought to make the best we can of the world". Well, why? If there is no afterlife, if there are no Gods to judge us, if there is no purpose for our life, then why try?

We need religion because it creates a hope in us. I believe that we are descended from the Gods, as as such we have an inborn desire to understand Them. We should not replace this desire for Divine Truth with Scientific Truth, they are very much separate and should stay that way.

Religion should have no qualms about science and science should have no qualms about religion. We are very distinct. My belief in the Gods is as real to me as my belief in gravity.

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
-- Albert Einstein

Tyler Roberson


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