Pagan and Agnostic: The Tale of the Doubting Witch
Author: Jeffery Johnson
I’ve lived just over three decades on this planet, which I realize isn’t long. However, I’ve lived long enough to know that time changes people. It can change our personalities, our way of looking at the world, our beliefs on any number of things. As an awkward teenage boy I felt so certain of a divine being’s existence, namely the God of Abraham. Or did I? I remember having doubts at times. I was always quick to sweep them under the rug. I figured life couldn’t possibly have meaning without a higher power, and why bother living then?
When I made the break with Christianity in 2009, then in my late twenties, the old gods and goddesses romanced me. I fell in love with the Great Mother, personified by the shining moon and the earth. For me, she stood for beauty, sexuality, knowledge, empowerment, love and acceptance. She symbolized personal freedom and justice. As a gay man who’d spent the better part of his life repressed by the church’s threats of damnation, it doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out why I’d be drawn to the Goddess.
And this begs the question—does the Goddess really exist? Are Ishtar, Isis, and Inanna really waiting to hear their devotees’ prayers and praises, eager to aid them and receive their offerings? Do Kernunnos and Pan dwell in the forests among the wild stags and is Green Man incarnate in shrubs and vines? Are they real, or are they symbols? I’ve been struggling with that question for some time.
Some people believe in one or more deities and would stake everything they hold dear on that conviction. Others, to the contrary, consider belief in Allah, Minerva, or any divine being or force to be the product of ignorant, childish, delusional minds and wishful thinking. I wish I could have such certainty one way or the other. However, as it turns out, faith or lack thereof isn’t always so cut and dry. I may feel to the depths of my being on any given day that the Goddess lives, and on another day I’ll feel quite agnostic, or even atheistic. At this point in my life, I’m very much a skeptic with regards to the divine.
Visions and near-death experiences, although I read of them with fascination, feel awfully subjective upon inspection. For example, in author Betty J. Eadie’s NDE (described in her book Embraced by the Light) , Christ plays a prominent role. In the NDE’s of others he is absent, along with any other godlike entity. For many, their experience of the other side is joyful; for some it’s frightening. Mystics, saints and ordinary people alike have claimed to visit realms both heavenly and hellish (hence popular Christian books such as 23 Minutes in Hell) . Certainly, these contradicting “visions” aren’t all accurate or valid, and surely some are outright hoaxes. Yet I’m in no position to judge the sincerity of those who really believe they’ve had such encounters. Are such visions and visitations the result of overactive imaginations or hallucinations? In the case of NDE’s, is a real spiritual experience taking place or is the phenomenon the brain’s response to physical trauma? I remain skeptical.
I want to believe I’ll survive the event of my bodily expiration. I want to know with certainty that I’ll see my loved ones again. Yet I doubt. I love to read ghost stories and have a sizeable collection of them. Time after time, I’ve seen fairly credible-looking people assert the reality of their run-ins with spirits of the dead. Plus, I have sane friends who have told me they’ve experienced ghosts and other eerie events that can’t be explained away. Additionally, I’ve read or heard of some fairly convincing accounts of reincarnation. As one example, the movie Yesterday’s Children, in which Jane Seymour’s character dreams of a former life in Ireland, is perhaps based on actual events. She eventually travels to Ireland to have every detail of her past memories confirmed. I want to believe, but my stubborn brain is always getting in the way of my heart. Logos versus pathos.
I admire nonbelievers—people like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, whose novel Elmer Gantry depicts the evils of a power-hungry charlatan preacher. People like Madalyn Murray O’ Hair, once dubbed “the most hated woman in America, ” who challenged school prayer and made a career out of mocking religion at a time when doing so was extremely unpopular. I equally respect the “new atheist” crowd, especially the late Christopher Hitchens, who could reduce clergy and creationists to babbling puddles with his brilliant “hitchslaps.” Whether one loathes or loves antitheists, one can’t help but marvel at their fearlessness in bucking the status quo of mainstream piety, exposing the hypocrisy of many of God’s so-called followers. More often than not, I find their observations about religion to be right on.
Still, Neopaganism gives me a framework with which to celebrate life. Observing the cycle of seasonal sabbats and phases of the moon makes me feel more grounded in my connection to the web of life, of which I am a tiny part. I love the drama and beauty of ritual. I’m proud to be part of a faith, or rather a way of life, which claims among its ranks bold pioneers such as Laurie Cabot and Margot Adler. Pagans, Witches and Heathens, like atheists, humanists and freethinkers, are widely misunderstood and discriminated against, and both groups have fought and continue to fight hard battles to have their voices heard in a Christian-dominated society.
I know I’m not the only Pagan who doubts the existence of gods and life after death. Are we of the agnostic persuasion being disingenuous in continuing to call ourselves Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, etc.? Undoubtedly my atheist friends would tell me it’s time to throw away my tarot decks and Raymond Buckland books and without excuse embrace nonbelief in its entirety. “Quit pretending, ” they’d say. Surely the Flying Spaghetti Monster waits with noodly appendages wide open to embrace me as one of the Pastafarian fold.
The thing is, I’m not pretending. I’ve not sugarcoated my doubts, nor have I hidden the fact that I believe organized religion more often than not is a negative force on this planet. When I die, I may very well cease to exist, only to live on in people’s memories and through the good deeds I did while living. Or perhaps I’ll discover that really does go on in another form.
Either way, I want to keep my mind and heart open. Is imagination always a bad thing? If I take a walk in the forest and feel the Green Man’s presence, am I psychotic? According to some, probably so. But I’ll never go door to door asking folks if they’ve accepted Green Man into their hearts. No holy war has ever been fought, to my knowledge, in the Green Man’s name. Mine would be a harmless delusion, to be sure. So, at the risk of being considered insane by the atheists I so admire, I refuse to divest my existence of possibility. Maybe Green Man is real. Maybe he exists only in the minds of those who honor him. Does it matter? I’m not sure it does.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is cool, to be sure, but I need to cut back on carbs. For now, my heart remains with the Old Ones, who continue to inspire me—real or not. As I stated earlier, time changes people. Maybe one day my faith will be reborn. So mote it be! RAmen!