Why I am a godless Heathen
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.
Well said. I do identify with humanism, though, and that raises an ugly conundrum: i generally loath humanity. Don’t get me wrong. I will champion any human, cheering them on if and when they raise for good action, but on the whole, our species is a terrible disappointment. We have, to date, failed to grab hold of a truly noble pursuit, exampled best by our absence from serious space exploration. That said, it is in space where we will achieve the greatness we’re certainly capable of.
JZ, if we can’t “grab hold of a truly noble pursuit” here on earth, what makes you think space holds any different result for mankind?
It’s quite simple, really: once we get into space in a serious and meaningful way we’ll experience a species-wide overview effect.
BP, I’m certainly not as versed in Norse Mythology (or Heathenry if you prefer) as you, but ironocally I was always more drawn to their stories more than the more popular Roman or Greek pantheons, and any of the other less common mythologies I have looked into such as Egyptian and etc.
I also like Marvel’s Thor movies hehe, although I realize they are a far cry from the actual mythologies.
“Meu Meu? What’s Meu Meu?”
If you’re interested, Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried maintains an excellent website dedicated to Norse mythology and culture, with a very nice digital library of texts. These texts are generally in the public domain, so the translations may be a bit dated, but it’s still a pretty excellent resource.
Great. I’ll check it out. Thanks!
“… I am announcing my allegiance with the reconstructed philosophies, beliefs, and morality of ancient Germanic peoples.”
Where can I find a good source on these subjects?
I did check out your link. There’s a lot there and I read some interesting stuff. Thanks.
Honestly, it can be very difficult to find good sources of information on Germanic neopaganism. Due to its reconstructionist nature, much of the information you’ll find on the Internet tends towards two extremes. On the one hand, you’ll encounter a great deal of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG), which basically amounts to individual interpretation and expression of the religion. On the other hand, you’ll run into the other extreme, which is the scholarly exploration which deals heavily in archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and historical text criticism.
The very best introduction to Germanic neopaganism that I have found is Patricia M. Lafayllve’s book, “A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru.” You can find it in paperback, Kindle, and Nook formats for a reasonable price. Here’s the Amazon link:
This is an excellent book in my opinion. I appreciate that Lafayllve presents what Heathens have in common more than what delineates the different flavors of the practice.
Sorry to be riding off Boxing Pythagoras’s post, but my blog is an attempt to try to help people find accurate and informative information about the reconstruction of the Heathen tradition without the religiosity….sorry shameless plug.
What in the world are you trying to teach and say?? I is for sure you have not the Spirit of God for all you say is negative. I am sure you believe you are helping people but you are saying things which have been around for ever. Nothing new. Only the spirit of God will give you new revelations.
Thank you for your reply, Charles, but I’m honestly not sure what you were expecting when you came to my blog. Perhaps you might look to my About page to get a better understanding of who I am and my purpose in writing Boxing Pythagoras.
Hi Boxing Pythagoras,
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see someone that values the philosophies of the Northern Heathen Tradition more than the “Hail Odin, Drink Mead, Smash Stuff” nincompoops that seem to plague the internet. Although I practice a bit differently, it is wonderful to see that the concepts that guided our ancestors can be placed in a secular viewpoint and serve an equal purpose.
Hi, I’d like to republish this at HumanisticPaganism.com next month with your permission.
Absolutely! I’d greatly appreciate it, in fact!
Caught this on Humanistic Paganism — just wanted to say that it is nice to find other heathens out there of like mind. Very nice article.
Thanks! I’m very glad you enjoyed it!
While I agree that most modern theists would not find fault with goals of “personal fulfillment” and “the greater good of humanity,” historically these ideas were controversial (and in some circles still are). The Christian paradigm was that a person should reject Earthly considerations (such as personal fulfillment, comfort, reduction of human suffering, etc.) and dedicate their life to God and securing their place in the afterlife.
In other words, I hear you saying the humanism seems like a non-statement to you, and I am suggesting that it seems that way because, basically, humanism won. I mean that humanism in general won, not secular humanism in specific… There is also such thing as religious humanism.
Humanism won in the sense that the idea of valuing humans and humanity (with or without also valuing a deity) is so familiar now (in some cultures such as mine and presumably yours) as to be completely unremarkable.
This book talks about this cultural shift and cites supporting evidence:
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“ reconstructed philosophies, beliefs, and morality of ancient Germanic peoples.”
I just stumbled on your blog, and like it. But it would have been nice to have this philosophies, beliefs, and morality laid out?
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Unfortunately, that topic was a bit too complex and large for the scope of this particular article. However, I do discuss my personal beliefs at length elsewhere on the blog and there is a great deal of information available on the Internet regarding Norse Heathenry in general.
Just like many other religions, the practice and expression of Norse Heathenry can take many forms, so it would be difficult to attempt to summarize it, here.
Hi! How are you?
My name is Patrícia, I’m from Brasil (I don’t like translate names… ).
I would like have fluence in English to write this message. I’m not fluent, but I’m trying to do it with little interference from Google. I hope it’s understandable 🙂
I arrived here through this text translated and posted in the site Heathenry & Liberdade.
I am seeking my way (at the same time that I build it), and I’ve read about paganism… I have enjoyed it a lot, it’s so beautiful and deeply, it have been a way in which I have been discovering myself little by little. But… I don’t believe in the concrete existence of the gods. So, read your text (about your atheist paganism) was very important to me.
This message is to say: thank you!