Veiled Issues – The “-ism Schism” – Comments on Atheism vs Faith

Veiled Issues - The "-ism Schism" - Comments on Atheism vs Faith

Veiled Issues

“Death to all fanatics!” — Ho Chih Zen

Donald Tyson’s rant in an earlier issue of Rending the Veil1, calling for a united Pagan/ Christian front against the spectre of encroaching atheism has led to several interesting comments — notably from Psyche2 (who points out the range of atheist positions is far wider than Tyson claims), and Grey Glamer3 (who makes a strong case that atheism and a magical perspective are not necessarily opposites).

I think all three writers are missing an important point.

If there is a tendency that needs to be strongly opposed by people of good conscience who seek common ground in these matters, that foe is fanaticism. Fundamentalist thought. The certainty that your view of the universe is not only the One Truth, but that all those who do not share it are deluded, stupid or actually evil.

This is not a viewpoint exclusive to one belief system. It is rather a habit which can appear in any faith — or lack of it4.

Many years ago, I had a long conversation with a friend and work colleague, who happened to be a committed Christian. Nice guy. We talked at length about our different experience of the Divine, our beliefs and how we acted on them. At the end of it all, he smiled, thanked me for the talk. . . and added sadly, “. . . it’s a shame that you’re going to Hell anyway.” For all that he was in my view a good person, he was a fanatic. A polite one, perhaps — but still fundamentalist, unable to move from his dogma.

Last year, I had an incredibly similar conversation with a friend on a comic book forum (you’d be surprised — or perhaps not — how often such matters turn up among fanboys). Only difference was, he’s an rationalist atheist. And instead of saying I would go to Hell for my viewpoint, he insisted I was basically either delusional or foolish. Which I suppose is slightly better. . .

Needless to say, these two examples are not representative of their belief systems. The majority of folk I know of both Christian and atheist tendency are perfectly capable of discussing matters without retreating to claims of absolute certainty — indeed, many of them have adjusted their views as a result of such discussions (as have I).

But some people simply can’t make that adjustment. Whether due to personal experience, the culture they were raised in or some other factor, they are utterly certain that they have the Truth.

I can understand how this happens. In religious folk, their faith is a bedrock of their entire personality and often their culture. Doubting this is risky, scary — and mentally difficult to even find the words for5. In those of the rationalist tendency, there is the added fear of a return to the horrors of the theocratic world which (in their mythology) was banished by the Light of Reason, and that their worldview has a lot of material support. (Of course scientific work is far from the immaculate quest for knowledge they think it is. . . and often those who work in the field have their own beliefs which are far from rational, and which strongly affect their theories.)

Certainty is an important thing for everyone. I think on some level, we all see our points of view as “true” and those which differ as wrong in some way. There’s also a strong tendency in people to conform to a given status quo, the consensus reality of our culture. Some folk, though, go that little bit further. . . even the possibility of someone having differing views to theirs is seen as a threat, terrifies them. And fear so easily turns to hate.

My own view — and of course I could be completely wrong about this! — is that people who can allow a little slack in their beliefs, some flexibility in their world-view, are not only better adapted to the complex, changing times we live in, but are actually better company. I can honestly say that if I met a person who shared my belief system in every single way — except that they were certain it was The Truth rather than a working model to be adjusted as time and experience dictate — I would dread them.

Fanatical certainty, fundamentalist beliefs and the hatred of those who do not share them, are one of the worst parts of the human world. It is that habit which leads to persecution and atrocity. It seems far more important to me that people of all beliefs and systems ally against that than to pick fights among themselves.

It’s a dark world out there, full of things to fear. Each of us has a small candle, a light in the darkness. Surely it’s a better idea to share our light than argue over what colour the other persons candle is?

“Convictions cause convicts.” — Hagbard Celine


  1. Tyson, “Atheism — the Real Enemy,” in Rending The Veil.
  2. Psyche, “Ignorance – the Real Enemy. A reply to Donald Tyson’s Essay,” ibid.
  3. Glamer, “Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?“, ibid.
  4. Vincent, “The Woo, the How and the Why,” in “Oddities and Mutterings.”
  5. Vincent, “Guttershaman — Meanings and Patterns, part 1,” ibid.

(As ever, I am indebted to the work of Robert Anton Wilson.)

©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Ian Vincent was born in 1964 in Gravesend, England to lower-working-class parents. Due to an early manifestation of psi ability, he began study of mythology, mysticism and the occult before he was ten years old. After school, Ian found himself on his first “ghost-busting,” aged nineteen. Ever since, he has found himself in many situations where his ability for dealing with aggressive paranormal activity (human and otherwise) was useful. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying and writing on the wider aspects of the Art. Ian lives in Bristol, England with artist Kirsty Hall and shamanic healer Jolane Abrams. He blogs on magical theory (under the title “Guttershaman”) and related Fortean matters at

Veiled Issues – Ignorance: The Real Enemy

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under atheism, mysticism, semi-regular, veiled issues

Veiled Issues - Ignorance: The Real Enemy

Veiled Issues

In an absurd tirade ludicrously titled “Atheism — The Real Enemy,” Donald Tyson misrepresents atheism and atheists in general, portraying us as fiendish creatures out to dispel the glamours of religion and spiritual belief from the credulous but duped masses.

Tyson appeals for Christian and Pagans to unite in their common belief in god(s) (of some kind or another) against the rising atheist threat. This simply isn’t necessary. If Christians and Pagans want to be friends, let them be friends for the right reasons, and not simply to become united in hatred against a common enemy, fabricated though it may be, as in Tyson’s vicious portrayal of The Atheist.

Defining Our Terms

We can begin by correcting the definition of atheism Tyson presents in his essay:

The new enemy is atheism. It is the belief — the unfaith — that there are no gods, no spirits, no angels or devils, no paranormal abilities, and no magic of any kind.

Leaving aside the aggressive tone (for now), let’s break down the word and see if we can come to some sort of reasonable understanding of what is meant. The word atheist comes from the Greek; the prefix a- meaning “without” and theos meaning “god.” While at its simplest, theism can be defined as the belief in the existence of at least one god; atheism can be described as the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. To assume that this excludes other “energies” or entities is misleading.

In response to similar misrepresentations, and as atheists become more vocal about their (non)beliefs, a growing movement have began calling themselves “brights.” This of course follows in the tradition of homosexuals coming out of the closet embracing the term “gay.” As non-gays are not (necessarily) glum, non-brights are not (necessarily) dim. Even so, Daniel C. Dennett (Dennett, 2006, p. 21) has proposed a lively new term for theists who might otherwise feel left out. He’s suggested they can call themselves “supers,” because they believe in the supernatural. Now everyone can have a peppy new name: gay, straight, bright, super.

Personally, I have difficulty embracing the term “brights.” It feels overly self-conscious to me, but I like the spirit that inspired it. In the meantime, I’ll continue writing essays dispelling the Evil Atheist myths that people such as Donald Tyson love to threaten theists with. (We’re really quite friendly.)

While we’re defining our terms, there is often a lack of understanding about the philosophical stance of agnosticism, and I’d like to clear up the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for readers who may have the two ideas confused.

The word agnostic comes from the Greek agnostos, meaning “unknown, unknowable”; the prefix a- again meaning “without,” and gnosis meaning “knowledge.” Therefore, literally, agnostic means “without knowledge,” but tends to refer specifically to one who is “without knowledge of god(s).” The term was coined by Thomas Huxley, a British scientist in the nineteenth century who believed only material things could be known with any precision.

To be clearer, atheism is the absence of belief in gods, and an agnostic believes one cannot be certain about the (non)existence of gods. It is possible to not believe in gods (the atheist position), but allow for the possibility of being wrong (the agnostic position). Indeed, most atheists could technically be considered agnostics, but this would be splitting hairs that really need not be split.

For instance, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins identifies a seven point scale of belief with absolute belief in (at least one) god at 1 and complete rejection of any possibility of any gods at 7. Position 4 is the perfect agnostic, completely impartial, believing that the existence of gods is exactly as likely as not (Dawkins, 2006, 73-74).

Most people would fall in positions 2 or 3 (fairly sure that there are gods), or 5 or 6 (fairly sure that there aren’t any gods), and therefore could technically be classified as agnostics, but most religious people with moments of doubt would be unlikely to classify themselves as agnostics. Likewise, most atheists who allow it’s possible there might be a god, but astonishingly unlikely, would not identify themselves this way.

What does “astonishingly unlikely” look like? Consider Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. (Russell, 1952)

The existence of the Celestial Teapot is sufficiently absurd that one cannot be expected to believe in it. With this example, Russell intended to demonstrate that the burden of proof lies with those who would posit and promote such absurdities, rather than those who elect not to believe things which cannot be proved. It’s simply not good enough to suggest that because one person believes in the Celestial Teapot in the absence of any evidence, its existence must be allowed as a reasonable possibility. It’s not reasonable, and I’ve no qualms about calling myself an a-Celestial Teapotist.

The Gods Are Made of Phlogiston

We are constantly learning more about what it means to be human, redefining ourselves through our ever expanding understanding of the planet around us, and reinventing our place in it. Rather than rejecting what we don’t (yet) understand, we would do better to learn what we can of our world and ourselves.

In the seventeenth century a chemist named Georg Ernst Stahl “discovered” a new element he called phlogiston, after the Greek phlogistos, “to set on fire.” Stahl’s phlogiston theory was proposed to explain combustion. When a substance burns, it was thought to release both “vapours” and phlogiston into the air. The flames and smoke from a burning log suggest the wood is releasing some substance into the air, this, of course, was phlogiston.

Yet the phlogiston theory wasn’t entirely satisfactory. Metals heated in the air do not lose, but gain weight. Therefore it was reasoned that phlogiston must have a negative weight. There were other complications, but, in the absence of a better explanation, this theory won support for much of the eighteenth century.

In the 1780s Antoine Lavoisier recognized and named a new element, oxygen. This “new” element better explained what came to be known as oxidization. As Philip Ball writes in The Elements:

The discovery of oxygen did not just make phlogiston redundant; the two were fundamentally incompatible. Oxygen is the very opposite of phlogiston. It is consumed during burning, not expelled.

Though early in its discovery, some scientists were reluctant to abandon the phlogiston theory entirely, and attempted to work elaborate proofs to try and demonstrate phlogiston could still somehow be involved. Eventually, of course, these were rejected as oxygen and its properties were better understood, and found to better explain what was really happening.

We can see parallels between the story of phlogiston and oxygen and the fantastic creation myths of various cultures and evolution. We no longer need creation myths to explain how the world came to be, or how we came to be on it. Science has provided solid, verifiable answers to these former mysteries, and it continues to regularly improve our understanding.

In 1859 a British naturalist named Charles Darwin “first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 1). On the Origin of Species revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our origins: invisible sky gods were no longer required to explain how we came to be.

Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move bodily into other fields. It arouses our suspicion, in those other fields, of the kind of false alternatives that once, in pre-Darwinian days, beguiled biology. Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes? (Dawkins, 2008, p. 141)

Tyson warns that “with every day that passes there seems to be more evidence that atheism is a growing movement.” While it’s not as organized as Tyson might fear, certainly more people are open to discussing atheism, and finally the stigma is beginning to lift. Indeed, part of the reason atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have become vocal about their atheism recently is to help raise consciousness, so people realize they have a choice. Too often children are unthinkingly indoctrinated into the beliefs of their parents and left in ignorance of alternative ways of thinking, or worse, actively discouraged from questioning what they’ve been taught.

Yet, in his paranoid essay, Tyson froths:

Atheists don’t regard their opinions as beliefs, of course, but rather look upon them as reality. That this same opinion has been maintained by every fanatical and exclusionary religious cult that has ever existed down through the centuries seems to escape them. All fanatical movements proclaim themselves possessors of the only truth, and are aggressively intolerant toward other beliefs – so it is with atheism, which is really a kind of fanatical cult of science that worships godlessness.

On the contrary, as Jordan Peterson so succinctly puts it in Maps of Meaning, “Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from imperial “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated before the notion of objective reality emerged” (Peterson, 1999, p. 1).

Indeed, this is perhaps the biggest difference between religious conviction and scientific theory. Certainly, scientific theories are constantly being revised, but religions aggressively resist critical thinking with appeals to “mystery” and “faith”. These smokescreens should no longer be assumed sufficient. Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, gets it right when he says:

Who is right? I don’t know. Neither do the billions of people with their passionate religious convictions. Neither do those atheists who are sure the world would be a much better place if all religion went extinct. There is an asymmetry: atheists in general welcome the extensive and objective examination of their views, practices, and reasons. (In fact, their incessant demand for self-examination can become quite tedious.) The religious, in contrast, often bristle at the impertinence, lack of respect, the sacrilege, implied by anybody who wants to investigate their views. (Dennett, 2006, p. 16-17)

Appeals to “mystery” rather than reason effectively remove these arguments from the table and cannot be entertained in debate.

Raising consciousness about better, verifiable explanations regarding our place in the universe hardly seems “militant” to me, nor are (most) atheists any more (or less) intolerant than theists, many of whom actively seek to recruit new followers (consider “witnessing” and “missionaries,” for example). Atheists, like vegetarians, are often content to let the other side do as they will, however foolish or unappealing it may seem.

A Place for the Numinous

We may no longer need origin myths to explain why and how we got here, but this does not invalidate their meaning. As Peterson writes:

Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or share affective valence, their value, their motivational significance. (Peterson, 1999, p. 9)

Religion may be outmoded, but mythology certainly isn’t. Many atheists understand the importance of mythology as a part of literary culture. It helps us define who we are and its stories can provide structure to our lives. Richard Dawkins, for example, believes religious education is fundamental to understanding modern culture. He even goes as far as to state that “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (Dawkins, 2008, p. 387).

Even while we may retain sentimental attachment to tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s true many atheists will reject the possibility of disincarnate entitles, the paranormal, and magick. Many theists also reject these possibilities (with the exception of their personal god[s]).

There are those of us, however, who do not reject the spiritual out of hand. We recognize the importance of numinous experiences in identity and self development. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, (somewhat surprisingly) allows that “there seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena,” which he feels “has been ignored by mainstream science” (Harris, 2004, p. 41).

So how can an atheist practice magick? It turns out there are many ways of looking at what magick is and how it works — without abstracting ourselves away from its core. Atheism and the numinous can — and often do — peacefully co-exist.


Further Resources & Reading

©2009 by Psyche
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Psyche is the curator for the occult resource, blogs esoteric at, and runs a tarot consultation business at She has been published in The Cauldron, Konton, newWitch, Blessed Be, Tarot World Magazine, and her essay “Strategic Magick” appeared in Manifesting Prosperity: A Wealth Magic Anthology, published by Megalithica Books in February 2008.

Veiled Issues – Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?

Veiled Issues - Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?

Veiled Issues

Before I begin my critique of Mr. Tyson’s essay concerning the threat posed by atheism, which appeared in last season’s issue of Rending the Veil, I should like to convey I have nothing but the utmost respect and gratitude for Mr. Tyson’s contributions to the occult community. The author’s Portable Magic has been an especial mainstay throughout my work with elemental evocations over the past year. Moreover, I do not intend for my essay to be an outright refutation of Tyson’s position, though I do call for greater clarity upon certain points which Tyson makes; I humbly suggest the modification of others. And I thank Mr. Tyson for initiating what I hope might prove a most fruitful discussion here on Rending the Veil and throughout the occult community.

With all this said, we should first make one key distinction of terminology which is crucial to understanding my position: What Mr. Tyson calls “atheism” throughout his essay, I term “scientific materialism” throughout mine. Narrowly defined, atheism denotes merely a disbelief in any deity or deities, whereas Mr. Tyson broadens the term to include a denial of the existence of “angels [and] devils, [and all] paranormal abilities.” I agree with Mr. Tyson there is an intellectual current which denies all these things, yet I believe this broad denial of what cannot be seen, felt, and measured more properly falls under the broader umbrella of scientific materialism, which says all things are material, and that which is incorporeal is essentially unreal. The most extreme variations of this position rather absurdly suggest since our conscious experience is essentially subjective in nature, then consciousness itself must be unreal. This sort of radical skepticism I will term scientific materialism throughout this essay.

Additionally, there exists a not inconsequential subset of occult practitioners who would probably self-identify as atheists. LaVeyan Satanists and related schools of thought spring to mind here, although I should think many schools of magical thought could jettison, more or less comfortably, the belief in deities without thereby losing the belief in magic. Such atheism neither questions nor condemns the efficacy of magic, though its magical paradigms circumvent the very gods which theological Paganism would doubtless incorporate. Regarding the existence — if not the nature — of magic, we Pagans have little quarrel with our atheist sisters and brothers across the occult community.

With our terms thus more narrowly defined, we must consider the ways by which one intellectual current can threaten another, and herein we discover a second distinction necessary for the discussion at hand. First, one current can threaten another by the sword or by the purse, cutting off or burying the physical means by which we express or communicate some especial belief. In its least subtle guise, this sort of intolerance tears down the temples of the rival belief, and puts anyone espousing the old beliefs to torture, and often to the gallows. Witness the vicious fanaticism of the Christian Inquisition of yesteryear, or today the repressive regime once (and still) imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The more subtle approach pours money into political advertisements and lobbying, attempting to bury the opposing viewpoint through public opinion, which in democracy often translates into legal proscriptions. (Prop Eight, I’m looking at you!) Adopting for one moment the information paradigm championed by Patrick Dunn, one might say the belief which threatens does so by flooding the channel of the opposing belief with the noise of fear and distractions. If you can make the rival paradigm physically, legally, and financially difficult enough to follow, reasons this line of attack, you can choke another belief to death.

Now the good news: Across the contemporary Western world, this strategy usually fails, sometimes backfires, and every now and again backfires spectacularly. Genuine democracy contains within itself a belief in the free marketplace of ideas. Given enough time and reflection, people will come to embrace “good” ideas and reject “bad” ones. Critically, we might observe there is disagreement even upon the heading of what constitutes good and bad; here I can only reply that I am an optimist about human nature, and deep down I believe there is something life-affirming in all beings. Now I would rather be an optimist and right than a pessimist and wrong, and yet whether I am right or wrong, there remains the widespread belief in the free marketplace of ideas, recognized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and elsewhere. This principle protects beliefs, even and especially crazy beliefs, from the sword. Given enough time and good will, life-affirming ideas can overcome the purse.

Barring some unforeseen and catastrophic political revolution, scientific materialism cannot wield the sword. There are no lions awaiting the Christians, and no burning pyres for we who call ourselves Pagan. The very modern developments which enabled the rise of materialism depend upon the free marketplace of ideas, and materialism knows this. More cynically, scientific materialism might simply find the purse more efficacious (or at least less messy) than the sword, since the sword tends to generate martyrs and saints among those who resist. Saturate the airwaves, and one can convince many — though crucially not all — to regard the Witch and the Magician with derision. Pour enough money and technology into the pipeline, and one can theoretically drown out the voices of theism and magic. (Funny aside: I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods when Mr. Tyson’s essay came out; I would highly recommend Mr. Gaiman’s novel for those interested in the clash between Paganism and materialism!) Fortunately for the occultist, contemporary technology as likely as not enables the spread of magical beliefs; the very presence of Mr. Tyson’s essay and my own upon this website is itself evidence for this!

Mr. Tyson’s argument falls squarely against the militant variety of scientific materialism, something which doubtless exists throughout the intellectual world, yet here I would argue the real quarrel is with militancy itself, and not with scientific materialism. Militancy is the cancer which threatens with the sword and suffocates with the purse, whether that militancy embraces Christian fundamentalism, Islamist extremism, or even radical materialism. The existential danger to Pagan belief comes not from the content of an intolerant belief system, which can take many forms, but rather from the intolerance of the world view itself, which really comes in only two forms, the sword and the purse.

There are actually two means by which scientific materialism might threaten the existence of occult thought generally and Paganism specifically; the second occurs within the hearts and minds of individual occultists. Superficially, this line of attack can resemble the coercive approach of the sword or the persuasive tactics of the purse, yet the difference here is plain: Whereas the sword and the purse threaten existentially and from without, the explanation — the essential option — proposed by scientific materialism threatens essentially and from within. Nevertheless, there is little new found within this line of attack, though perhaps the argument has gained a certain coherence across the contemporary period. The choice remains the same: To believe or to disbelieve. Doubt is no option here, though doubt exercises profound influence over how we choose and apply one explanation over another. Every moment in time, we stand at the crossroads anew, confronted with sensory data which we can neither confirm nor explain with absolute certainty. There arises the choice: How will we explain our world upon this especial moment? We can choose to explain our world as one capable of magic, or as one completely devoid of paranormal influence. We can choose to believe, or to disbelieve. One choice may be more consistent with the law of parsimony — that is, require less leaps of logic — yet the inescapable choice remains. Always and across every moment — and regardless of our external circumstances — we must choose how we will explain the world which we observe.

Mr. Tyson frames the choice of belief as one between Magic and the Void, and I agree with Mr. Tyson’s contention that Paganism and Christianity share certain broad theological propositions, points of common agreement which make these two schools of thought natural allies against an outright disbelief in things which defy scientific measurement. Still, to regard all scientific materialism, much less all atheism, as the enemy of the Old Ways does a grave disservice to both sides. The Void of which Mr. Tyson speaks is something terrible — this much is true — yet this Void contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, since nihilism offers no essential hope which could sustain those who would believe in disbelief. One might counter that to know the Truth is balm enough, yet the Void is no more (upper case) Truth than any other explanation. The nature of our existence confounds every attempt at certain explanation, including the nihilistic narrative proposed by the scientific materialist. Ever the choice remains.

There exist variations of scientific materialism which reject militancy, schools of secular thought which seek to heal and even to elevate humanity, only without reference to Deities. Do I disagree with their theological starting point? Of course I do, yet as an advocate of religious freedom I acknowledge a common philosophical cause which can serve as the basis for meaningful dialogue. If the Pagan, the Christian, and the secular humanist can all agree upon the need for compassionate and courageous action, then this common ground can defy the divisive and destructive power of militancy. Ultimately, neither the militant materialist nor the benign humanist can remove the essential choices we constantly make, the eternal Crossroads guarded by Hecate: Do we believe?

May the Goddess of Crossroads smile upon you. Blessed Be!

©2009 by Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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