I became an atheist because I didn’t need to feel self-important any more.
I was raised by hippies who wanted to “get back to nature.” As part of this move they decided to return to the supposed old religion, the one that we now call “new age” or “neo-pagan.” So I was brought up with the concept of not just gods, but goddesses and ancient rituals (probably made up within the last fifty years) and special festivals that seemed mostly to be about somehow reclaiming certain times of the year from Christians because they were somehow “ours first.”
In doing so my parents swapped one form of tribalism for another. Instead of rejecting the inherently divisive nature of religions, my parents’ religion was another way of cementing their rejection of the mainstream culture. The mainstream was pro-nuclear; so they were in CND, the mainstream was capitalist; so they were Marxists, the mainstream had real jobs and houses; so my parents gave all that up and tried to live off the land in a falling down old farm that had no roof on it, and so if the mainstream was Christian my parents would be “pagan.”
They stuck with it, and for much of my childhood I think I went along with their beliefs with a slight sense that it was all a bit silly. However, when I reached my teenage years I got really into it. I had a drunken evening spent with a friend of theirs and suddenly had this moment of empowerment where I felt all powerful and able to do practical things with this understanding I had of the ancient religions. (Couldn’t possibly be the effects of alcohol on a fourteen year old boy?) Like so many in the pagan movement I began to think I could do “magic.”
Throughout my teenage years, right up until my early twenties I was wrapped in this belief. I moved in circles who believed it and was generally respected by my peers as knowledgeable and in touch with the powers they revered. I officiated weddings and helped initiate newcomers, and it felt great. We were smarter than everyone else, we knew things they didn’t and were in touch with some greater power. Exactly how teenagers the world over want to feel.
But that was the thing, it was about feeling empowered. I had a realization one day that it was all deeply farcical. I watched a ceremony and suddenly had to restrain the urge to laugh, because it was so ridiculous. They were all taking it so seriously! I looked around at these people, my friends. They were the bottom of the social heap; unemployed and students, social outcasts and geeks, people who were totally powerless within their world. So they chose to believe in something that made them powerful, something no-one could take away from them. They sneered at the wealthy and powerful who “didn’t know the truth” about the world. They believed they could work magic, and engaged in some heavy confirmation bias about the results to continue believing in this. In rejecting the religion of the mainstream they had created an even more ludicrous crutch for themselves.
I moved away from that with no feeling of loss. In doing so I discovered the power within myself to have agency in my life. Got a new job a hundred miles away and began to make magic in the real world; by having real achievements that everyone could respect; not just a group of people wearing odd clothing standing around in the basement of a cafe pretending to be ancient shamans. Not that I have lost the anti-war, anti-capitalist sentiments I was raised with, but rather I made two important realizations. The first is that is possibly to reject mainstream religions without needing to replace them with something more acceptable to our political views. Secondly that when you stop wrapping yourself up in the imaginary power to influence the world, you can get out there and actually influence the world for the better; even if that’s only in a few lives. Real action beats magic every time.
Having written this I am deeply embarrassed. I look back at the person I was an cringe. I was rejecting the prevalent myths and delusions of society, but instead of using reason and careful thinking to identify religion itself as wrong, I was just searching for a religion that fit my circumstances. At its heart that is what the pagan movement is, a way for those on the edges of society to feel they are actually the smart and clever ones; all the while just wrapping themselves up in a different flavor of myth and delusion.
One last point.
There are those who identify as pagan who will be outraged that I have said these things. In my experience pagans are no more accepting of people leaving the fold than any major religion. Just as when someone leaves Christianity or Islam, leaving is inherently a criticism of their beliefs; there is no nice way to do it.