A rather provocative title, one might think. Religion - get a promised but non-existent reward for believing six ludicrous things before breakfast. Extra points for the kind of 'faith' required to ignoring contradictory facts. Something for the weak-minded, cynical hypocrites, and those who cannot face reality.
This is the view atheists have of religion, and of religious people. I know, because I was an atheist and probably still am according to some. If someone talking about the Gods had approached me twenty years ago I would have been rapidly dismissive. In my view they were either comic book characters or quaint elements of a dead and failed religion long since consigned to the rubbish bin of history.
However, now I am Asatru and believe that an interpretation of our religion should exist that can accommodate people like me - technically oriented atheists. Quite a change, apparently. Before I continue, let me explain how I discovered Asatru, and what changed my mind on the issue.
Five years ago I got connected to the Internet and was browsing through a list of some twenty thousand news groups on Usenet (rather rapidly!) when a strange word leapt out at me - Asatru. It was part of the name of alt.religion.asatru. I subscribed to discover what it was about and was fascinated that there were people out there who believed for real what I merely considered old mythology! As I read the discussions, and occasionally took part by asking questions, I discovered that I was strongly attracted to the ethos of the religion - to its morality and view of life and Nature. Actually, more than attracted, because it was already my ethos before I even knew it existed. The fact that it was codified, to a large extent, as part of a coherent body of work existing as a continuation (or revival) of pre-Christian Northern European religion and culture came as a revelation.
What were not so palatable were ideas of Gods, afterlives, reincarnation, 'magick' and the whole vocabulary of both traditional and New-Age superstition attached to it. It was to be a couple of years before I got around to resolving these issues to the extent I could feel comfortable joining the Middlesex Hearth and Odinic Rite.
The manner in which I resolved these issues, and the fact that I could do so in the Asatru context, depended upon another major facet of Asatru culture - namely that one is measured by deeds rather than words. The resolution is/was one of defining to my satisfaction what I mean when I talk of Gods, afterlives, reincarnation etc, and that I do so in a manner that does not require 'leaps of faith' or as I might occasionally refer to it as 'leaps of implausibility'. In my opinion if one definition of such words leads exactly to the same deeds as another definition, both should be considered equivalent for practical purposes.
Modern ideas taken from fields as diverse as psychology, memetics, genetics and anthropology have allowed me to create an interpretation of our religion consistent with my current scientific view of the world. This is not to say that such a view is the correct one, merely that it is a view that cannot be undermined from that particular secular angle. In my opinion our 'faith' does not, and should not, rely on unsubstantiated claims or literalist dogma set in stone. Whilst we do have sacred texts that have come down to us across the centuries we have, fortunately, escaped being handed their 'official' interpretations (if such ever existed). Flexibility of interpretation is in my opinion one of the major advantages of our religion over others, and the fact that it is an interpretation based around central common themes is crucial. Together they provide adaptability coupled with tradition and a solid foundation.
We are not a 'People of a Book', nor are we New-Age syncretists. We have the benefits of both and the drawbacks of neither. In fact, most Asatruar already view much of our religious teachings as metaphor rather than a literal record. The question that remains is - why do we need an 'Asatru for Atheists'?
In my opinion it is necessary for three reasons.
The first is that we need to have a logical exposition of our religion in everyday rational terms.
Second, the underlying premises are ones that should not be capable of refutation on the grounds of being obviously unsound - for example, conflict with known facts about the world, or capable of being dismissed as self evidently ludicrous e.g. 'God does six arbitrary miracles to pull it off'.
Finally we need to explain how Asatru 'makes sense' to those already called to it, or who may be in future, but whose rationality balks at the terminology of what they might regard as superstition. We need to speak to those who are already Asatru/Odinist but do not yet realise it, and to smooth their road to the Gods by presenting alternative explanatory structures.
I intend to make a case that Asatru, or Odinism, is not merely a religion but a worldview - a philosophy or Way of Life - that need not rely upon the supernatural or groundless faith. As such, it can and should also be seen as the natural home for those of Northern European ancestry who consider themselves non religious, or even atheists, yet seek meaning, purpose and moral standards in their life.
Some may claim, rightly, that I am paring it away to crude 'basics' that ignores (say) the finer points of theological analysis as understood by our Anglo-Saxon forebears. My reply is that times and needs change. That our understanding of the world is greater now than it was then - that their view of the fine details does not need to be ours - that we can provide our own interpretation without violating the spirit they brought to bear on these matters. Besides, I am sure we all have differing views on some points, yet all recognise the commonality that legitimises our claim to be Asatru - loyal to the Aes and Van, whatever we think them to be 'in reality'.
Perhaps I am wrong, and the Gods have greater degrees of Being than I currently believe - in which case I look forward to discovering their hidden depths. On the other hand, if they are simply as I believe them to be I will not be disappointed. So, over the coming months I am going to set out this program in detail with various essays on the Gods, the notion of rebirth, of magick, and of such diffuse topics as 'spirituality'.
As is written in the Havamal:
To ask well, to answer rightly,
Are the marks of a wise man.
Men must speak of men's deeds,
What happens may not be hidden.