A couple of weeks ago I was in San Diego. The days were filled with energy and consideration; the nights were vulnerable to my incorrigment. I count myself amongst a lucky few to have discovered, one particular evening, with the sun just settling into the Pacific, that I was standing in the sand beside a shallow square concrete pit and a tall stack of wooden pallets.
We moved the pallets to the pit which was strangely of a size to easily accommodate a standard pallet. A propane torch was produced, and quickly the pallets were burning intensely. A box of Starbucks coffee appeared, and soon everyone was lounging, cup in hand, staring at the pillar of fire.
It was only a couple of weeks after Beltane (May 1st) and the bonfire illuminated bodies lying in the sand suggested a pagan ritual of delightful proportions. It is common, at Beltane, for women wishing fertility to leap through flames. These flames were so high, and the heat so intense, that I thought jumpers would be less likely to be fertile (or even whole) should they take the leap there.
Most Beltane celebrations utilize fire, the good ones involve dancing, and some really cool ones combine this with nakedness. May 1st is a great time to be out in the northern hemisphere. There is enough of a chill in most places that improperly clothed bodies could find a radius to a large enough fire which would both bake and chill them at the same time.
As an atheist I should shun fond mention of pagan ritual and take umbrage at the thought of magic rituals conveying benefit. There may be an atheist orthodoxy which I have yet to meet who might take this stance. Most pagans I have met have reduced the concepts to which they adhere into a naturalistic set of “principles” not unlike “rules of thumb” that a biologist might use while sketching out an understanding of a complex system. The concept of belief for most pagans, that I know, requires increasing amounts of proof as the belief's influences intersect on actionable reality. The wiccans, unlike most science geekfests, also throw great parties.
I love the idea of imagining impossible things. Imagination is a wonderful nutrient that cultivates delight. There is no need to hinder or reign in imagination because I am an atheist. All I have done is limited those imagined elements that I allow to become calcified into belief.
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" --- Douglas Adams
The garden is no less lovely by not believing in the fairies I could imagine at the bottom of it. If I tire of fairies I can imagine that the statues come alive at certain phases of the moon, and then imagine what they would say. I can imagine the ground I step on is the back of a giant sleeping beast, that aliens observe my every move, that a palpable love permeates all existence and warms me like a bonfire on a slightly chilly spring night. Because I imagine these things I can know all there is to know about them. I can feel my imagined embellishments as well as I can know anything since I use much of the same apparatus for both the imagined feeling and the conscious knowing.
When I stop imagining and insist on believing I risk being crazy, or worse, losing the grand malleability of my imagination. I cannot spend too long in a garden if I insist on believing there are fairies in it. I cannot spend too long in my imagination if I insist on believing that reality springs from it.