Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sacrifice and its Meaning

Sacrifice often conjures up images of loss and bloodshed in the popular imagination. Just think of the images of priests in arcane garb with a young, innocent virgin tied down on an ancient altar about to have her heart ripped out in a ritual to appease a greater power. This is a common image, and misconception, that circulates in the popular imagination among others that is at best a superficial representation of what sacrifice really is. Sacrifice, on the contrary, is not an act of loss or hardship but one of the highest devotion to the Gods. There are also many misconceptions associated with the act itself and what it entails that need to be dispelled to truly understand sacrifice both as it was practiced by our ancestors and in a modern context. Sacrifice is not, as often assumed in the modern sense, an act of primitives attempting to placate forces beyond their comprehension. Sacrifice is an act of the highest devotion, respect, reverence, and love for the Gods not a practice to be condemned, forgotten, or prettied up.

In ancient times the word sacrifice is usually associated by modern people with animal or human sacrifice to appease angry, capricious Gods. This is a very poor understanding of the real meaning of sacrifice as it was done in pre-Christian days and assumes that all sacrifice must involve blood and death. Sacrifice was far more widespread and less wasteful and inhumane than often imagined and in many cases did not involve bloodshed. Archaeological evidence has shown that the ancient practices of sacrifice and offerings were far more varied and involved than simple ritualistic murder. One common find in Germany are hordes of weapons and other spoils of battle piled up in mounds and buried, possibly as offerings to the Gods in thanks for Their Favor that granted the warriors their victory that day. Many such mounds were found in the vicinity of Teutoberg Wald, the site of a major victory by the Chercusci under Hermann over the legions of Rome lending some credibility to this theory. Similar finds have been found on other ancient battlefields in the old Germanic world and further afield wherever Germanic tribesmen fought. Among the Celts we have also found examples of important possessions being buried or tossed into bodies of water in a similar fashion. This is not just a Celtic and Germanic practice. Surviving records from Roman, Greek, and Egyptian temples show sumptuous offerings of food, wine, and in some cases silver and gold left for the Gods as thanks for good fortune or to gain their favor in a coming harvest or other venture. Sacrifice of physical objects was, based on surviving records and archaeology, probably the most common form of sacrifice in pre-Christian Europe but not the only one.

There were, indeed, sacrifices of animals and humans but what we find most often in both cases is a considerable degree of respect for the sacrifice. In the cases of animal sacrifices the most common practice was not a form of bloody death but more a ritualistic slaughter of the animal usually with the blood of the animal as the actual component given up to the Gods. In some cases, like in Greece and Rome, parts of the animal that were considered choice bits or offal would be thrown into a fire as a burnt offering. Even in cases of sacrifice of humans we do not find evidence of mass slaughter on a regular basis. Sacrifices were usually criminals slated for execution, prisoners of war, or willing participants. Far from the common idea of bloody, awful rites the victims were often drugged, as has been found in the famous bog men, and disposed of quickly as opposed to long, drawn out rites. This is not to say such rites should be repeated, but rather they show an overall pattern that exists in the practice and beliefs behind sacrifice.

What is most common is the underlying meaning of the sacrifice. This is the core of the whole point of giving up offerings and sacrifice to the Gods. In essence our ancestors were giving up something that could be used for another purpose as a show of devotion and thanks. It is easy to simply offer up prayer and regular attendance to worship as a show of reverence. It does take time and effort but beyond that all you are giving up is your time. To give up something that has value, use, or meaning shows real devotion. For example we have the practice of buried weapons and armor by the Germanic tribes. Practically speaking those weapons could be used by other warriors for battle or, if broken beyond repair, at least melted down and used to make new ones. By giving up something that, especially in ancient Germany, would have been incredibly valuable is an act of great reverence and devotion. In the Mediterranean world the act of giving up food carries similar connotations. The soil in Greece and Italy is notoriously difficult to gain decent crop yields from in a good year without modern agricultural tools and techniques. To give food to the Gods, especially since that food could be the difference between going hungry and having a full belly, is similarly an act of great love and respect.

Now in the modern age it may not make as much sense to give up particular items as sacrifice or offerings especially if you are living a reasonably comfortable life in the modern Western world where food is as easy to obtain as taking a walk to the nearest grocery store or dialing up for delivery. Here is where one must consider the matter of respect and reverence. Giving specific items, ones that are believed to be particularly loved or desired by a particular deity, is an act of love. While it isn't necessarily cheap to offer up smoked salmon to Odin it would not be the same degree of hardship as it would have been in the Viking period in Norway. What matters here, instead, is the act and thought put into it. Think of making the effort to find a particular favored offering as something similar to making the effort to take a lover out to your favorite restaurant or finding that perfect gift for a parent's birthday. It is the act as well as the thing sacrificed that shows the respect and reverence held is genuine and abiding, not just going through the motions.

In closing I would argue that as Pagans we should embrace the act and ritual of sacrifice. While we shouldn't be going back to bloodshed in the name of the Gods giving up to Them shows our esteem and respect for Them. Sacrifice is not just letting something go on our part, it is a gift. The act of gift-giving is one that is cherished and held dear in modern society as an act of compassion and selflessness. Why not also extend the same act to the Gods Themselves? There is nothing primitive or superstitious in the act. Instead it is the reinforcement and continuation of a tradition of worship and thanks stretching back beyond recorded history. Sacrifice is not an act of loss. It is a deed of great honor for the one who does so by willingly giving to the Gods what we could have taken for ourselves.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Idea for Temple Organization

This is more me spitballing and tossing out ideas for discussion than anything else first off. Please feel free to poke holes, throw rocks, and challenge anything and everything in here.

Temples are increasingly starting to pop up in the community as are other support structures including the renowned Cherry Hill Seminary. While right now what we have are small what we must remember is that what we build now and how we build it must not just be for us. It must be for those who will follow after our bones are dust. For that reason we as a community must ensure that we stay true to that which we hold dear and be sure that how we organize and manage our communities preserves that. Above all else we must ensure that the temples that emerge do not put duty to the organization ahead of duty to the worshipers.

What I propose would work based on what we as a community have available to us right now. The main foundation blocks of the community are solitary practitioners and small groups for either study or worship. As it stands both by the nature of the community and Paganism as a whole it is unlikely that individual groups are going to become big enough on their own to support their own temples beyond using public facilities, Unitarian churches, or private residences.

I propose instead we take an approach that pools the resources, knowledge, and abilities of the various small groups to establish a working temple and agree to a temple charter. Each chartered group would contribute what they are able to and agree to share the responsibility of managing and maintaining the temple. They would each send a single representative who would in turn elect one person who, for one year, would serve as the overall administrator with the representatives serving as the temple council. The administrator would also appoint a second. They would serve as the executive officers for the temple with all business involving maintenance, admissions for new groups that wish to sign on for the temple, and managing all donations and financial aspects. The administrator and vice-administrator, whatever they end up being called, would along with the council serve as the main staff for the temple. Solitary members could also join the temple, likely by a donation of labor, resources, or money individually.

Very importantly neither the temple council or the temple administrators should not be considered as having any greater spiritual authority than any other clergy or members who are part of the temple. While they would have superior secular power where it relates to the mundane aspects of the temple the position of being a temple administrator or on the temple council the position itself would confer no superior spiritual authority. All members of the council and the administrators must be recognize clergy as according to how their group functions but being part of the council or administration must not give any further spiritual authority. This is to ensure there is no abuse of position or power by those in charge at the expense of the members of the temple. The organization must not put its priorities ahead of the priorities of the worshipers.

Part of temple membership would include regular dues to be determined as needed by the temple council and participation in regular work parties to help with maintenance, upkeep, and possible renovations or expansion. Groups that offer classes or instruction should also offer classes that they would be willing to have open to temple members as part of membership, how this is to be handled should be left up to the individual temple councils. In exchange all chartered members, either through membership in a chartered group or individual membership, would have full access to the temple facilities and grounds for use in worship, any classes open to the public, and any other services the temple offers. Each temple should also hold ritual on the holidays agreed on by the temple council that would be open to the public. The handling of the specific holidays would be up to the particular temples but they should be open to the public both to help bring in new members from the community by showing what the temple has to offer and as a means of educating the general public.

Ideally the temple would serve as a community center, place of instruction, and worship. It should not, however, be the centerpoint of the different faiths. The center of gravity is, and should remain, with the small groups that would make up the backbone of the temples. This is to ensure that dynamic energy remains in the community by putting the emphasis on the grassroots and not the temples. By keeping the focal point based on the small groups and not on the large temples it allows the voices of the individual adherents to be better heard and responded to.

Any questions, comments, criticisms, concerns, or anything else are welcome and encourage! Just please make sure whatever it is you are sending in is more than just a one line, "This would never work." Please give good, solid reasons behind any feedback especially if it is critique.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Feelings do not replace Fact

There is a pretty common issue that crops up in the Pagan community that I think needs addressing. The problem is when someone spouts off an uninformed, usually wrong, piece of information as if it is truth without taking the time to check its accuracy for a variety of reasons ranging from, "I read it in a book" to "it feels right." What's worse is that there are some who, when called on this, react by claiming they are being "persecuted" or that they don't need your "negative vibes".

I call bullshit on both accepting such things without question and at the whole attitude that allows that to continue.

First off let's examine this kind of blind acceptance.

One thing I learned and have seen reinforced time and time again is that part of being Pagan is NOT simply accepting something without question. "My Karma Ran Over my Dogma" is a VERY common sentiment I have seen, heard, and believe. It was always my understanding that part of what makes Pagans Pagan is that we are, as a community, willing to challenge and question ideas and beliefs, not accept them blindly as articles of faith. I've heard quite a few Pagans express their opinion that people who do are obedient sheep being led to the slaughter.

So why should we tolerate that kind of behavior and thinking from our own when we challenge it in others? The hypocrisy and inconsistency is jarring to say the least.

Remember, just because it is in a book doesn't prove anything. All that says is that a publishing company somewhere decided after reading said book they could make some money off of printing, distributing, and selling it. Publishers don't take the time to fact check every single thing an author puts in something they publish, they don't have the time or inclination to do so. There are quite a few Pagan authors who prove this by their published works including inaccuracies or outright fabrications.

One of the most infamous I've seen was one describing the Celts as an idealized New Agey civilization where everyone played musical instruments all the time and were psychic. The only thing said author didn't say was that they drink green tea. Said book was published by Llewellyn, the biggest Pagan-friendly publishing company in the world.

None of this portrayal comes even close to matching what I learned about the Celts while I was pursuing my Bachelor's in History. From what I learned, based on multiple credible sources backed up by period sources and archaeology, these were a people who regularly sacrificed criminals and prisoners of war, used the entrails of Roman soldiers for divining the future, and preserved heads taken from fallen foes as trophies. These were the same people who sacked Rome and most of Italy in the 4th century BC and fought many long, bloody wars with the Romans and each other. Hardly the navel gazing, lyre-strumming New Age utopia that the author of the work in question purported them to be. True, the Celts did have a very beautiful spirituality and belief system. This does not mean that in holding up that spirituality as your belief system you should completely ignore everything that contradicts what you believe your spiritual forebears ought to have been like.

If an author of a book puts up something as the truth in their work it practically begs for you to do some research and fact-checking on your own. Just because someone put it in a book you bought at Barnes and Noble doesn't make it true, check the references they used and reputable sources to be sure. Doing otherwise is both intellectually lazy and hurts the community by letting it fly as "truth". There is a difference, after all, between spiritual truths and truth that is derived from objectively verifiable facts. What constitutes spiritual truth is something that is up for debate certainly but if something can be read, weighed, measured, observed, tested, and verified or discarded it should be held to a much higher standard than "it feels right to me." Just because it feels good or someone says so doesn't make it so.

Almost as bad are the people who swallow such ideas without consideration and attack anyone who raises legitimate questions. If you are reading this essay and you are already starting to feel steam coming out of your ears then I'm willing to bet you probably fit this category perfectly.

Just because someone questions or challenges inconsistencies, misconceptions, or faulty reasoning you have does not mean they are attacking you personally. Challenging an idea is not the same thing as attacking a person. I would recommend if someone is questioning what you are saying and you don't have an answer to do a bit of digging into the questions they raise. There is nothing wrong with admitting you don't know the answer to a question or the particular facts about something, in fact that is the best way to learn more and gain a greater understanding of the subject. If it turns out you were wrong, then so what? Life is not about being right all the time. Life is about learning from your mistakes and becoming a better person in spite of them. Don't let your pride get in the way of the truth.

Ultimately it is up to us, as a community, to ensure we have a community that has a solid understanding of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Allowing proven fictions to stand in as beliefs is the most dangerous thing we, as a community, can do to ourselves.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Good Leadership

For a good third of my time as a Pagan and my entire adult life thus far I have been involved in a leadership or planning position of some kind or another. I have a pretty good idea of how difficult it is to herd cats having been a cat-herder myself. In my professional life working from a bag boy to a CS Lead now as far as what I think are good and bad examples of someone I would want to follow or model my own style after. I'd like to share some of my thoughts on that based on my experience both as someone who has been on both sides of the desk.

The First Duty

The first duty of any leader is to put the goals of the group they lead ahead of their personal desires. A good leader knows this both on an abstract and practical level as the right way to go.

On the abstract it is the proper, honorable thing for a leader to put their group and its goals ahead of themselves. This kind of selflessness is worthy of great praise and is seen by many as a great sacrifice. After all, the purpose of leadership is to see to the good of the group being led. Indulging of personal desire at this expense is a gross abuse of power and trust.

On the practical level they know that, ultimately, they will share in the credit for success and blame in failure on some level anyway. Excessive squandering of credit and rewards can also lead to division within the group. This can be caused by any number of things from hurt pride to greed, envy, or ambition seeking an opportunity. Such behavior often leads to conflict either of members against each other or members against the leadership.

Ensure the Chain of Succession

This probably sounds medieval to be including and very patriarchal but succession of some kind is the second great duty of any leader. No one is immortal or indispensable. For this reason a good leader must always have an eye out for people with a knack for taking charge or have serious drive. This way when the current individual in charge can no longer, for whatever reason, run the show there is already a group of very fit individuals who have been given opportunities to build trust, proved themselves, and learned the ropes.

There are some who fear this idea and try to cling to control for whatever reason. In most cases the period during the transition to new leadership when a person like that passes on is very messy. Sometimes these transitional periods, without a group of ready successors on hand, can lead to the complete undoing of everything the leader created. Why hang on to what you have now so tightly that it can't survive without you?

This doesn't just mean ensuring someone will fill your shoes when you're gone, it also means making sure they'll have what they need. Why make all the effort of preparing a second generation if you don't give them everything you can to face the challenges of what may come? If you want to ensure the longevity of your group you need to be sure that the group is left in the best condition you can possibly leave it for who is coming up next.

Lead by Example

Above all things to be effective a leader must command respect. One of the best ways to do this is to lead through personal example. By walking the walk you show everyone you are sincere in what you believe. It shows that you are someone who can be trusted to adhere to your principles.

On a practical level it keeps a person in charge from becoming isolated from their people. It can be very easy to stick to business, stay close to your advisers and supporters, and focus more on the business of action but in so doing can make yourself vulnerable. If you do not truly understand the needs of your people, not just the ones in charge or influential positions, then you will lose their trust. Leading in a situation where you are not trusted by your own followers results in very counterproductive situations where often the most one can get is the bare minimum.

Sound the Horn, Swing the Hammer

When entering a new position of leadership the new occupant needs to establish both their objectives so everyone knows what they intend to do and show their strength.

The first is a bit more abstract in benefit than the other, but are equally essential. By declaring your objectives and intentions it gives the people a sense of security and direction. When people have direction they are much easier to motivate because they will have a sense of their actions having greater meaning.

The second is not as macho as it sounds. This doesn't mean throwing your weight around or making people do what you want because you can to show off your authority. What this means is showing that you will be strong when it is most needed. People will often follow a strong leader, even if they are wrong, over a weak one, even if they are right.

One way of doing this is in dealing with potential threats to the group. If there is something or someone who is a genuine, known, and proven threat to your group then what is best is to move quickly and by confronting them directly if you know you can beat them. By proving not only that you will lay down the law when necessary and then doing so very effectively you will have a much easier time convincing your people to trust your judgment in tense situations.

Another way is in resolving internal conflicts. If you are in a situation where someone genuinely deserves what is coming to them be it a lecture or removal what is best is to give it to them. However, if there is a situation where someone who caused the problem is genuinely remorseful and wants to help fix it punish them by putting them to work. This shows both that you can be hard when you must but also merciful when it is sensible showing people that you are reasonable in your decision-making process.

Listen to Your Followers

As was mentioned earlier the first duty of a leader is to their group. It is for this reason a leader should always pay attention to the goals and hopes of their people as well as their fears and doubts. Some might see this as moving to control opinion. Rather it is utterly essential to know what your people want and need to effectively lead. Without the voice of the people the leader is deaf to the world.

Compromise on Things, Not Principles

A good leader must have a solid ethical compass. This gives their followers and people a strong sense of security and certainty along with other rivals or leaders. By showing that you have principles that you will not compromise on and anything that threatens that will not be up for consideration what is realistic to expect.

Instead compromise on things. Things, provided they are not essential, can be easily recouped later on. Look not at the immediate cost but the long-term gain. If you have to go forward two spaces then go back one so that in your next move you jump forward four then by all means take the harder road initially to reach your ultimate goal.

Be a Realistic Idealist

Effective leaders need vision, aspirations, and dreams to fulfill both their own and their followers'. A leader without vision is nothing more than a glorified caretaker. At the same time the leader must not be blinded by their vision. To only see things in ideological terms is very dangerous and can lead to ideologically pure yet highly ineffective solutions to problems. The bad examples of the Soviet and Maoist systems where doctrinal orthodoxy was more important in getting a job than competence shows the pitfalls of excessive ideological focus. It can also hamper the ability to see long term and take in all the facts.

Effective leaders have to work with what reality gives them which probably will not fit any ideological idea of perfection. They also need to remember that the ideal is not something that will come immediately but is a process that, fast or slow, takes time. Sometimes it is better to move at a steadier pace, gain some ground now, then come back later and improve what you have than to lose it all.

Most importantly put competence and skill above ideological loyalty. Having ideologues under you can hamper both flow of information up and implemented of necessary action going down. Above all competence must be the rule of the day, not ideological orthodoxy.

Be Consistent

Reason is necessary for any effective project to happen. This is related to not viewing things ideologically but applies more to personal conduct. Handle situations as reasonably and consistently as possible. If you act in an arbitrary, unpredictable fashion people spend more time trying to figure out how not to upset you than they do sharing ideas or getting things done.

Use Carrots and Sticks

The real emphasis in this one is the AND along with how it should be done. Use whatever rewards you can to entice people to aim high and strive to do their best. This gives them a reason beyond the usual to push hard and do better. When it comes to punishment use it very sparingly. People should not be running away from you when you act, instead they should be chasing after you. Only punish people when they really screw up or knowingly are trying to sabotage your group's aims.

If You're Damned if you do and Damned if you Don't, Just do It

Sometimes you'll run into a situation where you will be damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you're stuck in a situation where no matter what happens you're going to catch flak, it is often the better idea to move ahead and do it anyway.

For one, regardless of what you do your critics are not going to cut you any slack no matter what happens. By refusing to act because of what might happen if you do knowing the same will happen if you don't it will make you appear weak and undermine people's confidence in your ability to lead. It is always better to err on the side of strength and decisiveness when you are facing such a dilemma.


Some Closing Thoughts

There are always good, practical reasons for taking principled, ethical stands and leading in an ethical, aboveboard, and transparent fashion. Never assume that leadership from a principled place is not pragmatic, as I see it pragmatism and principle are not mutually exclusive and many principles ultimately have their foundations in realistic solutions to problems. Remember, above all else your first duty is to those who follow. A good leader remembers this, a bad one ignores it at their own risk.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Elections, Bellweathers, and the Idiot Punditry

Alright here's my opinion on the elections yesterday and what it proves more than anything else:

Pundits don't know what they are talking about and the Beltway politicians have their heads up their collective posteriors.

Let's first look at all the media circus and political spin that was leading up to the elections that took place yesterday. It was loudly touted, especially by the GOP but by the media in general, as a "referendum on Barack Obama." It was spun as if these local contests would somehow give us an idea of what the people in the United States as a whole feel about Obama, the Democratic Party, and the direction our government is taking us in.


Funny that no one ever told the voters that.

In fact, in spite of the pronouncements of the punditocracy, the fears of the Democratic Party, and the pre-victory gloating by the GOP, these elections had very little in fact to do with Obama as the previous poll indicated.

In Virginia Democrat Craig Deeds, by all accounts on the ground, ran a terrible political campaign. He made multiple bone-headed mistakes including distancing himself from Obama in a state Obama carried in 2008, attacking his opponent's social conservatism while failing to offer an effective message regarding jobs and taxes the way his opponent did. Virginia also has a long tradition of electing a governor who is not of the same party as the current President; case in point being the consecutive elections of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both Democrats during the Bush administration with Warner being elected in the shadow of 9/11. It doesn't matter how popular the president and standardbearer of your party is if the candidate you have running to fix state and local issues doesn't effectively speak to said issues and can't seem to run a campaign period. People when they go into the polls aren't just voting based on the issues, they are also voting for a person to handle the position they are being elected to. Running a campaign on your opponent's position on the social issues when the main concerns of most voters are jobs, jobs, and jobs is a good way to guarantee your political defeat.

In New Jersey the incumbent Democrat was running with a poor approval rating, an economy that tanked hard thanks to the crash, and the bonus points of being a former Goldman-Sachs CEO when anti-Wall Street sentiment among the average voter is running high. The state Democratic Party was also battered by multiple scandals under Menendez and McGreevey tarnishing their reputation. It's a miracle he even had a shot with all of what was running against him and no surprise he lost.

In NY-23 we had a real circus with the Republican who was running as the incumbent temporary appointment get ousted by conservative members of her own party then watch as last week she dropped out and endorsed the Democrat running in the election. Owens, the Democrat, would end up beating Doug Hoffman, the insurgent Conservative Party candidate who received backing early on from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck who all touted this election as the sign that they would come out on top and the conservative revolution was on its way. Shame that no one told the voters in the NY-23, a district that has been Republican for 138 continuously, about the revolution. What likely did Hoffman in was that the bulk of his money and support, not to mention his own residence, were from outside the district making it very easy to portray him as an opportunistic carpet-bagger.


Now that we have gone over what really happened that the pundits do not want to talk about:

They were dead wrong on all accounts. Virginia and New Jersey, elections that were part of the alleged barometer on Obama's first year in office, based on the exit polls were decided based mostly on local issues and the voters still approve of Obama himself even if not for the Democrats running in their states. Note that in New Jersey said Dem was an incumbent facing a political perfect storm that he couldn't beat while in Virginia Deeds was running to fill the seat held previously by Democrat Tim Kaine effectively making him the incumbent in political terms1. In NY-23 it was the insurgent candidate supported by out of district and out of state interests and money who lost to the local candidate.

The real meaning of this election is two-fold: first that the political analysts, pundits, and spinmeisters don't know what they are talking about and second that the people are fed up with business-as-usual inside the Beltway thinking and politics. Both the pundits and the big party bosses projected their opinions, wishes, and conclusions onto races in spite of that the data from the elections themselves doesn't substantiate the hot wind they've been blowing. The elections yesterday, more than anything else, prove that the punditocracy and the partyocracy in Washington DC don't know what is really going on outside of the Beltway.

Ideologues, incumbent candidates, and parties beware of 2010, if your voters are not happy with the job you're doing or think that you're taking them for a ride your political future will be over. The political dynamic active right now is not one of left vs. right; it is of the people vs. Washington. And the punditry and political bosses, who can plainly see the writing on the wall, have no idea what it means.


1. In Virginia Governors cannot stand for re-election to two consecutive terms as Governor.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Our Civic Duty as Pagans

Modern Pagans in America are a people of deep, meaningful, and beautiful spirituality and conviction. For many spiritual matters can often be the deciding factor in life decisions, pushing Pagans into directions that they feel are right. Many live life to the fullest, not letting ourselves be chained by the idea that somehow the material world and the flesh are impure in some fashion. There is an exception to this I have noted over the past several years of being an active Pagan.

Most Pagans always seem to shy away from actually taking part in politics, usually citing that politics are somehow "unclean." This is not to say it is universal, far from it. Rather it is the perception of politics as "dirty" by their very nature is what really needs addressing.

Where does this idea come from? None of our ancestors or any of what we base our beliefs and ideas on say anything about the material world being impure, so why would taking part in the most worldly of all matters be somehow impure compared to all others. This is not an idea that was part of any particular Pagan culture in the pre-Christian world. In fact this is something that can be laid at the feet of the Christian theologian St. Augustine. St. Augustine argued, long ago, that the material and mundane was inherently impure to put one's emphasis on and instead one should focus on the heavenly and God's will.

This was, like most of Augustine's life, a reaction against prevailing Pagan practices and beliefs of the day. In the ancient world Pagans were not shy about political participation and leadership. In fact it was considered to be one of the highest duties a free person could engage in. After all, it was our Pagan ancestors who invented democracy (Athenian Greece), republican government (Rome), a system of legal arbitration by impartial parties (the Celts), and the adversarial justice system better known as trial by jury (the Germanic and Scandinavian tribes). All of these systems, unlike Biblically advocated systems and later Christian theologies that stressed the importance of a King ruling with God's blessing absolutely, are ones that required active participation on the part of the free citizen.

We find this is not just in the systems our ancestors created but their attitudes. During the Roman Republic it was considered an obligation for every landowner to have their own war-gear and be ready to serve at the Republic's need against the enemies of Rome. In most of the Greek city-states a similar situation was the norm where all citizens also had to provide their own armor and weapons as needed by the city-state. Also like this every able-bodied freeman in the Celtic and Germanic tribes was obligated to be skilled in the arts of war and able to fight as needed.

War was not the only expression of this idea of civic pride. For one example the English word Idiot, which we mean to refer to someone very stupid or foolish, comes from the Greek word idiotos which meant someone who does not participate in civic affairs. In most of the ancient European pre-Christian world fairly consistently one of the worst punishments was not execution but exile, one example of this is the Scandinavian concept of Innengard (those who are of the tribe) and Utgard (those who are outside of society). Exiles were shunned and it was not uncommon for an exile of high standing to work for the enemies of their punishers as a result of the total shame that they had suffered to their name leaving them with nothing really but their own well-being. By the same token those who were great civic leaders and participants in the affairs of state were honored highly, the most famous of the ancients were almost always leaders of some kind or another. Most importantly, quite unlike the modern or Christian eras, politics was not seen as inherently tainted or corrupt. As another example of this it was not unusual in ancient society for a cunning politician to be honored, while not as highly, as a great general or statesmen provided their cunning was good for their people.

I say we should follow the example of our ancestors and remember that they were not afraid of taking part in the affairs of society and politics. Why should we shun politics as "corrupt by nature" when it is the greatest expression of doing good for not just yourself but your community and your friends? We should engage and, where possible, participate actively as campaign workers, candidates, and whatever else calls to the person who seeks to engage in the process. When we place so much emphasis on doing good in this life why should we not take part in what can do the most good for ourselves and nature?

That which can be used for good is not by itself corrupt, politics are only as venal and dirty as those who make it so.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What's at Stake in the Health Care Debate

Let's cut through all the chaff, spin, and whatnot of what has been flying around about the proposed health care reform and get down to the brass tacks of why the public option is really the only sane option. There have been a lot of other choices offered up, the most popular in the Republican Party being that of co-ops and tax credits. There also have been a lot of outright lies, like the "death panel" whopper that's been kicked around. Let's just look at things from a simple, pragmatic perspective about why the public option really is the best and only option we have.

The main opposition to the public option when you cut out all the fat and spin comes from three main criticisms: that it would lead to something that private industry cannot compete with, that it costs too much, and it would lead to too much government control over our lives mislabeled as socialism.

The first one is probably the most self-serving argument out there.

Why is that?

Because the people advancing this line of thought the most are the insurance companies. The same insurance companies that by law are immune to anti-trust legislation leading to many insurance companies dominating the different markets in the US. In many cases there are insurance markets where 90% and up of all health care is provided by one insurer. These are the same insurance companies who, in the midst of a recession that is forcing everyone to make do with less and tighten our belts, continue to post massive profits.

Of course they resent the idea of competing with someone who will actually force them to provide good health care. Right now they have it MADE. If they actually had to compete then they wouldn't be raking in their obscene profits, their massive bonuses and stock option packages.

If the public option was put in place then, Gods forbid, they would actually have to WORK for a living!

It's not like the public option would force them out of business. Private postal companies like UPS and FedEx do just fine right up against the Post Office who is hitting hard times mostly because the bulk of their business is being made obsolete thanks to e-mail. Even in the United Kingdom where you have a government run healthcare system there are private insurance companies that are still in business and doing quite fine. There is no reason to believe that the insurance industry will up and disappear if the public option is put in place.

There is, to the contrary, EVERY reason to believe that if we inject a competitor into the market who doesn't have to worry about big corporate bonuses then the insurance companies, to stay in business, might actually have to cut the gristle they are shoveling up to the fat cats running the companies.

I guess it must be unreasonable of me to think that those poor, persecuted multimillionaires and billionaires can only make it on a couple million dollars a year of after-tax income.


The second argument, that it costs too much, sits in good company with the counter-proposals of co-ops and tax credits.

This argument misses the point completely. Right now health care costs too much because of the rising cost of insurance premiums entirely because of the monopolistic control that the insurance industry exercises over the market. Currently wages rise at a rate of 2% a year on average over the past decade while health insurance premiums have risen on average 10% a year.

That's five times what the average wage-earner makes in terms of increase. That is already costing us too much. If this trend continues unabated would it be possible for people to even afford health care anymore and still pay for other things like food, mortgages, rent, and transportation to get to their jobs that they would be spending long hours at just to fork over most of their money to the insurance industry? As things stand now we can't afford health care as is.

But what about tax credits? Couldn't giving people their money back from the government address that problem?

Tax credits would create more problems than they solve. For one, to be able to actually address the problem, they would have to be indexed with the inflation of health care costs. If they aren't then very quickly they will go from barely enough to a band-aid over a bullet wound.

If they are indexed in a way to be useful then not only are we cutting out money from the federal budget, which would lead to a corresponding rise in the deficit at a rate that would very quickly wreck the federal budget. At that point it would be cheaper for the federal government just to pay the insurance companies directly.

But wouldn't co-ops fix the problem without leading to unnecessary government intrusion?

Newsflash: one of the worst offenders in the industry, Blue Cross Blue Shield, is a co-op network.

That and co-ops, unlike a public option, once on their own would be stuck trying to cut out a niche in markets so heavily dominated often by one or two providers that they would be quickly shoved off-stage by the insurance companies to keep control of the market. It would be a very short-lived, costly, and ultimately doomed effort.


To the last argument I only have this to say:

Why are you so afraid of the government who we elect and we as the public can hire and fire representatives who shape policies and how said public option is run who would have to operate under full accountability and transparency to the public running your health care as opposed to private corporations who have no incentive to be level with the people?

Why are you afraid of a government that ultimately you have the final say on covering your health care costs when as things stand right now the people who have the say on your health care in the insurance industry make money by denying you care that you need?


The health care reform bill addresses many of the worst actions of the insurance industry. The problem is without the public option it will be worse than useless for America. Without a public option to force the insurance industry who has proven time and time again not to be trusted to play honest and by the rules any reform effort is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Young, the Rebellious, and Paganism

There is a lot of talk that goes around on Pagan chatrooms, forums, and mailing lists about what to do with people who come to our forms of spirituality because it's "the thing to do" if you're trying to be rebellious, strike out against society, or raise the hackles on people for the sake of tweaking them. There's a couple of fun names for said people, like Playgans and Fluffy Bunnies to name a couple. From discussions I've seen sadly quite a bit of this talk comes from Pagans who are usually much longer in tooth, wise, experienced, and well-learned who in many cases had little or no help for them to reach where they are now or were the first forging ahead into territory left largely spiritually unexplored since the dawn of the second millennium AD. Speaking as a younger Pagan who just finished college and started on the path I'm on now when I was 12 there seems to be a degree of condescension on the part of those who speak out against the Playgans, the ones who fell in love with Charmed or Buffy, and the rebellious kids who smoked behind the auto shop during lunch and are now crashing rituals and festivals.

I find this attitude distressing to say the least. As much as such voices may protest we are a serious spiritual movement, not a "fad" or an act of rebellion, we have to stop and look at the long view of things. Paganism is in the modern day, like Christianity was during the Roman Empire, as much a new form of spirituality as it is a rebellion against the current state of affairs spiritually speaking. Most Pagans come to our paths not just because of what makes our belief systems so elegant and inclusive but also because of dissatisfaction with what mainstream spirituality offers. In fact from what I've seen and heard in person I'd be willing to bet the vast majority come to Paganism first out of dissatisfaction with Christianity, not out of attraction to Pagan thought and Pagan beliefs. If that's not an act of rebellion as much as an act of fulfillment I don't know what is.

So why now should people be dismissing individuals or groups they view as "not serious" because of how they came to our faiths out of inspiration from something they saw in a movie, read about online, saw on TV, or overheard at lunch because they both are dissatisfied with their current belief system or out of an act of rebellion? I'm sure most established Pagan Elder regardless of what they believe now started in a similar place and on the way probably believed all kinds of things that now they would scoff as uninformed or dare I say part of a fad.

Why should we scoff at them now because they are uninformed or ignorant? They may not know much but what matters most is that their hearts are in the right place and that is the most important part of the whole exercise. It does not matter how well-educated, informed, or pedigreed someone is if they lack the desire to live by what they have been taught. We shouldn't be turning the uninformed or poorly instructed away just because they don't believe the "right" thing or haven't been properly taught. So what if they came because it's the "cool thing to do?" With the people who do we have the opportunity to determine who are genuinely interested and believe from those who are just along for the ride because it looks fun.

We shouldn't toss all aside just because of how they come to us. Why should we tell someone just because they came to Paganism out of a desire to be "rebellious" or because they "hate Christianity" they don't deserve to REALLY learn what we believe and have help in understanding what we believe? Why should we exclude them from our public events, from classes, and from events? By refusing to give them a way in they're more likely to go to people who may have unscrupulous or self-serving motives instead of those with their eyes lifted to the Gods.

We need to look beyond the trappings of how those new to our beliefs come to us and instead look to see if the faith that burns inside them is real. After all, that punk kid in biker leathers with two full sleeves of tattoos or the airy-fairy hippy high schooler with guidance could be the next great writer, leader, or artist for our community if we just lend them a helping hand.

After all, isn't judging someone's faith for how it came to be the kind of thing we're not supposed to be doing?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sword Must Not Silence the Pen

I've been reading the news over the past week of increasing reports of violence acts taking place at the different health-care town halls going on across the country. For some recent highlights we have the man who was spotted in New Hampshire on Tuesday outside a town hall Obama attended yesterday carrying a gun and a sign that said, "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants", an individual arrested today at a town hall in Maryland with a sign saying, "Death to Obama", statements from one of the top Tea Party organizers urging their followers to bring guns and "hurt" any union activists present, and quite beautifully Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) statement on Sunday that the Democratic unrest with what is going on now is a sign that the GOP is "winning" on health care.

Quite frankly what is going on disturbs me on a very deep level for a few reasons.

There have been incidents of organized violence and mass protest in American history before. This is nothing new. Everything ranging from the tactics used by the great urban machines of America to the KKK in the Deep South during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s up to the more extreme actions by pro-life activists in the 90s including bombing clinics are a dirty if real part of American history. In each of those instances you had organized mob violence taking place for a political end but, with the exception of incidents of political intimidation by urban machines in the 1800s, what all those incidents have in common is that none of them were implicitly endorsed or ignored by a major political party when they took place.

In the current situation not only do you have Sen. McConnell's statement on Sunday but you have repeated statements since then regarding non-existent "death panels" by other major members of the Republican Party including Sens. Grassley and Coburn, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin that are being used as rhetorical fuel by the mobs. There is also the level of organization, proven by leaked memos, on the behalf of the demonstrators at the town halls and the close links between the groups organizing them, the GOP, and the health care industry that did not exist previously with the exception of the close ties between the Democrats and the KKK during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

Now I am a firm believer in the old statement that free speech means that while I may disagree with what you say with every bone in my body I will defend to the death your right to say it. Without free speech a free society is impossible. But like all rights free speech is both the freedom to speak freely and the duty to exercise that right responsibly. Free speech, when used to incite violence, anger, and fear through deliberate misinformation or when used to silence another person's right to speak freely is when you cross the line from responsible use of free speech to the use of speech as a tool of intimidation.

There is nothing wrong, in fact I welcome it, in a person challenging the current policies in debate in Congress on health care. But shouting loudly and refusing other people in the room to even get a word in is not an example of free expression no matter who does it. That is using speech to silence all opposition, to intimidate people into submission, and to prevent any real discussion from taking place. Those who would seek to use speech as a weapon as opposed to a means of expressing ideas and debating policy are not using their right in a responsible fashion but rather to keep others from exercising their right to do the same.

Now I would imagine anyone reading this is asking the question, "What about the right to protest the policies of a government? Isn't that a vital part of our democracy?" It is.

What is happening now is not protest. Protest does not involve making threats of violence against the opposition like one Congressman who canceled all his town halls for the month because of death threats delivered to his office. Protest is not bringing weapons with you to a peaceful forum and openly stating you are ready to start trouble. Protest is not coming to an open debate where all are welcome and then refusing to allow anyone you disagree with to speak. When a group deliberately engages in tactics of intimidation, harassment, and suppression of dissenting voices with the implicit promise of violence present that has crossed the line from civil discussion of policy into the politics of thuggery.

Now as I mentioned earlier this kind of thing has happened before. Groups attempting to use force in lieu of reasoned discussion are not new in American politics. The difference here is the implied endorsement by mainstream political figures and authorities by statements of leading Republicans, a refusal to condemn these actions, and the exposure of some of the demonstrators being ranking operatives of the Republican Party. That the GOP has failed to do so gives these demonstrators a sense of legitimacy and encourages the use of violence in the political process.

One might simply dismiss these mob actions as isolated events or overblown political theater with heated rhetoric. Some might simply dismiss this as part of Washington's kabuki theater of politics. Those who would do so must remember the last time a major political faction in the United States engaged in such violent rhetoric, refusal to cooperate or discuss the issues, and endorsed violent acts instead of peaceful protest and discussion the end result was the Civil War. This political brinksmanship is incredibly dangerous and, if not reigned in, could have disastrous impact on our nation.

So what should be done? I call on all who read this, regardless of your actual opinion on the matter of health care, to attend a local town hall and refuse to allow these people to silence debate. It does not matter if you are solidly opposed to the proposed health care out of fears of government expansion or working to get it passed into law, the use of violence in political discourse is an issue that all Americans should agree on in condemnation of it.

We all need to exercise our right to free speech and do our duty as citizens to ensure the health of our democracy. We, as Americans, must do everything we can to peacefully stop such radical tactics and radical activists from hijacking our democratic process. The moment that the mob takes over is the moment when the rights of all citizens of this nation are in grave danger. To allow the mob to control this or any debate by force, fear, and intimidation is to ensure a serious blow to the stability of our free society.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thanks everyone!

Thanks for all the feedback and comments everyone!

I've gotten quite a bit of mail from Witchvox probably the most touching was from a woman in the Midwest who wrote that so far her whole life she has completely lived in the closet out of fear and what could happen if anyone found out she's a Witch. She said that last week's article inspired her to go to the next local Pagan Pride Day for the first time in her life.

I don't know about anyone else, but writing something that touches the life of even one person is worth it. It doesn't matter if what you say is only being read by five people or broadcast out to millions daily, what matters is that you inspire people to take action for the better.

Doing a deed that inspires even one person to do good deeds and dare great action, even if that action is private or personal, because it is right is the greatest glory. Asserting our rights as Americans and humans may seem daunting, ourselves and our ancestors have beaten greater odds. We have come in fifty years from being mocked as a fringe cult of crazies to winning victories like the recognition of the British Pagan Constables' right to take Pagan religious holidays or the US Army putting our faiths in the Chaplains' Manual.

The road ahead will not be easy, it will not be short, and it certainly will not be smooth. But it is a road we must walk, whether of our own volition or forced by circumstance. I would rather we do it by our own choice.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We Must Hide No Longer

Just published on Witchvox as of tonight, link is here: http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usca&c=words&id=13456

We Must Hide No Longer

Welcome to America. The self-proclaimed land of the free and home of the brave. The country where, at least in theory, one can practice any faith one wishes and can fully exercise as the Founding Fathers put it the “freedom of conscience.” The First Amendment, which starts with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” while plain on its face has had a lot of footnotes attached to it over the years by the Christian supermajority. Freedom of religion as long as your faith is Abrahamic in origin. Freedom from persecution as long as you kneel before the Cross. Freedom to worship openly and unhindered only if your faith is one that was thrust on your ancestors by foreign missionaries who claimed to have their best interests at heart.

As a member of what is America’s Invisible Minority, I am no stranger to what happens to Pagans when one is outed. While I have not been physically assaulted or fired because of my faith I do know what it is for people to go oddly silent when I offer a blessing or to be mocked as “insane”, labeled a “devil-worshiper”, and of course the ever-popular chastisement of, “You’re going to Hell.” I’m fairly sure that anyone not Christian reading this knows what I’m talking about. I’m also fairly sure most people reading this, if they personally have not been the victims of it, at least know someone who lost their job shortly after being outed for “personality issues” or “didn’t quite work out” and of course the famous, “we no longer have need of your services.”

Then we have the worst examples: Brandi Blackbear, who was suspended from school for fifteen days in Oklahoma due to accusations of witchcraft[i]. In 1999 Tempest Smith of Michigan who, after school administrators washed their hands of the ongoing harassment by Christian students at her school, hung herself rather than deal with it any longer in 2001[ii]. Palmdale, California, the state that is seen by many and prided as the most forward-thinking in the country, in 2002 had a local Christian group invade a Pagan store and harass, browbeat, intimidate, and threaten patrons who were honoring Ostara. The best part was when the Sheriff’s Department refused to investigate because, oh by the way, a volunteer department chaplain was at the attack and helped organize it[iii]. 2004 in South Carolina saw local prosecutors state that a man accused of murder did so because he was Wiccan[iv]. There is of course the infamous case of the Wiccan Nevada National Guardsman denied a pentacle on his headstone by the US government[v]. In 2007 an Army Chaplain, in spite of his stellar record as a soldier and Chaplain, was not only denied his request to serve as a Wiccan Chaplain but removed from the Chaplain’s Corps[vi]. I’m sure there are plenty of other incidents like these that are as bad, possibly worse, that have not been mentioned here.

So what, you may be wondering, is the point of all this? The point is simple: we as a diverse group of Earth-based faith traditions are routinely disrespected and disregarded by American society as a whole. Now I know a lot of Pagans are likely thinking to themselves, “Why should we care what a bunch of superficial ‘sheeple’ think? We’re free spirits who dance to the beat of our own drums and don’t care what other people say about us!” There is a very serious problem with that kind of thinking. In the United States of America today there are about 300 million people[vii]. Of that 300 million it is estimated only 1.3 million are Pagans of some kind or another[viii]. As much as our independent spirit and willingness to question convention is probably our greatest strength it cannot be ignored that we are a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. What would happen if, for example, the good people at Operation Rescue who had regularly targeted Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Kansas for protest[ix] were very directly confronted in the national media and asked if their accusations of him being a mass-murderer[x] were responsible in some fashion for his cold-blooded assassination inside his own church? You would have wall to wall coverage of pundits, preachers, and politicians tearing their hair out and wailing about “persecution.” Now what happens if, say, a Druid Grove is accused of human sacrifice? First off you probably wouldn’t see any media attention given to such a story unless someone decides to go and actually do something about “those dangerous cultists.” You would probably also see outrage and condemnation on the web on Pagan blogs. And just like many other instances of persecution after we as a whole vow “Never Again” and some group or foundation takes up the incident as their championed cause, it sinks back into the morass of apathy. Why does this happen? Are we not devoted enough to our own dignity? The answer is rather more elementary than Pagans being undeserving or incapable of organizing or any of the other excuses bandied about.

With only a small handful of real victories against our persecutors and attackers, any move to do something about it is already seen by many as doomed to fail. Too many Pagans give our independent nature and notorious difficulty in being organized in any meaningful fashion as cop-outs to really having an impact on society and improving our standing in it. It is, sadly, understandable why many would do so. Who wants to exhaust their time, money, and energy fighting for a cause pre-determined in the minds of their colleagues as lost? Everyone wants to be the hero riding over the hill; no one wants to be the people who make the glorious last stand for a greater moral victory. Far better, it would be argued, to think small. Better to gain a seat on an Interfaith Council or use of a Unitarian Church than to run for public office. Better to make small, easy victories than to organize, mobilize, and take the fight to where it matters most: the public square. Better to cede the debate to people who do not understand us and in many cases are actively hostile to us.

To take such an approach is to sacrifice the future of our faith, of our community, and of the next generation of Pagans for the sake of questionable comfort and unsteady safety in the immediate present. As Ben Franklin once said, “He who would give up a little liberty for a little security will gain neither and lose both.” We cannot continue to “wait and see” or “let our moment come” or “try not to upset people.” We upset a sizable fraction of the population simply by breathing; staying quiet and walking small will not change that. I see no reason why we, a community that wears our free spirits as a badge of honor and believe in the importance of personal responsibility, should be afraid of standing up for what we believe. Every other group striving for rights and dignity in American history has been told the same thing when they began their push. If all the other groups had listened then we probably would still have slavery in the South, women as property of their husbands, and only those with land of their own having the right to vote. Discretion is said to be the better part of valor, but when discretion is forced by circumstance then it is no longer a guardrail against madness but a straightjacket for the soul.

So long as we allow inaction we will remain the Invisible Minority. So long as we act in reaction to fear Pagans will continue to be harassed, attacked, fired, and forgotten. The promise of the Declaration of Independence of, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” will remain unfulfilled for all of us. The effort will be long. It will be hard. Only a fool would promise that it will be easy. But America now is no longer the America where the Religious Right stood unchallenged in their agenda by the masses. The time is now. We stand at a vital crossroads in history. With the power of the social conservatives, at least for now, broken and our numbers on the rise we must seize the moment and begin the long journey to respect and acceptance. In so doing we must remember, for all who join us in the cause, that we do not just do so for ourselves. We fight for each other, our fellow Kin regardless of Tradition.

Most importantly, we are fighting for the future. The future of our Traditions. The future of our community as a whole and the health, vitality, and success of our local communities in particular. Most vitally we are struggling for the next generation. We must take up the cause to demand respect and dignity and work long and hard now so that when the next generation comes of age they will not know the fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and hardship that many of us have been forced to live with. We begin today so tomorrow we may openly stand on the mountaintops and in the public square with each other, our children, and our fellow Americans and have no fear anywhere in this nation, from Seattle to Atlanta, from San Francisco to San Antonio, from New York to New Orleans there will be no place where we must hide the truth of who we are for the sake of survival or propriety.

We must take up the cause of liberation. We can no longer let fear instilled by our attackers to keep us shoved into the shadows. We must stand up and get involved in our local communities. We need to actively participate in local, state, and federal politics whether or not it is directly Pagan related or not. To give us a voice in public offices we need to cultivate, assist and support people to run for these offices including those within the existing two major parties.

We must aggressively dispel the lies perpetrated by our foes by coming out to the public where it is safe to do so as a Pagan, as a Druid, as a Witch, as a Heathen so they know we are not some mysterious dark cult but real people they know. We must do this for what are our natural rights as human beings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on our terms according to what we believe not what others say we must believe. We have no time to wait, no time to allow our moment to come. Our time is here. Every act we take, great or small, alone or in a group, that is one made for the good of our greater community is one worth doing. Every act no matter its impact is one more step on the road to victory. We cannot wait for heroes to come riding down from on high to our rescue; we must answer the call and rise to the challenge that we all face.



[i] http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1568/is_9_32/ai_70461580/

[ii] http://community-2.webtv.net/FullMoonCircle/TempestSmith/

[iii] Rich Breault, "Wiccagate: What do Witches Grove protesters have to hide?," Valley Press, 2002-APR-8.

[iv] http://www.wistv.com/Global/story.asp?S=2347141&nav=0RaPRIlo

[v] http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2007/feb/08/news/chi-0702080027feb08

[vi] http://www.northcountrygazette.org/articles/2007/032907WitchTrials.html

[vii] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/US.html

[viii] http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/affiliations-all-traditions.pdf

[ix] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/abortviolence/stories/tiller3.htm

[x] http://www.christiannewswire.com/news/8967610531.html


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Future of Modern Paganism

As of May 24 this Essay is published on Witchvox

Link here: http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usca&c=words&id=13284


The Future of Modern Paganism: Activism, Mobilization, and Community Building

The state of the United States and, by extension, the Pagan community in America is in a unique and advantageous position. For the past two decades American politics have increasingly become dominated by the growing power of evangelical Christianity reaching its peak of power and influence in 2004 with George W. Bush’s re-election. Now with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and the subsequent rout of the Republican Party coupled with the growing tally of victories by the Gay Rights movement, Prop 8 notwithstanding, the Religious Right is in steady retreat in the public sphere and in society. While this retreat will not be permanent we now stand at an interesting cross-road. Opinions regarding gay marriage and religious plurality are shifting away from dogmatic adherence to one creed and exclusionary ideas and more in an open-direction. We stand at a moment where, if we should be able to effectively mobilize ourselves as a community and truly build real community and communities, we could easily establish ourselves as a religious group in society that will be, while not necessarily liked, at least respected and treated as the serious diverse group of faiths that we are.

The first major matter is the current situation. The Republic Party in 2008 was solidly routed, many of the more prominent defeats were candidates who had run on strong family values and socially conservative platforms. Sarah Palin’s attachment to the ticket and the association of her with defeat has serious weakened the credibility and power of the Religious Right. With these defeats the GOP has collapsed into political infighting and struggle as to who will stand as the leadership and while the Religious Right is still a serious force it no longer is the clear-cut leader of the Party. These events also go hand in hand with new statistical information. Recent studies in late 2008 and 2009 confirm that American attitudes towards religion are shifting to a more open one. 55% of adults under 44 in America are in favor of Gay Marriage or Civil Unions and the segments of the population supporting banning it are aging and shrinking[i]. Similarly a majority of American Christians believe that other religions can, in fact, lead to eternal life and not just their own[ii]. Both of these trends show a change in opinions on religion in American towards a much less dogmatic one to a more pluralistic, accepting one. While the loudest voices may claim that conservative dogma is the face of Christianity in truth the majority are not pro-life evangelicals but more inclusive and unorthodox believers.

Also vitally important are the results of the Pew Center 2008 Survey on Religion in America. The survey, with a 0.6% margin of error, concluded that 0.6% of the American population are Wiccan or Pagan of some form or another[iii]. To give that a sense of context when the numbers are run the estimated number of Pagans in the US comes out to 1.3 million. This coupled with previous polls that have put Paganism, not Islam as is most commonly reported in the mass media, as the fastest growing religion in the United States of America more than suggests we not only are not a mere handful but a group not to be ignored and growing larger every day and that the days we spend in the shadows, whether willingly or not, are numbered. With increasing open-mindedness of the public and our own growing and established numbers it is likely in the next generation we will be one of the largest religious groups in America. While earlier predictions there would be more Pagans than Jews in America by 2012 may seem a bit overstated at this date there is no question that we are as a community on the rise. But in spite of all this data in our favor events are often sparsely attended. Of the estimated 1.3 million Pagans very few are actually active members of any established Pagan religious organizations. This, however, can be changed. If we are to gain the respect we deserve as our inherent rights as human beings then we will need to bring together our community and make our voice heard.

But first many may ask ourselves: by what measure is a Pagan? This question is far simpler to answer than it would seem. In spite of all the names and divisions between Wiccans, Druids, Asatru, Kemetics, Neo-Shamans, Eclectics, and all the rest we share much more in common with one another than we would admit. It is not unusual for members of different groups to attend each other’s rituals. At the base of it even the most pacifistic Wiccan and martial Heathen can sit down at the same table and still have much more in common than either of the above would with one of the followers of Abraham that form the majority of Americans. We all venerate the same, or similar, holidays. We all worship multiple Gods ranging from Wiccan duality to hard polytheism but all the same recognizing the Gods of other groups as worthy of honor and respect. We have strong emphasis on culture, although many different ones, and tradition and venerate our ancestors. For all Pagans without question the Earth and all things of Nature are Holy. Most Pagan groups are very inclusive and tolerant, judging a person not by race, gender, or sexuality but by reputation, words, and actions. Honor is a concept that, while not universally followed, is well understood and highly respected. While we may have different ethical systems and virtues all of them place the emphasis on personal accountability and not helplessness before the Powers. Based on this we need to stop thinking of ourselves just as in our one box but as willing to recognize our common ground and stand together against all adversaries on that common ground. But first we need to come together and not just metaphorically. Concentrated minority communities, in the United States, often have the best chance of success against adversity and in the struggle for rights.

To be able to gain proper respect and protection of Pagans from quiet discrimination and persecution we need to make our voices heard and have impact in government and the enforcement of the law and public policy. To do this we have to play by the most basic rule of democracy: those who get out the most votes win, simple as that. Yet this is much easier said than done. When a community is diffuse and dispersed it can often be difficult to mobilize such a community to action leaving such a community unable to act effectively in all but the direst of circumstances. Often there is no sense of community beyond a vague sense on an abstract level making effective voter mobilization an exercise in futility. Yet once people of common community come together in physical space and closeness you have a kind of rapid development of common culture and norms. From this it becomes much easier both in an abstract sense and a purely physical sense to mobilize a group to action. This goes both from the cohesion and sense of togetherness physical community creates as well as the more prosaic fact that it is easier to get a group of people living on the same block out to vote than having to zip all over a county to round up voters.

There is criticism to taking this approach. The main lines that said criticism, so far based on a discussion on the ADF-Druidry mailing list, are threefold each of which will be examined in detail. The first is the matter of why we should bother with gaining the respect of mainstream society, the second the possible dangers that may come from consolidation, and the third being the difficulty in organizing Pagans in the first place. That said, the benefits of truly banding together as a united community both in a physical and social sense greatly outweigh any perceived cost.

The first is simply why we should seek the acceptance and respect of a majority that more than a few Pagans disdain. The answer is simple. Just because we may not like some aspects of mainstream society and culture does not mean we can ignore mainstream society. While the Religious Right is in retreat now, they likely will recover and return and when they do going after gays will not be socially acceptable or tolerated and if we have not established ourselves strongly enough we will be the next target. While the persecution we suffer now is not severe enough to need physical protection from threats, if we remain isolated and diffused when that time comes we will be easy to pick off one at a time. It is much harder to bring down a strong pack or herd for a predator than to take down lone targets. For this reason we must gain said respect to protect ourselves from the inevitable backlash against us. It is not a matter of accommodation and assimilation but of simple survival. We do not need nor should we seek to become more palatable to the majority. Instead we must show them we are different, but worthy of respect and valuable members of society and not just some fringe mystics to be easily ignored. We must, through mobilization and consolidation, gain their respect on our terms.

The second main criticism of this approach is the fear of Pagans becoming “ghettoized” as well as the perception that consolidated communities are not always a benefit. This fear of Pagans becoming easily isolated by consolidation ignores that in our current situation we already are isolated. The difference between now and in that possible future of Pagan neighborhoods, districts, and villages is that while we can be shoved off into that box, we can’t be shoved off the map as we can and are now. There is also the point that the Castro and other gay neighborhoods in California couldn’t stop Prop 8. This does not take into account that the campaign against Prop 8 was poorly conducted and often too little, too late and all the victories the gay community has gained from gay enclaves in the state of California and other states in America.

The third and final is the practicality. Pagans are often accused of being as difficult to organize as herding cats. While this is very true and will be an obstacle, just because something is difficult is never a good reason to not make the effort. Every culture that are venerated by Pagan groups has at least one legendary moment in their lore and their ancestral history of when their ancestors had the choice between doing what had to be done and what was right being weighed against what was easy. At many of these crucial junctures they chose to do what had to be done instead of simply acquiescing to the current situation. We cannot shirk from taking the necessary steps to acceptance and respect just because it will be difficult and take effort and work. We also need not do it in one rush. The Castro was not born overnight. If you have 20 people willing to move into the same neighborhood and live openly as they are there, others will soon come to join them. The Castro started small and by 1978 was big enough to propel Harvey Milk into office, the first openly gay man elected in American history, from its origins in 1972 as an Irish Catholic blue collar neighborhood. More impressively this was done well before the internet, a tool vital to modern Pagan networking that makes the cost and ease of coordination for all groups of all types infinitely easier.

Once such communities exist, and on the way to achieving that, we need to get our own people into elected office. It does not matter if this is for dog catcher or school board or mayor or state legislature or governor no minority group in the US has ever been taken seriously until they were able to put one of their own in office on their terms. This is not to say people are not trying, but rather that the openly Pagan candidates who run often run for third parties with little support, organization, or chance at victory. We need, through community consolidation and voter mobilization, to get our own people in through the major political parties into office on their own terms. This will certainly not be easy, but if we can establish political muscle it will be much easier to make our own candidates forces to be reckoned with in American politics. Even without this we can still get some of our best and brightest in. We have plenty of distinguished veterans, police officers, firefighters, and other emergency workers in our ranks, people who society is raised to respect and revere. By having people run who have records of impeccable and honorable service to their communities and country we can, in places where it is possible, deflect the religious issue by using strong character to render it a moot point. We also need people who can appeal to either of the major parties both by personal record and mobilized base of support to establish voter coalitions to propel them to party nominations and election. Again this will not be easy and will take some compromises but as much as we need mystics, clerics, and teachers we also need our own warriors and chieftains as a community to establish respect with the mainstream. Until we are able to elect our own and show that we are movement worthy of respect we will remain easy to isolate and ignore and those that can be ignored thusly become easy prey for persecution.

With all the encouraging data presented at the beginning of this essay it may be easy to simply say, “Why worry? All the numbers are trending our way anyway so there’s no threat.” This ignores certain cycles that regularly repeat themselves in American history. One such cycle is the specter of religious revival. Almost like clockwork this happens in American history, the first such event being the Great Awakening of the 18th century followed by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century that gave birth to the Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist churches. Following this was the birth of modern fundamentalism in the 1880s and 1890s that gave its muscle to Prohibition and achieved their ends by the 1920s. This pulse faded back into the background, but another that was born in reaction to the 60s and counter-culture and continues with us to this day known popularly as the Religious Right is not a unique phenomenon but the latest in a succession of fervent, conservative religious revivals in US History. While the trends are pulling away from their dominance often in American politics and society a strong swing in one direction will be followed by another in the opposing one. With the coming of a new fundamentalism in America it is not a question of if but when and how it emerges. We must take advantage of the time we have now while the Religious Right lays in its death throes to move quickly, establish ourselves strongly enough while they collapse. If we do so decisively and effectively when their children both literal and philosophical take up the cause of their forbears we will not be scattered and alone waiting to be picked off but ready, waiting, and able to defend ourselves literally and politically. We must take advantage of our current situation and move quickly otherwise when the threat is direct and present the cost of defeating it in the future will be much higher than taking direct, effective action now.

Ultimately the future of the Pagan community lies not in continued solitary closeted existence if we are to gain respect and recognition of our rights but in consolidation and open action. We can no longer simply sit on the sidelines and let events in our country go on without our say or action or for our rights to remain out of our hands to protect. We must, as a whole, band together, mobilize based on common issues, needs, and ideas and assert our rights as a unique, vibrant, and crucial part of American society. We cannot afford to continue slowly and quietly while waiting for a hero on a white horse with a magic sword to ride over the hill and lead us to victory. We are the heroes we are waiting for. Until we do so and come together on issues of common importance we will forever remain part of a marginalized fringe of American society.


[i] "Civil Rights." http://www.pollingreport.com/civil.htm (accessed April 20, 2009).

[ii] "Pew Forum: Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life." December 18, 2008.http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=380 (accessed April 20, 2009).

[iii] "Pew Forum: Church Statistics and Religious Affiliations." http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/affiliations-all-traditions.pdf (accessed April 20, 2009).