As we reach the close of 2010, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.
10. The Crackdown on Minority Religions in Russia: A woefully underreported story in the mainstream media, but one that could have vast ramifications for modern Pagans, is the slow-moving oppression of minority faiths in Russia. As the government, in seemingly increasing collusion with the Russian Orthodox Church, use laws against extremism and “cults” to intimidate and oppress competing faiths, the future of indigenous and neopagan faiths in Russia seems endangered.
In response to an appeal by the local state prosecutor, Yoshkar-Ola Municipal Court found Vitaly Tanakov guilty of religious and ethnic hatred in 2006, sentencing him to 120 hours’ forced labour. In 2009, Mari El Supreme Court ruled that his leaflet – “A Priest Speaks” – contained religious and other extremism. It is now banned throughout Russia.
Peoples influenced by the Bible and Koran “have lost harmony between the individual and the people,” argues Tanakov, in what is actually one of only a few references to other faiths in his leaflet. “Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, mutual aid; everyone and everything are infected by falsehood.” By contrast, he boasts, the Mari traditional faith will be “in demand by the whole world for many millennia.”
These laws were originally written to address “doomsday cults” in Russia, but are increasingly being used on largely benign faiths, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the the Mari people. These developments should concern anyone who values freedom of religion, and especially those concerned with the growth and preservation of Paganism across the globe. It should also act as a warning to those who would start writing and supporting laws that would oversee the free expression of faith.
09. Psychic Services & The Law: I’ve been reporting on run-ins between local governments and those who provide various psychic/fortune telling services for a long time, but this year the topic seemed to garner wider press attention. Both Time Magazine and the BBC looked at a growing trend of stricter regulations against psychics being enforced by local governments, and in response to this attention I interviewed professional psychics and tarot readers like Christian Day, Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack.
“I don’t believe in specific laws and regulations for fortune tellers that go beyond the standard business laws of any community. It has been found that laws prohibiting fraud cover most cases of abuse perfectly adequately and far better than regulations that discriminate unfairly against this particular profession, especially when they assume criminal behavior where none has been shown by the individual. It has been proved over and over again that discriminatory regulations are created by special interest groups and that they are unfair and almost always unconstitutional.” – Mary K. Greer
Spurred by a variety of impulses, some religious, some not, towns and cities created subcultural “red light districts”, stood by total bans, and argued over whether psychic services could be classified as “spiritual counseling”, while in Canada, obscure laws against “witchcraft” were used to pursue fraud cases. We also saw a big win as the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that fortunetelling and other psychic services are protected speech, setting a precedent that could affect laws across the country. Expect this issue to continue to make news, and involve members of our community in 2011.
08. The James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Death Controversy: While the tragic events that took three lives happened at the end of 2009, 2010 saw the arrest and ongoing drama unfold in the case of New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who is accused of negligent homicide after a sweat lodge ceremony went horribly wrong.
This event has had repercussion through many different communities, some Native American activists and commentators are concerned their beliefs are going to be put on trial to exonerate Ray, and in one instance have even considered regulating Native practices to prevent such occurrences from repeating. In the New Age hub of Sedona, business is down, and some are blaming the “negative energy” of the sweat lodge deaths, though few think practices will dramatically alter in the long term. Meanwhile, Ray and his lawyers continue to try to suppress damaging evidence as the trial looms ever closer. What the longterm ramifications of this event will be for Ray, Native Americans, the New Age market, and the modern Pagans who cross-pollinate with these affected communities remains to be seen.
07. WM3 and the ghosts of Satanic Panic: While the horrors of the mid-1980s moral panic over “Satanic” cults, a phenomenon that imprisoned dozens and ruined the lives of hundreds more, has most devolved into “did that really happen” gallows humor, 2010 reminded us that there’s a lot of unfinished business from that era. The most high-profile instance is the case of the West Memphis Three (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.), long considered by many to be victims of panic-fueled miscarriage of justice, the three men recently won the right to new evidentiary hearings, providing them their best chance yet of overturning their convictions.
“The court also pointed out Thursday that Circuit Judge David Burnett erred repeatedly in the case, including dismissing requests to consider DNA and other exculpatory evidence without a hearing. Burnett has been the focus of activists’ campaigns because of his pro-prosecution stances. He will not hear the new case because he was recently elected to the state legislature. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has also fought against a new hearing.”
This case has long drawn the attention of modern Pagans since prosecutors used Echols’ interest in the occult and Wicca to help convince a jury, with no physical evidence and a coerced confession from the mentally challenged Misskelley, that they were to blame for the murder of three boys. As a society, we are still dealing with the fallout of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic, and many of those who participated enjoy high-profile careers to this day.We need to not only right the wrongs of yesterday, but remain vigilant that such a panic doesn’t emerge again.
06. The Passing of Isaac Bonewits: 2010 was a heavy year for deaths within the Pagan community, but the passage of seminal Pagan leader Isaac Bonewits in August shook our communities, and brought forward an unique communal outpouring of grief and tribute rarely seen.
Isaac Bonewits, photo by Ava Francesca, from the ADF website.
A true Pagan polymath, Bonewits seemed to drink deeply of modern Paganism in all its myriad forms.He’s been an initiate into Santeria, religious Witchcraft (both orthodox and heterodox), various magic(k)al traditions, and fraternal Druidism. A man of letters, he wrote many celebrated books, andmany more influential essays. Many of the phrases and terminology we now use on a regular basis had their genesis with Isaac Bonewits. His Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF)has been used by Federal law enforcement and foreign governments to evaluate religious minorities, and he’s been a visionary in predicting the growing pains our movement would encounter.
Perhaps his greatest gift and legacy to the Pagan movement will be the founding of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), a Druid fellowship that from the outset anticipated the ramifications of our growing numbers, and the strove to meet the challenges that would bring. [...] His role in founding the ADF alone has earned him a place in history.
Bonewits was a giant among us, and his passing has left us without one of our most intelligent and forward-looking leaders just as many of his visions for the future were coming to fruition. We can only hope that his legacy and example will endure.
Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2010. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. Here are the Religion Newswriters Association’s picks, Terry Mattingly’s (of Get Religion fame) picks, the top spiritual trends according to Charisma Magazine, the top picks from Christianity Today, and Time Magazine’s top religion story picks.