Updates: Teaching Paganism, Passive Distribution, Library Filtering, and Project Conversion

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 17, 2012 — 26 Comments

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. [...] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year [...] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. [...] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Hecatedemetersdatter

    Jason, the “deny each and every allegation” language is just a term of art and to be expected at this stage. I still think this case has the potential for a successful settlement. Thanks for your continued coverage of it.

  • Andrew Bowen

    Jason,

    Thanks for the read, as always!
     

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    Fascinating. Bowen began the experiment as a Christian, and apparently ended it as one, unless I’m missing something. 

    • Matthaios

      He did Hinduism in January and ended with Catholicism in December…unless you mean he was Christian before he started the project? If I recall correctly, he was an agnostic or atheist leading up to the “Project” though, like a lot of us, he had a Christian upbringing.

      Why do you bring it up, Star?

      I think he presented Wicca fairly and gave it the same weight and status as all the other religions he studied. Would I say it was exhaustive? Of course not…but that wasn’t the point. I think it could have been a good starting point for a curious seeker or a good teaching moment for those who might not have been so accepting of Wicca before.

      • Henry

        I’d be interested to know if the other faiths he explored considered his participation as ‘Blithe tourism’. If it was theological tourism, then this here ‘Patheos’ is in many ways a theological tour guide.
        From the ‘about page:
        “Founded in 2008, Patheos.com is the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information about religion.”

        I think Bowen took the ‘exploring and experiencing’ from just surfing through web pages to actual face to face encounter.  A month on each in real time and environs is a bit better than spending a month glossing over a religious portal.
        At least he seems to have been up front about it with each group he ‘embedded’ with, and not some covert infiltrator. Nor did he seem to have any kind of alternative agenda for undertaking his project.
        I’d concur with Matthaios, and go a bit further to say it is pretty much the modus of many spiritual/religious seekers.

        • Matthaios

          All the other faiths seemed to be rather open to him exploring what they had to offer.

          • Henry

            ah, so another tempest in a teapot.

    • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

      Star, indeed I think you are missing something. I can see where Greene’s line about “attending mass” occasionally might be confusing. And yes, he was a former fundamentalist Christian. From what I can tell, Andew started the project as an agnostic and ended as a student of all faiths.

      • Andrew Bowen

         B is right. I began the journey as agnostic with a heavy anti-theistic bent. I do in fact attend weekly Mass simply because it is a still, quiet place to meditate, and within walking distance to my home. Unfortunately, other faith institutions are quite a distance away so it makes attendance difficult. I try and compensate by incorporating practices and meditations from various sources into my daily routine. Blessed be, folks.

  • Mia

    How about not distributing religious material at all?

    Oh, wait. That would be too rational. We can’t have THAT sort of nonsense going on.

  • deerwoman

    I see that Bowen changed his description of shamanism and its relation to Paganism sometime after I made my comment (posting as “Desiree” on October 6th) so that’s at least some improvement. (There were probably other comments he took into consideration from other sources too regarding that issue though.)

    Previously he presented shamanism as a branch of Pagan religion: “Shamanism and Wicca are but two seperate branches in the great tree of Paganism.” Now he states “First of all, Shamanism is its own unique world and doesn’t usually fit nicely within the great tree of Paganism.” Personally I think shamanism can fit quite nicely within certain branches of Paganism and has done so in the past and present, but it’s a little more accurate than what he had stated previously.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    It’s so weird to read about public library filtering of occult material. This was first addressed more than a decade ago and nothing seems to have changed. I guess it’s like aggressively Christian public school practices — eternal vigilance and all that.

  • Piper

    Hmm, I have been watching, and checking, various pagan sites that are blocked by my school district’s filter as occult or paranormal. But it is weird, PaganDad, will be blocked one day and not another.  PNC sites are the same, and the content of the stories seem to make no difference as to why they are filtered. OTO, not blocked, Sophian Gnosticism, blocked. I have contacted the IT dept. and have gotten some good response, but the wheels grind slowly, the filtering service says they will move these  sites to an “Astrology” category. That category might not be blocked if the board approves it. As this is in the state where Sg.t Patrick Stewart is interred, things might get interesting

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com/ Chas Clifton

    Christina Odone is a relative lightweight. When I want to see a reactionary English Catholic journalist slip the Vatican stiletto in, I reach for the hard stuff: Damian Thompson.

    • http://entdinglichung.wordpress.com Entdinglichung

       around 8 years ago, she was considered a progressive Catholic and wrote for the New Statesman and The Observer, don’t know how and why this changed

  • Henry

     “How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?“
    Hmmm, the more intriguing question would be how long before health and safety would be inspecting the quality of the human sacrifice? ;-) 

    • Hermogenes

      That can be taken very negatively, Henry. I don’t know of any modern religion that demands human sacrifice (barring certain local faiths you find in the criminal world).

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I’m a stickler on that. I regard any society that executes people as practicing human sacrifice whether or not the label of religion goes on it.

  • Kilmrnock

    As i said in my comment from the origonal posting , I’m just waiting for this nonsence to hit the courts …………this stuff won’t stand a snow balls chance in hell. And anther question , how did a Christian based filter get certified for use by federal authorities ?That in itself reaks of favoratism . From my point of view is  more crap from our RR freinds.Both situations listed above have constitutional problems , a baised internet filter and distributing any religious material at a public school.     Kilm

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “[...H]ow did a Christian based filter get certified for use by federal authorities ?”

      The federal authorities mandate filtration by law if the library is getting federal funds. The libraries pick the filters, which are provided by private companies.

      Those private companies began this work earlier in the history of the Internet, when propositions to censor the Internet were being proposed and defeated in Congress. The first customers for filters after that failure were conservative parents who wanted to control their kids’ Internet access. A lot of them were conservative Christians, and the industry developed to cater to them, specifically to filter what they wanted filtered.

      As a fallback substitute for censorship, Congress mandated filtration as indicated above. Librarians are dealing with an industry sprung from a conservative Christian market, with attitude embedded in their DNA — and, more to the point, in their code.

      The filtration program generally comes with options as to what filters to activate. The feds require only filtration of pornography. The fun starts when the local public or school librarian ponders if s/he should activate any others.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I may have skipped a step in the above history. IIRC Internet censorship passed Congress but got knocked down in court, and filtration was then adopted as a fallback.

  • Mystere

    Oh, the Patheos drama llama shtick again. Tabloid sensationalism doesn’t suit you, Star and Jason.

    As far as Bowen’s tour of religion, it was a lot more respectable and honoring than most forays through spirituality. He showed true respect by its definition: he found the beliefs worthy of imitation. He adopted them and submitted himself to a mentor and the community and explored the beliefs by holding them and practicing them. No, perhaps he didn’t hold them for a long time, and maybe he didn’t go to your established Trad, Star, but he put out an open call and worked with the woman who answered it, which is more than you did. When I listened to the interview done on the Pagan Centered Podcast, Andrew showed that his foray into Wicca and the Pagan community ha made a serious personal impact and even settled his fear that threatened to color his experience from that odd Shamanic encounter. I found that to be a wonderful attitude, though I suppose that a Trad witch that seems to take a good bit of issue spun with some dramatic ire with eclecticism might see any unstructured approach to one trad over another, much less a combination, and allow herself to become irate and ignore the belief she claims to hold that there are many paths to the Divine and that Mr. Bowen’s might have been very valid for him.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I don’t see where I’m being “tabloid,” it was a pretty matter-of-fact update on the new article, and the debates that happened last year during his Wiccan month. 

      • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

        Debates, I should add, that I don’t really have a strong opinion on. Maybe you’re just reading a “tone” into my piece that isn’t there.

    • Henry

      I’d agree to some extent that it was only a controversy at the Pantheon blog.
      I can’t say I saw a ‘firestorm’ of controversy, unless Mr. Bowen received critisism via email. There aren’t any critical comments on his blog.
      I didn’t see any controversy in comments on Wild Hunt
      here’s the archive link for “project conversion” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/tag/project-conversion
      I think Jason provided it  as well.
      Not much controversy about it in the comments for those entries. Not much controversy in the comments about it on the Huff post coverage of it either.
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rothwell-polk/project-conversion-twelve_b_825711.html
      Can’t seem to find any controversy on other major Pagan blogs either, except the opinion piece star wrote. It does seem it was only a controversy there, and is not in the “Pagan Community”, or as Jason characterized it then
      “Star Foster isn’t exactly pleased with how Bowen is handling things so-far, though Bowen protests that he is engaged for the right reasons, and wants to bring more understanding of Wicca to the masses.”

      What  I do find interesting is with all the talk about being proactive with news media(journalists), that another Journalist would use the phrase ” Just another embedded journalist”tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/C457RWVNM2URJSL52FSWFKJJ6U A. Marina P. Fournier

    How long until the end of term is marked by a Black Mass?
     Em, how about never?
    How long until a school board considers whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students?
     Em, how about highly unlikely,for quite a few reasons?
    How long until libraries, who tend to be highly anti-censorship, don’t have to rely so much on Federal funding, so that they can actually ditch the nanny-filters?
    Good question.