Archives For Religion

Over the past few weeks, Pew Research has released its findings from two major studies on the religious composition of various populations. In April, the center released “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” which projects the religious makeup of future global populations based on current statistics, including “age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Released just last week, the second study titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” is an analysis of the current religious composition of the U.S. population based on data collected in 2007 and 2014. Both reports have been generating some buzz, as the numbers and projections suggest marked changes in religious populations.

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

Looking at the American study first, Pew summarizes its finding in the first sentence:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.

According to the data, the Christian population of the U.S. declined 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014. The biggest loss was to mainline Protestants Churches. The Christian share of the overall population went from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Despite the drop, Pew notes that “the United States [still] remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world” with an estimated 174.3 million followers in 2014.

At the same time, the “unaffiliated” population significantly increased, rising six percentage points from 16.8 percent to 22.8 percent. It is important to note that Pew defines “unaffiliated” as Agnostics, Atheists and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” That latter designation includes those persons who are spiritual but not religious; and religious but not labeled. Pew clarifies this definition in Appendix C of its world projections study, saying:

Surveys have found that belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults.

This is an important point when reviewing the data. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, titled “The Future of Religion is Bleak,” Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett suggested that the rise of the “nones” or “unaffiliated,” is evidence of the decline of religion. The author’s reasoning is based on the definition of “unaffiliated” as solely Atheists, ignoring the growing population of “spiritual but not affiliated.” While Pew statistics do indicate a decline in traditional organized religion, they do not necessarily indicate a decline in personal religious belief or ritual practice. This is something easily understood and seen within the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheists contexts. People can be religious and unaffiliated.

So where do the alternative religions fit into the Pew study on American trends from 2007-2014? Pew uses a series of eight categories, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Other World Religions and Other Faiths.

“World religions,” which include “Sikhs, Baha’is, Taoists, Jains and a variety of other world religions,” have, as a groups, increased slightly to 0.3% of the current American population. The “other faiths” grouping includes “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, just to name a few.” This category has remained stable at 0.4% of the population.

While the “other faith” basket is quite diverse, there are a few interesting statistics to pull out of the study. For example, in 2007, the gender distribution for the “New Age” sub-category, under which they placed Wicca, was evenly distributed. Since that point, there appears to have been a slight surge in female adherents. The 2014 data shows 61 percent of the population is now female. In addition, the Southern and Western U.S. have the largest populations of “other faiths.” Each area is home to 31 percent of the total U.S. population of “other faiths.”

The study also demonstrates that the “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories both have the largest “Millennial” populations. This may account for the large number of “New Age” respondents claiming “some college,” as well as the largest income bracket being “under $30,000.” Pew itself concludes that the religions and religious groupings that experienced the most growth during this period have larger populations of young people.

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

Turning to Pew’s world projections, the story is slightly different. From 2010-2050, the Christian population is projected to increase at the same rate as the world’s overall population, maintaining  its 31.4 percent global share. While some countries do show a decline, as the United States, other areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, will increase.

At the same time, the Muslim population is expected to skyrocket. By 2050, Pew estimates that Muslim population will be equal to the Christian population, and by 2070, the center projects that there will be more Muslims than Christians worldwide. As noted earlier, Pew bases these projections on current fertility rates, migration patterns, life expectancy and other statistics that indicate population shifts.

As for minority religions, the changes are marginal at best. As with the American study, Pew uses eight groupings, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Folk Religions and Other Religions. Folk religions are defined as “African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions;” and “other religions” are defined as “the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, Zoroastrianism and many other religions.”

While the American study demonstrates a recent increase in the unaffiliated, the world projections suggest a future overall drop. Of course, these shifts are largely location dependent. Pew projects that, by 2050, three countries will have an “unaffiliated” majority, including France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. As noted earlier, “unaffiliated” is defined as Atheists, Agnostics and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” While these countries may no longer have a formal Christian majority, it does not mean that they are “losing their religion.” France, for example, is a fiercely secular country. The growth of the “unaffiliated” may simply indicate a surge in religious individualism, as fostered by the specific culture, as much as a surge in Atheism.

Where does the global study project “other religions” going by 2050? While the study suggests a slight decline from 0.8% to 0.7%  of the total world population, the number of actual people will rise from 58 million to 61 million. Unfortunately, this grouping of religions is far too broad to pick out any data specifically on Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist trends. As recorded by Pew, “The growth trajectories of specific religions in this category could vary greatly.” However, Pew did note that Wiccans and Pagans, along with Unitarians, featured largely in a previous landscape survey concerning the switching of religions.

pewFor our purposes, Pew’s results are too broad to provide any concrete data on trends in Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist practices. However, the studies provide a sense that these minority religions could gain momentum within the United States and other cultures where “unaffiliated” populations are expanding. Even if the “other faiths” or “other religions” are not expanding themselves, acceptance may become easier in those areas; unlike regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where Pentecostal Christianity is on the rise.

Returning to the Wall Street Journal article, Professor Dennett suggests that “religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises,” and when people have increased exposure to information. This may be true, as many people do tend to rely on spiritual belief and religious practice when faced with crisis or the unknown.  However, as noted earlier, religion doesn’t appear to be “receding.”

Dennett’s analysis is based on the more traditional monotheistic models of organized religion and does not take into account the individual-based models that we often find in Paganism, Heathenry and Polytheist movements and beyond. Pew’s research does appear to show a decline in adherence to the older models of religious practice within the U.S., as exemplified by decline in specific Christian affiliations. However, there is also an increase in the more individual-based models, as shown by the increase in “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories.

Regardless, even this decline is limited to by regions and cultures. While Dennett may be absolutely correct in noting a religious shift based on security and access to information (or education,) the conclusion that religion’s future is bleak is not exactly accurate. The future of the older models of religious practice may be uncertain; but not religion as a whole.

One last point to note is that Pew indicates that the reporting on religion and projections is complex and often flawed. Religious surveys can be significantly influenced by politics, social or family pressures, cultural expectations and other external factors. Ultimately, the Pew studies provide broad suggestions of shifts and trends.But they do not indicate true religious belief, something personal that can be deeply hidden and something that is constantly changing.

Today is Easter Sunday.

As is typical, the days prior are filled with conversations exploring the hidden meanings of the holiday’s commercialized symbols, such as fully bunnies and pastel eggs. In the past, The Wild Hunt has done its own contemplations on the subject. Are there really ancient Pagan origins nestled within the sacred Christian holiday?

As infinitely interesting as that discussion may be, I would like to focus on something entirely different; something often not discussed. This weekend also saw the celebration of another major religious holiday – Passover.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Growing up surrounded by a Jewish family and having mostly Jewish friends, I never marked the entrance of spring with rabbits and divine rebirth. I was never coerced into wearing pastel dresses adorned with satin and tulle. For myself and many others, spring was ushered in by matzo, moror and mishpocheh.

At some point in April, when the dark New Jersey winters began to yield their annual grip, Passover would arrive. My Jewish family would come together for the sacred Seder tradition. Gathered around an extended dining room table with adults at one end and us, children, at the other, we’d eat, drink and recount the story of Passover using the Haggadah. Admittedly, there was always a whole lot of nonsensical giggling during the plagues. Nothing is funnier than frogs, boils and locust when you’re are five.

For Jews, the world over, Passover does in a way mark the beginning of spring. While many children cheer when the Cadbury eggs arrive in supermarkets, I was always overjoyed upon seeing store shelves packed with macaroons, Gefilte fish and Manishewitz wine. Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover was my favorite. Matzoh, Matzoh brei, Matzoh balls, Matzoh farfel cupcakes.

To this day, the springtime holiday holds a space – a sacred space – within my life. Although I was never religiously Jewish and I am now Pagan, I have retained a deep connection to my Jewish heritage and the traditions that come with it.

And, as I have learned, I am not alone in that feeling. While the majority of first generation Pagans and Heathens do come from Christian backgrounds, there are those that do not. Of that small sector of the population, many are of Jewish heritage.

Ilan Weiler, an eclectic Israeli Pagan studying Hermetic Magic, said, “I still consider myself Jewish. I view my Judaism as being more of an ethnic/tribal and cultural nature, and I recognize the Jewish deity on two levels: as the tribal deity of my ancestors on a polytheistic level (recognizing an ancient practice of henotheism), and on the occult level of Kabbalistic-Mystical concept, which I incorporate into my magical practices.” Weiler added that he sometimes attends temple service and “[studies] Jewish history, lore and scripture as to learn my ancestors beliefs and traditions.”

American Hermeticist Jonathan Korman also acknowledged honoring the Jewish deity as a “personal tribal deity.” He said that, on his Pagan altar, he maintains “an empty space for that god.”

Deborah Bender, an American Pagan of Jewish heritage, explained, “Jewish identity isn’t strictly religious. Secular Jews identify themselves as Jews on the basis of culture or ethnicity, often without having had much exposure to the Jewish religion or much education about it.”

While some Pagans with Jewish roots embrace their heritage, as Bender suggested, others do not. Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, said, “I don’t consider myself Jewish, I define myself as a Hebrew Pagan,” adding that she incorporates nothing from Judaism into her own Pagan practice. Similarly, Moon Daughter, an eclectic Israeli Pagan from Moshav, said, “I personally do not consider myself a Jew from the religious point of view, but I am a Jew in my cultural heritage and ethnicity.”

It is true that not every Pagan of Jewish heritage clings deeply to their roots. Interestingly, in some cases, these differences are marked by nationality. Very generally speaking, it would appear that Israeli and American Pagans have a different relationship with Judaism and Jewish culture. Moon Daughter speculated, “I live in Israel and I think a lot of Pagans here, not all naturally, are quite angry at monotheistic religions and certainly Judaism … The attitudes toward [the religion] are more complicated [than in the United States] since Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a national identity.”

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Yehuda Cohen / Flickr]

When becoming Pagan, Israeli Jews may have a more difficult time negotiating through their own internal “identity politics” than American Jews. As Moon Daughter noted Judaism in Israel is a religious practice and a national identity, both of which are married to culture, ancestors and family. Illy Ra added, “Even if one chose to leave the Jewish religion, the community will still see them as part of the Jewish community and culture.”

That is also partly true in the United States. There is a sense of Jewish-ness that exists beyond the practice of the religion itself and beyond spiritual belief. I can still feel that “belonging.” After telling my Aunt, a Jewish Atheist herself, that I was Pagan, she reminded me, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. If Hitler came today, you would still be sent to a camp with all the other Jews.” And that, in her eyes, was enough.

This sense of tribal belonging – that Jewish-ness – is something that can be and is carried into Pagan practice. Bender explained, “The Jewish religion has a very strong tradition of discussion and argument, and the Talmud records minority opinions. I take from this that it’s okay to arrive at a different conclusion than other people if it’s based on reason and evidence and you don’t make yourself an enemy of the Jews.” She added that the Jewish people are “used to being a religious and ethnic minority, and not basing our self-image on what the dominant culture think.”

In our conversation, Bender also noted the similarities that she personally finds within Judaism and her Pagan practice. She said, “Judaism shares with Wicca the outlook that what you do is more important than what you believe. Wiccan sacred time is cyclical. Jewish sacred time is both cyclical and historically linear. The calendars of both have a lunar month and a solar year. Judaism and Wicca both concentrate on living this life but recognizing something beyond. Both teach that the world is fundamentally good that physical pleasures are divine gifts that we are responsible for our own actions.” She went on to list more.

Because of the strong cultural aspects that thrive within Judaism, many Pagans, at least in America, do not reject their Jewish heritage with the same level of hostility and frustration as often expressed by Christian peers. However, as noted earlier, Moon Daughter clarified that this generalization does not necessarily apply to those in Israel where Jewish culture informs the dominant social structure. Moon Daughter said “I guess [American Pagans] still feel like a minority that needs to stick together and do not want their criticism of Judaism to revert to anti-Semitism.” And that may be partially true.

American Pagans of Jewish heritage are minorities within a minority, which complicates the building of a religious and personal identity, especially when you still embrace your Jewish-ness. I have attended Pagan gatherings where I have felt moderately alienated, simply because I had no context for something happening or being discussed. The very first time that my coven sang Pagan “Yule” carols, I was a bit lost. The Frosty and Rudolf parodies were no issue, but when they got to “Goddess Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I just sat quietly dreaming up Pagan words to the Dreidel Song. “I have a little cauldron. I may it out of clay….

But getting back to spring and Passover, many Pagans of Jewish heritage still make their way to family or friends’ homes by sundown as tradition dictates. Once there, they relive an ancient story and participate in a sacred ritual and, more importantly, a family tradition. Moon Daughter said that she has attempted to find a Pagan interpretation for Passover Seder but “that is not always easy, since holidays are about family, and most of my larger family are of course non-Pagans.” Illy Ra said, “I do celebrate the holidays with my parents to respect their belief and culture, but I guess I would do the same if they belonged to any religion.”

Weiler also emphasized that the Seder is a time for family, describing his own tradition as being “secular” and “nothing more than a glorified family dinner.” However Weiler added that when he has his children, he would like to do a “real Seder, incorporating traditional, modern and Pagan notions.”

Bender, on the other hand, doesn’t like to mix her rituals. She said, “I try to stay within Jewish tradition when I’m doing Jewish rituals. If I want a fully Pagan ritual, it’s separate.” However, she did add that it is possible to “adapt” the Seder structure into a spring Pagan ritual, but she said, “You would have to do it carefully to avoid incoherence and cultural appropriation.”

As for me, this Jewish heritage has remained close by my side. I can still sing the four questions in Hebrew and make tasty kneidels, even though I no longer participate in a formal Seder. Should an emergency occur, I do own multiple Haggadahs, a matzo cover and a Seder plate. Each spring, as I prepare for Ostara, I also purchase a box of matzo and a few cans of macaroons. Like many others, this Jewish-ness colors who I am and, in many ways, the practice of my adopted Pagan religion.

Springtime cheers to all our readers who are enjoying this weekend’s religious festivities, whether it be for family, tradition, faith or simply matzo. L’Chiam and may you always find the afikomen!

Rick Riordan Percy JacksonUNITED STATES –Since the publication of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief in 2005, Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been the leading pop-culture exposure to the Greek gods in the USA. Over the years, the adventures of this fictional son of Poseidon have received a fair amount of attention from Polytheists and others who worship these Gods.This reaction puzzles Riordan, who isn’t shy about saying that he thinks the very idea of modern worship is “strange.” The debate over the religious merits of the book are ongoing.

While adults may enjoy or detest this young adult fiction, the opinions of the young readers, who have made these books “wildly overrated,” are missing. Children, ages 8-15 years, aren’t as likely to write blog posts about books and are more difficult to identify and interview. Nevertheless, their views matter a great deal when considering the impact of books like these.The Wild Hunt asked four young readers about this series. Because of their ages, the minors interviewed for this article are referred to by pseudonyms.

Jacob, an 11-year-old who has read all of Riordan’s Olympian books, as well as those the Kane Chronicles based on Egyptian mythology, had a simple reason for enjoying them: “I like the action. There is non-stop action.” There might be something more going on, though, because since he completed the series, he’s read the Odyssey adaped by author Mary Pope Osborne, and said, “I have research books, too.” His interest in Greek and Roman mythology were stoked by the Percy Jackson series, and the stories have even inspired a desire to learn ancient Greek, which all young demigods in these books can instinctively read.

Since most of the major characters are children of gods, the next question that was natural to ask was what god he’d be the child of, and why. “Hephaestus,” Jacob replied. “He can make automatons, metal stuff, and lasers. I like to make stuff too.”

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the story, the Olympian books present the gods in a decidedly modern context, and depict their personalities in ways that are, at times, either humorous or disrespectful, depending upon one’s point of view.

According to his mother, “Jacob lives in an eclectic Pagan household. In formal terms, he has only been exposed to Wiccan rituals and community. However, both of us are not Wiccan. His religious life is very diverse with close relatives who are Baptists, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish and Atheist. He is exposed to a variety of beliefs. We foster a creative religious environment that will nurture his unique spirit’s journey.”

When asked whether she thinks these books have influenced his attitudes on religion, she said, “He was interested in and aware of Greek and Roman gods before he read these books. He had already heard about these Gods and others from us, in rituals or in religious talk. However, I think the books have fueled a fire that was already burning. They provide a modern context for an ancient concept. After reading the books, Jacob wanted more. I can see the spark in his eyes when he talks about Greek mythology. I am certain the gods are speaking to him and I know he is in good hands.”

son of neptuneThirteen-year-old Thadd lives in a decidedly Hellenic household, and it’s not an understatement to say that he was profoundly impacted by reading about Percy Jackson and his encounters with gods and monsters. In somewhat monosyllabic terms, he spoke of how much he enjoyed the stories, which include a second five-book series, Heroes of Olympus containing both Greek and Roman deities. Thadd thought author Riordan created a “pretty good presentation of the gods” in his works. When asked about what divine parentage he’d have were he a character, he named both Poseidon and Hephaestus without hesitation. Asked why, he answered simply, “They’re my patron gods.”

Thadd’s mother explained further, “He has read every single Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, and Heroes of Olympus [book] and is waiting to start the Norse series soon. In fact, it was while reading him Percy Jackson at age 8 that we realized that Poseidon claimed him, and then later while reading the Heroes of Olympus that he also answered Hephaestus’ call. It made religious education so much easier for me.”

She added, “I know coreligionists hate the series, but I have nothing but love for it simply for this fact alone.”

Jacob’s older brother, Ian, who is 14, said of the books, “They are well-written. And they are very intriguing. They catch your attention well.” On imagining having a divine parent, he said, “I would want to be the son of Poseidon, because I like to swim and be in the water. Poseidon is very friendly with ocean animals, and most of my favorite animals are water-based.” And on how these books have altered his view of the world, Ian said, “Mainly, I use to think quests were about fighting. Now I know they are more about knowledge and using your mind. The books don’t make me think more about religion. But I also would hate to be hit by a lightning bolt while I’m flying in airplane.”

To that, Ian’s mom added, “He has read some non-fiction books on mythology. But he’s more interested and focused on pure fantasy entertainment. For him, this is all fiction and sparks his imagination. For Jacob, it’s definitely real.”

Ariel is a 15-year-old girl who had a lot to say about these books, which have no shortage of strong female characters. She said:

Overall, I liked the Percy Jackson books. I read them a few years ago, and I read the entire series in about a month. I had been into Greek mythology before I read the books, so I was excited to see a cool, popular series about the exact stuff I had been liking since I was little. I read the books as a tween, so I pretty much originally appreciated them just as a cool young adult series, but I also saw the intricate connections between the actual mythology and the books. I understood that it wasn’t totally accurate always, but it was done in a humorous way that wasn’t very offensive in my opinion. It was also obviously set in modern times, so the classic characters were written as if they had adapted along with human society. I understand how some people might think it’s disrespectful or something, but I believe that if the gods were living that closely alongside humans as in the books, they would adopt human personality and style while still being gods, much as they were in Percy Jackson. So, I liked the books, and while they weren’t absolutely true to the mythology, they definitely inspired some people to look further into Greek mythology, and portrayed everything in a humorous and easy to understand way that, I think, worked well for its purpose as a fun young adult series.

According to her father, Ariel and a sibling live primarily with their mother, who is Unitarian Universalist, but are exposed to Pagan concepts at his home. His wife is “part of a coven of women,” and as a solo practitioner, he says, “I create what I need in the moment, with the attendance and assistance of my personal Guides and Gods.” They celebrate 8 Pagan sabbats, which draws people from throughout their rural area.

Ariel declined to speculate on which god might claim her as a daughter, if she lived in that fictional universe.

magnus chase

Percy Jackson is not the first pop-culture portrayal of non-Abrahamic deities, nor is it likely to be the last. In fact, book one of Riordan’s new Norse series, titled Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is due to hit stores October 2015. For those who worship these gods, you may experience both frustration and enjoyment while reading Riordan’s books. However, the true lasting impacts and deeper lessons may only become evident over time. For now, what’s certain is that many children enjoy these books, and some of them actually believe.

ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA –At the beginning of this month, when the darkness and cold of winter seemed to be at their darkest and coldest, a group visited a shrine to the goddess Brigid, clearing away blockages to a spring and making offerings of flowers and milk. While that isn’t particularly remarkably in the Pagan community — many northern hemisphere practices include devotional acts at midwinter — it’s a bit more unusual when the practitioners are Christian.

Header_ImgMembers of the Jubilee! Community Church take “interfaith” to a level that is not commonly seen within an Abrahamic faith. Rather than seeking to understand basic tenets of other religions, they incorporate practices that are seen to tie into their interpretation of Christian faith, including celebrations of quarter and cross-quarter days. The church is based on a concept called Creation Spirituality, and led by Howard Hanger, a former Methodist minister who has turned a few heads, and attracted a fair number of congregants with his theology.

“When we first got started, we were definitely suspect,” Hanger said, and considered a cult by some. “There was a street preacher outside saying that we were sending people to hell.”

Now that the church is more established, “people mostly just leave [them] alone.” And, since they are no longer being actively condemned, they have joined Asheville’s vibrant interfaith community. “We find out commonalities with Baptists, Catholics, Jews . . . we all believe in making the world a better place, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, all that sort of stuff. We’ve tried to connect with local Muslims.” he added, but without much success as yet.

Area Pagans, however, have been more than welcoming. “Pagans have been very wonderful,” Hanger said. “We’re pretty closely aligned with Pagan celebrations of nature, celebrating creation is our big banner, a big connection with the earth-worshipping community.”

Asheville Author and Village Witch Byron Ballard agreed with that assessment. “Jubilee began here as a funky Sunday evening service at one of the largest Methodist churches in town. They borrow from all sorts of places,” she said, and the children’s educational program “goes to a lot of sources for inspiration.”

Even with all of this “borrowing,” there have been no accusations of cultural appropriation. Ballard noted, “Pagans don’t own the agricultural year, and I certainly wouldn’t go to the stake over the Wheel of the Year.” Rather, she said, “it feels interfaith rather than appropriative, as [the church’s Nurture Coordinator, Vicki Garlock] gives plenty of credit and doesn’t try to pretend it’s an old Christian concept. [She] often attends Mother Grove events, and I have spoken in her classes several times.”

Garlock wrote this about the program:

Some may wonder why a Christian congregation would focus so much attention on Pagan resources, so let me share our educational perspective. We’ve developed a Bible-based, interfaith curriculum that we use with kids from preschool through 8th grade. They learn the basic Bible stories and then use these themes and narratives to connect with other faith traditions. For example, when they learn about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, they also learn about prayer mats, prayer flags, prayer wheels, and prayer beads. We want the kids in our program to be grounded in our Judeo-Christian culture, but we also want to provide them with the tools they need to follow their own faith path.

In addition, we actively foster relationship with the Earth. We want youngsters to find the sacred in nature, to understand their connection to the environment, and to celebrate all of creation. These values are found throughout the world’s faith traditions, and many religious holidays coincide with seasonal changes. Kids understand seasons. They feel the changes in temperature, see the changes in plants, and associate certain events with certain seasons. Pagan wheel-of-the-year festivals offer us another opportunity to highlight the shared principles that all faith practices glean from the Earth’s wisdom.

In short, Jubilee’s philosophy, while grounded in Christianity, honors the similarities among traditions. Its credo encourages children to “follow their own faith path,” recognizing the divine in everything. A spiritual journey that begins at the Jubilee! Community Church could well take many directions. As Hanger pointed out, “We don’t worship Jesus. He never wanted that. We follow him. He was into that.”

NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –Climbing trees. Gregorian chants. Black velvet clothes. These are elements of author and priestess Vivianne Crowley’s personal spiritual journey, as told to a room packed with attendees at A Feast of Lights on Jan. 31. Weaving her own experiences and those she has observed together with cards from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, she posited a pattern of spiritual development that many modern Pagans and polytheists might find familiar.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

“I was the only child of older parents,” she explained. “We had no electricity at first, no radio or television, so I played for hours on my own each day.” Much of that play was out in the woods, and early her conception of “people” included trees and animals as well as her parents. It was through the trees, she said, that she found Paganism, although it would be many years before she connected her beliefs with that word.

One tree in particular got the young Crowley’s attention in quite a literal way. “I like climbing trees,” she said, in particular, “one that was split by lightning, but still growing.” Her foot could fit in the cleft created by that lightning bolt, but a shift in the wind would close the opening and hold her fast. Rather than panicking, it was an opportunity for her to learn patience and trust. She “let the tree decide” when to free her foot, leaving her to spend considerable time with it. Eventually, she recalled, “I let my consciousness merge with the tree, so that I felt my blood was green, and we communed without shared language.”

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

Those, together with many other experiences had before she was old enough for school, were formative in creating her own path toward Wicca, and she believes that is not unusual. “Childhood experiences are often the beginning of learning to connect the self and other,” she said. Her own experiences, which included spontaneous lucid dreaming and psychic images from her mother asking her what she wanted for lunch, molded her worldview before she had language to articulate it. That caused a bit of conflict when school began. At that time in England, the curriculum included “religious studies which were really Christian studies, and included frightening stories about a god who killed people.”

“Our reality and what we’re told don’t quite match,” she said of herself and other people who started on a Pagan-like path in their youth. “Animals don’t have souls? I didn’t believe that. Animal as deity made more sense to me. I saw The Ten Commandments, and cheered for the golden calf.” In addition to an awareness of nature spirits and a then-radical alternative concept of deity, Crowley said that by the time she was eight years old, she could get out of playing sports by making it rain. This is something she attributes to the altered state of consciousness that she learned communing with that tree. Her classmates were already calling her a “witch.”

Around that time, Crowley was baptized a Roman Catholic, which excused her from “religious studies” because they were considered a violation of the tenets of Catholic doctrine. Instead, Crowley was exposed to Latin mass at a local monastery, complete with Gregorian chants. As a result, “for the first time I got a sense of that other state [of consciousness] while in a building.” She continued to identify as a witch as well as a Catholic, and by the time she was eleven she had formed a coven, which lasted only “until the headmistress found out.”

It wasn’t until she was 14 years old, and the 1960s were unfolding, that Crowley learned a name for what she was feeling. “I saw witches on TV, and they called themselves Wiccans — it was a revelation to me!” Soon thereafter her family moved to London and, after a number of false starts, she was able to discover and be initiated by a coven.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“I wore a lot of black velvet clothes, and was attracted to stepping out of the ordinary,” she said. This entire portion of her journey she likened to the Fool card, which usually depicts the titular character setting off alone. “Something protects us at this point. I couldn’t find Wiccans at first, so I tried Buddhists, and mediums, and avoided some pitfalls” before finally meeting “kind witches.” She was clear that she wasn’t claiming that the young are always safe from harm on this quest, only that mistakes borne of that ignorance seem to be softened or minimized to some extent.

While the seeker is under the mantle of the Fool, Crowley likened the spiritual awakening to the Star. Talent in esoteric disciplines blossoms. Interests in incense, tarot, astrology, healing, herbalism, crystals, and a variety of such activities and paraphernalia are sparked by the emerging sensitivity a newcomer to the Pagan path experience.

“The first spells we try often succeed,” she said. As mastery of these ideas and powers grows, an initiate enters into the spiritual adolescence. Crowley compares this to the Sun and Magician cards, something she jokingly called “second-degree-itis” in her own Wiccan path. It’s a period characterized by “youthful arrogance and enthusiasm,” she said. And, it is often a time when one begins to attract students. “The first time you are asked for initiation, it is humbling,” she said, “and ego-inflating.”

Power is illusion, however, and in time the Sun card is replaced by the Moon, the Magician with the Devil. This is a stage many might find familiar, with relationships going wrong and a desire to “own” one’s group often gaining strength. “We realize that there’s no perfect people,” she said, and “we can be angry that our leaders are not perfect.” For small-group traditions, such as Wicca and other practices that fall under the shadow of the Pagan umbrella, she frames the problem in alchemical terms, saying that the challenge is to “accept the lead as well as the gold. People fall out because of relationships, not the path.”

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

In the following stage, Crowley said the Devil and Death come to the forefront as best representatives of the experience. “Which tradition is best?” she asked. Some people decide that their own traditions are the one true way, even looking down on other choices or dismissing them “rather than realizing that the path is for the person, just one part of the jigsaw puzzle, not the be-all.” She continued, saying “Some people just drop out” when faced with these obstacles. And if interpersonal challenges aren’t enough, “Sometimes there comes a time when the gods do not speak.”

That is the time of the Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune, which Crowley said is characterized by uncertainty and often when “change falls out of one’s pockets.” New ideas don’t fit preconceived notions, leading one’s world to be turned upside-down. “It forces difficult questions,” she said. It is a critical juncture when those, who have long been on a particular path, decide it’s the wrong one.

However, it may be too soon to make that judgment call. Eventually one may “reach a point of understanding,” a point represented by the Hermit and High Priestess, strength and mystery. “You can have your own gods,” Crowley explained, and they are not threatened nor blocked by the gods of others.

When looking back, Crowley said, a person should be able to recognize that they are not the same person who began journey. It is important, she said, to “send our younger selves love and care, and messages of encouragement,” in order to complete the more difficult parts of that journey as “our future selves guide us.”

She explained that such guidance can help one negotiate what to do if one’s student surpass the teacher. This can happen if one’s role is that of a point of strength, rather than a leading light. Such points are more replenishing than ritual in some cases.

“The point of the journey is to bring things back,” she said in closing. “We must give to move things forward, and we all have something to teach.” In that way, the partial knowledge still held about Paganisms of old can, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes in a new form, one that is relevant and vital for the spiritual, environmental, and political challenges of today.

In 2014, artist and pop surrealist Dina Goldstein finished her third large-scale project called “Gods of Suburbia.” The series is comprised of 11 photographs that depict gods, goddesses, prophets and other figures of religious import within a thoroughly unexpected composition. Each photograph challenges the dominant visual and narrative concept of deity by tearing down religious stagecraft and putting up something completely mundane. In other words, Goldstein takes these sacred or celebrated figures and drops them into the framework of contemporary Western society.

Dina Goldstein [Photo Credit: Robert Kenny, 2011, CC. lic. via Wikimedia]

Dina Goldstein [Photo Credit: Robert Kenny, 2011, CC. lic. via Wikimedia]

“‘Gods of Suburbia’ is a visual analysis of religious faith within the context of modern forces of technology, science and secularism. The series plays with narrative and religious iconography in order to communicate how organized belief has become twisted within a global framework driven by consumerism and greed. The project challenges the viewer – religious or secular – to embark on a journey of self-reflection as they contemplate the relevance of dogmata in modernity.” – Dina Goldstein, Gods of Suburbia

Goldstein’s concept, as illustrated in a “making of” video, is not to mock religion, but rather to illustrate its precarious place within modern society. For example, in “Ganesha,” Goldstein presents the Hindu God sitting alone on a bench in an elementary school play yard. He is being bullied by two young boys, while other children play in the background. Using Ganesh as a bullied minor is particularly poignant due to his marked physical difference and his role as a representative of a minority culture and religion. In this piece, the Hindu God symbolically embodies the outcast child.

While religious figures have been subjects for the arts since before antiquity, not everyone is comfortable with visual representations of the divine. For many, there are limits and rules. Some are personal and some are created by religious law.

Within his own personal practice, Hermeticist Jonathan Korman demonstrates this difference. He said, “In the context of modern Pagan culture: I am an enthusiast for visual representations of the gods as a matter both of magickal technique and of cultural taste, and on my altar I keep a cast marble statue of Hermes to honor him as my personal patron deity. On the other hand, being an ethnically Jewish modern Pagan, I honor the god of the Torah יהוה as my personal tribal deity, so my altar also has an empty space for that god, whom I honor by not speaking the name or making any visual representation.”

The issue becomes more complex when the depiction of a deity is presented outside of what might be considered a “proper” proscenium of culture, reverence and religiosity. This brings us back to Goldstein’s work. The Israeli-born, Jewish artist has created images of gods that are not of her own belief, and that lack expected, reverent iconography and religious narratives. The photographs are purely cultural commentary and not meant for worship purposes.

Ryan Smith, co-founder of HUAR, uses visual representation of the gods within his own Heathen practice and also enjoys such expressions outside of a religious framework. But he said, [Non-religious] uses should also show respect to the cultures they came from … I only take issue if it’s being used to reinforce negative stereotypes held regarding marginalized groups. Punching up is always good, punching down not so much.”

Not surprisingly, Goldstein has been criticized for “punching down.” In a press release, Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism expressed concern that Goldstein’s work “trivializ[ed] the highly revered deities of Hinduism, Ganesh and Lakshmi … Artists should be more sensitive while handling faith related subjects.”

After looking at Goldstein’s “Voodoo Queen” composition, Patheos writer Lilith Dorsey is only left with questions. She said, “The accompanying website says the images are supposed to inspire ‘self-reflection,’ it’s a little naive to think this isn’t part of most devoted people’s daily practice. The image itself leaves me reflecting instead on Goldstein herself, why did she choose to represent my religion with what looks like phantom ghost children and are those chicken feet on the ceiling? It’s a stunning image visually, but I’m not sure exactly why she felt moved to take it in that direction.”

Additionally, due to current global politics, Goldstein herself is unsure how or whether to include “Muhammad the Prophet” in the upcoming March show. In a January interview, she said, “I figured out a way to [depict Muhammed] in a way that adhered to their laws.” As she notes, his face is not shown, and he has a supernatural glow.

But Goldstein knows her art is provocative. She told the Vancouver paper, “Of course, people are going to get insulted, but that’s what happens when you start discussing religion because no matter what you say about it, it’s an extension of magical thinking.”

Pagan artist Valerie Herron enjoys Goldstein’s work, adding “Religion is supposed to evolve with social change, and I think this is one of [her] assertions with this series. It’s nothing very avant garde, putting ancient deities in the context of modern life is a concept well familiar to contemporary Polytheists. In addition, good art is supposed to create dialogue through pathos, catharsis or humor. While I can see the potential for some folks of the faiths represented in Goldstein’s series to decry a flippant representation of their deity/deities, I think [her] work has always been about starting uncomfortable conversations through visual juxtaposition.”

Like Goldstein, Herron also depicts the divine in her art. However, in her case, the imagery is within or close to her own belief structure, and often used as devotional images. She said, “At this point, I find it impossible to keep my creative practice and my spiritual practice separate.” In describing the process of visually capturing a deity, Herron said, “As soon as I begin to envision the specific visage of a god, I begin a conversation with them. I don’t really know how else to explain it, especially since I don’t consider myself a hard theist, but the God’s input becomes crucial to the piece.”

Valerie Herron's Isis [Reprinted with permission]

Valerie Herron’s Isis [Reprinted with permission]

From inception to presentation, “Gods in Suburbia” does not have the same inspiration, purpose or goal as Herron’s work. Despite that difference, Goldstein’s photographs do evoke strong reactions. Rather than spiritual reverence, these responses are, as Goldstein suggests, meant to “inspire insight into the human condition.”

In this exploration of the human condition, she did not omit Paganism. The photograph titled “Horned God and Moon Goddess” depicts a nude, pregnant woman atop a white horse and a horned male figure resting within a stereotypical suburban backyard. The accompanying text reads, in part, “Wicca is a modern witchcraft religion that draws upon a diverse set of ancient pagan motifs and ritual practice … [Wicca] is something we associate with people who are on the fringe of society, which is why my Wiccan god and goddess are living outside the mainstream, along the periphery of Suburbia.”

All interpretive meaning is subjective, and the narrative understanding of this particular image can evoke other ideas. For example, the photo recalls the reality of religious ritual practice in home environments or notes society’s need to control natural space. It also suggests that Witchcraft, “associated with people who are on the fringe,” does exist in what is largely considered normative cultural space.

These readings correspond to Goldstein’s assertion that the series explores religion’s existence in contemporary society – one that has become increasingly secular, increasingly separate from the natural world, increasingly consumer-focused and increasingly distance from a depth of meaning. In a number of her photographs the religious figures appear lost, forlorn, overwhelmed, disillusioned and simply out of place. The prophet Muhammad, for example, is ignored by a classroom of children absorbed in social media and texting.

In the photographs titled “Buddha” and “Elohim,” Goldstein tackles the uncomfortable intersection of commercialism and religion. “Buddha” is ignored as blindfolded shoppers purchase overpriced groceries in a Whole Foods market. In “Elohim,” a forlorn “God” sits with a Santa suit in the background. As she notes, he’s forced to “take odd jobs to survive.” Both photographs depict the sacrifice of meaning to the glory of consumerism.

As an extension of that concept, these two photographs, along with others, indirectly suggest concerns raised by the commercialized depictions of the divine, such as in movies, television shows or comic books. Writer Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog said, “I’m old enough to be able to tell the difference between entertainment and religion. Marvel’s Thor has built up its own internal mythology over more than half of a century … I think that’s great, just as I think Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythos is fantastic. It doesn’t mean that I blót to Frodo of the Nine Fingers.”

Korman agreed saying that he’s “not above” enjoying representations of divinity outside of religious practice. He added, “Nathan Fillion’s Hermes in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters may not be much like my Hermes, but it still tickles me, and if it helps get a few kids saying his name, that suits me just fine.”

Dorsey, expressed some reservations, saying “My fellow Vodou practitioners and myself were quite upset at a commercial clothing chain using a veve as a window display to gain sales and most certainly attention. The American Horror Story television depiction of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau left a bad taste in my everything, but I still have high hopes for the Marie Laveau comic book character. This is because girls today so strongly need a positive female superhero with kickass pagan powers, not that she has been written that positively yet, but I can dream.”

Although humanity has a long history of visually depicting gods and other sacred figures for many purposes, there clearly are limits of tolerance, some personal and others created by culture and religious law.

As for Goldstein, her “Gods in Suburbia” series is certainly provocative and pushes hard on many of those boundaries. The use of photography alone mirrors her message. As a relatively newer technological art form, the camera symbolizes modernity’s own pressure on religious practice, and demonstrates the hyper reality of our over-dependence on images. It turns this modern visual technology, and by association the observer, into a voyeur, who violates the privacy of the spiritual world – a world that isn’t necessarily comfortable existing in that way, in being viewed.

Whether you like her work or whether you’re offended by it, Goldstein ultimately leaves you with many questions about religion’s fit within contemporary society.

hearthfire

Hearthfire (Photo: R. Wildermuth)

I celebrated Imbolc before a hearth-fire with a Christian.

Not a ‘pure’ Christian, mind you. One learns in Druidry that purity isn’t something that can exist within Nature, let alone human belief. What’s purity anyway, except a violent stripping away of flesh and bone to get to the very ‘pure’ and perfect core of existence?

And by then, all you’ve got is a pile of shredded skin and muscle and hair and no life left.

The search for ‘purity’ is what gave us the Puritans and the Iconoclasts, riotous men and women shattering ancient statues and art-work to remove every last vestige of Pagan idolatry from the churches of Europe. It’s the same ‘purity’ which torched the Library of Alexandria, what led the Taliban to destroy ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan. It’s even our modern fetish for purity that’s helped create antibiotic-resistance strains of bacteria through anti-bacterial soaps.

We built this hearth-fire, this impure Christian and I, on Imbolc. He’s not a ‘pure’ Christian, as I said. He reads Tarot, has seen ghosts. Cavorted with psychics in New Orleans, has a tattoo of the triskelion on his arm. Comes from a line of Scottish matriarchs, who inarguably possessed a ‘kenning’ sharper than all my recent training has been able to hone.  But…he believes Jesus is pretty awesome, and he worships the Christian’s god. But doesn’t blink when I tell him of mine.

We built this fire on Imbolc, or what some Christians call “Candlemas.” He knew nothing of Brighid. And, as I’ve sworn to be one of her Bards, I told him of her, or the hers, the many Brighids and Brigs and Brides and Brigites and then of St. Brigid of Kildare, that saint whose stories change most quickly according to the teller. A Christian convert or a hidden Druidess, a Catholic cover-up or a Pagan survival. Women tending ancient flames to an even more ancient goddess, or nuns helping remember the Light of Christ. The stories blend into each other so messily that the ‘pure’ Brigit can’t be found by stripping back her tales without throwing away the wrong stuff.

But we’re both in front of a fire – a fire built to her and a fire built for warmth, a fire for poetry and a fire for light – stumbling over the meanings of our beliefs as the flames consume the wood in her hearth.

I watched his face in that flickering light, and I listened to his laughter as he spoke of what fire means to him, just as I laughed as I spoke of what her fire means to me. Between us, fire, illuminating belief.

We told each other stories, recited others’ words. It was he who quoted Tom Robbins’ discussion of fire from Still Life With Woodpecker:

“Three of the four elements are shared by all creatures, but fire was a gift to humans alone. Smoking cigarettes is as intimate as we can become with fire without immediate excruciation. Every smoker is an embodiment of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it on back home. We smoke to capture the power of the sun, to pacify Hell, to identify with the primordial spark, to feed on them arrow of the volcano. It’s not the tobacco we’re after but the fire. When we smoke, we are performing a version of the fire dance, a ritual as ancient as lightning.”

“I need a cigarette, and then need to tell you a story,” I said, “and not just because of that quote.”

II.

“Mom’s talking to herself again.”

I’m still haunted by the voice of my little sister saying those words. She’d come to me, panicked, looking for reassurance, and I’d try to calm her.

Our mother is developmentally disabled. ‘Mentally retarded’ is what they used to call people with her intellectual capacities. Now we have more clinical and less loaded (and also less descriptive) terms for her condition.

Most kids probably experience a time when they’re certain that they’re smarter than their parents. Adolescents certainly do, and they’re usually wrong. Unfortunately for my sisters and I, it was true, and it was much more unfortunate when our mother became schizophrenic.

No one diagnosed her until several years after her ‘break.’ Neither my sisters nor I knew anything of mental illness, and the only community we had–a sprawling and very wealthy mega-church in southeast Florida–refused to believe us when we suggested she was a little ‘crazy.’

“No, your mother’s a wonderful person and ‘really kind.’ ” they’d tell us whenever we sought help. “You kids are so fortunate to have such a sweet and generous woman as a mother.”

She was generous, yes. And that was the problem. She’d sign over her entire paycheck to the church every week. I remember something else the elder of my two sisters would say. “There’s no food. I’m really hungry.” Those are the worst words ever, especially when you’re 14 years old and the only one around to fix that problem.

III.

Graffiti on church entrance (Photo by R. Wildermuth)

Graffiti on church entrance (Photo by R. Wildermuth)

The First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida had just gotten a slick new pastor, and we were all excited.

I remember when Hayes Wicker came—the church we’d attended for a few years was suddenly becoming a different place, full of’ ‘promise.’ Things were gonna change, we were told. Our Church was destined for greatness.

Soon after he arrived, a new fund-raiser was announced called “Reclaiming the Land.” There was a painted wooden box up by the altar named the ‘war chest,’ and people were encouraged to fill it with money, jewelry, stock-notes and other valuables all toward the building of a new, bigger, and better church. Special music and performances, lots of quotes from Exodus, and an ever-increasing emotional furor whipped up the congregation to give until ‘it hurt.’

My mother gave until we hurt. She’d had her first schizophrenic break a year before that. She’d started talking to herself, to angels and demons and God, unable to differentiate between them. We’d be in her car as she drove, sitting in terror as she shouted back to invisible voices commanding her to drive my sisters and I off a bridge into the sea.

Despite her condition, she was able to hold on to a job for awhile. She was the really kind and sweet woman behind the bakery counter at a grocery store, the one who’d offer endless samples of cakes and cookies to anyone who came by.  And she was eventually fired for passing out too many samples, entire cakes and boxes of cookies, because she didn’t quite understand how Capitalism was supposed to work.

She also didn’t understand that signing over entire paychecks to a mega-church with a $30,000/week budget meant that her children would have no food. But who could blame her, really? Other church members openly praised her for her selflessness and berated me when I once tried to stop her from giving all of her money ‘to God.’

Soon after, a deacon of the church lectured me on how I should ‘man up’ and get a job to support my family.

“You gotta be a man of God,” he’d told me. “Stop expecting your mother to take care of you like you’re a welfare black.”

The church was full of whites, most of them from money, all of them Republican, and this was what being Christian was about. Capitalism and Christianity were so intertwined that when pastor Hayes Wicker violated IRS regulations by telling the congregation during a presidential election that “anyone who voted for Clinton was voting for their wallets not for God,” no one reported it

So I got a job just after turning 14, first at a Christian bookstore where my mother regularly bounced checks. Later, I worked at an ice-cream shop managed by a woman from our church. I started paying rent, buying groceries for myself and my family, but also started missing school—190 days in all. Others skipped school to do drugs; I skipped because I was exhausted from work and taking care of a household.

All this to help a group of rich white men build a bigger church. And we were told never to apply for food stamps, because that was socialist and anti-Christian.

Tree on sacred hill (photo by R. Wildermuth)

Tree on sacred hill (Photo by R. Wildermuth)

IV.

I felt a bit bad telling this to my companion by the Imbolc fire.

None of what happened to my family was his fault, nor even the fault of the particular god he worships. There’s no verse in the sacred writing of any religion which demands a mentally-ill, developmentally-disabled woman give all of her money to a god and never once apply for government assistance.

He was understandably angry, though, but not at me. We both know the Bible quite well. I surprised him by reciting the first chapter of the Gospel of John from memory (but then added ‘even the devil can quote scripture,’ so he didn’t get the wrong impression).

We both know there’s nothing in the mythic lore of the desert god (he’d call him something else, certainly, and it’d be capitalized) lauding Capitalism, America, and all the other cringe-worthy propaganda one hears from the pulpits of some Christian preachers. Despite this, the sick alliance between American Christianity and exploitation is undeniable.

But there are several Christianities now, just as there have always been. Historians, theologians, and most of us often divide and classify these Christianities according to schisms and organizational structures, but there’s another axis of belief that we often ignore.

Consider. When Christianity came to the British Isles, for instance, it did not destroy the indigenous religions of the others who lived alongside them. It wasn’t until certain political powers arose, donning the religious trappings and divine justifications of the Monolithic Other that strife, oppression, and murder followed the priests of the One-God.

Religion isn’t always just religion—it’s also a mode of governance. Christian Rome slaughtered Druids and Heathens in the name of their God, yes, but they also killed at the behest of their Empire. When Rome fell, the political structures of the Empire remained. Later, the inheritors of Roman power also inherited the political and bureaucratic structures of parish and bishopric. Priests and monks were not just devotees of a Creator-God, but political emissaries and advisers and sometimes rulers themselves.

With the imperialist enforcement of a monotheistic religion upon the peoples of Europe came the foundations of modern mono-culture, the annihilation of difference to make governance easier.

One can argue that this wasn’t ‘pure’ Christianity, but what then is pure Christianity?

Like Paganism, like Nature, like humans, there is likely no such thing. The true essence of monotheistic belief cannot be gotten at without stripping from its structures so much that it is no longer recognizable, reductio ad absurdum, perhaps, or reductio ad nihil. If anything, Monotheism is reductionism in itself—starting from the henotheistic tendencies of early Semitic peoples, worshiping one god among others (‘no other gods before me’) until deciding that one god was the Only God. From many, to few, to one.

This reduction led not only to a new sort of religion, but to a new form of Empire. The Roman Empire struggled to rule over many disparate peoples, and its answer was the syncretic absorbtion of other gods into its own (Interpretatio Romana). Monotheism, however, offered an easier route–the annihilation of all other gods as false and replacement with a True (One-God). And, this has been the model for all Western empires since, whether that one-god be the God of the Christians or the God of the Capitalist Market.

Reducing the myriad beliefs, cultures, traditions and gods into one easily-governed People is no simple task, nor really is annihilation. People keep being born; keep encountering gods and spirits; keep creating new traditions or recovering those that were lost. Pagan beliefs never went away, despite the damming of holy wells and cutting down of sacred trees, but neither have the many heresies the early Roman Church attempted to stamp out by edict or fire. Only one system of control seems thus far to have succeeded where so many political seizures of religion failed: Capitalism.

V.

American Christianity has an awful relationship with those of other religious beliefs, whether they were the Animistic and Nature-Revering religions of the First Nations, the Catholics of Spanish and French tradition, or even the aberrant heretics within its own colonies. This has not changed one bit, even if the ‘enemy’ has changed–America’s new ‘barbarian’ is the Muslim and their imagined ‘existential threat’ to the even more imaginary ‘free-world.’

Christianity, particularly, provided the theological and philosophical justifications for the destruction of many so-called enemies. European Paganisms were conquered only a little less quickly than other indigenous and varied beliefs through Christianity but not because of it. Without ideological and cultural control, no Empire can last very long, and Christianity just happened to be quite well positioned to fulfill this role.

Too many Pagans miss this point when we speak of Monotheism: the destruction of indigenous beliefs may have been ‘in the name’ of the Christian God, but it was actually done for the purpose of profit and power. The gold and silver stripped from South and Central Americas, the precious woods and ores (and slaves) hauled from Africa, and the tea, textiles, and spices of Asia were not just the bonus-prizes garnered from colonization by Christian empires—they were the very point. Catholic and Protestant clerics merely helped assuage the guilt of the many who needed convincing that killing others for king and commerce was not a horrible thing.

Any Christian can rightly protest that Imperialism, Racism, and slaughter are hardly in the spirit of The Christ, and they’d be correct. But such things don’t matter when power is involved, and there’s a frightful thing which happens when you add wealth into the mix.

"Cleansing of the Temple" (painter unknown, c 1570)

“Cleansing of the Temple” (painter unknown, c 1570) [Public Domain]

VI.

That Southern Baptist church whose new building was partially funded by a schizophrenic, mentally-disabled single mother was affiliated strongly with American Republican and Libertarian political causes. Oliver North (of the Iran-Contra affair) was a featured speaker, as was Charles Colson (of Watergate) and many other right-wing, pro-Capitalist speakers. Evening sermons often included ‘business meetings’ where people spoke about the threats of gays, socialists, and welfare-moms to God’s plan for America.

The night that I remember best was when a women came to talk about the godlessness of San Francisco. At one of these talks, I learned why one should never go to San Francisco.

The hospitals are full of men with punctured lungs and ruptured livers,” she’d told us, solemnly. “They’re all gay men, and it is because they’ve turned away from God’s plan for procreation.”

She went on to speak of a peculiar depravity, common among the Sodomites of California. Because gay men could not experience ‘God’s plan for procreation,’ they tried to find other ways to experience pleasure, and the most dangerous of these involved ‘squeezing the liver’ through the digestive tract. “Because they don’t have sex the way God intended us to,’ she’d explained to the gathered devoted, “they reach their arms into each other’s rectums so they can crush each other’s lungs and pinch their sex-partner’s livers to mimic sexual orgasm.”

I was 14 at the time, gay but closeted, and I was terrified despite the anatomical absurdity of her sermon. And I avoided San Francisco for the next two decades, just in case.

Her tale of fear was hardly the only propaganda I heard. We were urged to oppose voter registration at DMV’s (‘Motor-Voter laws’), since this would ‘increase the amount of godless people abusing the electoral process.‘ We were urged to support the first invasion of Iraq, to ‘get out the vote’ against Clinton, and to push hard in local politics against inroads of ‘godless’ socialism such as welfare and food-assistance to immigrants.

Of course, not all Christian churches are like this, though the influence of evangelical churches on American politics has always been profound. But we should be cautious, again—who’s influencing whom?

Because for as many Christians who advocate unbridled Capitalism, rally for foreign invasions, and oppose worker-protections and union activities, there are also those churches who have protected illegal immigrants from deportation, who support picket lines, who protest environmental damage, and who advocate an end to the Capitalist system. In places where Capitalism is doing the most damage, Liberation Theology has a strong hold over priests, pastors, and believers alike. Priests gunned down protecting their people from machine-gun wielding landlords in South America, nuns laying themselves in front of bulldozers and tanks, and solidarity marches of workers holding crosses are all still common occurrences in South America.

Consider even the current leader of the Catholic Church, once a steady and dependable bastion of pro-Capitalist, pro-authoritarian government. Pope Francis is hardly a revolutionary, of course, but one cannot help but think he’s doing certainly more on the side of St. Francis and Dorothy Day (the founder of the Catholic Workers) than on the side of the Capitalist

VII.

Really, though–how do religions become lapdogs of Empire?

Likely, the same way anyone does. For some, investment in the systems of power means privileged positions and the ‘ear of the king.’ Like the courtiers of medieval monarchists, being in the halls of power grants access to that power, even if it merely ‘trickles down’ or falls from authority’s table like scraps for dogs.

Governments are hardly naïve in their use of the faithful and the faithless alike. In the U.S., Christian leaders lend moral and ideological support to each new war against another Middle-Eastern country, but so, too, have anti-religionists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. ‘Men of Science’ standing alongside ‘Men of God’ like Pat Robertston and Jerry Falwell, together proclaiming Islam to be the greatest threat to civilization, urging America to claim its moral right and duty to conquer and subjugate these primitive, violent societies.

And between Government and the Religious are the Wealthy, playing each other deftly, wisely investing in both sides. So much of American Christianity defends Capitalism that I suspect many have confused the ‘invisible hand of the market’ with the Holy Spirit; add to this both Democrat and Republican politicians refusing to restrain the rich, and one can’t help but think this new Capitalist trinity is actually One God united in its war against the poor.

And the poor are the multitude, and they are everywhere. And who stands for them?

VIII.

There’s a story I didn’t tell my companion that night of Imbolc, before Brighid’s fire. I guess I’m telling him now, as I’m telling all of you. It’s not a story, but a dream, a vision I can never shake from the time I first met the gods.

We were standing in a light rain, standing in that Other light.

The crowd was so large before me, anticipating, thronging, so many of them I could not make them all out. And they were all different, people from every nations, drest foreign, beautifully, gaily, but not in high fashion or decked in wealth. Rather, we were the poor of the worlds.

I remember the colors of their garb, bright and vivid, carnivals of hued scarves and robes and cloaks. Some were drab, yes, but as intoxicating to the sight as the gaily-dyed costumes of the others.

Many had skin like mine, but we were a scant portion of all these peoples gathered before the gates, waiting to enter. Most were darker, skin colored like deer hide, or like coffee with cream, or sepia, or sunlight against tree-bark, or rich humus.

I didn’t know where we were going.

I watched the procession pass through great doors before us, opening into a veneer of the modern, impenetrable entrances to inscrutable skyscrapers. Each entered after answering a question, a pass-word, it seemed, or a pass-name.

I worried. I didn’t know what was needed as I approached the gate. I watched the beautiful myriad walk through those gates with wonder and sadness—I did not think I could join them.

“You look worried,” said a man beside me, his face kind, curious, calm. “What is it?”

“How do I get in?” I asked, glad of his offer to help. “I don’t know the code.”

He smiled back at me as a light spring rain began to fall around us. “Oh,” he said, his voice kind. “It’s Brighid.” He paused, appearing to scry through the drops falling from the sky. “See? You can tell by the way the rain is falling, and what’s in-between it.”

I then said her name, entered, and saw we were in a temple far larger than all the earth, full of the poor and faithful of many peoples, many races, and many religions.

Were they all there for Brighid? I don’t think so. But I was there because of her.

Dublin, Ireland (photo by R. Wildermuth)

Dublin, Ireland (photo by R. Wildermuth)

IX.

I’m an Anarchist, Anti-Capitalist believer in many gods, and I’ve more allies than I’ll ever know what to do with.

It’s easy to see the similarities of my beliefs to those of the Haitian revolutionaries who asked Erzulie’s blessing against their French masters, or to the anarchist Catholic Workers who fought exploitation of the poor by the rich, or to my many anarchist Atheist friends who are fighting Capitalists, not because their gods demand it, but because they refuse to live in a world where rich get more power than the poor. In the resistance of Buddhist monks fighting Western colonization and the First Nations rituals against the destruction of their peoples, I see the same faith to gods of the earth and the forests instead of gods of kings and commerce.

The reason for this, I think, is that the monolithic force of Capitalism is the worst thing that’s ever happened to the earth or her inhabitants. In the martyrdom of a Catholic priest protecting his people from foreign land-grabs I see the same Love as the First Nation’s tribal leader fasting until a government stops exploiting her people. In her Love and his, I see the resistance of South American indigenous groups against American investment, and in their Love I see Pagan radicals in Oakland risking arrest and potential death to protect vulnerable people from brutal police repression.

And in their Love I see the opposite of the First Baptist Church of Naples, spreading fear, racism and Capitalism in the name of ‘their’ god. I see the opposite of the hateful justifications of Imperialism and Capitalism in the writings of Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Pinker.

And, too, in their Love I see the opposite of the Pagans eager to support government repression of minorities, foreign invasions of Muslims, those eager to justify their own pursuit of wealth and fame, the opposite of the Pagan who refuses to question the suffering of others and the destruction of the world.

I do not believe there is a one-god, or a one-goddess. I also know for certain there is more than no-god, or no-goddess. Gods and Goddesses are many, perhaps as many as the peoples who have known them.

But the gods that I worship, to whom I’ve been called and to whom I’ve answered, seemed to also be inside that temple in my dream, because they are the gods and goddess of peoples, not of governments or of Capitalism. And I think there were other gods there too, gods of others whom I shall never know.

And so it is easy, then, to recognize the gods of others, even when they call him The One God, or the all-god, and even the no-gods. How they speak of them matters much less than what they do in their names.

X.

Within that hearth on Imbolc were the fires of Brighid, and also the fires of others. The Christian next to me perhaps only saw the flames themselves, and what those flames have meant to humans, the light and warmth and will ‘stolen’ for us from the gods. But I think I saw something else on his face, burning in his heart as the wood burned in that hearth.

Sometimes fire destroys; sometimes we need to burn it all down. Barricades and dumpsters burning in alleys and streets as police approach. Parliaments and banks also burn when they are of no use to us.

And just as often, fire creates. It is not surprising there’s a Brighid of poetry and a Brighid of the forge and a Brighid of the hostel. There are hearth-fire waiting for any who need it.

And I think, in both kinds of flames, of destruction and creation, are the flames of Love.

[As this is the weekend that many Pagans celebrate Imbolc, we are taking a pause from our regular schedule and have invited Erick Dupree to share his thoughts on the seasonal celebration. Dupree is the author of Alone in Her Presence: Meditations on the Goddess and is a co-founder in the Dharma Pagan movement. He teaches heart-centered practices that unite breath to heart, inviting a Tantric relationship with the Goddess. His writing can be found on his own website as well as on the Patheos Pagan Channel.]

We are approaching that time of year, the moment between Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It is for many Pagans, the birth of spring’s great return from the darkness of winter’s embrace. We celebrate this time as Imbolc, a cross-quarter day within the Wheel of the Year, a time for initiations, a festival of candle-light, and of the Goddess beginning her life-cycle again, ever anew. This is the time to manifest and a time to invite possibilities as we return to light.

From my Philadelphia window, I watch the snow fall blanketing the ground in pure white. It surely doesn’t seem like spring is anywhere in sight, and yet She is there, beneath the snow between slumber and wakefulness, in a place of lucid potential that is Imbolc. This is the time of steadfastness over the dramatic, a gentle shift from the bitter harshness of winter and into the brightness of Spring’s universal promise of renewal. Here in this time called Imbolc, our growth is gradual as the seeds lie hidden deep in the earth.

I have always loved this time of year. Whereas autumn brings for me a sense of melancholy with the decay of life, this lucid dreamlike moment before Springtime has always inspired me. Imbolc represents a time to turn inward, for one more moment, to see the seeds I have planted within my heart at Samhain, winter solstice, and in every dark moon ritual. It is a reminder of the promises I made to myself to regenerate, renew and restore the balance that comes from the fires of commitment needed to foster love, service, justice and peace. Imbolc is for me about the righteousness of possibility that is as fertile as the Earth herself.

[Courtesy of Erick Dupree]

[Courtesy of E. Dupree]

Here is this great promise, this invitation to transform our hearts and mind into the someone and something that is more than we were the previous season. Over the years, I have come to welcome this work as I welcome new beginnings, because like the maiden, Goddess is the work. Our commitment to that great work, and for each of us it might look different, is not always easeful, but that doesn’t mean it has to be full of dis-ease. Imbolc reminds us that there is always a return to bloom from whence there was death. Always in invitation, but never an obligation.

Imbolc is the maiden; it is its newness that inspires me. In these times of turbulence, as our world spirals, what might it be like to if we approached everything as the Maiden? As this gloriously fertile realm of possibility? Imbolc for me isn’t about dogma or mysteries,  or even wisdom traditions, but about the experiences I see reflected back at me through earth, when we invite the possible and banish dis-ease.

Imbolc is that liminal moment now pulsating with possibilities that come when we invite intentional and mindful living and experience each moment fully without fear. The maiden is Love’s warrior, fearless of failure, reminding us that love is stronger than fear. She is action, penetrating the frozen soil to bring blossoms anew.

What might it be like if we immersed ourselves in the potential of love’s great warrior? Imbolc is for the warrior who is too busy doing the work to care that someone may not approve. The warrior asks, “How can I be of service?” “How can I be an agent of change?” “How can I bring the newness of possibility?” The quest is the transformation in how we experience life. It makes life exciting and fresh, and keeps us young and eager to learn.

Imbolc is the eagerness of something great that can inspire at this time of year. When I look out my window I know something is coming. Whether we call upon Earth to rise up and greet us, or invite protection and blessings to our hearth, home, and heart, Imbolc is the moment of conception, the time to rekindle the fires of commitment. As we return to the light of present, what is the promise you make to yourself, for others, and for Goddess?

The time is now, the Maiden is coming, Imbolc is the invitation to that perfectly imperfect magical place that is Love.

A recent article in the Quaternary International suggests that the myth of Jason and the Argonauts took its inspiration from an actual voyage that occurred sometime between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago. A team of geologists, led by Avtandil Okrostsvaridze from Ilia State University in Georgia, report that they have found evidence that the Golden Fleece was real and was the product of ancient gold extraction techniques.

But did these scientists find definitive evidence? The Wild Hunt turned to a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion to take a Pagan-friendly look at the paper.

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece from a fragment of a sarcophagus, National Museum of Rome. [Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece. From a fragment of a sarcophagus, National Museum of Rome. [Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Mythos of the quest for the Golden Fleece
Although there are different written accounts of the quest, the basic myth is as follows. Before the Trojan War, Jason gathered together a group of heroes known as the Argonauts to sail to Aietis’ palace in the Kingdom of Colchis [modern day Georgia] to take the Golden Fleece. The fleece was thought to be from the famed golden-haired, winged ram of Zeus. Jason needed the fleece to restore his father as king of Thessaly in Greece.

Jason and the Argonauts faced many challenges – and fathered many children – during their voyage and received help from Gods and mortals. The most famous person who assisted Jason was Medea, King Aitis’ daughter. After they returned home, Jason sets Medea aside to marry another woman. Medea kills that woman and the children she bore to Jason, and then flees to Athens. Jason’s father takes the throne, but Jason dies, lonely and unloved.

Gold mining theory
In the academic paper, geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze stated that the quest was a real voyage to the kingdom of Colchis to learn how they extracted gold from rivers, streams and sand deposits.

The team of geologists carried out an eight-year study to test the theory. They compared geological data and archaeological findings with the myths the kingdom of Colchis. The locals in this region have been using wooden bowls to pour water and sand mixtures over thick sheep’s pelt for thousands of years. The sand, being lighter, washes out, while the heavy gold particles become trapped in the sheep’s wool.

This was not the first time that the “gold mining theory” has been suggested. Back in the second century AD, Roman historian Apian Alexandrine put forth this very theory. Since that time, it has been periodically entertained by archaeologists and historians. Yet this is the very first time that geologists have done a thorough examination to test the theory. Will it hold up to scrutiny?

Ethan Doyle White, is a London-based archaeologist and historian of religion currently engaged in PhD research at University College London (UCL). He has “a particular research interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been interpreted and utilised by contemporary Pagan new religious movements.”  He said:

Having read the original research paper, I’d say that the ScienceAlert article does a fairly good job of accurately summarising its conclusions. However, I must express some concerns regarding the original research paper itself. While I certainly would not go so far as to claim that the arguments presented are invalid, I am concerned by the fact that the paper has been written by geologists and then published in a geological journal. Now, without meaning to knock geology as a discipline, the study of rock strata really doesn’t provide the sort of theoretical and methodological basis needed to analyse the development and origins of ancient mythology, for which a blend of history, archaeology, folkloristics and perhaps also linguistics would be required.

Further, I would pay close attention to the statement in the paper’s acknowledgements: “The authors would like to thank the general director of the mining corporation “Golden Fleece”, Dr Mustafa Mutlu, which has funded this research”. I think that that is potentially very telling; a company with a vested interest in the name and concept of the Golden Fleece was funding the entire project.

Caroline Tully [Courtesy Photo]

Caroline Tully [Courtesy Photo]

Caroline J. Tully, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, primarily focuses on Aegean Archaeology. However, she is “also interested in the reception of the ancient world, particularly the reception of ancient Egyptian religion.” She said:

Like many non-Classicists, when talking about Classical Literature these authors are clumsy and rather cursory. I don’t think there is any point in trying to match the Argonauts’ journey with the alluvial paning for gold in Colchis using wooden utensils and sheepskin. I don’t think there is any point in claiming that the Argonauts’ journey was “real” – it may have been, it may not have been. As far as I’d go would be to say “The story of the Golden Fleece in the Jason and the Argonauts myth sounds like it may have been inspired by actual techniques of gold collection, using a wooden utensil and a sheepskin, by people who lived in the region of ancient Colchis and who still use that method today.

So, I’m saying that the description of a “golden fleece” in Colchis as it appears in the myth of the Argonauts’ voyage may certainly have been inspired by the actual method of collecting gold in ancient and modern Colchis – as Tim Severin suggested in 1984.  

When asked specifically about the geologists’ research approach, Tully said:

While they are rather cursory on their Classical literature, on the other hand, where the authors of this article have expertise, in their sciency approach to the subject, they seem fine and I would cite them myself. They seem to have done the work and know the topic. I, on the other hand, have no science background so I have to take their word for it. But the article is in a peer reviewed journal, which would suggest that it was of a reasonable scholarly standard. I would trust the authors in their expertise re the geology and mineralogy of Georgia / Colchis. What they’ve said in regards to the sciency angle seems reasonable to me.

I’m not saying their claims about the mythology are wrong, just that they shouldn’t bother trying to specifically match Jason and the Argonaut’s voyage – especially because they are not specialists in Classical Archaeology or Classical Literature… They should stick to their specialty – science.

Tully then went on to speculate more deeply on the theory from both a mythological or historical standpoint. She said:

Surely lots of Greeks went to the corners of the Black Sea. There were Greek colonies all around the Black Sea. That is well known. So, Jason and the Argonauts could be a sort of generic adventure that combines stories from all those sailors’ adventures. I mean there might be evidence of “Jason” over there in Colchis, I don’t recall any inscriptions saying “Jason was here” but there might have been and that would be mentioned in Severin’s book

Jason is quite interesting. His name comes from the root for “medicine” or “doctor” or “healing”, that sort of thing, the root being “Ia” as in “Iatros, or any mediciney word that derives from the Greek root “Ia”. thats “i”, not “L”. Anyway, there is talk that perhaps Jason was originally the magical one who had knowledge of herbs and poisons, rather than (or as well as) Medea.

What Tully is referring to here is a theory proposed by scholar Yulia Ustinova in 2004. In her paper titled Jason the Shaman, Ustinova claims that Jason’s mythical biography define him not only as a hero and a father, but also as having a “shamanic personality.”  She concludes, “The most important functions of a shaman are healing, retrieving of the souls of the sick from the malevolent powers, and escorting the souls of the dead to the nether world … These major elements, initiation period under the tutelage of a skilled shaman and seer, a horrible ordeal, healing talents and a voyage to the netherworld in order to bring back a dead soul and a magical object are present in Jason’s mythic personality.”

The Goddess Athena helping Jason's ship, terracotta relief, British Museum [Credit: Townley Collection, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

The Goddess Athena helping Jason’s ship, terracotta relief, British Museum [Credit: Townley Collection, cc. lic. Wikimedia]

Tully went on to say, “The idea that collecting gold with a sheep skin influenced the story of Jason and the Argonauts is perfectly feasible…” because, as suggested earlier, myths can be based in historical fact. She added as an aside:

Speaking of myths being real.. there’s a great new book out by Adrienne Mayor called “The Amazons.” Classicists have always thought the Amazons were completely mythical, but Mayor, who is a classical scholar, interprets archaeological remains of female warriors from around the Black Sea and into Central Asia as what probably were … the “Amazons” of Greek myth. Of course “myth” doesn’t mean “untrue”… but we mainly tend to think that the bulk of myth is just a story. But its perfectly feasible that myth has components of actual events in it.

While Tully believes that the geologists do make a reasonably good case from a scientific perspective, she said that their work would have been more convincing if they were “better writers” or knew more about “classical literature and archaeology.” Tully also would have liked to have seen a photo of one of the collected fleeces. However she also noted that this failing is not unusual in the academic world. She said:

This is a bit like the spate of articles that came out with varying degrees of dry sciency language when it was discovered that there indeed was a crevice that produced psychoactive gases under the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Because the scientists verified it.. but they aren’t very evocative writers.

In the end Tully summed up her discussion of the topic by saying, “Yes, it is a perfectly reasonable claim which seems to be backed by science. (Well, except that I think they can’t possibly say that it is “proof” that the Argonaut’s story was ‘true”. It’s suggestive that  some of the Argonauts’ story may have had factual components).”

The Satanic Temple logoTALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA —The Satanic Temple struck another blow for religious equality when it secured the right to erect a Satanic holiday display in Florida’s capitol. It will sit alongside a display celebrating the birth of Jesus, the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and a pole marking Festivus. This is the same Satanic organization that has previously offered to make a bronze statue of Baphoment for the Oklahoma capitol, announced it would distribute Satanic literature to Florida schoolchildren, and performed same-sex weddings over the grave of Fred Phelps’ mother. Reviled by stalwart Christians and mistrusted by other Satanists, The Satanic Temple invariably makes a media splash when it comments on the separation of church and state.

So many Pagans have spent time either rehearsing or actually having conversations explaining how Paganism differs from Satanism. Therefore it is no surprise that The Satanic Temple has received negative reactions from Pagans. But is there anything this group can teach Pagans about public relations or defending religious freedom?

To find out, we first asked how this organization relates to Pagans, if at all. The spokesperson for the temple, who goes by the name Lucien Greaves, explained that there’s always been a bit of push back from Pagans:

It happens less now — probably because of our apparent successes — but in the beginning, we would receive occasional messages from Pagans and Atheists, both concerned that our activities were attaching their own values or symbols to a caricature of ultimate evil. The concern seems to be that, by invoking Satanism, we serve to justify the worst fears born of superstitious bigotry.

The notion that we should coddle such divisive witch-hunting impulses by maintaining a taboo against Satanism is, I feel, a completely backward approach. In fact, there is a culture of Satanism, culled from various elements, including Pagan symbols. The identification with Satanism isn’t arbitrary to the point that we feel it could simply be exchanged for a more palatable label. Satan symbolizes unsilenced inquiry, rebellion against tyranny, and personal freedom.

For a Pagan, or any other minority religion, to openly engage in efforts to distance themselves from Satanism serves only to affirm the misguided notion that Satanism stands for cruelty, abject depravity, and unabashed evil. As Satan, mythologically, stands in opposition to the Biblical God’s authority, Satanism too is feared to challenge Biblical doctrines of faith. To concede that such opposition must, by its nature, be corrupt and criminal is to conversely affirm that traditional religious institutions hold a monopoly on moral virtue.

In fact, we feel our campaigns embrace the highest of moral callings — from gay rights, to women’s rights, to the protection of children against institutionalized abuse. In each of these cases, we fight against regressive mainstream religious thinking. I think that by embracing Satanism, we represent another phase in our civilization’s social growth. This is another step toward ensuring that each individual is judged for his or her actual actions in the real world, free of fear from persecution for symbolic crimes and/or “blasphemy.” If our past has taught us anything, it’s that the most cruel and evil acts are committed not at the hands of secret religious minorities, but by the witch-hunters whose paranoia allows them to imagine such minorities are willfully acting against the common good.

With that background, we asked a few Pagans and Polytheists the following question. What can Pagans learn from The Satanic Temple? It turns out that they had a lot to say.

Author and activist T. Thorn Coyle recognizes the activism in the temple’s work:

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

The Satanic Temple is approaching the public square head on, with no apologies. I appreciate that. Their take on things is, “OK. Religious materials in schools? Here’s an educational children’s book that we are handing out. You ruled that it was fine,” and, “Monumental religious statues at the state capitol? Here is one of our own.” They are also mobilizing around issues such as reproductive rights and the rights of children to not suffer corporal punishment.

The Satanic Temple are unapologetically themselves and move ahead by assuming they already have the same civil rights as other religions. In approaching the public sphere in this way, they serve to highlight where the real cracks in the wall of “separation of church and state” are. The Satanic Temple, by acting forthrightly, are taking a hammer and chisel to those cracks. For this, I applaud them.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the need to become ‘conscious pariahs’ rather than parvenues (assimilationists) or pariahs outcast by society. The conscious pariah rejects and directly challenges the status quo, not from petulant rebellion, but because the status quo is corrupt. There is great power in choosing to be a conscious pariah. I see some Pagan groups wishing to be “just like everyone else” and that can take away some of the power and bite we have in not being like everyone else. The role of the conscious challenger is important to society. I think that Pagans could take some lessons from the ways the Satanic Temple are issuing their challenges and refusing to assimilate. They are acting from their power, rather than begging for it or giving it away.

Their most recent holiday display, though? I find it offensive. Why? It’s bad art.

Kirk White, author and (now unaffiliated) founder of Cherry Hill Seminary also appreciates that The Satanic Temple is true to its path:

Rev. Kirk White

Rev. Kirk White

I have long been an advocate for Pagans walking a middle path. On the one hand, I think it behooves and benefits us to resist being cast as ‘other, outcast, the antithesis of normal.’ On the other hand we absolutely must retain our integrity and not sell out those features of our beliefs and practices that define and distinguish us just to gain respectability and acceptance. And of course, we must always be willing to stand up against institutional oppression.

What the Satanic Temple is doing greatly benefits religious freedom across the spectrum and Pagans should support those and similar efforts. Their outrageous, funny, ‘in your face’ approach is proving effective. But they do so purposefully building on their otherness and with no expectation of being accepted or even taken seriously as a religion. Their social power is in their marginality and their oppositional approach. If Pagans decide to replicate their ‘in your face’ approach we allow the overculture to define us in contrast to themselves rather on our own unique qualities and merits. We become the enemy rather than the neighbors. We should support them, but I do not believe that we should replicate their methods.

Boeotian polytheist and Neo-Cyrenaic Ruadhán J McElroy would like to see more people pushing boundaries:

Ruadhán J McElroy

Ruadhán J McElroy

I pretty much only know the highly publicized activities of The Satanic Temple, but from that alone, I think between that and the later, philosophy-focused writings of LaVey, it would do the Pagan Community, and all pagans, polytheists, and others involved in alternative religion, a lot of good to do more questioning of the status quo and pushing boundaries of both society and oneself. Sometimes comfort zones exist for a reason, but a lot of times we construct them as a crutch, which does us no good.

If a person who can walk chooses to instead live in a wheelchair, their muscles atrophy and they come to need extensive physical therapy to be able to walk again, and if a wheelchair bound person doesn’t get certain physical therapies and daily time in a standing frame, they open themselves up to all sorts of health issues, from muscle spasms to potentially fatal blood clots. With my chronic back pain, you have no idea how much I want to just give up and get a wheelchair, some days, but if I can at all walk through the pain, I make myself cos it’s better for me to walk than to not. Since we clearly need to do physical things every day that push our boundaries, lest we risk atrophy or worse, we also have to push our boundaries mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and of the culture we are in. Or as the Cyreniacs might say, sometimes you gotta make a little rough motion to make a big smooth motion.

It’s good that The Satanic Temple is willing to push those boundaries of the culture in such a public way, though I wish I could say at this point that I’m disappointed that I’ve not seen as many pagans and polytheists doing similar –I’m too used to pagans (and especially Pagans) who are content with the status quo and too fearful of rocking any boats, even if someone set the starboard on fire and you gotta douse it (like what’s been going on in Missouri), to be disappointed in pagans, anymore.

Ritualist and speaker Shauna Aura Knight thinks it’s worth learning how The Satanic Temple handles the media:

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

The Satanic Temple effectively uses shock and the legal system to their advantage. There are few Pagan groups out there with much media savvy, and fewer still able bankroll lawyers. I have a background in marketing work, and I’d say that The Satanic Temple is cleverly using the fact that many people think that Satanists are about the worst thing ever. Specifically, they’re using the outrage to call attention to infringements on the separation between church and state.

It’s pretty clear that the dominant religions want those infringements—so long as it’s their own religion. When TST introduces themselves into that infringement they appall people. It’s incredibly effective tactic as an activist. You want prayers before city council meetings… religious holiday scenes…statuary at public buildings? You want to give out religious texts at school? You want your religion to provide a legal loophole supporting your beliefs on contraception and abortion?

Ok. Then Satanists can do that too. People rarely see a problem with the status quo until provoked.

This strategy of contrast doesn’t work quite as well for Pagans because most Pagans have been trying hard to put out the PR that we’re not that bad, we’re good people. Satanists don’t seem afraid of their own bad press and use it to further their goals.

However, Pagans can still effect the same legal pressuring which could provoke the, “If I have to include you, then we just won’t have any prayers at all.” However, that still requires us to have professional media and PR folks as well as lawyers on retainer.

What we can learn from The Satanic Temple is that with trained media professionals and a legal budget, we too can combat the system. TST understands a strategic aspect of activism; sometimes you have to play the legal game. TST grasps the rules of the system and is willing to exploit those rules and find the loopholes. We can do this too with enough budget and expertise.

Knight’s comments about being able to “bankroll lawyers” was not a unique sentiment, but Greaves says it’s not entirely deserved.

Our cadre of lawyers (from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) representing us in Florida were pro bono, working for us at no charge, simply because they believed strongly in our position. To be clear, it would be a mistake to think that these lawyers were motivated by the prospect of receiving compensation in the form of monetary damages from the lawsuit. In fact, we weren’t seeking monetary damages at all, only to secure the right to place our holiday display in the Capitol Rotunda. And this, largely, is how we’ve managed to get so many things done: our campaigns have resonated deeply with people who support our positions, to the point that they will volunteer their efforts, even if many of them don’t care to identify as Satanists themselves.

In the case of the Baphomet monument, we crowd-funded around $30k through Indiegogo, after which we found an amazing sculptor who was willing to work on the project at-cost. Even with that solid foundation, the monument ended up costing 10s of thousands more. I, and the other core membership of The Satanic Temple, have consistently put significant amounts of our own money into our campaigns. It seems we’re always scraping up the bottom dollar to push things through, but we keep moving forward. Despite the heavy burden this imposes, we think that the imposition of dues for religious affiliation is inappropriate. We sell merchandise in hopes of generating revenue toward our campaigns, but this hasn’t proven lucrative by any means. We clearly have the beginnings of some enormous legal battles now in the works, for which we have set up a legal fund.

As for Greaves’ advice for Pagans talking to the media, he recommends, “Stay on point and control the dialogue. Don’t be pulled into superfluous and irrelevant arguments. If you’re asked an unreasonable question, simply answer with whatever message you wish to put forward, whether it addresses the question in any way or not.” He might file all questions about theology under ‘unreasonable,’ because he also says, “Move away from meticulously describing what it is you believe and practice. Your material has long been publicly available to the genuinely curious. You simply do not have to justify your religious perspective to anybody to assert your rights as equally regarded citizen[s].”