Archives For American Academy of Religion

[This is the second post on my trip to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago, for yesterday's post, click here.]

My first session on Sunday covered material that I was pretty familiar with, the Pew Forum’s Religion in Prisons survey, a groundbreaking work that gave some key data points concerning minority religions in prison that before we had only speculated on. You can read my initial analysis of that data, here, and Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum’s views on the survey, here. This special topics forum featured two researchers who worked on the Pew survey, and chaplains with direct experience either in prison chaplaincy, or working with minority religions.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum's Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Special Topics Forum: Pew Forum’s Survey on Religion in Prisons.

Patrick McCollum’s initial comments seemed to set the tone for much of the panel, and the questions that followed, when he talked about the “dominant religion lens” that Christians view minority religions, particularly in prison. Many working prison chaplains had some very critical things to say about how the data might be skewed by the opinions of a predominantly conservative and Christian chaplaincy body. From what I’ve heard, Pew is very interested in doing a follow-up study on religion in prisons, something I welcome. The role of a Pagan, McCollum, in shaping this discussion shows just how vital we’ve become in this process.

After that forum, I attended the second Contemporary Pagan Studies panel entitled “Sex, Metaphor, and Sacrifice in Contemporary Paganism,” which featured very diverse papers from Jone Salomonsen on the religious writings of Oslo mass-murderer Anders Breivik, which fused Christian and Pagan elements, Jefferson Calico, on how the Heathen mead hall operates as a central metaphor for interaction between the gods and humanity, and most interesting, Jason Winslade’s “When Pan Met Babalon: Challenging Sex Roles at a Thelemic/Pagan Festival.”

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

Jason Winslade presenting his paper.

“Concentrating on ritual performances around the bonfire at Babalon Rising, a yearly festival in Indiana whose attendees follow a mix of Paganism and Thelema, the teachings of Victorian magician Aleister Crowley, this paper will demonstrate how participants grapple with challenging sexual roles, manifested in their dances and their ritual play as deities from Crowley’s mythos. Chief among these is his version of the Pagan god Pan who, at Babalon Rising, engages with participants, intentionally pushing boundaries, and creating a setting for festival goers to more freely explore these issues. What results is a messy mix of progressive and regressive attitudes towards sexuality as a metaphor and a vehicle for transformation that potentially challenges essentialist notions of gender and sex in contemporary magickal practice.”

Winslade gave an engaging and interesting presentation, and while this panel seemed not a thematically cohesive as advertised, all the subjects covered were certainly important and fascinating.

The final Contemporary Pagan Studies session I attended was on Monday morning, and it was, by far, the most important and exciting of the weekend. Held as a joint session with the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group, “Contested Categories: Indigenous, Pagan, Authentic, and Legitimate” struck right at the heart of the some of the most vital questions modern Pagans face collectively. All the papers presented, from Koenraad Elst’s exploration of The Gathering of Elders in India, to Sabina Magliocco’s (author of “Witching Culture”) examination of authenticity within modern Paganism (read by Chas Clifton since Sabina couldn’t make it) pointed out the very real hurdles we’ll collectively face as we decide how we’ll define ourselves in the years to come. However, my two favorite paper presentations were Mary Hamner’s “Middle-Class Vodou: Spirit Possession and Marginality in the United States,” and Thad Horrell’s “Becoming Indigenous in a Reconstructed Ancestral Tradition.”

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

Thad Horrell and Mary Hamner at the Pagan Studies and Indigenous Religious Traditions joint session.

“This paper will investigate the contemporary Heathen project to create an indigenous identification accessible to White Americans, asking to what degree this project escapes the critiques leveled against other attempts to develop White indigenous identifications. Being rooted in European indigenousness rather than an appropriated American Indian indigenousness, does Heathenry escape the usual post/anti-colonial critiques commonly leveled at such projects? How are “indigenous Europeans” in the United States different from White “wannabe Indians?” What, if any, commonalities do they share? Are the differences sufficient to overcome the usual criticisms, to produce a more healthy and respectful cognitive relation between White Americans and American Indians? Or, do contemporary Heathen claims of indigenous identity continue to reify White racial conceptions of dominance over the racially-other Indian?”

I felt both of these papers were so compelling that I spoke with Mr. Horrell and Ms. Hamner after the session about presenting their research here at The Wild Hunt. Both seemed open to the idea, and I hope that this will not only expand the coverage of Contemporary Pagan Studies at the AAR Annual Meeting, but introduce productive dialog on issues that have provoked a lot of debate among modern Pagans.  So stay tuned!

Once I get home later today I hope to start a longer rumination about the important conversations that happen between the panels and presentations, how the AAR Annual Meeting provides fertile soil for future collaboration and helps sustain Contemporary Pagan Studies. Conferences are often about who you meet, who you connect with, as much as the paper you present. As I said before, Pagan scholars are like a microcosm of the Pagan community as a whole: diverse thoughts, theories, and ideas debating, interacting, and spinning off into new directions. Interactions that could provide a road-map for the larger community to move forward. I feel lucky to have been a small part of these discussions, and to have attended these sessions.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern DruidAssembly of the Sacred Wheel,Brotherhood of the PhoenixEgregoresIx Chel WellnessMill Creek SeminarySolar Cross Temple,Stone City Pagan SanctuaryTeo BishopThe SummerlandsUrania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.

I arrive in Chicago, now, as an outsider. Though I have lived near Chicago in the past, I’ve become a true transplant to the Pacific Northwest and find myself newly awed by the scale of this city. The buildings, the public art, and even the convention center are massive, sprawling, and alive.  Before I attend any session at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting, I’m able to make it to the end of a day-long pre-conference event on Friday entitled “Mapping the Occult City: Magick & Esotericism in the Urban Utopia.” Co-sponsored by DePaul University and Phoenix Rising Academy.

During a roundtable discussion on the “psychic city” featuring several local Chicago Pagan and occult leaders, including Angie Buchanan of Gaia’s Womb, one of the current owners of The Occult Bookstore, and a representative of the local OTO Lodge. It was clear that Chicago has a very distinct character, one that defies easy categorization, and one very much tied to the unique landscape of this metropolis. It’s a place where syncretism, religious cross-pollination, and a respect for the deep roots placed here generations ago.

psychic city chicago panel

Roundtable: Re-examining Psychic City.

As fascinating as that discussion was, the real highlight of that evening was a special performance from Terra Mysterium, a local collective of actors, singers, musicians, poets, and magicians, who weave theatre and the esoteric arts in a way that’s captivating, and deliriously enjoyable. Truly you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a banish-off between an un-orthodox Witch and a group of ritual magicians doing the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram (in song)! An extra bonus was seeing Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum, who’s going to be on a panel discussing the Pew Forum’s prison chaplaincy survey.

terra mysterium patrick

Matthew Ellenwood, Patrick McCollum, and Keith Green after the Terra Mysterium performance.

After that enriching evening, it was time to start the AAR Annual Meeting proper, and the Pagan Studies programming track began bright and early with “Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology.” This panel, which featured papers from Michael York, author of “Pagan Theology,”  along with Christopher Chase, Michelle Mueller, and Morgan Davis, mirrored conversations that have been happening with increasing regularity in the Pagan community. The tensions between practice and theology, between community and individuality, and what the best lens is to view these issues. It shows how Pagan scholarship isn’t disconnected from what concerns us, but is instead deeply interconnected. Their work helps us move forward.

Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology panel.

Contemporary Pagan Theology and Praxology panel.

Tomorrow I’ll recount the experiences and interactions I had on Sunday and Monday, and talk more about how what happens in the academy not only mirrors our experience as Pagans, but informs and shapes it as well.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the campaign to send me to AAR, including the underwriters who joined us during that time: A Modern Druid, Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, Brotherhood of the Phoenix, Egregores, Ix Chel Wellness, Mill Creek Seminary, Solar Cross Temple, Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, Teo Bishop, The Summerlands, Urania’s Well, and Wiccanwoman. Thank you. You make this possible.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

tow new home

The Temple of Witchcraft’s new Salem home.

  • The Temple of Witchcraft, a religious organization co-founded by author Christopher Penczak, is still encountering difficulties in getting their new building in Salem, New Hampshire the proper zoning so that they can build a parking lot and make improvements. Neighbors say it isn’t about the Witchcraft, just traffic, but at least one neighbor disagrees with the notion of them identifying as a “church” even though no Christian denomination would receive such a challenge. Meanwhile, a new Hindu temple in the same area has been approved, while the Temple of Witchcraft is still having their essential “church”-ness questioned. Make no mistake, the Temple is in the legal right here, and I hope this is resolved before lawyers have to file litigation, costing Salem quite a bit of money.
  • Remember my analysis of last week’s elections here in the United States? I noted that religious demographics were shifting, and this may have been the first post-Christian election. To add more data to my assertions, Discover Magazine notes that Asian Americans, who voted heavily Democratic this cycle, have also become far less Christian, influencing how they vote. Quote: “Barry Kosmin has documented that between 1990 and 2010 Asian Americans have become far less Christian, on average. Meanwhile, the Republican party has become far more Christian in terms of its identity. Do you really require more than two sentences to infer from this what the outcome will be in terms of how Asian Americans will vote?” In short, the more some Republicans want to become “God’s Own Party,” the more a growing number of votes will simply evade them.
  • Over at HuffPost Religion Deepak Sarma addresses the question of white Hindu converts, and whether this growing group, sincere or not, are engaging in a unintentional mockery of that which they profess to honor.  Quote: “So, no matter their sincerity, or self-proclaimed authenticity, their mimicry seems more like mockery. And, unlike the forced mimicry of the Diaspora Hindu, which may have subversive undertones and may destabilize the dominant ideology, reverse mimicry, ironically, merely reinforces existing hierarchies and paradigms. In fact, some claim to be more “authentic” than Diaspora Hindus and, in so doing, deny the voice of those they mimic/ mock.” Sarma goes on to posit that perhaps white converts can never understand the experience of the Hindu diaspora and wonders if welcoming Western Hindu temples and homes suffer from “post-traumatic, post-colonial, servile disorder” by accepting these converts. It should be interesting to see the debate and discussion this post incites.
Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

  • Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary has passed another important hurdle on their road to becoming an established, recognized, seminary. After awarding its first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling, graduate, Sandra Lee Harris has had her credentials examined and accepted by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc., the credentials-examining body for the Association of Professional Chaplains. This frees her to complete the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain. Quote: “David Oringderff, Ph.D., Harris’s department chair and adviser at Cherry Hill Seminary, congratulated her on her achievement, “This is indeed a milestone, both for your professional aspirations and for Cherry Hill Seminary.”  Oringderff noted the precedent set by the BCCI/APC decision, which could strengthen the case for future acceptance of Cherry Hill Seminary degrees by other institutions, the U.S. Department of Defense, for example.” We’ll have more on this story, and its implications, in the near future.
  • Check out this interview with West Memphis 3 member Damien Echols, conducted by Henry Rollins, who talks to Echols about “his life before and after his trial, including his spiritual and intellectual journey in prison as well as his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met and married while on death row.”
  • Back in 2010 I announced that long-running web magazine Heathen Harvest, which covered post-Industrial and neofolk music, was closing down. Now, the site has returned at a new address, with new owners, and with the blessing of the original founder. Quote: “Heathen Harvest’s second major incarnation came into being on 4th July 2011, learning from the past by chiefly reviewing digitial promos and concentrating only on the most stimulating music received. The new site has been respectfully named The Heathen Harvest Periodical to distinguish it from the old website, which still remains archived at www.heathenharvest.com. We continue to cover all material from the darker musical underground and to serve the needs and works of musicians, artists, authors and journalists alike all across the post-industrial spectrum.” The new site can be found at: www.heathenharvest.org.
  • In other Pagan-friendly music news,  UK Pagan band The Dolmen have just released a new album entitled “Wytchlord,” while fellow UK Pagan artist Damh the Bard (a most excellent human being) is coming out with a new album, “Antlered Crown and Standing Stone,” on November 17th.
  • At the New Yorker, Michelle Dean wonders if the folkloric witch has been tamed to its own detriment. Quote: “But the witch is no longer terribly wild to us; she’s domesticated, normal, prone perhaps to a spell of madness but one from which she’ll emerge sunny and whole. She no longer signals a liberating spirit. Culturally, we have replicated witch-figures like Samantha of “Bewitched,” whose powers aid her in serving her husband. Our emblematic witch is Hermione Granger, who performs all the magic and takes none of the credit from Harry Potter. She is self-effacing and noble and never in any real danger of contamination by the dark. There are bad witches in Harry Potter, indeed, bad witches in many stories. But their cartoonish one-dimensionality cancels out any real portent. The internal conflicts go to Snape, while Bellatrix is irretrievable.” Dean feels we need the uncontrollable and unpredictable witch in order to do battle with those who seek to control women.
  • The Fourth Circuit Federal Appeals Court ruled that a prison does not have to provide an outdoor worship space for Asatru in prison, noting that there’s no authority requiring it. Quote: “A federal trial judge concluded that Krieger failed to show how the practice of his religion, which is called Asatru, was harmed by the lack of a worship circle outdoors. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision.
  • In a final note, tomorrow I’ll be heading to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. and I’m hoping to post updates during my time there, and bring back some interviews as well. You’ll also have regular updates from Wild Hunt columnists and reporters to read while I’m away. I’d like to thank everyone who funded this coverage trip back in April, and will do my best to transmit what’s happening in Pagan Studies and Pagan scholarship to you.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Top Story: Chas Clifton gives us a heads up that the preliminary schedule of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s sessions for this year’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting are now up. Taking place this November in San Francisco, California, the AAR’s Annual Meeting is the world’s largest gathering of religious studies scholars. This year the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group will explore themes of “West Coast Pagan Practices and Ideas,” “Pagan Analysis and Critique of ‘Religion’,” and “Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices,” which is being run in partnership with the Religion and Ecology Group.

The joint session with the Religion and Ecology Group, “Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices,” will feature a panel discussion with groundbreaking feminist theologian Rosemary R. Ruether and Reclaiming co-founder Starhawk. In addition, other sessions will see paper presentations from Helen Berger, Christopher W. Chase, and Christine Kraemer (a department chair at Cherry Hill Seminary) among others. All that is in addition to the thousands of other presentations on just about every facet of religious experience you can think of. I will be there this November to cover the event, and hope to bring you special reporting, interviews, and access to a gathering few outside the world of religion studies experience.

In Other News:

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

My second and last day attending this three-day conference was considerably more hectic than the first. Lots of run-walking through hallways and catching the shuttle service between the two conference hotels. After a bit more time spent with the book publishers in the exhibition hall, and a quick coffee break with M. Macha Nightmare, I raced to the New Religious Movements Group to hear a presentation by three key figures in NRM scholarship. The group was presided over by Douglas Cowan, and featured presentations by Eileen Barker, founder of INFORM, Massimo Introvigne, founder of CESNUR, and J. Gordon Melton, founder of ISAR.


Eileen Barker and J. Gordon Melton.

It was clear that these figures, and their respective organizations, have had a large hand in steering religious scholarship away from the “anti-cult” and “countercult” mindset so prevalent a generation ago, and towards a more open-minded and fair appraisal of new religions. This hasn’t come without some criticism, and all have been accused of being apologists for various movements (most notably Melton, who has received a lot of criticism for defending Aum Shinrikyo during the investigation into the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway). Despite these setbacks, and resistance from those with an investment in counter-cult thinking, it is safe to say that minority religions today, including modern Pagan faiths, owe a debt to figures like Barker, Melton and Introvigne. It was indeed an honor to hear them give brief retrospectives of their work on NRMs.

With no time to waste, I rushed to the next session of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group, in order to hear some of modern Paganism’s best living thinkers expound on “Polytheism in Theory”. Presided over by Nikki Bado-Fralick (who happens to be the president of Cherry Hill Seminary) the group featured presentations by Graham Harvey, author of “Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism”, Constance Wise, author of “Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought”, and Michael York, author of “Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion”.


Michael York speaking to a packed room.

To summarize their points would most likely do them all an injustice, so let me apologize in advance. Harvey discussed how Pagan religions are going through a process of “indigenization”, morphing from their esoteric origins into something far more animistic in practice. Wise endorsed process theology as a way to think about polytheism without creating an unnecessary mono/poly binary, or negating the beliefs of others. Finally, Michael York discussed polytheism, the anti-Decalogue stance of Pagan religions, human sacrifice in ancient pagan cultures, and how it is no longer necessary for modern Pagan cultures (though he did wonder, in our age of war and capital punishment if we have really moved away from ritual murder).

Sadly, after York finished, I had to dash to catch my train home. I also regret that some personal matters prevent me from attending presentations and talks on the third and final day of the conference, but even the small number of group sessions I attended left me with much to digest. It is impossible for one reporter to accurately summarize the vast amount of knowledge on display here, but I can say that the cutting edge of modern Pagan thought (and religious thought in general) can be glimpsed for those willing to brave the crowds. My only regret is that there weren’t two or three of me so I could have seen and heard more. Maybe next time.

For more AAR coverage, check out Michael Paulson’s article on a Harry Potter-themed session. Meanwhile youth minister Adam Walker discusses pluralism, and First Things gives a snarky acknowledgment of Wendy Doniger winning the 2008 Martin Marty Award for contributions to the public understanding of religion.

There is something a bit overwhelming about wandering amid 5000 (give or take) scholars and students of religion. Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, indigenous practitioners, scores of Christians, and, of course, Pagans. Aside from wandering the impressive exhibit hall (featuring what seems like hundreds of publishers), where I managed to pick up Douglas Cowan’s new book “Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen”, I decided to play it safe and stick to meetings of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group.


Jason Winslade adds a little ritual to the proceedings.

The first panel concentrated on the theme of “Talking with the Dead”, and featured a really fascinating exploration of Dia de los Muertos celebrations by Anne R. Key (who teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies), while Jason Winslade of DePaul University lit candles, ignited flash-paper, and donned various forms of headgear in order to illustrate his examination of ritual actions and drama (there was also a very nice presentation by fellow blogger Chas Clifton, and esteemed Pagan academic Wendy Griffin).


The “Polytheism in Practice” session participants.

After a restorative lunch, I then headed to the “Polytheism in Practice” session where three academics explored how various forms of polytheism are thriving in places like China, the Ukraine, and Italy. We were then treated to a thought-provoking response to these papers by David L. Miller, author of the highly influential “The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods & Goddesses”. Miller challenged whether “polytheism” was an accurate term for this broad and diverse religious movement, wondered if it was an unnecessarily political binary with monotheism, and advocated for the term Kathenotheism as a more accurate marker. This lead to a spirited discussion from the audience, including challenges to his assertions on “serial worship” (and the unlikely occurrence of “true” polytheism) by Douglas Ezzy and Judy Harrow (among others).

So far this has been a remarkably thought-provoking and enriching experience. Sadly, feeling very tired and foot-sore by this point, I had to duck out and take the train back home for a much-needed constitutional. But I plan on being well rested for tomorrow’s sessions, and will, of course, share my impressions with you. For those of my readers missing my regular news round-ups, I plan on doing a massive “Halloween hangover” entry on Tuesday, so stay tuned!

Going to the AAR

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 1, 2008 — 2 Comments

Today and tomorrow I’ll be attending forums, sessions, and lectures at the American Academy of Religion’s 2008 Annual Meeting (in Chicago). The AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, and their annual meeting has become a vital place to hear about the latest scholarship in the field of Pagan Studies (and just about every other religious and philosophical tradition as well). This year will feature an abundance of Pagan-friendly events, including the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s stellar-looking line-up of presentations.

“In places as diverse as Italy, China, the Ukraine, and the United States, we see groups of people turning away from established religious traditions to polytheism in a search for spiritual meaning. This defies the current linear model of religious progress and may signal a paradigm shift. This session explores polytheism in practice and focuses on places and communities where this development may not have been expected.”

A partial list of presenters shows a veritable who’s who of academic Pagan authors, including Chas Clifton, Wendy Griffin, Michael York, Nikki Bado-Fralick, and Graham Harvey (among others).

I’ll be attending as many Pagan-oriented presentations as I can, and will report back with some initial thoughts and (hopefully) photos. My only regret is that there is only one of me. It is downright cruel to make me choose between a series of themed presentations on Samhain/Halloween and one on art and esotericism that includes a paper on Dr. Strange!

“‘The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth’ surveys representations of occult themes in American comic books from early horror comics to 21st century post-superhero stories, with a particular focus on the Doctor Strange character as developed during the 1960s and 70s ‘occult explosion.’ Notable aspects of the Doctor Strange protagonist and storyline include appeals to eclectically secularized supernatural entities, an understanding of dreams as a medium for communication with spirits, and esoteric Orientalism of the type associated with the Theosophical Society. These comics constitute an especially detailed documentation of a type of visual imagination actively developed to address notions of occult magic that are consistent with the forms that Robert Ellwood has theorized as ‘excursus religion.’ This study also proposes that the comics medium itself has also become more of an excursus literature, as its attention to occult topics has been sustained over the last four decades.”

Maybe I can run back and forth? Do people do that there? I guess I’ll have to find out. In addition to all that, I’ll get to meet some colleagues, online acquiescences, and fellow Pagan bloggers for the first time in the flesh (so to speak). So it should be a stimulating couple of days (and that’s not even counting the exhibit hall full of publishers). Stay tuned for my first official AAR update tomorrow.

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 10, 2007 — 1 Comment

A slow news day in the Pagan world, but there were a few interesting tidbits I would like to share with you. First off, UU-Blogger Philocrites says everything I could possibly want to say concerning Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech.

“By trying to define “faith” as conservative traditionalism and “pluralism” as a name for monotheistic traditionalism, Romney misrepresented the true diversity of American religion, explicitly dismissed Americans who don’t identify with a religious tradition, and painted the traditions he did mention in a way that celebrates their most traditionalist wings and ignores almost all of their visions for the commonweal. What a disappointment.”

Also of interest is Slacktivist’s analysis of the speech, in which he questions the logic of throwing (non-Mormon) religious outsiders under the bus in order to curry favor with the Christian Right.

“The speech includes some decent stretches, but it was not, primarily, a courageous plea for religious tolerance and mutual respect. It was, instead, primarily an obsequious bit of sucking up by an outsider hoping to curry favor with the in crowd by parroting their condemnation of other outsiders … Romney’s gambit here comes straight from the school yard. As a Mormon, he is an outsider, getting picked on by the bullies of the religious right. Instead of standing up to the bullies, he sucks up to them, trying to prove his loyalty and win their approval by acting like them and picking on the other outcasts and outsiders. ‘You guys want to pretend that ‘secular’ and ‘profane’ are synonyms? I can do that. Look, I’ll even beat up this atheist kid for you. See? I’m just like you guys!’”

Turning from politics to holiday celebrations (a topic that is only slightly less contentious), the expected “winter festivals other than Christmas” stories are starting to pop up. The American Chronicle runs a commentary piece by Saqqara Aleister concerning pre-Christian winter holidays and how they have influenced our present-day festivities.

“So as the Winter Solstice once again is upon planet Earth, look to where your celebration may have come from. Look to others in this time of “Christmas” and see, we are all celebrating the same season. Everyone may not celebrate in the same way but we are all celebrating birth, death and rebirth in our own unique way. A way that our ancient forefathers saw coming thousands of years ago as they huddled in caves watching over their food stores waiting for the snow to melt and the warmth of spring to return. May your observance be merry and happy.”

Meanwhile, The Daily Titan (a college paper for the California State University in Fullerton) interviews a Wiccan about Yule celebrations.

“Tracing its roots back to Scandinavian aboriginals, Yule celebrates the winter solstice. “[It] centers around December 20 to the 23 in the northern hemisphere,” said Paul Levesque, comparative religion professor. This year, it will take place on Dec. 20 and pagans will celebrate the return of the warm sun ahead of the long winter days. “[It's about] showing the unity of creation, light in the darkness,” Levesque said. Yule also reinforces the notion of rebirth during the wintertime and it commemorates the New Year in western and northern traditions of Wicca.”

No doubt an expose on the mysterious “Western” and “Northern” traditions of Wicca will be forthcoming. In addition to these stories, you can find plenty of “pagan roots of Christmas” articles written with different degrees of talent by a variety of columnists hard-up for fresh ideas. They should all take a cue from Tony Sachs at the Huffington Post, who writes an amusing story of how his grade-school tried to solve the religious diversity problem by settling on a common denominator: paganism.

“I can sort of understand, however, why none of us thought twice about what was called “Candlelighting Day” but was really “Freaky Quasi-Druidic Festival.” We were just kids, for cryin’ out loud. Give us a half day of school with an assembly instead of classes and we’d do anything. Celebrate the holidays with a mass wedding presided over by Sun Myung Moon? No problem, as long as it gets me out of algebra. Bite the heads off some Christmas doves with Ozzy Osbourne? Like, sure, whatever. Is it noon yet?”

Ah, the innocence of childhood.

Finally, for the book lovers out there (and you know who you are), Bookslut has a profile of the literary smorgasbord that is the Exhibit Hall of the American Academy of Religion’s yearly meeting.

“Any academic conference’s pedestrian aorta leads right into the Exhibit Hall, a place clogged with publishers’ book booths. Last month, I immersed myself in the clamorous annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) — Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Diego, and thus was able to graze in the mother of all Exhibit Halls. As one of 9,000-plus attendees, I joined other book lovers in walking up one aisle and down the next, refusing to miss a back corner or hidden grotto and thus a possible gem.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m totally planning on being at the next AAR meeting in Chicago. Pagan scholars, academic papers, and more books than you can shake a stick at. What more could you want?

If you happen to be on the west coast this weekend, you might want to stop by the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego. The AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, and their annual meeting has become a vital place to hear about the latest scholarship in the field of Pagan Studies. Today, the day before the AAR meeting starts, the annual Conference on Contemporary Pagan Studies is being held.

The theme for this year’s CCPS is “Material Culture and the Cutting Edge”, and features paper presentations by Chris Klassen on student responses to Witchcraft, and a panel discussion on creating a professional academic profile featuring Doug Cowan, Nikki Bado-Fralick and Paul Thomas. In addition, there will be several research reports from a variety of scholars working in the Pagan Studies field.

As for the AAR Meeting, there are several presentations and panel discussions that the Contemporary Pagan Studies Consultation are involved in. First is the CPSC’s session focused on “Pagan Borderlands” featuring presentations by Dr. Wendy Griffin, Barbara Jane Davy, and Laurel Zwissler (among others).

“This session of Contemporary Pagan Studies on “Pagan Borderlands” will address the various ambiguities of the liminal edge – whether as a porous bridging area between diametrically different identities, a defensive bulwark against intrusion or loss, or as the very “edge of chaos” where innovation and dynamic change arise. Mirroring Paganism’s own perception of the lethal dangers and sacred gifts of nature, the Pagan navigates the “land at the border” as an awesome zone of both vulnerability and fecundity.”

Also of note are the joint sessions the CPSC is holding with the Ritual Studies Group, and the Religion, Politics, and the State Group.

“Pagans at the Gate: Breaking through Church/State Boundaries. Challenges from the margins of America’s pluralistic society provide insight into church/state issues well beyond the usual Christian right/secular left dichotomy that prevails in public discourse. Those who have argued for a more prominent role for religion in the public square have invited, perhaps unwittingly, previously obscure religious groups to stake their claims to America’s religious freedom and the promise of unbiased government treatment of religion. This panel addresses the struggles of one such group, the Pagans, whose efforts to gain acknowledgment in the public square and to attain their own rights have profound implications for the rights of others.”

For a more robust listing of presentations, talks, and panel discussions of interest to modern Pagans check out this link. For those of you disappointed that you couldn’t get to California this year to attend, take heart, the next AAR annual meeting is being held in Chicago, which should make it easier for those of us in the Midwest to attend. Pagan involvement in scholarship and academia is a vital component of our maturation, giving us a better understanding of ourselves, and communicating with outsiders the diversity and vitality of our movement.

PS – For my readers interested in Unitarian-Universalism and liberal religion, the blog “Transient and Permanent” has a run-down of UU-related events at the AAR.