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There was a time when James Arthur Ray was a heavy hitter in the world of New Age, self-help, guru-dom. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s popular daytime talk show during the height of “The Secret” (aka the “Law of Attraction”) craze, appearing in the 2006 “Secret” film, and collaborating with other Secret authors. His 2008 book “Harmonic Wealth” climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and he had positioned himself as someone who would use New Age teachings to, well, get you rich. This is hardly new, the New Thought movement, which heavily influenced the New Age movement, also concerned itself with the acquisition of wealth alongside spiritual enrichment, but Ray was a particularly turbo-charged and modern variant of this old profession.

Rays kingdom of macho spiritual affluence came crashing down in 2011 when he was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a makeshift sweat-lodge ceremony that took place in 2009. The tragedy amplified everything wrong with the sort of empire Ray was running: near-abusive indifference to the suffering of his charges, a (deadly) misunderstanding of spiritual technologies that he was appropriating, and the inability to deal with his own edifice of his godlike confidence collapsing. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Ray spent a lot of time on damage control, instead of on his fatal failures. One Ray staffer, in a conference call to followers after the ceremony said that “the two that had passed and they left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back and that was their choice that they made.” Ray initially called the deaths an “accident,” but that statement seems to have been scrubbed from his website. Ray, found guilty, served only two years in prison, and was released from custody this past Summer. During his incarceration, the New Age industry shuddered a bit, perhaps momentarily humbled by the deaths, not to mention that opulent spiritual searching had gone out of fashion in the age of Occupy (at least on the surface).

Those who assumed that a chastened Ray, now finally free, would lay low for awhile until the memory of his crimes were faded, were in for something of a shock. Ray almost immediately started blogging again, reaching out to followers, and was soon booked on primetime television. Appearing on the Piers Morgan show, alone, with no counter-point, on November 25th. There, he got to work rebuilding his empire, hoping to appear evolved and transformed from his time in prison.

“I think the most difficult thing I can ever imagine is investing your entire life in helping people, and then finding them getting hurt,” he said. “It’s just the antithesis of anything that I had ever stood for or wanted. And so that anguish has continued every single day since that moment.”

The organization Seek Safely, formed by family members of those killed in Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony, have been pushing for Ray to make real, concrete, promises about his teachings going forward.

“It has been our hope that Mr. Ray would cease and desist from practicing self-help programs. However, Mr. Ray has returned to national media, re-launching his brand, complete with a fresh website, blog entries and testimonials.

In an effort to protect people from further acts of gross negligence, we have asked Mr. Ray to sign the SEEK Safely Promise. The SEEK Safely Promise is a commitment that self-help practitioners can make to provide truthfulnessaccuracyrespectprotectionintegrity andsafety to their customers. While over 20 self-help practitioners have made the commitment to the SEEK Safely Promise, Mr. Ray has yet to respond.

While SEEK Safely supports everyone’s journey of growth and improvement, we do not condone Mr. Ray’s returning to the public stage to promote his business without his first making a commitment to provide a safe environment for his customers.”

The Verge, in a longform piece of journalism, explores Ray’s career, the sweat lodge deaths, and his new attempts at a comeback. At its heart is a James Arthur Ray who doesn’t seem all that different than the one who entered prison.

“The Browns watched the interview, but, they say, were not invited to participate — Ray stipulated he could be the only guest. Ginny Brown watched, looking for some evidence of a changed man. “If he doesn’t understand that he caused this, he’s not a safe person to follow. I do believe that he’s sorry that Kirby and James and Liz are dead. I think he’s sorry that this tragedy happened. But he doesn’t understand that he needs to apologize, that he caused this to happen. And I don’t think he’ll apologize for that,” she says. She and her husband have asked James Arthur Ray to sign the Seek Safely promise. He has refused.”

The question now is, will the New Age Movement allow for Ray’s comeback? Will his former followers? For those in our broader religious and spiritual community who overlap into New Age events, what is our duty, and what are the lessons of Ray? Can a multi-million dollar industry, and those who want a piece of it, ever be truly humbled? When you think you’re speaking with the voice of the universe, or of God(s), what limits you? What stops you from treating students like servants, or pets, and appropriating from cultures one barely understands?

In the twenty years I have been a part of the Pagan movement, many have (publicly and privately) yearned for “New Age” money, the big paychecks that come from luring the rich and powerful to your classes. But with that inflated pocketbook comes the deadly over-feeding of ego and desire. The guru humbled by controversy is nothing new, power often corrupts. The question is can this industry, and those who would emulate it, really turn toward a more just and accountable system before the next deadly “accident” occurs? Maybe spiritual teachers should never allowed to be rich, maybe a rich spiritual teacher has learned, and is transmitting, the wrong lessons.

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.

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

  • It’s always worth a mention when the New York Times takes an interest in modern Paganism. Their New York-focused City Room blog highlights the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies in Manhattan, interviewing two of the program’s students. Quote: “People go to school to study the things that interest them most; some people go to law school, others to medical school,” [Shantel Collins] said. “I want to be a religious leader in my community, so the path I chose is to become a high priestess. I am learning how to counsel people in my community. No one is born a pastor or a reverend or a rabbi — you have to work at it, and that’s what I’m doing. So for me, these classes are worth every minute and every penny.” I suspect this piece came about because the New York City Wiccan Family Temple is not afraid to promote themselves to the media. I know I’ve received a fair share of press releases from them, and it’s a tactic that does succeed in breaking through to the mainstream media from time to time. 
  • Virginia Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who I profiled recently here at The Wild Hunt, was (unsurprisingly) a big hit at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. Quote: “Audience members clapped most intensely when Jackson focused on the rights of parents to lay down rules for their children and on the need to preserve belief in Christianity as the foundation of the United States. “Freedom is the ability to worship God as we see fit and not be persecuted for it,” he said.” Jackson, while revving up the conservative Christian base, has also been walking back past statements he made that implied yoga can lead to Satanism. In his 2008 book “Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life” Jackson called tarot reading and Witchcraft “wrong and dangerous.”
  • At Sojourners Magazine, Rabbi Seth Goren discusses Christian privilege and “how the dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.” Quote: “Even in interreligious settings intended to be neutral, Christianity retains primacy. Exchanges emphasize concepts in Christianity, such as belief and faith, and downplay the Jewish stress on action, behavior, and ritual [...] In clergy gatherings, I feel the expectation that I should know Augustine and Aquinas without a corresponding expectation that Christian counterparts have heard of Rabbis Akiva or Eliezer [...] Even on a relatively level playing field, I start from a defensive posture and find myself envious of what Christians take for granted that I can’t and don’t.” Go read this, and share it. I’m hoping the relatively high-profile nature of the venue will prompt some reflection. 
  • Chas Clifton reports that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a suit against Oklahoma’s license plate design to move forward. Why is the license plate being challenged? Because it allegedly endorses “Indian religion.” Quote: “Cressman, who says he “adheres to historic Christian beliefs,” objects to the image of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky. He claims the image unconstitutionally contradicts his Christian beliefs by depicting Indian religious beliefs, and that he shouldn’t have to display the image.” The plate is based off of a famous statue depicting a sacred act, but does it really endorse a religion? It seems rather tenuous, considering the arguments we hear consistently about “secular” Christian crosses. You can’t have church-state separation absolutism without it cutting both ways. A “win” for this Christian could create ripples he may not enjoy.
  • Advocacy organization Amnesty International has condemned the rise of blasphemy cases in Egypt, saying it uses defamation of religion as a way to silence critics. Here’s more on the issue from Daily News Egypt: “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, in the report. Luther added that defamation of religion charges should not be used to “trample over people’s right to freedom of expression and conscience” 
The "Other Religions" section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

The “Other Religions” section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

  • The picture you see above is the “Other Religions” section at the Urbana Free Library in Illinois after a hugely controversial culling that has gained national attention from library observers. In essence, any book acquired more than ten years ago was culled from several non-fiction sections before local outcry halted the process. This has left books on Pagan religions decimated, with only 3 or 4 left visible on the shelf. Libraries are in important first step for many people exploring our faiths, and for those looking to understand us, and decimating collections like this does more harm than I think people realize. Not everyone has consistent and reliable access to the Internet, and even if they do, it doesn’t replace reading seminal books like “Drawing Down the Moon” or “The Spiral Dance.” I’m hoping to have more on this story soon, as Urbana is my old home-town, and I know several library workers there. Stay tuned. 
  • The United Nations World Conference of Indigenous Peoples is taking place in New York, September 2014. A recent gathering in Alta, Norway, home of the Sami People, resulted in an adopted outcome document for the conference. Quote: “Our purpose was to exchange views and proposals and develop collective recommendations on the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (hereinafter referred to as HLPM/WCIP), which will convene in New York, 22 – 23 September 2014. This document sets forth our recommendations along with the historical and current context of Indigenous Peoples.” I think the document is important and thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in indigenous and Native American issues. 
  • Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes about the holiness of the Earth for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. Quote: “I deeply feel that we need to reclaim our spiritual relationship with this beautiful and suffering planet, feel it within our hearts and souls. We need to develop an awareness that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use, are not just commodities to be consumed, but part of the living fabric of a sacred Earth. Then we are making a real relationship with our environment, respecting the land on which we live, the air we breathe. We still carry the seed of this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth.”
  • Move over Beltane, because Summer Solstice is all about sex! Quote: “In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice has a history of stirring libidos, and it’s no wonder. The longest day of the year tends to kick off the start of the summer season and with it, the harvest. So it should come as no surprise that the solstice is linked to fertility — both of the vegetal and human variety. ‘A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden,’ says Jan-Öjvind Swahn, a Swedish ethnologist and the author of several books on the subject.” 
  • There are some places in Scotland where being transgendered will get you accused of being a witch. Quote: “Walking down the street I’d get a lot of abuse sometimes. They’d shout at me a lot, call me gay and even accuse me of witchcraft. I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my friends because I had to leave Johnstone. My past was almost completely wiped away.” The ugly strain within humanity that persecutes “the witch,” the “other,” is still very much a part of us I’m sad to say. 
  • The commemorative blue plaque for Doreen Valiente at her home in Brighton has gained the notice of the BBC. Quote: “Doreen Valiente, who was known as the “mother of modern witchcraft”, lived in Tyson Place until her death in 1999 and is to be honoured with a blue plaque on the side of the block of flats where she lived. Ralph Harvey who read the eulogy at her funeral, described her as ‘a very gentle lady’. ‘Witchcraft was always shrouded in mystery and medieval superstition,’ he said. ‘Doreen and Gerald Gardner brought it into the 20th century, they blew away the cobwebs and this was the renaissance of witchcraft as it truly is.'” You can read all of my previous coverage of the plaque, here

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

University of MissouriLast fall, the University of Missouri added the eight Wiccan Sabbats to its “Guide to Religion” in an effort to encourage respect for religious diversity within its community. The Guide says:

The holidays and accommodations section of this guide is provided to faculty, staff, and student leaders as an educational resource for the myriad of religious holy days celebrated at Mizzou. Not only does this section offer crucial information about dates and practices, we also hope that the information about recommended academic and food accommodations will be valuable to those planning classroom activities and other academic and co-curricular events.

In the past week, the mainstream news media have picked up the story and “ran with it.”  It’s odd that it took them this long to identify the Guide’s update. It’s even odder that they are treating Mizzou’s diversity efforts as an anomaly. The University of Missouri certainly isn’t the first college or public school system to include Wiccan Sabbats.  But the media work in their own way, which is why they need to be watched.

Most of the articles have been benign news accounts, if not always completely accurate. However, Fox News and Fox & Friends Weekend have created quite a stir with their version and discussion of the story.

When is enough, enough? 

There are two ways to view these videos. First, it’s fascinating to see Wicca, Paganism and parts of its theology entering mainstream discourse. Right across the bottom of the screen, we read: “Wiccans & Pagans.” I see this as cultural progress in the same vein that someone might say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” It’s part of a sociological and psychological process that I describe by stealing the term “hedonic adaptation.”  At first the change, in this case the acceptance of “Wicca or Paganism,” is disruptive and uncomfortable.  But over time, as the change remains visible within the environment, we become use to it.  Eventually we accept it as normal and move on.

However, on the other hand, the comments are troublesome.  Yes, they are insulting.  It appears that Fox News has moved beyond the “Wiccans are Evil” phase to “Wiccans are clowns.”  The words are mocking and, really, only serve to demonstrate the sophomoric level of this type of journalism.  In her P.C. Report, Tammy Bruce says, “I don’t know any Wiccans. I think on a really bad day I may turn into one.”  That is just one of the many ridiculous, unprofessional, and off-handed remarks.  (I’ll leave it to the readers to watch the videos and hear the rest.)

Tammy Bruce goes on to suggest that Wiccans and Pagans should be outraged by Missouri’s Guide. She claims that we are being used by the establishment as a pawn in their political agenda to downgrade the Christian traditions of this country.  Tucker Carlson actually accuses the University of “hating orthodox Christianity.”

Fox is spinning a positive interfaith story into an example of anti-Christian behavior.  If we offer inclusion to one religious group does it necessarily mean that we are “downgrading” the others? This is what Fox News is implying. It’s the argument we’d expect from evangelical Christian groups. Some might say that we’d expect it from the conservative Fox News Network as well.

However, these opinion are woven together with poor research and being sold as journalism. What bothers me more than their position on the issue is the lack of accurate facts about “Wiccanism” and the University of Missouri’s diversity work. For example, the “Guide to Religion” never says that Wiccans will necessarily be absent on Sabbats.  However, written across the Fox & Friends screen is “No Exams on Wiccan and Pagan Holidays.”

Interestingly enough, during the video, Clayton Morris calls himself a journalist and attempts to bring facts into their discussion.  Later on in the day, he remarked on twitter: “I defended Wiccans on the show this morning as peaceful folks devoted to the Earth.” (@ClaytonMorris) While he did say that, he did nothing to correct the other glaring inaccuracies.

Nancy Grace reporting on Jodi Arias trial

To be fair, Fox News was not the only network highlighting Wicca these past two weeks. CNN’s Headline News Network (HLN) and ABC took “potshots” at Wicca while reporting on the Jodi Arias case.  Ms. Arias is on trial in Phoenix for allegedly killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander.  At some point in the last month, the accused testified to dabbling or being exposed to Wicca through a past boyfriend.  She has also testified to sampling many different religions settling on Mormonism, which is what she was practicing when the crime was committed.

On Feb 5, ABC reported:

Her odyssey through boyfriends and the spiritual world included a five year period from age 18 through age 22 when Arias said she became very interested in fundamentalist Christianity, Wicca, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all of which she explored as she dated men who practiced those beliefs.

Although the word “Wicca” was only a very minor detail in a very lengthy on-going trial, the media clung to the word Wicca.  In a later report, ABC actually published a news video entitled “Jodi Arias Testifies She Tried Wicca, Buddhism With Boyfriends”  However, the video itself had nothing to do with any of her religious exploits.

Jodi Arias

Jodi Arias in court
Courtesy of HLN.com

In another case, CNN’s Headline News (HLN) correspondent Nancy Grace interviewed the victim’s best friend, Zion Lovingier.  In her report entitled “Did Jodi Arias study Witchcraft?” Nancy spends a good deal of time trying to corner Zion into talking about Ms. Arias’ involvement in Wicca.  Just like the Fox reporters, Nancy uses her journalist’s platform to mock Wicca and Witchcraft.  In the interview, she says, “That would stand out in my mind, if someone was into witchcraft.” Then she calls Wicca “creepy.”  Fortunately, Zion doesn’t bite, remarking back, “Jodi’s issues run much deeper than Wicca.”

Watch Full Nancy Grace Interview Video Here

In the past twenty four hours, there has been a backlash and simultaneous outrage from the Wiccan and Pagan community in the way of calls-to-action and petitions. I expect this will continue over the next week. Contrary to Tammy Bruce’s prediction, these frustrations have been directed at the media and not at the University of Missouri or elsewhere.  As Wicca enters a more central place in mainstream discourse, there will be continued and very public rejections or mocking of our theology and practice.  The bulk of these negative reactions are derived from the disruption of the status quo and, of course, misinformation. This is nothing new.

However, while we stew over the mainstream news media’s latest barbs, it is also important to note that a new discussion is now happening. Wicca’s presence in our culture is being recognized more frequently.  The door is open.  It is at this point that Wiccan and Pagan organizations, as well as individuals, doing interfaith work and community outreach become essential.  Petitions are good. But, we must also handle these big media outlets from a positive, non-threatening standpoint with the aim of educating and enlightening. The more that Wicca and Paganism remain in the mainstream media’s eye (or line of fire, if you will), the more accustom our culture in general will become to having a realistic and positive Pagan presence.

(I think I just gave myself work…)

 

Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, is anyone still paying attention to Kirk Cameron? In what way is this former teen television star turned laughable Christian caricature relevant enough to our culture to get a primetime interview slot on CNN? Does anyone really care about his views on homosexuality or same-sex marriage? The stark truth is that his once familiar face, tied to his evangelical Christian views, are the only thing keeping him on the fame radar (albeit in a d-list reality-television manner). However, since there are still folks out there who seem to take Mr. Cameron seriously for some reason, here’s a gold-plated proof that no one, not even the most fervent Christian “Growing Pains” star, should give his “crocoduck” theology mainstream attention.

Crocoduck proves God exists!

Crocoduck proves God exists!

In 2006, Cameron used his “excellent acting talents” to “infiltrate” a Druid ritual. Specifically, a ritual put on by Ravens Cry Grove (part of Ár nDraíocht Féin) in Southern California. Cameron and Ray “Banana” Comfort secretly recorded the ritual, and lied about secretly recording the ritual when questioned about it (because it’s OK to lie to non-Christians apparently). You can download the show, here. You can also find an edited version of the segment, here.

Ravens Cry Grove (part of Ár nDraíocht Féin).

Ravens Cry Grove, the folks Kirk Cameron were concerned might sacrifice him.

Cameron says he thought he got out of there “by the skin of his teeth,” insinuating that he felt endangered by a group of California Druids singing, chanting, and sharing fellowship. This is the man who CNN wants to talk about religion with. This is the man Piers Morgan calls “brave” and “honest” for spouting the same old conservative Christian party line about marriage and homosexuality that has fallen increasingly out of favor in the United States. The bitter truth is that Cameron is a sad has-been who depends on someone, anyone, finding him offensive so he can feed his attention-starved ego for a few moments more. Even sadder, mainstream media outlets are obliging, when they could have picked from a thousand theologians, scholars, or religious leaders to opine about morality or marriage. Instead, we have the star of “Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force.”

In the future, when CNN or any other major news network decide to give Kirk Cameron precious airtime that could be used to discuss serious issues, or talk with actually important figures, just remember they are instead bolstering the limping career of a man who thought infiltrating a Druid grove in California was a dangerous and worthwhile activity. Cameron’s views on marriage and homosexuality are offensive to me, but I’m almost as offended by the media outlets who seem to think giving him a spotlight is a good idea.

ADDENDUM: When I wrote this post yesterday, I quoted a site called “Objective: Ministries.” It seems they are a hoax website that  specializes in blurring the line between parody and reality. Kirk Cameron really did “infiltrate” a Druid ritual, and really did a radio show where he bragged about his ability to fool the Druids, but the rhetoric I quoted from Objective: Ministries is not “real.” Though, it sounded so like Christian rhetoric I’ve heard elsewhere that I didn’t even think to double-check it. So, in short, I was punked. I’ve removed quotations from that site, leaving everything else intact. Mea Culpa.

Halloween just happened, and if you’re Pagan know what that means: a flood of “meet the Witches/Pagans” articles from a variety of media outlets. I would normally unleash the hounds, but they had a long night, so I’ll do my best to personally catch you up on the busiest media season for our family of faiths.

That’s all I have for now, if there was a favorite Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead article you think I missed, please share it in the comments section. Tomorrow we unpack some non-Halloween related news!

CNN got a bit of flak for doing a puff piece this past Thursday on psychic prognosticators making predictions about the American (and global) economy. Roger Ebert helpfully clarified that, “no, this is not an Onion news report” (a point reiterated by Sheril Kirshenbaum at Wired). Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars calls the report “more insidious than stupid,” while Josh Feldman at Mediaite called the segment “the most mind-bogglingly idiotic thing I have ever seen on cable news.”

I’m not sure why this particular piece of filler should be the breaking point that makes critics groan and shake their heads ruefully. CNN has long dabbled in what I affectionately call “the woo.” Just look at the career of Nancy Grace, or former CNN stalwart Larry King, who fell head-over-heels for the now-convicted “Secret” peddler James Arthur Ray. Nor is CNN alone in this, just check out the special Nightline “Beyond Belief” Summer series that looks at psychics, exorcism, and out-of-body experiences.

“ABC’s “Nightline” is creeping into prime time this summer — or maybe it’s just getting creepy. The late-night show begins a summertime series at 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday, covering topics such as satanic possession, religious miracles, psychics and out-of-body experiences. [...] Following the Anthony hour, “Nightline” will begin a five-part series titled, “Beyond Belief,” an exploration of topics that defy easy scientific explanation. Bill Weir travels the world to investigate episodes where people claim to have seen and communicated with the Virgin Mary, while Terry Moran looks at a belief that satanic will or demonic possession can cause people to commit acts of evil.”

The fact is, people love psychics and tales of the paranormal. I can’t even keep track of how many paranormal/ghost-hunting reality shows there are these days. We live in a world where psychic tips get attention (though not as much as some people would suspect), much to the chagrin of those who’d prefer a far more logical and rational news media. I personally see fortune telling as more a psychological/social tool/aid than as a pole-star to guide my life, but why does the mainstream media go into these phases of covering psychics and fortune-tellers, giving them valuable airtime in the news?

I have three theories:

  1. According to the Pew Forum 15% of Americans have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic. That’s a lot of people. Summer is a lull time for programming, and fewer people are watching television. So anything that might draw attention is welcome. As CNN previous reported, the psychic industry is recession-proof (though perhaps not entirely). It’s a no-brainer to do the occasional spotlight on these topics.
  2. News outlets like Time Magazine and the BBC have recently looked at regulatory push-back against psychic practices, which has forced psychics and fortune-tellers to organize and become more public in asserting their rights. That coupled with the high visibility of psychic practitioners on reality television has made these businesses and practitioners more newsworthy in general. In 2010 alone towns and cities created subcultural “red light districts”stood by total bans, and argued over whether psychic services could be classified as “spiritual counseling”, while in Canada, obscure laws against “witchcraft” were used to pursue fraud cases. We also saw a big win as the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that fortunetelling and other psychic services are protected speech, setting a precedent that could affect laws across the country. Like it or not, psychic stuff is “news.”
  3. The producers and reporters are true believers. There a lot of followers in the “Church of Oprah”. Many of them are powerful people with influence and an ability to get on television. The trial and conviction of James Arthur Ray may have taken some wind from the sails of the New Age movement, but you can bet they’ll retool and be back riding high again soon. So they’ll keep sending “skeptics” to Sedona to be converted, and Oprah-anointed figures like Dr. Oz will keep on endorsing Reiki.

Very likely a mixture of the three reasons above helps produce all this coverage. The simple truth is that we as a society have always searched for answers to questions that seem impossible to predict by mundane means (the harder the times, the further we seek). Psychics have been handing out stock tips since there was a market, and so long as people are listening, reporters will be right behind them to see if their mojo actually pans out. For modern Pagans who engage in divination, or even make their money performing psychic services, we should keep an eye on this coverage. How these topics are approached and treated can tell us a lot about how the religions who engage in these practices are likely to be received as well. As for the skeptics? It’s Summertime! File it away with bigfoot, and head to the beach (or watch the new season of True Blood), everyone knows that nothing serious happens until September (at least as far as television programming is concerned). Besides, mockery and scorn bounce off this stuff like bullets off Superman, save your ammunition for certain politicians or climate science denial.

Top Story: The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, who recently scored a major judicial win in their ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, is seeing the fight extended further as Catskill appeals the decision to let the case go forward.

As we reported in February, Judge Pulver’s decision was a big victory for the self-described witches of the Maetreum, who argue that the town treated them differently from other religious groups when it placed their Palenville property on the tax rolls [...] Despite the appeal, Judge Pulver, who held a preliminary conference in the case yesterday, has set a date for a bench trial. Pulver will hear evidence in the case and rule on it himself on July 20.”

Here’s a statement from the Maetreum of Cybele on the town’s appeal.

“We learned this past weekend that the Town of Catskill appealed the Judge’s decision to the New York Appellate Court. We believe this is their last ditch effort to avoid having to legally grant our exemption for 2011 as the deadline for them to decide on that is fast approaching and the decision left no grounds for denial since the Board of Assessment Review refused the invitation to tour our property last year meaning they have no direct knowledge of how we use our property, literally the only wiggle room they had.”

This is an issue that Catskill is going to fight to the bitter end, and is breaking their budget in the process. While they continue to fight for pennies from the Maetreum, mega-retailer Wal-Mart seems to have no trouble getting a big tax break. I guess it’s about priorities.

Heathens Gather Near Paganistan: PNC-Minnesota interviews Brody Derks of  Volkshof  Kindred about Heathenry and the upcoming Northern Folk Gathering near the Twin Cities in June.

“June 10-12, we have this event, the Northern Folk Gathering, it used to be called the Midwest Thing, but we have changed the name. Registration includes three days and two nights of cabin camping. We have open activities, and a Saturday night feast. It is at St Croix State Park at the boot camp. This is just outside the Twin Cities. We having folk coming in from Kansas, Michigan, and other parts of the country.

It has a few different aspects. It is a gathering of tribes. The Chieftains do gather and and have meetings. We are part of an alliance of people, tribes, of the Midwest. We come together and make decisions that influence the road that Heathenry takes in the Midwest. There is also a lot of workshops, information about Anglo-Saxon cultureKari Tauring will be presenting song and Stav. There will also be events for the children. We have plenty of children centered events, and we very much welcome children.”

Derks also talks about why they don’t use the term “Pagan,” and his time as president of the University of Minnesota Pagan Society.

Analyzing Satanism’s (Alleged) Rise: TheoFantastique interviews Jesper Aagaard Peterson, a Research Fellow at the Dept. of Archaeology and Religious Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who studies modern Satanism, about the recent rise in exorcisms and claims of explosive growth among Satanic groups.

“Regarding the rise of Satanism, that depends on how you define it. The article you mention calls it a “surge” and a “revival”. It is true that the 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase of interest in Satanism alongside Witchcraft, Neopaganism, and other religious currents with roots in esotericism and occultism. This has to do with the general re-enchantment of the West in the past 50 years (an enchantment that never really went away, actually, but that is another story), which has developed in dialogue with popular media. It is also true that Satanism is more visible and more accessible because of the Internet, and that it flourishes on the de-regulated arenas the Internet provides. On the other hand, membership figures are hard to come by, and should be seen in relation to degrees of affiliation – a majority of witches or Satanists are tourists or dabblers, and only a small minority affiliate with a group and/or develop a long-term engagement. It is likely that more people are attracted to Satanism than before, and they are more visible today, but actual members still amount to thousands and not millions. In any case, where I differ from the article’s conclusion is in the effect of mediated religion on susceptible youth. Watching a movie, accessing a website or participating in a discussion forum does not automatically make you a Satanist, and it certainly does not make you possessed.”

The conversation here was sparked by a Daily Telegraph article about a six-day conference being held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. According to organizers and exorcists there’s been a “revival” of Satanism and that “the rise of Satanism has been dangerously underestimated in recent years.” For all my exorcism-revival coverage, click here.

The Shrine That Survived: CNN reports on Buddhist/Shinto shrine at Otsuchi that survived the tsunami and a fire.

Stories about indigenous faith traditions from Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami have been somewhat rare, so I’m glad to see this story emerge. Strangely, this story was posted to CNN’s Belief Blog for a short time, but was then removed. I’m not saying there were any nefarious motives, but I do wonder why that happened. Internal turf battle? Editorial decision? As for whether this was divine intervention, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Reconstructed and Engaged: Over at Patheos.com, the PNC’s own Cara Schulz writes about Hellenismos and why a reconstructed ancient religion makes the most sense to her.

“But this is how we see it – why reinvent the wheel when you can put some air in the one you’re given and get back on the spiritual path? There were reasons why our ancestors interacted with deities in the way that they did. Because it worked. It’s spiritually fulfilling. It makes sense. It allows for a deeper connection with deities and the world around you. It has meaning and depth and beauty. It is timeless. It vibrates in our very souls. But the key is to regularly engage in rituals, observances and practices. To adhere as close to what the ancients did, in order to learn from their wisdom and experience, and then to translate that into a slightly more modern form that is still ‘true’ to its origins.”

Cara also links to a video of a wedding ceremony conducted by Hellenic Pagans in Greece. Showing how ancient traditions give a depth of meaning to these important milestones of life.

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

Yesterday opening arguments were heard in the trial of New Age self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who’s charged with manslaughter after three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in late 2009.

Prosecutors claim Ray, 53, was reckless and that the lodge — made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets — was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heat stroke. [...] “Three vibrant, healthy adults … entered a sweat lodge at a retreat center in Sedona,” prosecutor Sheila Polk said during her opening statement. “Each one was eager to gain knowledge and each was looking for wisdom and personal insight. Instead of growth and enlightenment, Kirby, James and Liz found death.”

Defense attorney Luis Li seeks to prove that these deaths were nothing more than “a tragic accident,” even implying that poisoned building materials might be to blame, while prosecution are painting a portrait of a power-driven and negligent egomaniac. They plan to call around 50 witnesses during the length of the trial. Meanwhile, CNN profiles the voices of Native Americans frustrated at how their cultural and religious traditions have been abused and tainted by figures like Ray.

The Ray case highlights an outrage that’s long existed for many Native Americans. They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain. They resent that a ceremony they view as sacred is now being tied to terms like “death trap.” They don’t want their ancient ways to be deemed fashionable or inspire impersonators. [...]  Autumn Two Bulls, 29, also lives on Pine Ridge, and just thinking about the dream catchers that hang in trendy gift shops, the non-Native Americans who make money off her people’s artifacts, makes her cry “rape.” “Haven’t native people been through enough?” says Two Bulls, a writer who created Reservation H.E.L.P. (Helping Every Lakota Person), an organization to help impoverished families. “It’s a fad to be Indian today. … They envision us like a fantasy culture,” but the harsh reality is one they helped create and won’t face, she suggests.

Despite the negative publicity surrounding Ray, that hasn’t slowed down other New Age personalities from making blatantly false claims of spiritual authority relating to American Indian tribes, and misusing their spiritual technologies. Recently Native American activists rallied to protest an appearance by Kiesha “Little Grandmother” Crowther, who makes the audacious claim of being “made shaman of the Sioux and Salish tribes” (a claim both tribes deny, and one she has since modified to a more generic “Native American elder”).

As modern Pagans, these issues affect us in a number of different ways, and no doubt this case will trigger some soul-searching about how we market and utilize our own practices. We should show solidarity with those who are trying to prevent the fiscal exploitation of Native American religions and culture, we can utilize our own overlap with various New Age communities to emphasize that the actions of Ray is something more than a tragic isolated incident to be glossed over, and we can work to engage in greater awareness of how the misuse of spiritual technologies can often result in tragedy. I will be covering this case as it progresses, and looking at the long-term ramifications for all involved.

CNN posted a special report yesterday on the anti-Vodou cholera murders, interviewing Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir in the process. While this isn’t a new story for CNN, it’s important that Haitian Vodou voices are being heard one year after the initial quake almost completely destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people.

For more video from Haiti, check out “Haiti: One Day, One Destiny” from the National Black Programming Consortium. The section dealing with Vodou, “Vodou and Haiti’s Recovery,” can be seen at The Root.

“Haitian-American filmmaker Michele Stephenson traveled to Haiti on behalf of the National Black Programming Consortium to capture the struggles of Haitians a year after the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. This clip, from a documentary by Stephenson, is one of several that will run on The Root this week in collaboration with the NBPC. The multimedia project, entitled Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, will include other documentaries, blogs and several live Web discussions. You can reach the NBPC site at blackpublicmedia.com.”

Tensions are high, with Vodou still being blamed for outbreaks of cholera. Though there are bright spots one year later, the political landscape is still in chaos, and the future uncertain. Whatever the future holds, Haiti’s Vodou practitioners and heritage must be protected, and not allowed to become a convenient scapegoat for pundits and unscrupulous Christian NGOs.

For more on my coverage of Haiti and Vodou from this past year, please check out my Top Stories of 2010 for a round-up of relevant links and analysis.

It’s no secret for those who’ve been paying attention that traditional media outlets (ie newspapers) have been cutting back on their coverage of religion. This was confirmed by a Pew Forum study that analyzed news coverage of religion for 2009 and found that new media (blogs, web sites, podcasts, etc) were taking up the slack, and becoming the primary outlet for religion news, debate, and discussion.

In 2009, religion attracted significantly more attention in new media sources than in the mainstream media.in a sample drawn from millions of blogs and social media finds that religion was a top story in nearly a quarter of the weeks studied (11 out of 45 weeks) … The blogosphere and other social media tools have grown over the past few years. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 51% of internet users post online content that they have created themselves. Eleven percent of all adults use blogs. The use of Twitter has tripled since 2008. At the same time, the number of reporters assigned to the religion beat in the mainstream media has been shrinking. According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007. At the same time, she says, online newspapers such as The Huffington Post and Politics Daily have increased their religion staff. “We’re in the midst of growth of the [religion] beat online,” Mason says, “but newspapers haven’t kept up with the trend and have instead let religion coverage languish.”

This year we’ve already seen the launch of the Huffington Post’s religion section, joining sites like BeliefnetPatheos, Religion Dispatches, and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith in expanding religious coverage on the Internet. Now they are joined by CNN who has just launched their Belief Blog a few days ago.

“The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day’s biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers’ lives. It’s edited by CNN’s Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, with daily contributions from CNN’s worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.”

With CNN joining the fray, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more mainstream news outlets (MSNBC, Fox) launching their own religion sections online. This is an encouraging trend, the more religion coverage, the better, in my mind. What is in question is how diverse will their coverage be? In other words, will they cover minority religions and modern Paganism beyond mere tokenism? So far it’s been hit-or-miss with Internet religion sections. It took Beliefnet years to give Pagans a consistent voice on their web site by finally recruiting Gus diZerega to blog for them, and the HuffPo Religion section hasn’t really recruited any consistent Pagan columnists at this point, relying on religion-tagged Pagan contributions from other sections. So far Patheos has been the most Pagan-friendly with a dedicated Pagan portal helmed by a Pagan and filled with Pagan content.

But it isn’t so much that I’m demanding sites hire Pagans or develop Pagan sections per se, only that minority faiths get the attention they deserve when a story breaks concerning them. In this sense Religion Dispatches has excelled, giving us academic and knowledgeable commentary on issues most news sources skim over. Their coverage of Vodou in the wake of the Haitian earthquake is to be commended, and I can hope more dedicated religion sites follow their lead. After all, on the Internet you have limitless space, and few time constraints, so there’s no reason to shy away from in-depth reporting or insight. Here’s hoping CNN makes the most of their new section, and really gives it the attention it deserves. As for Pagans we need to continue doing it for ourselves, so we can continue to participate and influence the conversations over faith on the Internet and in the news.