Archives For CNN Belief Blog

On Sunday, avowed white supremacist Frazier Glenn Cross (aka Glenn Miller) allegedly shot at two Jewish community centers in the Kansas City area, killing three people. Cross reportedly shouted “Heil Hitler!” during his arrest, and authorities have officially classified the shooting rampage as a hate crime. This shocking incident, which happened on the eve of the festival of Passover, has had individuals, and the press, digging for more information on the alleged shooter. Daniel Burke, co-editor at CNN’s Belief Blog, believes he has uncovered the religion angle to this story: Cross is not a Christian, but an Odinist.

Frazier Glenn Cross

Frazier Glenn Cross

“Frazier Glenn Cross is a white supremacist, an avowed anti-Semite and an accused killer. But he is not, as many think, a Christian. [...] The 73-year-old has espoused anti-Semitism for decades. He also founded racist groups like a branch of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both groups have deep ties to Christian white supremacists. But according to Cross’ 1999 biography, he is an adherent of Odinism, a neo-pagan religion that experts say has become one of the most vicious strains in the white supremacist movement.”

The article then quotes from an autobiography written by Cross in 1999.

“I’d love to see North America’s 100 million Aryan Christians convert to the religion invented by their own race and practiced for a thousand generations before the Jews thought up Christianity. Odinism! This was the religion for a strong heroic people, the Germanic people, from whose loins we all descended, be we German, English, Scott, Irish, or Scandinavian, in whole or in part.”

As this new information came to light, Heathen groups and individuals were quick to distance their faith from the racist strain of Germanic paganism practiced by Cross and those like him. These voices speaking out included members of The Troth, one of the largest mainstream Heathen organizations in North America, and the activist group Heathens United Against Racism.

“Asatru and the worship of Odin have no connection with white supremacy, no more so than Christianity has to do with white supremacists. And there are bigots and haters in all faith traditions. In The Troth, we embrace diversity and welcome all who are called to our Gods, and are working with our program, In-Reach, to offer an alternative to the racist material that is circulated in prisons by members of racist gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood. Crime such as what Frazier Cross is accused of, is abhorrent to us. Personally I extend my prayers to the Jewish community on this heinous crime committed during the high holy time of Passover.” – Lisa Morgenstern, member of the High Rede of The Troth, and Volunteer Chaplain at CSP-Los Angeles County for Heathens, Druids, and Wiccans.

Heathens United Against Racism

“Equating all of Heathenry to the beliefs of a racist Odinist is the equivalent of equating all the beliefs of Christianity to the beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church. While Heathens are by nature a highly diverse and sometimes argumentative lot, those who are discovered to be white supremacists are quickly ostracized from the general Heathen community. Heathens United Against Racism tries to help expose those who would try and use our faith to promote hatred.” - Natalie River Smith, a member of Heathens United Against Racism.

Another HUAR member, Harrison Hall, added that “Cross’s actions are unforgivable, without question” while Steven T. Abell, Steersman for The Troth, says that he hopes for “swift and harsh judgment and punishment for the perpetrator.” Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried, who writes at The Norse Mythology Blog, called the shooting “heartbreaking” and “infuriating.”

“The disgusting violence in Kansas on Sunday is truly heartbreaking. I can’t begin to imagine the overwhelming pain of a family losing both a teenage son and his grandfather on the same day. The man accused of killing them seems to have been an ignorant racist maniac on a willful anti-Semitic rampage, which makes this horror not only tragic but infuriating. I find it personally abhorrent that the accused, at least at some point, claimed that his white supremacist delusions were rooted in his purported ancestors’ worship of Odin. I believe that there is no place for racism in heathenry. There is no place for anti-Semitism in heathenry. It is completely repellent to me that a violently disturbed individual tried to import his ideology of race-hatred into a contemporary religious tradition that focuses on wisdom, generosity and a balanced relationship with the world around us.”

These Heathen voices speak to the high value placed on honor, truth, and hospitality within their interconnected communities. Individuals, groups, and family units that abhor the racist appropriations that have blossomed on the fringes of society. That said, CNN’s assertion as to faith of the alleged shooter starts to get murky as the piece progresses. After quoting from the 1999 autobiography, we then learn Cross presented himself as a “traditional monotheist” when running for political office in 2008, and then, according to a religious studies professor who knew him, as an atheist.

“David Embree, a religious studies professor at Missouri State University, said Cross presented himself as a traditional monotheist when he ran for Congress in 2008. But when he spoke at Embree’s classroom in 2012, his views had apparently changed, the professor said. ‘He essentially self-identified as an atheist,’ Embree said.”

This section is inserted towards the end of the piece, and is then seemingly ignored in the closing (which again quotes the 1999 autobiography). So, what are the actual beliefs of Frazier Glenn Cross? Odinist? Generic monotheist? Atheist? If professor David Embree is to be believed, he hadn’t publicly identified as an Odinist for several years. Is there some source that Daniel Burke has tying Cross to Odinism recently that he isn’t quoting? As it stands, some Heathens are unhappy with the way this piece was reported, with Troth Steersman Steven T. Abell expressing the “hope that the reporter who wrote the CNN article will learn to do his job better.” Meanwhile, Dr. Seigfried notes that no Heathens were interviewed for the CNN Belief Blog article.

“Mr. Burke fails to quote a single actual follower of the Old Way. Maybe he made a heroic effort to contact heathen religious organizations, leaders, individuals and writers to gain their input, and no one responded. It would only be good journalistic practice to include the voice of at least one follower of a faith tradition you are covering, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, he was sure to get in a disclaimer distancing Christianity from white supremacist action: he quotes Jonathan White saying, “It’s hard to get a violent god out of Jesus.” Leaving aside the endless historical and contemporary examples that contradict this statement, wouldn’t it be nice to have had some heathen, any heathen, being asked by CNN to make a statement about their tradition?”

 The problem of Pagan and Heathen faiths being appropriated by racists is a real one, and it is necessary and right for our organizations to speak up on the subject when horrific and brutal incidents like this occur, but the headline “Frazier Glenn Cross’ racist religion: Odinism” seems misleading at best when the alleged shooter appeared uncertain if he believed in any higher power as recently as 2012. For this CNN article to travel beyond mere sensationalism, a solid source pointing towards what Cross believed recently should be added, and if such a source does not exist, the piece should be altered to reflect what we actually know. In the meantime, Heathens are currently organizing to raise money for the victims of the shooting.

ADDENDUM: Daniel Burke at CNN’s Belief Blog has updated the piece with commentary from Josh Rood, founder of Óðrœrir Heathen Journal, and an MA student in Norse Religion at the University of Iceland. He has also changed the headline to “The accused Kansas killer’s neo-pagan religion.”

“I want to say that Frazier Glenn Cross is a monster, and it cannot be denied that he’s not alone,” said Josh Rood, an expert on Asatru at the University of Iceland. ”The prison systems, and the white separatist movements have been bastardizing Asatru beliefs, symbols, and myths for a long time.”

It should be noted that Dr. Seigfried’s quotation was written before Rood’s commentary was added to the CNN piece.

ADDENDUM II: Heathens United Against Racism have posted an official statement.

“We wish to make it clear that Cross, and any others, who invoke the names of our Gods, our traditions, or our symbols as justification for their bloody rampages are the lowest of the low in our eyes. We stand, as a community, against all who would try to co-opt and pervert our practices just as the Nazis once did to support racist, fascist, or otherwise bigoted agendas. Such people are unquestionably unwelcome in our community and any who give them aid, shelter, or otherwise enable their bigotry are equally unwelcome in our hearths, rites, and events.

We extend our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the victims of this terrible crime and the community this honorless, cowardly individual sought to terrorize. We stand with you in this time of terrible tragedy and will do whatever we can to help heal the wounds inflicted yesterday by one hateful man. We hope that going forward we can build a respectful, genuine dialog between our communities and work together against all who would inflict their hatred on others.”

You can read the entire statement, here.

ADDENDUM III: Joshua Rood, who was added to the original CNN Belief Blog piece as noted in my first addendum, has written a guest column for CNN on Heathenism’s battle with white supremacists.

“All religions have been used by people to justify what they know is wrong. All myths are subject to bastardization. We’ve seen this throughout history. Ásatrú is no more immune to it than any other religion. Myths and symbols can’t defend themselves. In the case of Ásatrú and the gods and symbols of Northern Europe, they have been latched onto and used by individuals and movements trying to push racialist, nationalist and violent agendas. It must be understood that these movements didn‘t evolve out of Ásatrú. They evolved out of racial or white power movements that latched onto Ásatrú, because a religion that came from Northern Europe is a more useful tool to a “white nationalist” than one that originated elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, as this aspect of the story continues to develop, TIME Magazine’s article on Frazier Glenn Cross features a quote from Robert Jones, the imperial klaliff of the Loyal White Knights, who described Cross as a “good Christian man who spoke out for what he believes in.” A strange description for someone who purportedly was immersed in racist Odinism.

Director/producer Alan D. Miller seems like a very intelligent guy, he participates in the NY Salon after all, so I was disappointed to see him participate in the religious pundit class version of “hippie punching”: criticizing all those “spiritual but not religious” people for CNN’s Belief Blog. You see, these spiritual (but not religious) people are very shallow, and don’t realize how darn important the Christian Bible has been to human history.

“A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur’an, let alone The Old or New Testament. So what, one may ask? Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work. Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses – an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity. Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the “me” generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.”

So, you see, spiritual-but-not-religious people are dilettantes who should, I guess, be really respectful and thankful for the Bible? They should know that Christianity has dominated Western culture for a long, long, time? Ultimately, according to Miller, there are just two sides and we all, but especially these self-absorbed yoga-breathing spiritual types, need to just pick one.

“Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.”

Ha-ha! Take that straw-man spiritual-but-not-religious demographic, you’ve been defeated again!

So I have two problems with Mr. Miller’s essay, aside from the lazy broadsides against a diverse demographic that he most likely only thinks he understands. First, people who actually define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” account for less than 0.3% of the US population (even if you include all “liberal faiths” you only get to 0.7%). So he’s taking the time to complain about what a tiny demographic does because they get up his nose? Because he’s tired of hearing about their latest guru at cocktail parties? That’s just petty, unless he actually means people who refuse to associate themselves with a religion, the “nones,” in which case you’re talking about a far larger demographic, and one that won’t slot easily into Miller’s conjectures.

Secondly, I want to talk about the importance of the Bible. I completely agree that the Bible (particularly the King James Bible) has had an immense influence in Western culture, but let us not pretend that this is because the book excelled in its prose, was especially unique, or won in some metaphysical literature competition. The Bible was dominant because Christianity was dominant, and Christianity is dominant because of a Constantinian turn, not because it fairly competed against other forms of religious literature. To believe that the printing press, great art, and great music, would not have occurred had the pagans triumphed is folly of the highest order. Miller is praising the Bible for the role any number of other works could have taken had Christianity not enforced strict controls on who got to read what for generations. Are we suddenly going to forget that the ancient world had a thriving literary tradition (one that smart Christians constantly cribbed from)? That the Rennaisance and the Enlightenment had as much to do with access to pre-Christian works as it did the Bible? For a long time Christianity has only had to struggle with itself, and to praise the flowers that bloomed in its tended garden is to ignore the forest it razed to plant those seeds.

In my opinion the outsize reactions to spiritual but not religious people are knee-jerk and ultimately telling. You “punch the hippie” not because the hippie is necessarily wrong, but because it benefits you in some way to engage in the punching. Right now there are a lot of people involved in institutional religion who are working very, very, hard to remind you how much good they’ve done you in the past. Art! Music! Pretty buildings! Don’t forget! This is despite the fact that a majority of people are still professed Christians in the United States. That a tiny minority has shaken off institutional faith and is searching for something different, and maybe hasn’t found it yet, is threatening because people are worried that it will catch on. That they may even stop searching and choose to be Buddhists, or Hindus, or Pagans, and weaken the cultural throne that institutional forms of Christianity have long taken for granted.

So the next time you see someone knocking the “nones,” or bemoaning the spiritual people, ask yourself what their agenda for doing it is. Why are they punching the hippie?

We in the West live in a world that is dominated and shaped by Christianity. That dominance may be fading in places, particularly in Europe, but few can deny that Christians continue to occupy a place of cultural and political privilege. This is especially true in the United States, where an unofficial religion test of our political candidates for national office is enforced by various pressure groups, religious leaders, and our own (theoretically secular) media.

As America’s favorite satirist put it:

“Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.”

The simple fact is that Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and nearly 37% of the world’s Christians make their home in the Americas. Despite this dominance, or perhaps because of it, many Western Christians feel uneasy about the future, thinking that some secular/pagan/Islamic overthrow is just around the bend. This fear is often exploited by politicians to win votes, framing any limitation on Christianity or Christian institutions as a stalking horse for persecutions.

“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.”Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago

I think few realize how limited the discussion of religion really is in our media, often limited to debates between liberals and conservatives (or progressives and traditionalists) within Christianity, sometimes with a token Jewish or secular voice thrown in. Any deviance from this pattern is seen either as satire or scandal. Coming out of the Christmas holiday, where a yearly fabricated “war” over Christian celebrations continues to garner press, it can be easy to forget the millions of individuals who fall outside the Christian paradigm, and how we exist, worship, and compromise in a culture that alternately enforces a Christian culture while claiming that culture in under constant threat. For example, CNN looks at how “other faiths” celebrate Christmas (aka December 25th for anyone who isn’t a Christian).

“Sometimes in the West these days there’s a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, ‘We’re all climbing the same mountain,’ and I think the intention there is nice. There’s a harmonious intention there. But I think it’s much nicer to say, ‘Let’s respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths,” [Buddhist monk Ajhan] Yatiko said.

Meanwhile, at RealClearReligion, columnist Jeffrey Weiss bemoans the “Xmas Borg” and discusses just how difficult it is to avoid wall-to-wall expressions of Christianity for two to three months out of every year.

“I defy Bill O’Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek’s Borg Collective (“Resistance is futile!”) than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures. To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith.”

The tendency to bundle non-Christian Winter holidays together and treat them like cultural add-ons to the Christmas juggernaut has started to find some dissenters, but most of us rationalize celebrating the holiday in the secular-religious hybrid that has now become the norm (particularly since most of us have Christian relatives and friends). Pagans perhaps have the best excuse, as many traditions and observances have their genesis with our religious ancestors, but we still exist in a culture where those elements: trees, gift-giving, various decorations and customs, are understood by most as function of a nominally Christian holiday, not some syncretic hybrid.

So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold (or in the case of Mexico, progress), and that Christians of good conscience start to understand how their power works, and how that affects those who aren’t Christian.

“The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one’s faith is to be a member of a religious minority–to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in “Christian America.” Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

The author of that piece, Professor Catharine Stimpson, was writing about being a Christian in the Islam-dominated United Arab Emirates, and how that perspective has shifted the way she sees all religious minorities. I think that her experience is important, and her testimony much-needed. Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all. All persecution narratives, even and especially our own, run the risk of becoming a toxic method of making people of different faiths or perspectives an inhuman “other.” Faceless villains who sport labels instead of human qualities, who become distorted monsters not to be trusted. The challenge for the formerly persecuted is to rise above their own persecution narratives, to build a future where none are persecuted, while it is the challenge of minorities to avoid enshrining them in the first place.

I hope that as this holiday season winds down we’ll all take a moment to consider the perspectives of others, and to critically think about the narratives we are participating in.

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!

Top Story: The CNN Belief Blog has a story about Hinduism in America, and how some younger Hindus are trying to “forge a distinctly American Hindu identity that’s more tightly woven into the national fabric.”

The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Houston

“Our parents had to build everything from scratch to make a united Hindu community in this country,” said Tejas N. Dave, 17, a high school junior who volunteers with a project bringing yoga to unprivileged Americans. “Now we’re trying to reintegrate it back into society,” he said, “to make people realize that Hinduism is a religion and a way of life and a philosophy that’s not too different from what a lot of others believe. We’re all trying to make a better society.” Some young Hindus are envious of the attention that American Muslims and Mormons have received in recent years – even if not all of the attention has been positive – and are trying to raise Hinduism’s national profile.

The article mentions the Hindu American Foundation and its work, an advocacy group that has done outreach to the Pagan community in recent years, and profiles younger Hindus who want to take their faith “outside officially Hindu spaces.”

Yet [Kavita] Pallod, 23, has spent a good deal of time thinking about how to apply her faith to her life. “I believe that karma is the principal that guides the universe,” she said, referring to the Hindu concept of cosmic justice. “It’s one of the reasons I joined Teach for America.”

In my recent interview with historian Kevin M. Schultz, he mentioned that Catholics and Jews in the early 20th century worked to “present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American” using the “languages of good Americanism to show they belong.” This article makes it quite clear that this process is well underway for American Hindus. That said, despite Hinduism’s many successes in building infrastructure and mainstreaming some of their practices, there still remains a lot of distrust and hostility, as evidenced by the comments section of the CNN profile. American Hindu organizations will also have to decide, ultimately, how they are going to present themselves to other faiths. Hinduism’s theological diversity has allowed proponents to engage with Pagans, noting their common ground, while also (sometimes vociferously) portraying themselves as monotheists. It’s a complex subject, but American politics hates complex subjects, and the process of “Americanizing” a diverse decentralized umbrella faith may present roadblocks in the future.

In Other News:

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

I hope you’ll forgive me while I briefly chat about some media I’ve been appearing in lately. First, I was interviewed by Steve McManus for his Forbidden America podcast, you can listen to that, here. I then appeared on the Witchtalk Conjure podcast/videocast, hosted by Karagan and Indigo Astrea. Both of those interviews were inspired in part by the ongoing initiative to get me on The Daily Show (something I didn’t initiate, but am flattered by). You can find the latest push in that effort, here. For my part, I suggested that folks interested in making minority religious voices heard turn that energy towards mobilizing the current campaign into a media watchdog organization. That has happened, and All Faiths Created Equal was born.

“This page is dedicated to spreading awareness of minority faiths, non-faith, religions, and practices. This page also aims to hold the media accountable for poor portrayal of minority faiths, and general spread of misinformation of these faiths and individual members/practitioners.”

They are just getting started up, so if you’re on Facebook, why not join them and help in their endeavour to give outrage and frustration with how the media handles minority faiths a productive outlet.

Former Get Religion contributor and religion journalist Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans has posted the second part in her series on New Age and Pagan religions for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal (part one is here). I am again quoted in the column.

Paganism is a still-vital spirituality, one whose influence is difficult to calibrate. Modern paganism, a relative newcomer on the American scene, is an umbrella term for several distinct religions, pagan journalist Jason Pitzl-Waters said in a telephone interview. ”While surveys suggest roughly a million pagan practitioners in America,” he said, “if you count people who have unorthodox religious views, then there are many millions of people.” [...]  When pagan thought was imported from Great Britain in the 1960s, in large part thanks to the work of British writer and Wiccan Gerald Gardner, it found a temporary home  in the New Age arena, Pitzl-Waters said. ”There was enough overlap between our spirituality that when modern paganism appeared on the scene, it found a safe haven,” he said. But paganism has features that distinguish it from New Age spiritualities, Pitzl-Waters said. One example: “Paganism is very much a here-and-now theology,” he said.

It’s a nice column, though I would have expanded on the differences between New Age spirituality and modern Pagan religions. I’d also like to quibble and state that Raymond Buckland deserves mention as a force that brought Wicca to America. I’ve opined before on how many Pagans found safe haven and resources at New Age shops and events during the years when we were far more isolated and dependent on friendly fellow travelers. I came of age as that alliance was crumbling, and modern Pagans were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being lumped in with New Age practitioners, taking pains to point out our different theologies and histories.

But enough about me! Before I go I wanted to quickly share a few links that I wasn’t able to round up yesterday.

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

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. Before I begin, let me just remind everyone that the Pagan Japan Relief project, an initiative to raise 30,000 dollars for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is just over 3,000 dollars from its final goal! That the Pagan community has been able to collectively raise nearly 27,000 dollars already is a monumental achievement, but lets do a final push, spread the word, and prove that serious fundraising for worthy causes can happen among our interconnected communities. For more background on this initiative, and why it’s important, check out Peter Dybing’s blog.

Now then, unleash the hounds!

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.

I have updates on several previously reported stories for you today.

No One Likes a Jedi at Census Time: Last week I reported on the “PaganDash” campaign, which is looking to encourage Pagans in the UK to stand up and be counted in the census, and use a uniform write-in for the census form. However, Pagans aren’t the only group looking to improve their numbers in the 2011 British census. British humanists and atheists have launched a campaign to increase the number of respondents that check “no religion”, taking aim at the Jedi census phenomenon from 2001′s census.

If your religion is of low enough importance to you to that you are willing to put in a religion from 3 good sci-fi films from years ago, and 3 more recent rubbish ones,please consider ticking “No Religion” instead. The data gathered is used to inform government policy, and was used by the last government to justify funding of religious community bodies over secular ones. For example, 2001 census data has been used repeatedly to justify an increase in the number of state maintained faith schools and the increasing level of government money spent on faith organisations. By ticking ‘No Religion’, you will ensure that the Government receives an unambiguous message about the number of non-religious people in the UK. Any other response may be manipulated into a response in favour of religion and publically funded religious organisations.”

The argument seems to have convinced  author and Boing Boing co-founder Cory Doctorow, who says “I’m convinced; we’re atheists and we will list ourselves as such.” There’s other campaigns going on as well, but I wanted to specifically mention the Jedi phenomenon, because I don’t think it just skewed atheist/agnostic numbers. I’ve long thought that those 400,000 “Jedi” also comprised a fair number of modern Pagans as well. In any case, this may be our last chance to get this right, because the UK is seriously considering removing the religion question entirely, with a spokesperson lumping Pagans in with the Jedi as “prank” responses.

Romanian Witches Win Tax Battle: It looks like all those spells and hexes worked. A controversial bill that would require psychics, fortune tellers, and practitioners of witchcraft in Romania be licensed, and tax their largely under-the-table income, has failed.

“I am very disappointed, the bill was meant to prevent people from being deceived by so-called witches,” Liberal-Democrat MP Alin Popoviciu, who initiated the bill, told AFP. Under the text, fortune-tellers and clairvoyants were to be licensed, pay taxes and set up professional associations. “The bill angered many witches who threatened to cast a spell in order to make it fail. It seems they have succeeded,” Mr Popoviciu added.

It seems many feared that instead of protected people from witches, it would instead legitimize the industry, a view shared by some Romanian witches. Popoviciu has vowed to try again, but for now that status quo remains in place.

James Arthur Ray Trial Continues: 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 continues. These initial days are seeing the prosecution’s witnesses, including a participant who says Ray “dismissed her alert about the failing condition of a fellow participant,” and an ill-trained sweat lodge volunteer, who says she was not prepared to deal with individuals who were “burned, delirious and unresponsive.” Prosecutors also played an audio recording of Kirby Brown, one of three people who died.

“When we started the (Samurai) game, I was like you,” Brown said on the recording, which was made just before she and the other attendees entered the sweat lodge. It is a segment from recordings made during four days of Ray’s October 2009 Spiritual Warrior Retreat. “I was gonna be the hero, and I died right there before it even began.” Brown, 38, went on to recount the efforts she made to try to save her teammates in the game from sharing her fate, saying that she swallowed her own vomit in an attempt to lie perfectly still. Had she moved, Ray, playing the role of God, would have sentenced another of her team to death. “As I laid there dying and everyone was working, I kept sending my energy to them,” she said.

Defense strenuously objected to the tape being played, that is was “overwhelmingly prejudicial.” You can see why they don’t want that tape played, because it paints a portrait of a man who has utter control over his subjects. Meanwhile, if the comments section of my previous James Ray post are any indication, Ray’s defenders are spinning conspiracy theories and making excuses for their guru across the Internet. After all, once you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on his “teachings,” I can’ imagine you’d want to believe he’s a negligent egomaniac. It will be interesting to see who the defense calls in this trial, and if they have more than signed waivers and conspiracies to keep their client from prison.

Sex Cult Leader Convicted: Colin Batley, 48, of Kidwelly, west Wales, was convicted of “11 separate rapes, three indecent assaults, causing prostitution for personal gain, causing a child to have sex and inciting a child to have sex.” Batley and his alleged followers were said to wear red robes and read from the Thelemic sacred text The Book of the Law (he had laminated pages from the book at his home), penned by influential occultist Aleister Crowley at ceremonies. Other sources said that all the women in the group sported matching tattoos. As I mentioned in my previous post, Batley claims to have “given up” reading Crowley and was now a Mormon.

“A man has been found guilty of leading a “satanic” sex cult from his home in a small Welsh town. Colin Batley, 48, of Kidwelly, west Wales, presided over a group that preyed on young children and held occult rites. He was found guilty at Swansea crown court of rape and carrying out perverted sexual acts on children and adults. Batley was the self-styled high priest of the group, which operated from a series of homes in a cul-de-sac in the seaside town.”

Four other members of the alleged group were also found guilty. There seems to have been enough testimony from both victims and “customers” to prove some sort of underage sex-ring was happening, what hasn’t been established is how sincere the “occult” elements were, or if they were just trappings of control used on their “recruits”. Nor, at this point, will we ever likely know the full story.

The Further Adventures of Father Gary Thomas: CNN has decided to do profile of Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic exorcist, and inspiration for the Hollywood film “The Rite”. As I pointed out in January, Pagan media critic Peg Aloi got Father Thomas on the record about some of his many retrograde views regarding Pagan religions and “Satanic” underground cults. Despite, or perhaps because of, these views being out in the open Thomas continues to tar other religious systems as pathways to demonic possession.

“A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …”

Father Thomas also mentions an ongoing exorcism case where the client is “suffering from a very unique psychological disorder,” but also, it seems, “been exposed to satanic cults.” He truly seems to think that both are true, and the question is which method to use in treating the client. What I find disappointing is that this is a man labeling an entire religion, Wicca, as a pathway to Satanic possession. Had he done so with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Mormonism the reporter would have no doubt called him on his statement. Yet, reporter Tom Foreman’s response is “a vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head.” Proof once again that the press just doesn’t “get religion,” it can’t even properly grapple with the topic of modern Pagan religions in a mature and level-headed manner.

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

A few quick news notes on this Sunday morning.

Predictions for a New Year: CNN’s Belief Blog asks various religious leaders for their “faith-based” 2011 predictions. Circle Sanctuary’s Selena Fox sees a growth of interfaith involvement for Wiccans and Pagans.

“More Wiccan ministers and other pagan leaders will be actively involved in interfaith organizations, conferences and initiatives in the United States and internationally. Interfaith endeavors will grow in importance in addressing ongoing needs in the world today as well as in responding to natural disasters and other tragedies.”

Most of the predictions are aspirational, though Pagans have made great strides in interfaith recently. CNN’s senior Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. predicts that “Christianophobia” will become a buzzword in 2011, though I’d argue variations on that theme have been popular for generations.

(Don’t) Legalize It: Romania has changed its labor laws to make witchcraft a legal profession, but the local witches and fortune-tellers aren’t lining up to thank the government for it.

“The move, which went into effect Saturday, is part of the government’s drive to crack down on widespread tax evasion in a country that is in recession. In addition to witches, astrologists, embalmers, valets and driving instructors are now considered by labor law to be working real jobs, making it harder for them to avoid income tax.”

One Romanian Witch has already stepped forward to threaten spells against the government, nor is this the first time Witches have fought back against government intervention into their affairs. In a country where mystical attacks are still taken seriously by politicians, the economy must be truly bad for them to move forward on this initiative. As for the Witches, they opposes legal recognition for the same reasons marijuana growers in California do, because it would hurt their bottom line.

Gaia is (coming) Alive! At a recent symposium in Sydney, Australian professor, scientist, and environmental activist Tim Flannery apparently had some interesting things to say about our Earth and the Gaia hypothesis.

Robyn Williams: So there you’ve got an image of the earth, the planet as a god, but also a very sophisticated and credible scientific idea.

Tim Flannery: That’s right. I was tempted in the book to simply give in and call it Earth System Science, because Gaia is earth system science and in many university departments around the world, as you’ll know, Robyn, earth system science is a very respectable science. But as soon as you mention Gaia of course, the scepticism comes out. I didn’t do that though, because I think there’s a certain elegance to Gaia, to that word and the concept, and also because I think that within this century the concept of the strong Gaia will actually become physically manifest. I do think that the Gaia of the Ancient Greeks, where they believed the earth was effectively one whole and perfect living creature, that doesn’t exist yet, but it will exist in future. That’s why I wanted to keep that word.

Robyn Williams: How will it exist in the future? Because an organism is one thing; the earth is complicated, but it is after all a lump of rock with iron in the middle and a veneer of living things outside, and a very thin atmosphere. It’s not an organism, so how is the feedback system such that it stabilises things, temperature anyway, like an organism?

Tim Flannery: That’s the great question. I must admit that as I wrote the book I was unable to come to a clear landing on the extent of Gaian control over the system, because much of the data is equivocal. I think that there is clear evidence for something that I call in the book geo-pheromones, which are elements within the earth system, which when present in very small amounts have very large outcomes, a bit like ant pheromones. But they often do multiple jobs. Some ant pheromones do as well, but many of them are specific. One of those is course carbon dioxide, a trace amount in the atmosphere, four parts per ten thousand is enough to keep the earth habitable. Ozone is another one present in just a few parts per billion. Human-made CFCs are yet another one. Atmospheric dust may well be another one. So these elements in the earth system have a profound impact on the system, and there is some evidence that there’s some sort of homeostasis established, if you want.

This theory that Earth/Gaia is becoming a unified living organism has incensed conservative journalist Tim Blair, who blasts the idea of a “sentient Frankenplanet spirit” and rips into James Lovelock, largely credited with popularizing the Gaia hypothesis, for good measure. Behind the sneers of “general occult weirdness” and “summoning of a dirt god” is the same fear of an environmental “green dragon” seen among American Christians, the over-zealous backlash against the idea that Christianity isn’t the only or final truth in this world.

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

I hope you enjoyed the day off yesterday, because I have yet another round-up of reactions, insights, and opinions regarding the Christine O’Donnell “dabble-gate” witchcraft comments. This will hopefully be the last, since it seems the issue is running out of steam in the mainstream press. Let’s start with more Pagan voices within the mainstream press. First, Pagan author and Washington Post On Faith panelist Starhawk weighs in.

“Witchcraft deserves the same respect accorded to any other spiritual tradition. And O’Donnell deserves the same respect as any other politician: that we judge them by their record, their abilities and their policies, not by stupid, offhand remarks they made decades ago.”

The rest of the panelists cover the thorny issue of if the Tea Party movement itself is religious, with the usual variety of answers that run the gamut of “yes” to “no”.

Meanwhile, at the CNN Belief Blog, Circle’s Selena Fox, who was already interviewed by the Huffington Post, expands on concerns regarding this media feeding frenzy.

“It’s an opportunity to get some correct information out there. That’s how I see it,” says Fox, who is the high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church near Barneveld, Wisconsin, that serves Pagans worldwide. “There’s comedy about it, hot debate about it, lots of pundits weighing in. But one of the things that really hasn’t gotten through is how ridicule and defamation can harm people.”

Fox also talks about the ongoing battles Pagans have waged for equal treatment over the years.

On the local level, some Salem Witches are interviewed by The Salem News, and they aren’t pleased.

“She’s obviously very ignorant about witchcraft,” said Teri Kalgren, director of the Witches Education Bureau. “To say she dabbled in it — what is dabbling? And how do we know people she was hanging out with were really witches?”

Oh, and the mainstream media (CBS News) did finally get around to interviewing a Satanist.

Diane Vera, the founder of a group called “NYC Satanists, Luciferians, Dark Pagans, and LHP Occultists” added today that O’Donnell’s anecdote also misrepresents Satanists. “As far as I am aware, no serious practitioner of any variant of either Wicca or Satanism would have a picnic on one’s altar,” Vera said in a press release. Vera also cited a 1997 Washington Post op-ed O’Donnell wrote as head of the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT). O’Donnell wrote about proselytizing to concert goers in the Washington area. ”Walking through the crowd I also noticed more pentagrams than crosses around the teenage necks,” she wrote. “‘Satanism is the religion of the ’90s, I was told.” Vera responded that O’Donnell “has a tendency to confuse Satanism with not only Wicca but also rock fan culture.”

As for Christine O’Donnell, she’s done doing national television appearances, except for an outgoing interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, who gently brought up the whole “witchcraft” issue. Here’s what seems to be her final say on the matter.

“”In my 20s I had a newfound faith and, going on these shows, I looked at it as a ministry opportunity — that was what I did in my 20s. But that was a long time ago. My faith has matured … Who didn’t do some questionable things in high school, and who doesn’t regret the ’80s, to some extent? I certainly do.

I have some regrets from the 1980′s but I don’t think they’re the same ones she has. So what, as the media starts looking for the next shiny object, is the consequence of all this coverage? Wicca is turned by many into a punchline, it has inspired some rather tired satire, and some commentary that probably should have been satire.

“Once again, the Left’s tolerance and diversity mantra rings hollow. Who knew that witches had fallen out of favor with the Left? You have to wonder if it’s O’Donnell’s dabbling or denunciation that’s piqued the pagans. If the Left continues to link witchcraft and paganism to “crazies,” Obama could end up on the wrong end of the mystics’ magical broom…”

Both Wes Isley at the Huffington Post and University of Illinois graduate student Joseph Vandehey seem to grasp that, barring a few notable exceptions, we were simply grist for the mill that was grinding up Christine O’Donnell.

The media could have talked about the impact that Wiccans have in our society (there’s more Wiccans in the Air Force than any other non-Christian demographic). The media could have talked about the plight of Pagan political figures, since the O’Donnell frenzy connotes that Paganism makes you ineligible for public office. The media could have talked about the difference between covens and the eclectic practices that O’Donnell seemed to have dabbled in. The media could have talked about the fear some Pagans have with talking about their beliefs in public — the so-called “coming out of the broom closet” — especially in the wake of recent attacks on Muslims. The media could have talked about public perception issues, when the average persons’ exposure to Wicca comes from bookstores crammed full of “Spells to make him fall in love with you” trash that has as much to do with Wicca as Fred Phelps does with Christianity. But no, it all got swept under the rug in exchange for an Obama bumper sticker parody: O’Donnell in a pointed hat and the phrase “Yes, Wiccan.”

I can’t help but think that this “dabble-gate” coverage, while it will die down as the media grows tired of the subject, and as Bill Maher releases more embarrassing clips, it may well color our traditional Halloween/Samhain rush of coverage this year. Making the usual efforts to tamp down sensationalism in the yearly glut of “real Witch” stories even more difficult. Or maybe, since this rush happened so late in September, this is the October rush, and our role in this media tempest will stand in for more in-depth explorations of Pagan faith. Whatever the outcome, we have our work cut out for us to push past the easy jokes and to remind the world that we are a mature, multi-generational, community of faiths who have spread around the world and are fighting against the prejudices and ignorance that in many cases denies us equal treatment and access.

ADDENDUM: Want some more? Blogger Daniel Nester at the Times-Union in Albany interviewed Rev. OakLore on Tuesday, and today interviews Witchvox media coordinator Peg Aloi and her partner Todd Hulslander.