Archives For Internet

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

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

  • Noted naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen died on Saturday after battling leukemia. Mattheiseen, a Zen Buddhist, wrote over 30 novels, was an environmental activist, co-founded the Paris Review, and famously wrote “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” which chronicled the story of Leonard Peltier. Quote: “Matthiessen is held in such high regard as a nonfiction writer by nonfiction writers that they sometimes say, ‘How is it possible that this guy can be such a virtuoso fiction writer, and give his equally substantial body of nonfiction work such short shrift?’ Because all the rest of us are trying to do what we can to mimic his nonfiction work.” What is remembered, lives.
  • Two people in Western Kentucky have been arrested on charges of committing sexual offenses against children. One of them, Jessica M. Smith, allegedly described herself as a Witch and threatened the children with her powers. Quote: “Prosecutors say the two threatened the children with ‘hexes and curses’ [...] Police said Smith described herself as a witch and told the kids ‘she was going to put a spell on them’ and that ‘if they told anyone, something bad would happen to them.’”
  • A federal appeals panel has ruled that New York City has the right to block religious services in public schools. Quote: “The decision does not mean that the city must force religious groups out of the schools, but merely that a city prohibition on religious worship services in schools would comply with the Constitution.” Appeals are expected.
  • It seems that “real housewife” Carlton Gebbia isn’t the only reality television star who has practiced Wicca. It seems that Millionaire Matchmaker star Patti Stanger was a “real Wiccan” for six years. Quote: “I’ve studied Kabbalah, I’ve studied Wicca, so you can’t be like that. You can’t throw stones at people, because karmically it’s going to come back to you even worse then you threw it at them.”
  • Is the Internet destroying religion? A new study makes the case that the rise of the Internet has been an important factor in individuals abandoning traditional forms of religious practice. Quote: “Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.” Of course, correlation is not causation, but Downey says that “correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.”
Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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

brandi-blackbear-magIn 1999 Brandi Blackbear was suspended twice from an Oklahoma middle school for allegedly practicing Wicca. According to reports, the school accused her of casting a magic spell that caused a teacher to become sick. In October 2000 the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against Union Public Schools with complaints of religious discrimination and a violation of due process rights. The case became known as the “The Union Witch Trial”.

In 2002 U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan ruled in favor of the school district stating that “Neither of Blackbear’s two suspensions in 1999 violated her constitutional rights…” Posted on freedomforum.org, the 2002 AP article adds:

Blackbear testified during a deposition that she is not, has never been, and has never wanted to be a Wiccan. The judge also said ‘Blackbear admitted that the defendants have not done anything to keep her from practicing any religion …’ (Reported 7-20-2002)

In December Tulsa World published a follow-up article reporting that all appeals and all fees had been dropped. The Blackbear family moved on.

However that was not the end of the road for Brandi’s story. By 2002 “The Union Witch Trial” had gained some notoriety through national media reports, such as People magazine and The Today Show. Over the next few years, Brandi’s story was cited in a variety of books and journals (e.g., Paganism: Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America by Carol Barner-Barry; Where to Park Your Broomstick: A Teen’s Guide to Witchcraft By Lauren Manoy.) Then in 2006 the Lifetime TV Network produced a movie called Not Like Everyone Else based on the case.

Still from Lifetime Original Movie "Not Like Everyone Else" (2006)

Still from Lifetime Original Movie “Not Like Everyone Else” (2006)

That should have been the end of the road. Yet here we are eight years later reporting on the case. Why has “The Union Witch Trial” suddenly become newsworthy again? The answer to that question lies not with Brandi, the fight for religious freedom or witchcraft but with the state of traditional news media within our digitally-dependent world.

Over this past week “The Union Witch Trial” resurfaced online as “breaking news.” That story was shared via Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, private blogs and other similar sites. While some users recognized the story’s age, many did not. The story’s currency was substantiated by professional news bloggers and trusted media outlets who had published the story with a 2014 postdate (e.g., Esquire Magazine’s Politics Blog, 97.9 WGRD in Grand Rapids MI, and WJXX (ABC) and WTLV (NBC) in Jacksonville Florida.)

At the root of the confusion is a single ABC news article titled “Student Expelled for Casting a Spell.” All of the recent shares and posts contain links that eventually lead to that one article. Now look at the article carefully. Its postdate has no year. In addition the story text is framed with dynamic web elements that display today’s news. It is very easy to mistake the “The Union Witch Trial” as current.

Why is the year missing? According to the page’s source code, the ABC story was originally posted Oct. 28, 2000, and then modified in 2006 – the year of Lifetime’s movie. While that tells us nothing concrete about the missing date, it does illustrate a trend in Internet news reporting.

In the old system, news agencies relied on subscriptions, purchases, or ratings to garner advertising dollars. In the current system, they rely on likes, shares, and tweets all of which increase site traffic. Greater site traffic equates to greater advertising revenue.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's DBduo Photography

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s DBduo Photography

In the old system, you bought the paper to read it. You tuned in at 5, 6 or 11 p.m. to watch the News. Or, if you had cable, you watched CNN. The choices were limited and the actions were deliberate. Media outlets used content quality to build a reputation in order to entice consumers into making that conscious decision to consume.

Now, the barriers to consumption are gone. News is fast, free and all over the Internet. While reputation does still help, reader loyalty, no longer bound by dollars, is quickly fading. Therefore modern news agencies have the enormous, daily burden of filling their digital pages with attractive, relevant, click-producing content.  What is trending?  What has “gone viral?”

The news media’s extreme focus on their digital presence is highlighted in a recent Mashable article about The Record breaking the “Bridgegate” story. Journalist Jason Abbruzzese neatly describes how being the first-to-report affects site traffic. He then adds that in today’s news industry “Scoops can be followed [by other news sources] in hours or minutes instead of days, limiting their impact on a media outlet’s income.” As a result speed and quantity have become paramount.

Trending topics and viral social media stories are extremely valuable to these news outlets. This pre-packaged popular content provides guaranteed traffic generators no matter who got the scoop. In a December 2013 New York Times article entitled “If the Story is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating,” reporters illustrate this point with a quote from Jonathan Benton of Neiman Journalism Lab:

This is journalism as an act of pointing — ‘Look over here, this is interesting’ … uncertainty about a story’s veracity is unlikely, in most cases, to keep an editor from posting it.

Content has taken a back-seat to measured popularity. In an essay for Esquire.com, Luke O’Neil, reporter and blogger, wrote: “The mistakes, and the falsehoods, and the hoaxes are a big part of a business plan driven by the belief that big traffic absolves all sins.” In the same essay, O’Neill sites the above New York Times article in which Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post says,

If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.

The Brandi Blackbear case proves their points. Whether or not the missing year was intentional or a not, the error can only benefit ABC.com. Without that 2000 postdate and wedged into a dynamic framework, “the Union Witch Trial” article has transformed into a phantom story that reappears when someone accidentally stumbles upon it.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building (Photo Courtesy of Daniel Mayer)

Oklahoma State Capitol Building (Photo Courtesy of Daniel Mayer)

Currently Oklahoma and the Occult are trending subjects due to the Satanic Temple’s unveiling of their statue design for the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. In searching that subject, readers may have stumbled upon the ABC article about Brandi. Mistaking it for current, they shared it. The rest is history.

As noted by Grim, there is no incentive for ABC to correct the error. In fact, the Jacksonville News Affiliate was alerted to the date error by email and through a variety of forum comments. However the station has not corrected the error. Why would it? Its news aggregator presented the story as socially viral. That equates to increased site views – whether or not the date is wrong. In fact the error may increase views. Note that we’ve created two links to the site just with this post.

Unfortunately “The Union Witch Story” is an excellent candidate for the modern news distribution model. As Beth Winegarner suggested in an 2012 article, for “reporters [who] are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one.” The “Union Witch Trial” includes that hook and more:  children, civil rights, religion in schools and Native Americans. It’s the perfect news story.  In fact, this wasn’t the first time that the “The Union Witch Trial” has been breaking news (2000, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2013- 2014) and it won’t be the last as long as the ABC article remains undated.

Where does that leave the readers in all of this?  First there are many quality news sites that rely on original, meaningful news content. There are many journalists who still check facts three times and go directly to the source. Not all errors are intentional or ignored for the sake of site analytics. Not everyone serves that new media paradigm.

However, it is difficult to negotiate those waters and find the quality work. To do so, readers must slow down long enough to question the text and photos. Check the dates, the authors and the associated links. If the story or photo is too good to be true, it just might be.

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

Shield_230x140.jpg_1951677811In July of last year, I reported on rumblings in the UK over the possibility that new governmental policies over filtering obscene adult content on the Internet would affect non-obscene sites, including occult-oriented pages. Now, these parental controls are indeed being shown to over-block sites that having nothing to do with porn, including a news site that deals with the world of torrenting and piracy. Quote: “What happened? The broader context is that the UK government’s launched a war on internet porn, with ISPs blocking porn sites unless users specifically opt-in to access them. but TorrentFreak says that lots of other sites are getting caught in the censorship net – ‘hate sites,’ gore, dating sites, and TorrentFreak itself.” TorrentFreak was officially un-blocked by the ISP, though that hasn’t stopped the site from calling these filters a “blunt instrument that is prone to causing collateral damage and known for failing to achieve its stated aims.” So far, from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like Pagan or occult sites are being filtered (though this should be monitored by folks in the UK who use various ISPs), but these stories do point to the fact that initial concerns were not unfounded. We’ll keep an eye out for further developments.

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Back in December I wrote about the release of several incarcerated victims accused of “Satanic” ritual abuse, and the ongoing, ugly, legacy of the Satanic Panics. Now, Slate has published an excellent, in-depth article about Fran and Dan Keller, recently freed after 20 years in prison, and moral panics that ruined hundreds of lives. Quote: “The seeds of the panic were planted with the 1980 publication of Michelle Remembers, the best-selling account of a Canadian psychotherapist’s work with a woman named Michelle Smith, who, under his care, began recalling forgotten memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and others who were part of a devil-worshipping cult. The book, though riddled with fantastical claims (for example, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael healed Smith’s physical scars), launched a cottage industry in recovering memories of satanic ritual abuse. (The psychotherapist and Smith later married.)” As the article mentions, the problem with panics is that most never realize they were in one until after the fact. Let’s hope that this particular panic has finally run its course in our society. You can read many of my thoughts, and reporting, on this topic, here.

-7e3949c270db2aa2I’ve recently highlighted, on a couple different occasions, that the famous tomb of Vodou/Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau in New Orelans was painted pink by an unknown person (though there are theories). Now, preservationists are unhappy with the restoration work being undertaken by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, alleging that the pressure washing techniques are causing damage. Quote: “Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that works to preserve historic cemeteries throughout the city, saw someone blasting Laveau’s tomb with a high-pressure water gun she said she immediately called the Archdiocese. ‘Pressure washing is terrible for any old building,’ Green said. [...] Green is also concerned that once the pink paint is removed, the Archdiocese will cover Laveau’s tomb in Portland cement, the most common kind of cement used around the world. The most effect technique used to repair tombs and preserve their historic look is by using lime-based mortar and plaster and then coating the tomb in a lime wash, Green said.” Laveau’s tomb is a tourist icon and place of religious pilgrimage in New Orleans, and that is making this process, no doubt, a more sensitive ordeal than a normal restoration job. As for the press attention, no doubt Marie Laveau’s recent pop-culture resurgence has made press outside of New Orleans take notice.

1979 re-release era poster.

1979 re-release era poster.

I just want to quickly mention that January 7th finally saw the U.S. blu-ray release of the restored “Final Cut” of 1973 cult cinema masterpiece “The Wicker Man.” This new, restored, version was announced back in July of 2013, and a special 3-disc edition was released at the end of 2013 in the U.K. (the lucky beggars). I’ve written about this film so often, that you could spend a good day going through the Wicker Man tag here at The Wild Hunt, so I’ll be brief. The new blu-ray is essentially the “middle” length version that played in art houses during the late 1970s and 1980s in America, it lacks the extended mainland sequence at the beginning, but does have scenes the “extended” version doesn’t have. The picture quality is superb (for a film of this era), and you’ll not get anything better in HD so long as the original masters remain lost to legend and rumor. I’m hoping that we Americans will see a multi-disc set eventually, so we can have a “branching” version that incorporates the lesser quality extended cut sequences, as the UK set includes. For now, however, this is well worth any fan of this film picking up and re-enjoying. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to keep…

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

I’ve long taken a keen interest in the business of Internet filtering, and how its genesis with conservative Christian social values have reverberated far beyond that niche market. However, Internet filtering issues aren’t isolated to America, and the UK is currently embroiled in a controversy over mandatory “opt-out” filters for adult content.

David Cameron

UK Prime Minister David Cameron

“Most households in the UK will have pornography blocked by their internet provider unless they choose to receive it, David Cameron has announced. [...] Mr Cameron warned in a speech that access to online pornography was “corroding childhood”. The new measures will apply to both existing and new customers. Mr Cameron also called for some “horrific” internet search terms to be “blacklisted”, meaning they would automatically bring up no results on websites such as Google or Bing.”

That announcement last week was enough to generate a lot of debate over access to information,  which only intensified when it was discovered that the filtering company that would implement Prime Minister Cameron’s deal with the four biggest ISPs was Chinese firm Huawei.

“The [Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)] committee said ‘the alleged links between Huawei and the Chinese State are concerning, as they generate suspicion as to whether Huawei’s intentions are strictly commercial or are more political’ – but added that it had not found any evidence of wrongdoing.”

On top of that, was a troubling revelation that the “opt out” filter may be filtering a lot more than porn.

“The essential detail is that they will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content, and unless you un-tick the option, network filters will be enabled. As we’ve said repeatedly, it’s not just about hardcore pornography.”

One of those filtering categories? According to Open Rights Group, “broad indications” from ISPs point to “esoteric material” being one of the default opt-out filtering categories. This broader opt-out mandate is being reported by Wired and The Huffington Post, though no further details about what, exactly, would be included in an “esoteric material” category.

“What’s clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship. We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind ‘nudge theory’ and ‘choice architecture’ that is popular with Cameron. [...] The implication is that filtering is good, or at least harmless, for anyone, whether adult or child. Of course, this is not true; there’s not just the question of false positives for web users, but the affect on a network economy of excluding a proportion of a legitimate website’s audience.”Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Which brings us back to the genesis of Internet filtering, the confluence of socially conservative religious groups and Internet policy. Where will the site lists for default blocked categories come from? Will they, like some institutional filters, block Pagan sites? A long history of Pagan engagement with these filters points to it being a reasonable assumption. The trouble is that we most likely won’t know until the filter is already in place, and Cameron has intimated that he was willing to legislate compliance if the ISPs balk at his plan. For now, Open Rights Group has launched a petition to stop David Cameron from “sleepwalking into censorship.”

“Adult filtering amounts to censoring legal content. The UK would be the only modern democratic society to do this. This sets a terrible example to other countries with interests in suppressing information.”

We don’t know, exactly, what will and won’t be blocked once the filters are enabled. It could vary among providers. The list printed by Open Rights Group is based on “brief conversations with some of the Internet Service Providers” that will be putting the filters in place. According to ORG, “they [the ISPs] will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content,” and “esoteric material” is a default category gleaned from “broad indications” and “current mobil configurations.” Sophia Catherine, of the Divine Community podcast, warns against over-reaction.

“Open Rights have NOT said that ‘esoteric content’ will be censored. This is a misinterpretation of their article, which has been doing the rounds online for a couple of days, and which they have edited their article in an attempt to counter. I quote from their article on the subject: “The category examples are based on current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISP” (i.e. this is a guess based on a few informal trend), and “The precise pre-ticked options may vary from service to service.” I think it is incredibly important not to jump to conclusions before any research has been done into this story. The fact is that nobody knows if ‘esoteric content’ will be filtered or not, and the signs at the moment suggest that it will not be filtered by default – if it is, it will happen service-provider-by-service provider. It is so important to get facts straight when we’re campaigning about incidents that may affect the Pagan community. And this is an overreaction based on incomplete information.”

Despite these uncertainties, it is important that our communities pay close attention to the implementation of this filter, and make sure access to Pagan and esoteric religious content is not blocked. I will be following up on this story as it develops, and will consult with UK Pagan leaders and clergy.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press are both reporting that a consent judgment has been handed down in the case of Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees, in which Salem, Missouri resident Anaka Hunter was denied access to websites dealing with Wiccan and Native American customs due to the filtering software being used by the library. In addition, Hunter reported that she was “brushed off” and intimidated by library employees and board members. The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, says that the library agrees to remove the “occult” filter, among others, for library patrons. The ACLU, who represented Anaka Hunter, noted that “public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

Salem Public Library

Salem Public Library

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures.”  - Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri

The Wild Hunt covered this issue extensively last year when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against the library, at the time I explored the long, strange history of Internet filtering services and how many of them contain filters that remove minority and alternative religious viewpoints in deference to their (then) largely Christian user base.

“The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the“constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.” 

Any library that receives federal funds is obligated to install Internet filtering software under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). However, that filter is only supposed to block only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors.” Sadly, either through ignorance of what various filter groupings contain, or misplaced (and illegal) paternalism, some libraries “overblock” the Internet stymieing open information and free inquiry. This was exactly the scenario warned of by critics of CIPA, and other advocated of an open and free Internet.

shutterstock 41035354

“Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards.” - Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

This victory comes at a time when Pagan religions are emerging from their classification as “alternative,” or “occult” belief systems, as evidenced by the Book Industry Study Group’s decision to reclassify books on Wicca and modern Paganism as belonging in the Religion section rather than the Body, Mind, & Spirit (aka Occult) section (not to mention the fact that the University of Missouri lists the Wiccan Sabbats in it’s Guide to Religion). Still, even if Wicca and other faiths were unpopular, reviled, and relegated to non-religious categories, it would not change the fact that no belief system should be filtered by our government, under any circumstance. The adoption of Internet filters are supposed to protect children from pornography and harmful material, not keep adults from doing research. There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided.

My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their databases, and grudging to change. That many of the filtering companies who provide their software to libraries here also provide that same software to oppressive governments overseas is an irony that should not be lost on us. A first step towards greater freedoms is the destruction of the “occult” filter, an outdated and discriminatory filter created by the fearful. The decision handed down today in Missouri is a small step towards that goal.

Last month AlterNet published an essay by psychologist (and ex-evangelical Christian) Valerie Tarico that posits the Internet as an eroding force on “right-belief” organized religions. According to Tarico, the Internet destabilizes the “defenses that keep outside information away from insiders.”

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

“Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.”

For those of us who exist in faiths outside the dominant religious paradigms here in the West, this is the sort of message that appeals to our own growth narratives. The notion that free access to information will break the shackles oppressive, narrow-minded, faith communities  have placed on their adherents. However, Elizabeth Drescher at Religion Dispatches refutes this narrative, saying that the Internet hasn’t really done that much damage to communities with well-policed borders.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

Again and again, we see that the promise of ideological cross-pollination and the hope of more robust dialogue through social media participation has not widely been realized. A review of research on political engagement online by Jennifer Brundidge and Ronald E. Rice, for instance, suggests that access to diverse viewpoints and richer information on the internet tends primarily to benefit those of higher socioeconomic status, allowing deeper insight into the political Other without necessarily changing minds. Internet practice among those at lower socioeconomic levels, on the other hand, tends to reinforce like-mindedness. Further, the most religiously active Americans, according to a 2011 Pew study, are no less likely to use new technologies than are their un- or irreligious neighbors.”

As the near-constant stream of image-oriented memes on my Facebook feed tell me, we do a pretty good job of insulating ourselves from opinions we don’t like. We can always “hide” the posts of relatives and friends we don’t agree with, but don’t want to offend by actually un-friending. Drescher also points out that the explosive growth of “nones” mainly comes from the once-robust mainline (liberal) Christian churches that encourage their youth to explore other traditions and viewpoints.

“As I am regularly in the uncomfortable position of announcing to the members of my own declining denomination, progressive churches in many ways form their young people to leave their communities. Teens and young adults of all sorts may well be noodling around on the web encountering new religious ideas and practices. But it seems to be the case that progressive kids—kids whose parents would never for a minute consider taking them on vacation to a creationist theme park, or drill them in apologetic strategies with which to face down atheists—are more likely to be open to new religious perspectives and practices than are conservative young people.”

But what about Pagans? Has it helped us? The Pagan embrace of the Internet has been a much-studied aspect of our modern interconnected communities. Our reliance on social media sites, and the Internet, has become a common feature in many Pagan circles. I would argue that is has allowed us to evolve and grow at rates virtually impossible during the years of letter-writing and searching the bulletin boards of your local occult/New Age shop. It is a tool that is helping us become more visible, and organize in ways that would have been almost impossible 30 years ago.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

As for the “nones” I believe their rise, even if it’s at the expense of “liberal” forms of our dominant monotheisms, is ultimately a boon for our interconnect communities. The rise of “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” give us a safe space, a cultural buffer to grow and experiment in. It destabilizes the narrative of inevitable Christian power, and opens the door to minority faiths having a stronger voice in discussions around religious rights and moral issues that affect us all. It creates the opportunity to visualize a post-Christian culture.

“What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.”

So the question of whether the Internet will “harm” organized religion might be the wrong one. Perhaps the question should be is if the Internet empowers religions that were usually kept out of the cultural spotlight, and that it is this empowerment  that will ultimately “harm” religions that try to enforce a single cultural moral norm for everyone else.  But what do you think? Is the Internet a boon for Pagans? Does is harm organized religions directly, or does it simply re-create our current world in a virtual feed?

Internet auction house eBay recently released their Fall 2012 Seller Update, which, starting in September, prohibits the sale of divination services (including tarot readings), spells, tutoring services, and potions. The reason for this move, according to eBay, is to “build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers.”

“Transactions in these categories often result in issues between the buyer and seller that are difficult to resolve. To help build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers, eBay is discontinuing these categories and including the items on the list of prohibited items.”

In short, if you’re dissatisfied with the spell to give you a big butt, it’s hard to quantify if the “product” had been delivered, and what the proper expectations on booty enhancement magic is. Because of the (usually inadvertently) comical nature of many of the spells  being sold on eBay, long a source of easy snark on the Internet, sites like Mashable, The Mary SueJezebel, and even mainstream news outlets, have been having a bit of fun with the news.

“In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.”

It should be noted before we go any further that magical items, physical objects that have an attributable value, are not banned under this change. Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff told Tiffany Hsu at the Los Angeles Times that such items would be allowed in most cases.

“It’s important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases.”

Which means most of the products in the Wicca and Paganism section of eBay are safe, at least for now. A comfort, no doubt, to the many Pagan vendors and shop-owners who supplement their income by placing items on the site. However, the banning of spellwork, and especially tarot readings, should be explored with greater depth. Pagans in the community seems somewhat split over this move by eBay, some, like Patti Wigington, About.com’s Paganism & Wicca Guide, see this as a smart move by the company.

“…this isn’t a case of religious discrimination at all – it’s a case of a business realizing that customers are being made victims of fraud by unscrupulous sellers – and putting practices in place to prevent the problem from continuing. It does not say “No Wiccans, No Pagans, No Druids.” It says no magic, spells or potions, or prayers — that’s an entirely separate thing. Personally, I’m a little sad Ebay has done this, because it means fewer things for me to make fun of, but it’s definitely a smart business decision.”

Others, meanwhile, see this a chilling move that could start a domino effect, marginalizing tarot readers and magicians from mainstream commerce sites. Some have pointed out that PayPal is owned by eBay, and a similar shift in their policies to be more in line with up-and-coming companies like Square, could have a disastrous impact on small Pagan business that rely on divination services as an important part of their income (it should be noted that Google Checkout used to ban “occult goods,” but don’t anymore). Patheos blogger Kris Bradley, while acknowledging the rationale for this new prohibition, is worried that companies like Etsy might soon follow eBay’s lead.

“I admit I’m a bit torn on the subject.  While I see the possible beginning of the end for sellers on sites like this, I won’t be sad to see the sham “spell casters” go, and the end of taking advantage of desperate people with promises of something that can’t possibly be delivered.  As I sell products of a magical variety, I definitely don’t want to lose my Etsy shop.”

As a private business, eBay, and other online retailers are free to limit what product and services they’ll allow. That said, it is troubling that managing complaints and fraud resulted in a total ban of selling divination and magical work. Recent courtroom decisions have leaned towards defining divination, tarot readings, and other psychic services as protected speech, which could have actually helped push eBay away from trying to simply regulate it on their site. After all, who wants to be the ultimate arbiter of what sorts of speech are acceptable, and which kinds are not? Being in the business of selling speech and expression will always be volatile, and it looks like eBay wanted out, the question now is what the ramifications of this move will be for Internet commerce.

This year Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), a Midwest Pagan festival that’s been running for more than 30 years, broke attendance records, drawing over 1000 people to the week-long event. The West Coast Pagan convention PantheaCon, held each February in San Jose, California, has gotten so popular that they’ve introduced a new reservations system to prevent individuals from gaming the system. Pagan-friendly fantasy-oriented events like Faerieworlds are anticipating record-breaking numbers this Summer, and even brand-new Pagan events like Paganicon in Minnesota are growing at a healthy rate. It seems like Pagan festivals and conventions, at least in the United States, are doing great, but are the days of the large Pagan event that draws a national or even international audience numbered? That’s what Frater Barrabbas Tiresius at the Talking About Ritual Magick blog argues.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

“There are many factors that are shaping the future in which we will live and they will probably have a profound impact on Pagans and Wiccans being able to assemble in large groups, unless of course, those groups are local and sustainable in the long term [...] times are indeed changing and the need for such large gatherings may have achieved the upper limit in terms of both usefulness and sustainability. By usefulness I am saying that merely getting together for what would seem to be mostly a social gathering with sprinkling of some workshops, presentations, rituals, live music and the selling of obscure books and goods may not represent what is really needed or relevant for our growing population of practitioners and followers. By sustainability, I am thinking of the availability of resources to gather together in large regional or even international groups. Traveling by car or plane does impact the environment with pollutants and it also uses up precious resources, namely fossil fuels. These resources will probably become a lot more expensive in the decades ahead.”

In short, if I’m reading Frater Barrabbas’ argument correctly, the looming reality of peak oil, the effects of global warming, along with other factors, will eventually make the larger gatherings too expensive for anyone outside the immediate area to attend. That right now we are witnessing the upper limit of the Pagan festival phenomenon, one that might continue for several more years, but will eventually crumble. Is this prediction accurate? We are certainly seeing hotter summers each year, and scientists predict this will be the norm, with some areas seeing “the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat” in the next 20 years. Already, the record-breaking heatwaves being experienced in many parts of the United States are causing disruptions in all aspects of our transportation grid, a situation that could worsen as average summer temperatures increase. If long-range transportation becomes unreliable during the summer months, that would certainly keep many people close to home.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Environmental shifts changing the way we live our lives was recently discussed here at The Wild Hunt in a review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth.” Greer reminds us, and has been reminding us for years, that things will eventually change. That we cannot be forever insulated from the reality many parts of the world already face, resource shortages, and ever-inflating prices for the kind of travel we once took for granted. That we as Pagans, many of whom claim a special connection to the natural world, need to be ready to experience and live in this shift. This is echoed by Barrabbas, who advocates that Pagans start acting like those days are already here, and plan their events accordingly.

“As followers of earth-based spirituality, we should not only be aware of these facts, but actually embrace them and start planning and acting as if those times were already here.”

Barrabbas’ post is just the first in a series, one that I look forward to reading, especially his conclusions and recommendations, but I can take a few guesses of my own at where this line of thinking will go. Primarily, face-to-face Pagan events will become either regional or hyper-local affairs, and that national and international figures in the Pagan community will increasingly have to “attend” such events virtually. That “Pagan community” will increasingly lean on the powers of social networking to bind itself together. This reality is, in many respects, already here. Sociologist Helen A. Berger, in a revisitation of her Pagan Census project from the late 1990′s, noted that we are becoming increasingly solitary and eclectic, and that a majority of us already depend on the Internet as our main interaction with co-religionists and adherents of other Pagan faiths.

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

“Solitary practice and training outside of groups, most likely through books and the Internet, appears to be the future of the religion.”Helen A. Berger

Noted figures in our community, like T. Thorn Coyle, have already begun embracing a model that integrates virtual communication into their teaching. Producing a subscription web-series that students can use, including a private forum, giving access to Thorn and her teachings, without the need for her to travel constantly. The next step would seem to be virtual panels and virtual presentations at Pagan conventions and events that couldn’t afford to fly in a “big-name” Pagan. This would not only be “greener” but will ultimately be the only practical way to host such an event on a limited budget.

I think the age of the virtual and the hyper-local are upon us, and the quicker we accept that and learn to adapt, the better. Larger Pagan events can prepare now by investing in the infrastructure necessary to have a virtual component to all indoor events that used to welcome several noted teachers or religious leaders (projection screens, audio equipment, computers). We should set a goal so that in the next ten years, we will be ready for when these shifts in lifestyle become mandatory, rather than a lifestyle option. As Pagans, we can set an example for how to keep our communities close-knit and vibrant while dealing with the ramifications of our society’s choices. In a way, our heavy reliance on social networking, on virtual communication, to bind us together gives us a necessary head start. One we should exploit to make our events as environmentally sustainable as possible.

For more on this subject, stay tuned to the Talking About Ritual Magick blog, and I hope to revisit this topic after his series is completed, talking with some festival and convention organizers about what they think will be sustainable in the coming decades.

While my hosts here at Patheos.com aren’t participating in the SOPA/PIPA blackout initiative, I will refrain from posting news today until 8pm (PST), January 18th, in solidarity with this cause. Here’s some information on why.

What is SOPA?

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) is on the surface a bill that attempts to curb online piracy. Sadly, the proposed way it goes about doing this would devastate the online economy and the overall freedom of the web. It would particularly affect sites with heavy user generated content. Sites like Youtube, Reddit, Twitter, and others may cease to exist in their current form if this bill is passed.

What is PIPA?

The Protect IP Act (PIPA, S. 968) is SOPA’s twin in the Senate. Under current DMCA law, if a user uploads a copyrighted movie to sites like Youtube, the site isn’t held accountable so long as they provide a way to report user infringement. The user who uploaded the movie is held accountable for their actions, not the site. PIPA would change that – it would place the blame on the site itself, and would also provide a way for copyright holders to seize the site’s domain in extreme circumstances.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation laid out four excellent points as to why the bills are not only dangerous, but are also not effective for what they are trying to accomplish:

  • The blacklist bills are expensive. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that PIPA alone would cost the taxpayers at least $47 million over 5 years, and could cost the private sector many times more. Those costs would be carried mostly by the tech industry, hampering growth and innovation.
  • The blacklist bills silence legitimate speech. Rightsholders, ISPs, or the government could shut down sites with accusations of infringement, and without real due process.
  • The blacklist bills are bad for the architecture of the Internet. But don’t take our word for it: see the open letters that dozens of the Internet’s concerned creators have submitted to Congress about the impact the bills would have on the security of the web.
  • The blacklist bills won’t stop online piracy. The tools these bills would grant rightsholders are like chainsaws in an operating room: they do a lot of damage, and they aren’t very effective in the first place. The filtering methods might dissuade casual users, but they would be trivial for dedicated and technically savvy users to circumvent.

The Wild Hunt supports a free Internet, and so should you! More on this here, and here.

In 2002 Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, issued a report that warned of the troubling confluence between content-control software and conservative religious groups.

Willard voiced concerns that the relationships between companies providing web-filtering software to public institutions may be “inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias.” She went on to note that terms like “occult” or “cult” are “frequently applied to any non-traditional religions” and that it would be “unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”

Five years earlier, the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association, issued a resolution affirming that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights.”

However, today, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, mandates Internet filtering software on any library or K-12 school that receives federal funding. The mandate covers only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors,” but the seeming intersection of religion and content-control software continues to haunt public institutions as web-filtering has become an everyday part of our virtual society.

On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’” It’s alleged that Salem Public Library officials refused to change their filtering policies when challenged, and that the library directory Glenda Wofford intimated that “she had an obligation” to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites.

This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why an “occult” category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal. The company that provides filtering services to the Salem Public Library, Netsweeper, currently categorizes several prominent Pagan organization sites as “occult,” including Covenant of the Goddess (COG), Circle Sanctuary, and Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), while more mainstream faith sites are listed under “religion” or “general.”

Media critic and scholar Peg Aloi says she is troubled by the inclusion of Pagan sites in “occult” filters, “since this word is not even necessarily associated with Paganism, Wicca or earth-based spirituality.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, Ph.D., Director of Research, Teaching and Learning at American University Library notes that “whatever the initial intent of the law may have been, the software used to comply with CIPA censors numerous topics that have no bearing on protecting children and the way the software blocks access to information reflects a particular constellation of values. The real consequence is to undermine part of the necessary infrastructure in a democracy by denying citizens the requisite tools to inform themselves through free inquiry.”

The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the “constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.

What is clear is that leaders and clergy within the modern Pagan movement believe that their sites should be readily available when accessing the Internet, and that blocking “occult” sites oversteps the mandate of CIPA and infringes on the Establishment Clause by favoring one religious expression over another.

In a statement, Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of the ADF, said that “only by free access to knowledge can everyone participate in the marketplace of ideas, guaranteeing true freedom for everyone,” while Selena Fox, speaking for Circle Sanctuary, said that they are disappointed in Salem Public Library’s “unwillingness to provide free and equal access to websites containing information on religions such as Wicca, Paganism, Native American traditional ways, and other paths that honor Nature.”

Rachael Watcher, one of the National Public Information Officers for Covenant of the Goddess, a 501c3 organization recognized as such by the United States government for 36 years, added that “the distinction between the labels ‘religious’ and ‘occult’ is an arbitrary one,” and that “one person’s religious group is another person’s occult group.”

It seems clear that no public library should be blocking access to minority religions, as Sylvia Linton, a librarian by profession and a Circle Sanctuary Community member said to me via email: “In this country, with our guarantees of freedom of religion and of speech, librarians respect the diversity of their patrons and allow them access to information without regard to the personal beliefs of the library staff.”

In addition, instances of “overblocking” by web filtering software here at home raise troubling inherent questions of how this technology is used by countries that don’t share our commitment to free speech or access to information. “Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards,” stated Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

“As a growing compendium of evidence documents, technologies developed by U.S. companies and deployed throughout the country are the same ones being used in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea — Salem would be wise to distance itself from practices that lump them in with some of the worst human rights violators around the globe.”

The option of an “occult” filter in content-control software should be of great concern to all who value religious liberty. The boundaries of what can be labeled “occult” or “cult” are so porous that it can include everything from information on Yoga to your daily horoscope.

The journalist and author Tom Wolfe once opined that “a cult is a religion with no political power,” an opinion that seems reinforced by the sites blocked by the Salem Public Library. Occult, when used as a term in the realm of Internet filtering, is a religious and cultural value judgment that in no way protects minors from obscene or indecent material within the context of CIPA.

There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. One can only hope that this case goes beyond merely changing policy at Salem Public Library and instead institutes a precedent that changes the filtering industry, removing biased categories that have little purpose in a free society.

Links to full statements gathered for this story: