Archives For journalism

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.

Coilhouse Issue #6

Coilhouse Issue #6

  • Excellent alternative culture magazine and blog Coilhouse is shutting down, though the creators are promising that this is a mere hiatus and that Coilhouse will return in some form in the future. Quote: “We can’t tell you what exactly is coming next, or when; we just know we have no intention of quitting. Potential directions that Coilhouse may move in somewhere down the line: books, apps, limited edition print/art objects, video, fashion collaborations. Smaller, more manageable one-shot projects that don’t break our backs. But first, we will have to re-strategize our business and production plans. Nothing is set in stone at the moment because, simply put, we need a break. We need to rest.” For now, they’ve made the six print issues of Coilhouse magazine available as free PDF downloads, a token of affection to fans and supporters. I highly recommend checking them out. 
  • Is the famous Celtic warrior-queen Boudicca buried beneath a McDonalds restaurant? It is rumored to be so. Quote: “Dr Mike Heyworth, the director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), said that experts are on the hunt for her burial place, at one point rumoured to be near what is now a McDonald’s restaurant in Birmingham, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she was unearthed in the next few years. There are contradictory but persistent tales (with “no element of truth”, according to the Museum of London) that she lies beneath either platform eight, nine or 10 at King’s Cross Station.” The big question is: what happens to her resting place once the bones are found? 
  • No, Easter was not originally the celebration of Ishtar. Let’s all be more critical of Facebook image memes, OK? 
  • At the Huffington Post Grove Harris discusses composting as a Springtime spiritual exercise. Quote: “Composting is in many ways one of the most spiritual of practices. It is the process that will feed the next cycle of life, which will take endings and serve new beginnings. It is powerfully renewing on many levels, and offers deep metaphoric guidance.”
  • Enforced celibacy doesn’t really work all that often, no matter what the religion/ideology is. The country of Bhutan is distributing condoms to Buddhist monasteries to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Quote: “Warning signs of risky behavior among monks first appeared in 2009, when a report on risks and vulnerabilities of adolescents revealed that monks were engaging in “thigh sex” (in which a man uses another man’s clenched thighs for intercourse), according to the state-owned Kuensel daily.” So remember, use protection, make it available, no matter what the official rules are. 
The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León.

The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León.

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

We just a have a few quick (Pagan) news notes for you today, enjoy!

Sarah Pike on Studying Religion, Paganism, and Spiritual Festivals: The always-excellent Religion in American History blog interviews religion scholar Sarah Pike, perhaps best known to modern Pagans as the author of “Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community” and “New Age and Neopagan Religions in America.” In a fascinating interview, Pike talks about how she got into studying religion, the “internal revolutions” of young people, and the current state of Paganism in the mainstream media (among other things).

Sarah Pike

Sarah Pike

In a chapter I wrote recently on “Wicca in the News” about changing representations of Witches in American news media since the 1960s (Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, 2012), I argue that reporters today rarely depict Witches as evil or satanic, even though stereotypes from the 1960s and 1970s of sexy young female Witches or cuddly cookie-baking elderly Witches-next-door still remain. In the past 25 years since I entered my first occult shop and started asking questions, the boundaries between categories like religion and magic and the differences between “folk,” “popular,” and “institutional” religion are treated with more nuance. And scholars of American religions are more likely to take traditions like Wicca seriously than they did when I was a graduate student, because Neopaganism has become firmly established across North America and formally recognized in government branches and institutions such as the military and prisons.”

The whole thing is worth a read, I’m particularly intrigued by her upcoming focus on “the lineage of twenty-first century spiritual festivals,” which seems to intersect with recent work on “transformational” festival culture.

James Arthur Ray Still Trying to Evade Responsibility: “Secret”-peddler and New Age guru James Arthur Ray, currently in prison after being convicted of negligent homicide in three 2009 sweat-lodge ceremony deaths, is still in the process of trying to get that conviction overturned despite asking the families for forgiveness and saying that “I’m disappointed in myself and I don’t have any excuses.”

James Arthur Ray

James Arthur Ray

“Attorneys for a self-help author imprisoned in the deaths of three people say the prosecution has done little to show the case wasn’t plagued by error. James Arthur Ray wants his conviction on three counts of negligent homicide and his 2-year prison sentenced overturned. His attorneys have called into question some jury instructions and the conduct of prosecutors from Yavapai County in briefings to the Arizona Court of Appeals. [...] In a cross-appeal, the attorney general’s office says jurors should have been told that Ray had a duty to aid participants in distress and to avoid creating a situation that put them at unreasonable risk of harm.”

If Ray were truly the spiritual visionary he claims to be, he would bear the paltry sentence given him (just over two years for three deaths) and work to re-build himself once free.  Reaching out to the families he’s harmed, and speaking out on the dangers of appropriating cultures one doesn’t understand. The reverberations from this case are still being felt, and it remains to be seen if the right lessons have been learned. We’ll keep you posted on his appeal.

Orion Foxwood Heads to Paganicon, Talks About His Personal Journey: Spiritual teacher, conjurer, and seer Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” and “The Faery Teachings” is headed to Paganicon in Minnesota this week, and PNC-Minnesota interviews him before the event.

Orion Foxwood (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Orion Foxwood (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

 ”I have three major streams I work with. There is my Pagan witchcraft, Faery Seership, and Southern conjure. The Faery Seership grew along a parallel path with my craft work. I was influenced in a major way by R.J. Stewart in my Faery work, and through his work attained a contact in the spirit world named Brigh.  Brigh and I have continued to develop that work over the years. I teach much of that, it is more of an integrated, co-created practice working with the more invisible side of nature. All three streams of practices really come together with their own unique insights. They all have a way of speaking as to how my soul has grown; spiritually, magically, and mystically. They all support my work in the world, and within myself. They give me a broader set of language to often say the same things. It makes it easier to reach many kinds of “ears”, including people with different types of spirit work.”

The entire interview is interesting reading if you’re unfamiliar with Orion’s background and practice. I’m hoping to hear a lot more from Paganicon this weekend, where Orion Foxwood will be joined by Brandy Williams, author of “The Woman Magician: Revisioning Western Metaphysics from a Woman’s Perspective and Experience” as featured guests.

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

Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. [...] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.

you-mad-bro-

“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.

Today I’ll be away with the Faeries in Seattle (along with T. Thorn Coyle, Raven Grimassi, Stephanie Taylor- Grimassi, Lupa, and several other Pagan-friendly folk) but I didn’t want to leave you empty handed in my absence! So, since I’m at a convention, it seems appropriate that I share a panel from the convention I just participated in last weekend. So here’s a panel discussion from PantheaCon 2013 entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner, and featuring Eric Colon (a Mayombero and Santero), Mike Aldax (crime reporter for the San Francisco Examiner), Nagasiva Yronwode (a Satanist), and myself.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013. Photo: Greg Harder

“Most reporters aren’t experts in Paganism, Satanism, or African Diaspora faiths. When these topics come up, especially in connection with violent crime, news articles often suggest that these religions are violent. In this panel, experts from a variety of faiths will discuss how their beliefs have been misrepresented or sensationalized, a local crime reporter will share how he does his job, and we’ll come up with strategies for Pagans and the press to work together.”

I think it’s a thought-provoking a useful panel, especially considering recent events in the mainstream media. I don’t have a transcript of the talk yet, but I’m looking into seeing how quickly I can have one made. In the meantime, feel free to download it and listen at your convenience.

That’s all I have for now, I hope to bring you more material from PantheaCon 2013 soon, and some images and interviews from this weekend’s FaerieCon West. Have a great day!

As Heather Greene reported yesterday here at The Wild Hunt, the Pagan community has been reacting to inflammatory and offensive statements made by Fox News and Fox & Friends Weekend personalities regarding the University of Missouri adding the eight Wiccan Sabbats to its “Guide to Religion.”

Since then, the response from Wiccans and other modern Pagans on social media sites like Facebook have been heavy and sustained. More than 25,000 individuals have signed a Causes petition demanding an apology, and over 4000 have signed a Change.org petition demanding the same.

“Fox and Friends on February 17, 2013 decided to belittle women, make fun of a Federally recognized religion, present inaccurate information as “facts” concerning the religion of Wicca, and decide that religious freedom and respect is ONLY for the mainstream or “traditional” religions rather than for EVERY American Citizen regardless of their spirituality. [...] They are also doing a lot of damage control by removing this video from the public record due to the backlash it is receiving but I, and many others in the Pagan community will not allow them to hide their bigotry and pretend it didn’t happen.”

In addition, Pagan and Wiccan advocacy organizations have been stepping forward to make statements on the coverage, starting with the Lady Liberty League.

“The Lady Liberty League denounces the ignorant and unprofessional statements made by Fox News commentators this weekend.  The statements, made by Fox personalities including Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce were in regards to the University of Missouri’s 2011 decision to include Wiccan and other holidays, along with the holidays of other many other faiths, in that university’s “Guide to Religion.”

We are deeply disappointed that Fox’s leadership would chose to allow such ill-informed statements on the air.  The commentary of the Fox News personalities over the weekend betrayed not only deep ignorance about Paganism and Wicca but also a fundamental distain for the nature of religious diversity in the United States and the establishment clause in the US constitution.”

This was quickly followed by a statement from the Covenant of the Goddess.

“In the case of Fox News, the Fox & Friends Weekend commentators, Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce, spent Sunday morning, February 17th, mocking Wicca as it relates to the University of Missouri’s “Guide to Religion.” Not only were their comments irreverent, they were factually incorrect. They turned the University’s sincere attempt at diversity awareness into a three-ring circus act.

The Covenant of the Goddess recognizes and respects the opinions and beliefs of all people, of faith or no faith.  We applaud the University of Missouri and any other organization that strives for community awareness and interfaith peace.  We do not expect special treatment for Wiccans or Witches on campus or otherwise. However, we do expect the national media to report with reasonable accuracy and to offer a modicum of respect to people of all faiths and all practices.”

In addition, COG also sent a letter to the University of Missouri thanking them for their inclusivity.

Of course, it wasn’t only Pagans who were pointing out the bizarre and distorted coverage of this issue, NewsHounds (a Fox News watchdog site) said that the network’s “hypocrisy is truly astounding” while The Raw Story recounted the espeically inflammatory statements of commentator Tucker Carlson.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

“Except any religion whose most sacred day is Halloween, I just can’t take seriously,” Carlson added. “I mean, call me a bigot. And I’m not, you know, not offering an editorial against Wiccanism.” Carlson later added that every Wiccan was either a “compulsive Dungeons & Dragons player or is a middle-aged, twice-divorced older woman living in a rural area who works as a midwife.”

These led the site Opposing Views to simply state: “Tucker Carlson Really Hates Wiccans.” That’s actually not that unfair of an assessment, Carlson has a long history of insulting and baiting Wiccans on his various television programs. In the past he’s called Wicca “Satanic,” and given airtime to Christian criticisms of Wicca and modern Paganism without airing any competing viewpoint. It’s a well he returns to because he knows it will excite the conservative Christian viewers of his programs, and garner him a bit of attention when progressive (and Pagan) sites call him out for it.

This weekend at PantheaCon I was honored to participate in a panel entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner (audio and hopefully video coming soon). During the panel, I noted that coverage of Wiccans has largely evolved from fear and intimations of “dark” practices hidden from view to seeing us a jokes, and that this evolution should be seen as part of how effective Wiccans and Witches have been at changing the narrative. Even those who want to sensationalize and attack us largely admit we aren’t evil, that we are, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless.” The challenge now is correcting the record when these distortions appear, and working towards making Pagan media an ever-more vibrant and responsive tool for influencing the mainstream narratives of our religions.

ADDENDUM: Tucker Carlson has apologized on Twitter.

This past Friday I linked to a story, and subsequent follow-ups, concerning a Santa Muerte statue placed in a cemetery in San Benito, Texas. The San Benito News went to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, whom they called a “renowned expert on the occult,” for context and he said that the statue was “probably a spell to harm or kill someone.”  This prompted a response from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” who said that there was no evidence that this statue was placed there to harm or kill anyone. Ultimately, someone went and destroyed the statue before authorities could remove it, and I dinged the reporters for going with the “death spell” angle without seeking alternate perspectives. 

Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

All that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

“I think there’s a lesson here, primarily for the journalists who went with the “death spell” angle without finding a second opinion.”

Since then, San Benito News Managing Editor Michael Rodriguez has publicly and privately defended his paper’s coverage, sending The Wild Hunt (and I assume others) an explanation for why they only got one source, and why he trusted Dr. Zavaleta’s input. Quote: “If there are those who would discredit Dr. Zavaleta’s conclusions based on his religious practice, then by the same token I should dismiss their remarks as biased [...] the original article was not an attempt to spark an argument about religious freedoms but merely to present the concerns of a community, the actions of a city administration in response to such concerns, and the opinion of a doctor/professor/published author with expertise in this field.”

The paper then went on to do the right thing (in my opinion) and interview both Dr. Zavaleta and Dr. Chesnut about the statue, its purpose, and how it should have been dealt with.

Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.

Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.”

At this point I’d like to add a few things, first, I’d like to commend Michael Rodriguez for actually being responsive and communicating with me privately, and for posting an explanation/defense of his paper’s reporting. I don’t necessarily agree with his reasoning, or his conclusions, but I admire the fact that he took our concerns seriously enough to respond. Most papers don’t bother, and being accountable to your audience is good journalism. Secondly, I’d like to talk briefly about Dr. Zavaleta and “renowned” occult experts.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Zavaleta is well-educated, nor do I doubt that he’s made a study of Brujeria. Let’s accept that right off that bat. However, when I read that someone is a “renowned expert on the occult” and that he has, quote, “aided authorities from all over the country in identifying and understanding ritualistic crimes,” alarm bells go off. First off, most “occult experts” aren’t actually experts in all forms of the occult (a broad term indeed), and many of them have a religio-political agenda. Our community (and many of our allies) have had years of trouble from “occult experts” who misrepresent occult beliefs, and Pagan faiths, viewing everything through a single lens of interpretation. Often, this lens will be informed by a conservative Christian worldview, and driven by a sensationalist idea of what “magic” and “ritual” are. One “occult expert” helped put three innocent teenagers in prison for nearly twenty years.

Finally, Dr. Zavaleta wasn’t simply acting as a scholar, offering conjecture based on his research. He made assertions that came from his role as an “occult expert” and that should have set off red flags for any journalist covering minority religions in America, especially minority religions that utilize magic.

“Someone, a man or woman, is doing witchcraft for pay,” Zavaleta said. “Somebody has paid the witch; they don’t do it for free and it (witchcraft) could easily go for a couple thousand dollars. So it definitely needs to be removed. The city should remove it, and that should be the end of it.” Actually, Zavaleta said the best course of action may even be to burn the sculpture.

Scholars don’t tell you to burn a sculpture, they don’t make definitive statements about the origin of the statue without verifying it. “Occult experts” with agendas do that. This is why I think the initial story needed more than one perspective, and why I’m glad they went and published a follow-up.

The Wild Hunt is partially an exercise in advocacy journalism. I make no bones about the fact that I have a pro-Pagan point of view, but papers that want to service an entire town, or city, can’t afford such a bias. This time, the assertions about “death spells” led someone to smash the Santa Muerte statue instead of letting the authorities deal with it, but next time it could lead to something worse. It could lead to accusations towards a community member, it could lead to mistrust and fear, and it could lead to the wrong people getting accused of a crime. So I hope the next time something ritualistic, something outside the ordinary happens, local journalists reach further afield for everyone’s sake.

ADDENDUM: Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut weighs in on this story at The Huffington Post. Quote: “Given the depiction of the folk saint by the media, at times reinforced by my fellow academics, it is not surprising that the presence of her Grim Reapress image in the cemetery quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. For those in San Benito who already viewed the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) as malevolent the unsubstantiated allegation of murderous sorcery made by a well-known anthropologist in the region simply reinforced their opinion and apparently emboldened at least one to deliver a mortal blow to Saint Death in the graveyard.”

Yesterday I laid out the initial 2011 British Census religion numbers, which showed a big jump in Pagan numbers from 2001, which of course means that the British press wants to talk about the Jedi.

Jedi knight Obe Wan Kenob 007

“I was also very good in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’”

“The new figures reveal that the lightsabre-wielding disciples are only behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism in the popularity stakes, excluding non-religious people and people who did not answer. Following a nationwide campaign, Jedi made it onto the 2001 census, with 390,127 people identifying themselves a decade ago as followers of the fictional Star Wars creed. Although the number of Jedis has dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past 10 years, they are still the most selected “alternative” faith on the Census, and constitute 0.31% of all people’s stated religious affiliation in England and Wales.”

The Huffington Post’s UK branch also couldn’t resist leading with the Jedi.

“The Sith Lord has been hard at work in England and Wales since the rise of the Jedis in 2001, with the Jedi population declining by more than half in the last decade.”

Also a popular topic of conversation: Metal Hammer’s campaign to get people to list “Heavy Metal” as their religion, which over 6000 people did.

biff

“A further 65 people declared their religion as “heavy metal” – making Norwich the heavy metal religion hotspot of England and Wales.”

Metal Hammer would go on to brag that “it turns out that more people put Heavy Metal down as their religion of choice than Scientology, Druidism, Shamanism, and a shit-ton of others we haven’t heard of.” 

As much as I sympathize with newspaper editors who know that leading with “data on religion reveals Jedi Knights are in decline” is Google page-views gold I believe there’s some serious religion-beat malpractice going on here. While I have absolutely no doubt that there are sincere believers in a faith based around the Star Wars Jedi mythos, everyone also knows that this census phenomenon, like the Metal Hammer campaign, is something of a laugh for most, a fandom-generated prank on the governments who ask questions about religion on their census. So when a reporter says that Jedi “are still the largest “other religion” by far named by participants in the 2011 census” there needs to be a giant asterisk next to that statement. Otherwise, you are playing into the prank, and burying the actual “other religions” lede, which is that modern Pagan faiths have grown, and that they are, in fact (and still), the 7th largest faith grouping in the UK behind Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

Indeed, modern Paganism has not only held on to 7th place (if you disqualify Jediism), but has grown considerably in the official census count, and will no doubt gain in numbers when the results for Scotland and Northern Ireland are released. If you lump the Pagan faiths together, you’re around, or over, 80,000 adherents (depending on who you include or don’t include). This is significant because Pagan faiths in the UK are still waging battles for equal treatment, and organizations like the Pagan Federation are still working on getting charity status. If the headlines had all read: Paganism growing, remains 7th largest faith, it could have had a positive effect on our treatment. It could have given Pagan leaders in the UK a new moment to establish themselves as an integral part of British society.

As for the declining Jedi, it wasn’t the Sith, it was the atheists and humanists, who launched a campaign to increase the number of people who checked “no religion,” and it seems to have worked.

sctrfigure1 tcm77 290493

“The British Humanist Association spoke of a “significant cultural shift” in a society where “[r]eligious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline… and non-religious identities are on the rise”. The number of people with no religion at all  in the UK has doubled since 2001.”

So here’s hoping for some better coverage of all the “other religions” in Britain in the weeks ahead, and maybe some better attention paid to the growth of Pagan faiths, and if these numbers are (still) only a fraction of our true presence in the UK.

Before we start today’s post I’d like to wish safety, security, and good health to all those in path of the Hurricane Sandy. If you’re a reader of The Wild Hunt, please check in at the comments and let us know you’re OK.

Now then, Samhain. Or should I say Halloween? Because while the two holidays are distinct, their connections and associations have reporters heading out to find some real-live Witches and Pagans to interview each October. While it’s not as bad as in times past, there’s still a flood of stories each year; some good, some bad, and some that just make you scratch your head. So here’s some selections from the Samhain Silly Season.

  • Every Halloween has to have a story from Salem, home to so many real-live Witches, and this year is no different. However, this year the East Coast is contending with Hurricane Sandy, so we get a “how’s the Halloween tourist industry doing in the inclement weather” story. Quote: “To me, the entire season this year has seemed a little quiet,” said Lynn Lazdowski, co-owner of Bewitched in Salem. “I don’t know if it’s the economy; gas prices are still high, after all. So for me, evaluating the crowds today are a tough call – it does seem down from previous years, but I don’t know what to attribute that to.”
  • What do you do when you’re a Christian media outlet but you want to have a Witch-themed story in time for Halloween? Interview a Christian ex-Witch of course! Christian Today Australia interviews S.A. (Seleah Ally) Tower (who I’ve reported on before) about this dangerous, dangerous holiday. Quote: “Putting on a costume is like temporarily putting on the persona of the costume so I would suggest using discernment in the costume choice. I would certainly not encourage a witch or sorcerer costume, but I don’t think a parent should overreact to a child’s choice of one either. It can be a great learning experience and help the child make another choice on their own.”
  • However, Henry Brinton a pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, writing for USA Today, says that Christians shouldn’t fear Samhain (or Halloween). Quote: “…the ancient Celts were right to focus on “summer’s end.” Halloween is about the transition from summer to winter, from life to death. Even young children are beginning to wonder about mortality, so what is the harm in having them dress up as ghosts or skeletons? As Christians, we believe that God is with us in both life and in death. Bioethicist George Annas says America has a “death-denying culture that cannot accept death as anything but defeat.” This attitude makes it hard for us to prepare for death. But Halloween reminds us that we all must die.”
  • Canadian paper The Province interviews Witch Sarah Lawless about Samhain and Halloween. Quote: “The biggest pagan celebration of the year is Oct. 31. Most people know it as Halloween. “This is the one time of year when magic is acceptable. It’s okay to be a pagan,” says Sarah Lawless, 28, a Maple Ridge native who got into paganism 10 years ago as a way of celebrating the natural world. She says it’s fun being scared, but most of the time there’s no reason to be.”
  • Meanwhile, in Poland, the growing popularity of Halloween has got Archbishop Andzej Dzięga very, very concerned! Quote: “It is with growing sadness that we see in the last few years a trend of so-called Halloween celebrations growing in Poland. I am particularly concerned about such initiatives [being introduced] in school, where only mature attitudes should shape the social, intellectual and spiritual growth of the younger generation,” writes the archbishop [...] Halloween is also the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death” he claims.” Sorry Archbishop, but when you get rid of totalitarian government, you have to deal with the messiness of actual freedom.

That’s just a selection, there’s more, of course. A Witches Ball in Toledo, Unitarians considering the thinning of the veil, eclectic Pagans in Framingham, speaking with the spirits in Salem, and all the occult origins reporters can dig up on short notice. Why not share your favorite Samhain-themed stories in the comments, I have no doubt there’s plenty I’m missing.

Every single Pagan organization that aspires to serve its chosen community, whether that community is local, regional, national, or even international, needs someone who will interact with the press (and social media). If you don’t, or if it’s seen as an odious task that’s always last on the list, or it it takes months to craft a statement, you become as good as mute to the very people you wish to serve. Your organization defaults to letting other people shape the discourse on issues that your community may have strong opinions about.  If you look at any well-organized religious organization, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, one thing that becomes obviously very quickly is that they are constantly framing discussions that concern them for their audience.

Everything on the site is an effort to define themselves to visitors so that others have a harder time defining them in ways they can’t control (or don’t like).  Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has noted time and time again that groups who don’t take time to frame themselves, have it done for them.

“It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. [...]  ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act. [...] In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.”

Let’s repeat that: “Framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.” So it is more than vital for Pagan organizations of all kinds to be increasingly media savvy, and to always frame their actions (and reactions) with a mind towards how it will shape perceptions. We must be ever-responsive to media narratives that sow confusion or misinformation about our faiths, because you never know which story will “stick” and be the one that inadvertently shapes how other people perceive our moral universe. For example, the recent story of infamous child-murderer Charles Jaynes asking to change his name to Manasseh-Invictus Auric Thutmose V because he claims to be a Wiccan now.

“Court documents show that child murderer Charles Jaynes wants to go by the name Manasseh-Invictus Auric Thutmose V. Jaynes is serving a life sentence for the 1997 kidnapping, molestation and murder of Jeffrey Curley. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2021. [...] A filing with the Plymouth division of the Probate and Family Court Department says Jaynes is seeking the change due to his Wiccan beliefs. Wicca is a religion that incorporates the practice of witchcraft.”

That story is currently the number two result when you search Google News for “Wicca” (thankfully the #1 result is a positive piece in the New York Times). Heading into Pagan Pride season, when many Pagans are getting interviewed by the media, it’s very possible that Pagans might be asked about this, and they’ll need to have a good answer. Off-the-cuff responses can sometimes be disastrous, which is where Pagan and Wiccan groups can step up and begin framing the response should this become more than an isolated blip. Obviously we shouldn’t try to interject ourselves into the actual debate, which is fraught with deep emotional pain, but we can offer good information about what Wicca is and isn’t, and what our morals are. For example, if asked, a Pagan representative could say:

“Many Wiccans do decide to adopt a new name to reflect their changed outlook on life, a phenomenon often found in many adult conversions to a wide variety of religious traditions. Wicca abhors the kind of crimes committed by Mr. Jaynes, as many of us believe in an ethic of reciprocity that places harming none central to our lives. We pray for the families hurt in this terrible tragedy, and hope that Mr. Jaynes has truly embraced a philosophy of empathy and non-violence.” 

Or some variant thereof, whatever works best theologically and culturally for the organization or group presented with such a scenario. Another tactic is to pivot away from controversy towards a recent positive development that better reflects what your group/religion/movement is about. If asked about the above name-change story, one could give a shorter variant of my answer above, but then pivot to a still-emerging story about how a Wiccan group in Arkansas won a grant from Home Depot to repair the homes of elderly and aging individuals in their community.

“It’s tragic that so much sorrow and pain has been caused by this situation, as Wicca is a religion devoted to healing, communing with the natural world, and being of service to our communities. An excellent example is The Southern Delta Church of Wicca winning a grant from Home Depot to repair the homes of the elderly in their community. That’s the kind of world our faith tradition is trying to build, one where we are accountable to our neighbors and work to improve the lives of those around us.”

Again, with changes depending on who’s saying it, and in what context.

No matter what the tone or tenor of the news, good or bad, a responsive organization will work to frame both for their members, and for any who come to their site seeking more information. It’s a lot of work, but necessary work if you want to help shape how our faiths are experienced by outsiders and the media. You can’t let anyone else do that work for you, even if they are supportive of your goals. No matter how much you may like The Wild Hunt, never let me or any other media outlet have the only say into a project or action that you’re involved with. A positive article is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one, and you’ll want to make sure that people understand exactly what your stance is in case important details are omitted. At the very least, you’ll want to post regular updates for those introduced to you by media attention.

Before I end this post, one more example: I recently reported on what a bad idea it is for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to participate in what is a de facto religious test held by Christian mega-church pastor Rick Warren. Shortly after several media outlets started discussing the issue, Obama campaign officials announced that they weren’t going to participate. This left a lot of egg on Warren’s face since he’d told reporters that both campaigns had already signed off on participating (never say something is going to happen unless you know it’s going to happen), so to re-frame this blow to his stature as a moral heavyweight, he’s taking the high-road and claiming the event is cancelled due to all the mud-slinging the campaigns are engaging in.

“In his announcement, Warren said the campaign’s current climate, highlighted by “irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads,” is not what a civil forum aims to promote: respect between those with differences. He said he does not expect that climate of incivility to change before the election. ”It would be hypocritical to pretend civility for one evening only to have the name-calling return the next day,” he said.”

So Warren gets to flounce out of his dilemma with a Shakespearean “plague on both your houses,” shifting the blame onto the nasty campaigns instead of the fact that Warren may not be trustworthy, and both candidates wanted to avoid being caught in a “gotcha” moment by a pastor with his own agenda. Warren understood that he had to frame the collapse of his event in a way that bolstered his image instead of tarnishing it. Hopefully no Wiccan or Pagan organization will be in a situation as embarrassing, but all the same a useful example of how to use media narratives to define your “brand” to the wider public. So make sure you have a media person, that you understand social media, that you’re constantly updating your site and satellite  pages on social networking hubs, and that you understand the power of framing the news (both good and bad) in furthering your goals and message.

For the past few days I’ve been considering how best to cover a controversy within a local Pagan community. This situation, I felt, did and does have repercussions for our movement as a whole, and has drawn opinions from national figures on what the best response would be. However, every time I’ve started to write the piece, I have hesitated. There is news here, but I also know that by holding up my magnifying glass to it I could inflame and re-litigate a situation that seems to have come to some sort of uneasy resolution. There is the very real possibility that my reporting, instead of adding more light, would just add more heat.

A journalism word cloud.

If I’m being honest, concerns of this nature have not stopped me in the past, though I have always held on to certain personal thresholds that must be met before I gave a local or internal matter a national/international platform.  Generally that threshold was when the parties involved in a local story, or an internal matter, made it public of their own accord, or involved figures within the Pagan movement who are known as teachers or leaders beyond their local stomping grounds. Today, however, almost everything is in the public eye, almost every local group has a Facebook page or official blog that can be read by anyone who cares to pay attention. Our movement, which once so valued its secrecy, has become transparent to an amazing degree in the last ten years. This has caused a number of smaller controversies to erupt on a larger scale, but it has also gained us better communication, more accountability, and more ecumenicism within the Pagan world.

While The Wild Hunt is today just one Pagan blog among thousands, it is still one of the very few that focuses almost exclusively on reporting community-driven news, and as such has been given a weight, and a responsibility, that makes me question the value and role of every post I write. I constantly ask myself what the effects of my media megaphone will have on a situation, and tried to error on the side of caution, but I know that not everyone has been happy with the way I’ve written or reported on every situation. An internal balance is struck on a regular basis between the needs of our movement, the needs of local communities, and what I believe the role of a movement journalist is.

Movement journalism, or advocacy journalism, is not unbiased. I’ve said time and time again that this outlet has a “pro-Pagan” slant and is unembarrassed about that fact. I know that this choice often eliminates me from the milieu of ”mainstream” journalism, but I also feel that mainstream journalism has its own shortcomings, especially when it comes to reporting on minority religions. A movement journalist gives its community what he or she feels we need to collectively know, and does so from an internal position, one that helps shape narratives that may later be picked up by mainstream reporters. We often act as filters, giving outsiders a curated glimpse into the achievements, and yes, controversies, of our communities. We don’t ignore bad news, or embarrassing situations, as longtime readers of this blog will attest, but we are mindful of how we present that information.

I have seen members of our community act differently when they knew The Wild Hunt was paying attention, giving more attention to producing official statements and press releases, preparing themselves for closer scrutiny. Often I try to reach out to, and work with, leaders and activists to prepare them for the sudden influx of attention. Indeed, I am regularly contacted by small groups who want me to profile their situation, hoping that I will drive support towards their initiatives or problems. Sadly, some have also seen my blog as a way to score points against, or promote gossip about, one figure or another. My relative centrality in the world of Pagan news means that many have tried to manipulate my coverage for their own ends. These, I believe, are all normal challenges to any movement journalist. Since we are a part of the thing we report on, we will always be pushed and pulled by those who interpret our responsibilities differently.

Over the years I have refused to write about a situation, even though I knew it would garner “hits” and page-views for my blog. Situations where I felt that drawing more attention would not improve our community in any way, or call some sector of our movement into account. I feel that all Pagan journalists need to remain ever mindful of the power they possess, and how each story they write about will reverberate beyond the story. We will each have to decide what our ethical pole-star is, as there is no Pagan journalism “pope” (thank goodness), but I hope each of us will wrestle with what is the most responsible way forward in every story we write. As someone who is trying to grow journalism within modern Paganism, I hope that we each see this role as a sacred trust that is used to strengthen and hold each other accountable, and that when we falter we are willing to own that failure and move forward in integrity.

As for the story I’m currently not writing about, I still don’t know if I’ll write about it, or how I’ll write about it if I choose to. I think it needs more time out of my spotlight so I can see how best to use my voice in a way that is helpful to all involved. I hope that all of us remain mindful of our power, and know that sometimes what we don’t write about can sometimes be as important as what we do write about. I hope all of us make decisions every day that are mindful of how we can grow and improve.

My blessings to all of you.