Archives For Lee Gilmore

[Crystal Blanton is one of our talented monthly columnists. She writes the Culture and Community column, focusing on a number of very vital community topics, like the one below. If you like reading her work, please consider donating to our fall funding campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. There are only 9 days left! It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Crystal to be part of our writing team. Donate today! Thank you so very much.]

The Parliament of World’s Religion was held on American soil for the first time in 22 years. Held in Salt Lake City, Utah, thousands descended on the mountain filled desert in search of interfaith dialogue, multi-faith exploration and the opportunity to teach others about their religion.

[Photo Credit: C. Blanton]

One of the major themes this year was violence, hate speech and other issues that specifically impact women; all of which are important and need to be addressed around the world. It is also customary for the Parliament to host forums addressing some of the current issues that plague the local land of that year’s host country. To the surprise of many guests, the issues of the brutality and militarization of police, systemic racism and the killing of Black and brown peoples at disproportionate rates were not given focus as one of the prominent issues within the United States today. As one of the leading causes of violence and hate perpetuated in this country, it appeared to be treated as a minor issue or not an issue at all in the landscape of this year’s Parliament.

Of the many workshops held over the 5 days, only two workshops clearly focused on the plight of Black people in this country. One of those workshops was a “Moral Monday” sermon, and another that was a panel held on Sunday night at 5:15 pm. 

This panel had three Christian ministers who have been involved in the movement for Black lives and racial justice. The three included: Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Francis Davis. They referenced the horrible statistics of Black people killed by some form of law enforcement, and the rise in Black liberation protests that have awoken young Black people to the fight for justice.

The audience appeared to have about 200 to 250 people present with over 20 Pagans and Polytheists in the crowd. Several Pagans in the audience submitted questions to the panel to address the murders of Black Trans women in 2015, and to highlight the other marginalized faiths that are also involved in the justice movement for Black people. There was a short video shown of recent incidents and protests that left many audience members visibly emotional. This can be viewed below in the linked recording of the event, occurring about 23 minutes into the video.

I reached out to several Pagans and Polytheists, who were present in the audience, to gather their reflections on the panel and to seek clarity on what might have brought so many of them to this one single event on the program. I asked three questions:

Do you feel having a BLM discussion at the Parliament was important and why? What were you hoping to get out of the panel? Why do you feel it is important to have space for this topic to be explored in faith communities?

Lee Gilmore

“The Black Lives Matter panel was one of the most important conversations at the Parliament. On a basic level, it is critical to keep pushing these truths because without doing so black lives will only continue to be disregarded, targeted, and vulnerable. And the more these concerns get out to diverse religious communities, and the more that we put justice at the center of our conversations…  

“On a fundamental level, I attended simply to show up and put my white body in that room, and to continue to listen to voices that help me “stay woke.” I was also grateful to Pagan leaders like Thorn Coyle and Elena Rose for pushing the speakers to give voice to trans lives and non-Christian activists, as well as to the organizers somewhere back along the line who clearly laid the groundwork with the ministers on stage that lead them to publicly and clearly acknowledge that queer & trans lives matter.

“One of the key themes I heard being raised by indigenous leaders at the Parliament was the importance of listening to our ancestors, as well as the importance of thinking about how our actions affect the future. As a Pagan, these are concerns that I share, and for me this means making reparation for the violence committed against black and brown bodies by some of my ancestors by working for a more just and equitable future for all of our descendants. That means supporting Black Lives Matter.”

T. Thorn Coyle

“I have so much to say on the topic of Black Lives Matter at the Parliament. I’m very glad the panel happened, because this discussion is important to all communities, and now is the time that the energy of this movement is poised toward making change. That said, we needed much more than what was offered. We needed multiple panels, teach-ins, sit-downs, and presentations. We needed systemic, personal, and community racism denounced at every plenary because it weaves through all topics: climate change, women’s lives, indigenous rights, and spiritual service.

“That didn’t happen. The “Pagans in the #BlackLivesMatter” movement panel I put forth was rejected. I therefore figured that there would be more programming on the topic than there was. The panel that ended up happening – with three Christian men on the stage – felt almost like an afterthought. Good things were said there, though two Pagans – myself and Elena Rose – had to challenge the speakers. We weren’t the only ones. I’m not disrespecting the three men who showed up to lead this panel. They are committed activists and do great work. What I am critical of is the entire lens through which the topic is viewed by those holding relative power: Clergy means Christian; Two Black and one white cis men is diverse enough; Scheduling the one thing specifically dealing with Black Lives Matter on the final full day of the conference, overlapping the gala music and dance performance, was acceptable …. I’m not OK with any of those things.

“I’m glad that #BlackLivesMatter was present at the Parliament. But I wish that I hadn’t felt the need to stand up and shout those words at the closing plenary, because they had been left out. And I wish that my words hadn’t been swallowed up by the vastness of the hall.”

All we had was our bodies and

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

“Given the ostensible world stage of the Parliament, it was important to have the event as an option. I am disappointed that there were as many empty seats there as there were, and that from what I could tell, most of the attendees were Americans from mainstream religious traditions, but I’m also glad that there was a definite Pagan and polytheist faction there as well, and that not only did the efforts of some of our people in terms of activism get recognized (even if it was because of well-timed and well-asked questions from those very people), but also that the contributions of trans* People of Color in #BlackLivesMatter got named in front of everyone, and that Rev. McBride specifically stated that he and other Christian leaders have had to “sit at the feet” of these trans* activists to learn from them about the struggles of queer people of all stripes.

“I was hoping for two things. First, just to hear more about this movement, the stories and voices that have been made prominent by it, and to learn more about it. To my knowledge, there is no visible presence of the movement in my locality, and I’d have to go to Seattle to participate in it, which I can’t do without major difficulties at present. I feel this was certainly something that I came away with as a result of attending the panel. Second, I was hoping to get some further ideas on how I might be able to support the movement from a distance. I think I also gained that as a result of the panel.

“I also think, as a polytheist, that our traditions have a great deal to teach and share in terms of how our basic theological ethics–dealing with individual Deities on a reciprocal relational basis–also extends to how one can best deal with the diverse humans with whom one comes into contact, and the basic ideals of hospitality, respect, and celebration of diversity and inclusiveness which polytheism requires are good things for all people of all religions to value and hold both dear and to the utmost in their dealings with others.  While those of us who are polytheists or Pagans of various types do not suffer now as much as People of Color and indigenous peoples still do as a result of these things, especially if we are white, nonetheless the continued marginalization of, ignorance about, and disrespect towards our religions that is alive and well–even at the Parliament–is based in these same notions, which have not been properly acknowledged by the leaders of major hegemonic monotheistic religions of the world, nor by the political leaders of diverse world governments, including that of the United States, as being the basis for this continued license to dehumanize and commit violence and other atrocities toward People of Color.

Black Lives Matter panel

Black Lives Matter panel [Photo Credit: C. Blanton]

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece

“I think it was absolutely important and was disappointed that it was not in a more prominent time slot. The reason that I think it is so important is that this is an international gathering and although racism is a larger and more universal topic, this session addressed the more focused topic of state-sponsored violence against Black people who are a vulnerable minority in the United States and this issue needs international attention. Part of what we know from the work of groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and so forth is that in addition to citizens trying to hold their society and their governments accountable, there is an important and powerful role that can be played by international communities demanding accountability from a sovereign state. So, we need to combat racism in all of its guises, but in the very immediate we need to stop the state-sponsored violence and mass incarceration of Black people in the United States and we need increased international pressure to hold our governments (local, state, and federal) responsible.

“I honestly went in with open expectations and a willingness to be moved and changed rather than with specific expectations.  I can tell you that what I found most powerful in the panel were two different things. First, although I have been really striving to be informed about and engaged in BLM and have participated in demonstrations and have heard some of the leaders, in those contexts they are putting forth a platform, which is the appropriate strategic action and I support it. What I had not heard before, though, were the kinds of descriptive stories about the specifics of the backlash and the film that they showed was more graphic, upsetting, and powerful than I had seen in the media.   

“Although what was shown in the film was shocking, painful and upsetting to watch, I needed to see it. I needed to see it in its horror. You know, they rarely actually show the moment someone actually dies on the news. I think it was spiritually important to watch and bear witness.

“From my particular perspective as an Hellenic Pagan and a citizen of the United States (and as a priestess of Athena and Apollon, the duties of a citizen are sacred to me), I have a moral responsibility to act. Aristotle talks about the virtue of gentleness as being in right relationship with anger. If you have too much anger, then you are irascible. But in situations of injustice and atrocities, situations like the horrific violence perpetrated against our citizens of color by the people who are supposed to be the sacred guardians (the correct role of the police) if you are NOT angry, there is something morally wrong in your character. Sometimes to be gentle is to be filled with rage. In a society that mistakes placidity for gentleness, I think that we need spaces to explore, develop and harness holy anger.”

Elena Rose

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

“I expected black lives matter to be a fairly prominent topic at the Parliament, and was surprised to find that it was barely present. The Parliament of the World’s Religions potentially has the power to bring people together to work on mending the world. At the Parliament, we were encouraged to look at the pain, injustice, and tragedy in the world directly with an eye to taking action informed by our spirituality. Given this goal, I wonder at the virtual absence of BLM at the Parliament.

“I was there to hear stories of those on the front lines. I was there to hear voices that bolster the will to continue the work. I was hoping for more than was offered, and I worked to be grateful for the work of those on the panel despite their sometimes flawed representations.

“As soon as I got home and reconnected with the news stream, I discovered that Black churches were being burned again. Religious people aren’t the only ones that work to change the world, but they often have infrastructure that is needed for taking action. Faith communities are often a place to regenerate and to heal before re-entering the fray. Without a place of solace, activists can lose heart and clarity of thought. Dialogue leads to relationships that lead to solidarity. Faith communities need to join efforts to rebuild what hatred destroys.”

Elena Rose

“Black Lives Matter is the biggest theological debate happening on this continent right now, in the sense of an argument about meaning and the implications of meaning. Literally, we’re arguing over whether or not the lives and bodies and stories of Black people are worth the same as, matter as much as, are as precious as the lives and bodies and stories of other people. We’re having a national–and to some degree international–debate about what a Black body means and what that meaning demands of us as people in community. This isn’t a legal or scientific argument; it’s a matter of theology, of symbol and metaphor and value and most especially of who is worthy of love, worthy of protection, worthy of grace, worthy of justice. Where better to wrestle with the issue than in religious communities– especially considering how many religious communities have been at the frontline of the struggle?

“Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is a lot of things, but one of the things it is–even in the most secular sense you can dig up–is a question of morality, faith, theology. Do we, or do we not, listen to and have faith in Black people?  Do we, or do we not, have moral obligations to our Black neighbors? These questions are written in enormous letters all over our public discourse right now.  Any religious movement that wants to be relevant to our civic life has to at least address those questions, to acknowledge them and offer an answer.  If a religious movement is claiming to speak to the state of community, it has to answer to the call Black Lives Matter has put forth.  If a religious movement is claiming to say something about what matters about a human life, it has to answer the exposure here of massive, systematic dehumanization of millions of people. If a religious movement is in the business of caring for the people who come to it, of proclaiming compassion, it has to reckon with the terrible damage done to so many by white supremacy, unequal treatment under the law, murder with impunity, police misconduct. It’s not just vital, it’s simply not optional any more; pretending away this cultural moment, pretending away the call it represents, is the worst kind of abdication of responsibility.

“So, for all that, I was eager to see a discussion of Black Lives Matter at the Parliament of the World’s Religions–a whole international host of people who claim to be moral authorities, to be leaders of communities, to be seekers for the answers of what matters in the world, people you could expect to have fruitful conversations about big moral and theological questions. I wanted to see, if we put our Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Indigenous heads together–if we got the Jains and the Heathens and the Unitarian Universalists in a room and lit the spark–if we could come up with better answers, or at least an agreement to act together in the name of justice and restoration. The US faith communities needed to see that the eyes of our colleagues around the world were on us in this place of crisis; the international leaders needed to see us grappling. The Parliament was an opportunity for us to have the conversation with survivors of the fight against Apartheid and with people who had no idea any of this was happening, to get outside perspectives and inside perspectives working together, and my hope was that it would happen in front of the many thousands of people attending the summit. This year’s theme was about reclaiming the heart of our humanity–what better way to do it? “

jim Wallis

Matt Whealton

“Hearing the direct witness of the speakers was a key aspect here. As we know, media messages are a cacophony that in some (or many) cases actively attempt to distract people from understanding the events and issues around BLM. Pastor McBride was brilliant in his descriptions of what happened at Ferguson and his personal growth through working with the young leaders of BLM there. I wish more could have heard his words. His and the panel’s personal transformation in confronting the violence against black bodies is inspiring, and the Parliament could have provided an even louder amplifier for them.

“The Parliament’s sessions can educate those from other parts of the world who may not be exposed to the issue. The Parliament’s purpose is to spark discussion and cooperation on the important matters that affect us across our traditions. BLM is surely a topic important enough for major programming. More could have been provided here, I believe.

“I feel it was necessary to show up and be counted in support of BLM, even though it was clear that the issue was not a mainstream one for the Parliament (an aspect that I believe was a miss of a great opportunity on the Parliament’s part).

“Another was the chance to hear about the current state of the movement. This was covered well, both by the speakers on the local (Utah) and national levels and also by some of the commenters during the Q&A at the end – some great stuff there. It was heartening to hear the audience going beyond just listening to share useful information, which in itself demonstrates just how non-centralized the movement is.

“On a personal level, it is a sacred act for me to “do Maat and speak Maat” (that is, live and act according to the principals Maat embodies – Truth, Justice, Order, Compassion, etc). Every faith community has a version of these ideals to guide individuals in or very near its core beliefs and obligations. So it is only natural that we should be working both within and between our traditions to effect changes. Maybe not every person will be inspired for this particular issue, but by opening spaces for BLM, those people who are inspired can join and not only build bridges but provide a ‘wall of bricolage’ – a wall stronger and more resilient than one built of just one material.”

Rowan Fairgrove

“I think it is especially important to have Black Lives Matter at the Parliament. If people of good faith trying to make the world a better place aren’t mobilized around this issue, then I would despair. I was interested to hear the story of Rev. Francis Davis, pastor of an historically black Baptist church in Salt Lake City. He noted that the African American population is about 2% in Utah – if he wants to get allies he has to reach out to the interfaith community to have a voice. And he has been successful in getting interfaith allies.

“I was hoping for a bit more analysis and more suggestions for follow-ons. “Black Lives Matter. Black Lives have been discounted. Here is the work that must be done.” People at the Parliament are supposed to make an ongoing commitment to make a difference in the world, fighting for #BLM could have been offered as a focus. [And not to be snarky, but I was hoping for a younger, more diverse panel. And that it take place earlier in the Parliament instead of being shoved to Sunday night.]

“The majority of people in the world look to a faith or spiritual community in their life. The core of most such traditions holds that people should be treated with dignity and respect; that fairness and truth are prime values. When there is so much structural imbalance and white supremacy present in our country, people of faith need to speak out, do the work, and dismantle the historic injustices. We need to work to make our vision a reality — of a world where all people, but especially those oppressed by the current system, can have prosperous, dignified lives as a welcome part of the community.

“I would also have liked more programming on the topic! We could share best practices and create a network of groups working within their communities. In San Jose, for instance, we are having Beloved Community meetings between the Police Department and community members (facilitated by clergy) … I would have loved to had a chance to hear what other communities are doing!”

  *   *   *

Although the room was more than half empty on this Sunday night timeslot, the impact of this one panel brought some much needed dialog about the responsibility and intersections of our faith communities in the demand for justice.

I sat in that room, not as a journalist or columnist for The Wild Hunt, but as a Black, Pagan woman looking for more ways to understand the impact of spirituality in the equity movement. It felt rewarding and supportive to know that so many Pagans and Polytheists were also motivated to attend this isolated offering at the Parliament. There were parts of the video shown in the panel that were emotionally evoking. Hearing the passion in the voices of the speakers on the panel, and in the audience, was truly an indicator that we are pushing beyond disbelief and into action.

It was also heartening to see people building coalition together, asking the hard questions, and acknowledging the work that has yet to be done. Among the many concerns we have become more comfortable fighting against, issues of systemic racism seem to still challenge many in greater society and within the modern Pagan and Polytheist communities. Yet so many people came to listen and participate in this workshop despite challenging planning on the Parliament’s part; there is still so much to discuss and so much to do within this time and space.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus added a profound thought in eir interview that I would like to close with it here because it leaves us to think about the role of interfaith work in the justice movement, and why it is important to work together to challenge the status quo of our intersecting communities. E said,  “That #BlackLivesMatter even has to be said, and that religious leaders of mainstream religions even have to be reminded of this, demonstrates how very far from actualizing this recognition both religions and the general public are at during this moment in history. While making this more visible in a religious context is good and important, I am not certain that doing so will properly filter out into the general populace, either.”

Our communities have to continue to think on the importance of dialogue, and what is missing when Pagan, Polytheist, and voices of color are not included; And what is gained when we are at the table aiding in conversations that open up possibilities.

Below is the recorded livestream of the Black Lives Matter session at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

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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.

The Temple of Flux, 2010 (Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Peter Kimelman and Crew)

The Temple of Flux, 2010 (Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Peter Kimelman and Crew)

  • HuffPo Religion looks at 10 years of Burning Man temples, and quote scholar and friend-of-The Wild Hunt Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man.” Quote: “Burning Man is that wild, uproarious desert party that hits the Nevada desert every August. But to call it a party alone is to miss the critical spiritual dimension that grounds much of the festivities. This spiritual dimension is perhaps best characterized by the temple artists and architects build every year on the playa. The tradition began in 2000 with artists David Best and Jack Haye’s Temple of Mind. The temple took on greater significance after one of Best’s friends passed away weeks before the festival, setting the tone for what would become an annual space of memorial and contemplation on the playa, or what author and religion professor Lee Gilmore calls the ‘sacred heart of Black Rock City.’ (Black Rock City or BRC refers to the temporary town that Burning Man becomes every year.)”
  • Religion News Service analyzes the trend of the millennial generation abandoning formal religious affiliation in large numbers. Quote: “Any replacement for religious membership will have to match the moral power of religious narratives. It is always hard to keep going with civic and political work; persistence is a lot easier if you see yourself connected to a permanent community with a prophetic vision of the future. Religions also appeal to deep moral commitments. While you do not have to be religious to be moral, being a good citizen requires commitments to other people — and perhaps to nature — as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason. In fact, science suggests that people are dramatically unequal and that nature is fully exploitable. So responsible people develop ‘faith-based’ commitments. Secular equivalents must be at least as powerful.”
  • The U.S. Army has approved “Humanist” as a religious preference for members within their ranks. Quote: “Lt. Col. Sunset R. Belinsky, an Army spokeswoman, said Tuesday (April 22) that the “preference code for humanist” became effective April 12 for all members of the Army. In practical terms, the change means that humanists could face fewer hurdles in trying to organize within the ranks; military brass would have better information to aid in planning a deceased soldier’s funeral; and it could lay the groundwork for eventually adding humanist chaplains. The change comes against a backdrop of persistent claims from atheists and other nonbelievers that the military is dominated by a Christian culture that is often hostile to unbelief.” At the ACLU, Major Ray Bradley says that Army Humanists are “no longer invisible.” Pagan faiths are still engaged in this process, working to expand beyond the handful of options currently available (which includes “Wicca” and “The Troth”).
  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes about why myth matters for the Intercollegiate Review. Quote: “Against all odds, through popular culture, myth is more potent and omnipresent in modern society than anyone could have imagined. Why? Because in an increasingly global society, myth is a universal language. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Spiderman and Batman transcend cultural divides. Mythic heroes in movies communicate universal values in their fight against evil. In a culture where the abstract theories of academics are out of touch and meaningless, stories communicate more effectively and more universally. Furthermore, in an increasingly irreligious age, mythical movies and literature carry the truths that religion had traditionally conveyed.” Despite Fr. Longenecker’s theologically conservative brand of Catholicism, I think there are some interesting points raised here that some of my readers might appreciate.
  • Center-left American think tank the Brookings Institution has published a new report on economic justice and the future of “religious progressives.” Quote: “Religious voices will remain indispensable to movements on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and middle-class Americans. The authors point to specific opportunities the progressive religious movement can act on.” Michelle Boorstein at The Washington Post notes that demographic shifts might bring about a bright future for left-leaning religious organizations. Quote: “The report sees perhaps a bright future for the religious left. One reason is demographics. A far bigger share of younger Americans call themselves religious progressives (34 percent of those ages 18 to 33) than religious conservatives (16 percent of the same group). Another is the model offered by the civil rights movement, which the report says ‘interwove religious and civic themes’. . . and was so successful because it was so ecumenical. We may be at such a moment, the report argues.”
Photo: VICE / Phil Clarke Hill

Photo: VICE / Phil Clarke Hill

  • VICE says that Santeria is growing in visibility and popularity in Cuba now policies regarding religion in that country have been relaxed. Quote: “The religion owes its continued existence over the centuries to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers passing on, preserving, and nurturing its secrets through countless generations. Today, Santeria has emerged from the shadows of a Cuban society now at liberty to practice religion, and is witnessing not only an increase of acceptance but also of popularity.”
  • The Economist explains how European politics are different than American politics, that there isn’t a “religious right” per se, but there are a number of “identity politics” camps that must be appeased if you want to win elections. Quote: “It is hard for European politicians to build a career by claiming the traditionalist ground; they would generally lose more votes than they would gain. What does exist in Europe is the politics of identity, including religious identity. In this area Europe’s parties and politicians always think carefully about the signals they send and getting it right or wrong has consequences. That’s a helpful way to see David Cameron’s re-embrace of the Anglican church.”
  • Barbara Falconer Newhall at The Huffington Post reviews Patricia Monaghan’s posthumous work, the new edition of her “Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines.” Quote: “I wish I had known Patricia Monaghan. She died a year and a half ago after a rich life as a poet, author, goddess scholar, and pioneer and mentor in the contemporary women’s spirituality movement. She was an academic, yes, but also a hands-on kind of woman. According to her husband, she was as concerned about the temperature of her root cellar as she was with the depth of her research. That research is stunningly thorough. I have in my hands the posthumously released revised edition of her Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. The first, very popular, edition was published in 1979. This beautiful, fat — in a good way — expanded version tells the stories of more than 1,000 ancient goddesses and heroines from such far-flung corners of the earth as Mongolia, Benin, Tierra del Fuego and Wisconsin.”
  • Jackson Free Press has an article focusing on Pagan author and teacher Chris Penczak. Quote: “While the Mississippi Legislature was polishing its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which opponents say opens doors to legal discrimination for religious reasons), Christopher Penczak and other believers of a mostly misunderstood and reviled faith—Wicca—planned a workshop. Penczak, 40, is one of the founders of the Temple of Witchcraft in New Hampshire. From its humble roots as a magickal training and personal growth system, the temple has become a formal tradition of Witchcraft.”
  • The New York Times Magazine spotlights The Dark Mountain Project. Quote: “A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: ‘Come! Let’s play!’ The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute. There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood. […]  The Dark Mountain Project was founded in 2009. From the start, it has been difficult to pin down — even for its members. If you ask a representative of the Sierra Club to describe his organization, he will say that it promotes responsible use of the earth’s resources. When you ask Kingsnorth about Dark Mountain, he speaks of mourning, grief and despair. We are living, he says, through the ‘age of ecocide,’ and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face.”

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.

Happy May Day everyone! Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

Sacred Paths Center Announces Closure: Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center serving the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (aka “Paganistan”), sent out an email today announcing their imminent closure. Executive Director Teisha Magee cited a lack of money, resources, and volunteers as reasons for this decision.

“After much heartache, soul-searching and tears, it has become clear that Sacred Paths Center cannot continue. Our expenses are too high in this location and we are just not getting enough money coming through the door. All of our resources are tapped, and our volunteers are worn out.”

This decision comes in the wake of a rocky 2011, one that featured an emergency fundraising campaign, and being temporarily closed  pending internal and external financial audits. It seems that Sacred Paths Center wasn’t able to overcome the many obstacles towards long-term sustainability, and it raises serious questions for other communities looking to follow in their footsteps. Stay tuned to PNC-Minnesota for further follow-ups on this story.

Maetreum of Cybele Denied Tax Exemption for 2012: The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, in an ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, has been denied religious property tax exemption yet again, even though they meet all federal and state qualifications. In a public statement, Rev Cathryn Platine of the Maetreum of Cybele noted that the town has spent an estimated quarter of a million dollars to deny their exemptions.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

“Despite the fact that the Town of Catskill offered no credible theory in court for their continued denial of exemption, I was just informed that the Maetreum of Cybele has been denied property tax exemption for 2012 meaning another entire round in this ongoing drama. The wheels of justice turn very slowly in Greene County, New York. The actual trial was split between two days last November and December but the final arguments in our court case still have not been submitted at this time. They are supposed to be due in about two weeks and then we will have to await the Judge’s actual decision after that. In the meantime we will once again have to go to the Board of Review hearing later in May and almost certainly be denied again and have to file yet another lawsuit against Catskill. Despite claims to the press for several years that Catskill did not question our legitimacy as a religion, the entirety of their case was exactly that we were not a legitimate religion under the IRS guidelines. Again despite the IRS recognition we are. We proved in court we met every one of the IRS “fourteen points” for determining what is or isn’t a church.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the law in this case seems pretty clearly on the side of the Maetreum of Cybele, but Catskill is going to wage a scorched earth legal campaign in hopes the Pagans run out of money and energy first. Acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh stated in 2011 that the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.” We’ll keep you updated on further developments. For those wanting to an make a tax-deductible donation to their $10,000+ legal bill, you can do so directly via paypal to: Or you can contact them through their website.

SAPRA’s Annual Advocacy Against Witch-Hunts Comes to a Close: With the issue of witch-hunts, witch-killings, and dangerous exorcisms very much in the news lately, I thought it appropriate to mention the work of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), under the banner of ‘Touchstone Advocacy,’ has been doing since 2008 to raise awareness with their “30 Days of Advocacy Against Witch-Hunts” campaign, this year held from March 29th – April 27th. In 2011, the campaign won support from a government commission, and they continue to work to protect victims of witch-hunts while combating laws that seek to criminalize “witchcraft” as a solution.

“Since 2008 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance has repeatedly appealed to all Commissions for Human Rights internationally to encourage all governments to: a. halt the persecution of suspected or accused witches, b. uphold and strengthen a culture of human rights for all equally, c. respond appropriately and humanely to incidences of accusations of witchcraft, d. make the eradication of violence against suspected witches an international priority, e. train local police to manage witchcraft accusations and violent witch-hunts in a way that affirms the dignity and humanity of those accused of practising witchcraft, f. create victim support units to facilitate reintegration and conciliation of those accused, g. adopt comprehensive public education and awareness programmes aimed at eradicating the real causes of witchcraft accusations, and h. reform legislation that currently seeks to suppress witchcraft or criminalize accused witches.”

You can receive year-round updates on their campaign at their Facebook group page.

In other community news:

At Lewelllyn, author and magician Donald Michael Kraig (“Modern Magick”“The Resurrection Murders”) has announced that he’s writing a book about his long friendship with Scott Cunningham, the seminal Wiccan writer who authored the paradigm-shifting “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.” Quote: “I hope you get an idea of who Scott Cunningham was. Many of the anecdotes and stories have never been published before. The stories and his magical methods pepper chapters on his theories and methods of performing natural magic, his approach to The Goddess and Wicca, and his love for the land, people and magic of Hawaii.”

San Jose State University will be running a Pagan Studies conference semi-concurrently with the 2013 PantheaCon. Organized by Lee Gilmore (SJSU), author “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man,” and Amy Hale (St. Petersburg College), “Pagans in Dialogue with the Wider World: A Pagan Studies Symposium” seeks to, quote, “focus on Paganism’s contributions to and engagements with broader cultural and religious dialogues in an increasingly pluralist world.” You can read the full announcement and call for papers at Chas Clifton’s blog.

PNC-Washington DC covers the recently held 2012 Ecumenicon, an interfaith conference that was founded in 1987, and features significant Pagan and esoteric involvement. Quote: “The group that would ultimately found Ecumenicon realized that there was a hunger for actual religious education as it applied across all religions and particularly to alternative religions.  Ecumenicon comprises an ecumenical conference and ecumenical ministry, for those who seek such a path.”

Is Pagan Spirit Gathering’s current home in Illinois in danger? PNC-Minnesota reports that a group of local citizens are petitioning to have Stonehouse Park rezoned back to agricultural use only (more on this here), complaining of noise and drug-use (none of the complaints are about PSG, but to other, non-Pagan events). PSG/Circle organizer Sharon Stewart is working with local officials, and hopes to obtain a special permit if the worst should happen. We’ll keep you posted on this as news develops.

PNC culture blog The Juggler has an interview up with Pagan author Christopher Penczak (“The Inner Temple of Witchcraft”“The Outer Temple of Witchcraft”), talking to him about his career and teachings. Quote: “I think if you focus on your intention in the ritual, and then think which of these paths support that overall vision, you’ll be doing great. Avoid the “Everything but the kitchen sink mentality.” Every ritual doesn’t need every path. I think determining if it is inhibitory or exhibitory is the first step, then which paths will help in that method?”

That’s all I have for now, have a happy May Day!

Welcome to The Wild Hunt’s semi-regular round-up of news and opinion, unleash the hounds. As you read this I’ll be on my way to San Francisco, California to attend the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting. The AAR is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion, and their annual meeting has become a vital place to hear about the latest scholarship in the field of Pagan Studies (and just about every other religious and philosophical tradition as well). This year will feature an abundance of Pagan-friendly events, including the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group’s stellar-looking line-up of presentations. I’ll be attending as many Pagan-oriented presentations as I can, and will report back with some initial thoughts, photos, and hopefully some interviews.

In the meantime, here’s some links of note to tide you over!

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

Just a few quick notes for you on this Tuesday.

Animal Sacrifice, Factory Farming, and Palo Mayombe: Religion Dispatches has an excellent essay up by Meera Subramanian, senior editor of Killing the Buddha, on the recent case of William Camacho, a practitioner of Palo Mayombe whose barber shop was shut down after sacrificial chickens were found in the basement. Subramanian compares the actions of religions that engage in animal sacrifice to the factory farming industry, and suspects that public discomfort with one and not the other is all down to issues of visibility.

William Camacho. Photo by Peter Pereira/

“Last year alone, about eight billion chickens were slaughtered in the U.S., according to the USDA. So why does the idea of animal sacrifice so easily fall into the realm of heebie jeebies? Why do stories about people like Camacho and their doomed animals get picked up so quickly, not just by ABC, but also sites with names like Wacky Bastards? […] Camacho broke the rules. No chickens within city limits. But what shutting down his barbershop and the initial talk of throwing animal cruelty charges at him reveals is really our discomfort and alienation from the animals at the heart of the New Bedford controversy. It lays bare our preference that animal killings, whether as a part of a religious ritual or not, stay hidden out of view. It asks that any connection that animals might have to the spirit world remain tamely leashed to our household pets.”

I recommend reading the entirety of Subramanian’s essay. As for Camacho and Bad Boyz Cutz? The barber shop is open for business once more, and no charges are being filed against him at this time. He’s still seeking advice from attorneys.

Burning Man Celebrates its 25th Anniversary: Burning Man in Nevada is now under way. The temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a “Rites of Passage” theme. This year marks the first time the event has sold out, and also sees the event transition into a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the festival’s ideology outside the famous once-per-year event. What is that ideology? Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, argues for the event being “pagan” at its roots.

“No one I’ve ever spoken to (and I’ve been attending and researching this event since 1996) has ever come right out and called Burning Man a religion–Pagan or otherwise–and the event’s organizers have repeatedly stated as much for years. However, I think in some ways it can be considered to be a pagan (note the lower case) phenomenon. In this meaning, I see the uppercase term “Pagan” as referring to our various Neopagan traditions–that is the sets of practices, beliefs, and communities that are seen as (albeit loosely) constituting our family of religions–while I use the lowercase term “pagan” as a more general adjective.

In this sense, I am thinking of Michael York’s concept of “root religion,” which identifies paganism as a set of shared–yet diversely constituted–primal religious tendencies that broadly underlie all global religions. As he stated, “inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate.” (see York’s Pagan Theology)

Burning Man has a similarly embodied, experiential, and ritualized quality. This feeling is in part engendered by the encounter with nature in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. In the beauty and essential simplicity of this vast dusty arena–as well as in the visceral physical experience of its arid and demanding environment–many participants encounter a sense of the transformative and numinous.”

Recent data suggests that Burning Man is becoming more religious, political, and female as it ages, though critics still contest the event is a “dead-end cult.” For more on how Burning Man is small-p “pagan” check out the rest of Gilmore’s guest post for The Wild Hunt. You may also want to read the interview conducted with her at Religion Dispatches last year.

Debating Dominionism: In final note, the debate and discussion over what Christian Dominionism exactly is, whether its worth talking about, and whether it is or isn’t a threat, continues. At Religion Dispatches Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler have an excellent discussion that digs deep into the subject, and goes beyond the alarmism and denial currently dominating coverage.

Rick Perry hugs NAR "Apostle" Alice Patterson at 'The Response'.

“I view with a jaundiced eye these journalists who think that by the mere act of writing an 800 word op-ed they’re going to wave a wand over people of faith and make their beliefs go away. Not Happening. Yes, not every conservative Christian is a Dominionist, but to say a movement doesn’t exist, without even being able to say what it is in an op-ed is just irresponsible. It also shows what the real issue is.

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework—like you do, Sarah!”

In addition to that, Fred Clark at Slacktivist points out that Dominionism has been a serious concern within conservative Christian circles for some time now, and certainly not a myth. He also notes that if you don’t want to be seen as a Dominionist, you should probably avoid hiring them. Right Wing Watch echoes Clark by asking why, if Dominionism is a liberal myth used to attack conservative Christians, does it have conservative critics? At Talk To Action Chip Berlet responds to the latest wave of Dominionist coverage backlash from figures like Ross Douthat and Mary Eberstadt (more here). For my run-down of the debate up to this point, check out this post.

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

Just a few quick quick news notes to start off your Wednesday.

Absent Christian Soldiers: Remember that story a couple weeks ago about a Christian group in Dorset, England who were going to hold vigils outside a pub in order to “combat” a Pagan moot (social gathering)? Well, it turns out they didn’t show up.

“A Pagan moot in Bridport last week went ahead without any trouble after a planned Christian demonstration never materialised. […] Despite the Christian group announcing to the press they expected “a high turn out” no one showed up at the venue on the night.”

That’s right, not a single Christian prayer warrior braved the elements to do some anti-Pagan praying. Instead, triple the number of Pagans who usually attend showed up, and they raised some money for the Dorset County Hospital’s Kingfisher Ward. Obviously Pagans meeting in pubs and donating to charity is something that should be stopped, and I’m shocked that these Christian Soldiers who have vowed to halt “evil” failed in their quest.

The Blessed Ex-Satanist: Maybe those Christian Soldiers should take a page from the Blessed Bartolo Longo, a Catholic lay-leader who had once joined a “Satanic” group in Italy during the late 19th century. Once converted, he had no qualms about acting like a jerk around the people he used to hang out with.

To prove his new-found commitment to Christ and His Church Bartolo even attended a séance. In the midst of it, he stood and raised a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mother and cried out: “I renounce spiritism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood.”

See? These are the kind of people who don’t get invited to the cool spirit-invoking parties. As for the article itself, the author seems to be unsure if Longo was “New Age,” “pagan,” or a “Satanist.” But I suppose such distinctions matter little if you believe they are all going to the same place.

We’re All Neo-Pagans Now: Former Wild Hunt guest contributor Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, writes an essay for the University of Southern California blog The Scoop on modern Paganism. Entitled “Boy Wizards, Green Living, Blue Aliens: We’re All Neo-Pagans Now,” the piece touches on our growth, treatment in the media, Patrick McCollum’s court case, and the “allure of magic and witchcraft” in popular culture.

“In the broader culture, Paganism remains comparatively small in numbers, but influential in terms of the broader cultural trends it embodies. The definitive number of American Pagans remains elusive, but reasonable estimates place the number between 750,000 to 1.2 million, or possibly more. Religious censuses like the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape survey often lump Pagans in with “Other/New Age” faiths, thus missing the extent to which the values that typify Neo-Paganism are increasingly found in other arenas.

The allure of magic and witchcraft— whether in practice or in fancy—also bubbles up in cultural phenomena like the “Harry Potter” franchise and the new Wiccan subplot in HBO’s “True Blood.” There is also a growing cultural turn toward “green spirituality” in which individuals and faith communities strive to value ecological sustainability and to seek harmony between nature and the sacred. And while it may seem like old news, the widespread and ongoing fascination with the romantic, pantheistic world of “Avatar“—along with its sequels in the offing—is also part of this important cultural trend.”

In her closing, Gilmore notes that reporters would  “do well to take a closer look at Paganism, and other minority faiths,” a sentiment I heartily agree with. Be sure to read the whole thing, she has some incisive analysis, particularly of the McCollum case.

Top Story: The Awl investigates allegations that millions of dollars in United States government funding to Christian NGOs, specifically Samaritan’s Purse, is being used to directly fund aggressive and shameful missions to “evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

“…our research into the hush-hush tag team efforts of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Samaritan’s Purse found millions of USAID dollars going to Samaritan’s Purse aid stations in Haiti. Their mission: a coordinated effort by BGEA chaplains to evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

Reporter Abe Sauer notes that Franklin Graham (president of Samaritan’s Purse), son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham, is especially fixated and obsessed with eliminating Vodou in Haiti.

“…in the case of Samaritan’s Purse, whose Haiti work is being heavily funded by the taxpayer-funded USAID, it could be to “take back their country from voodoo, despair, and sin,” one of the charity’s stated goals for the “Festival of Hope.” As Graham said of Haiti in his address at the Festival, “…the biggest need is the spiritual need.” (Graham and his crew are especially obsessed with the elimination of voodoo, as it comes up again and again in Purse literature. A recent personal update on work in Haiti from Franklin Graham himself reads, “Through our partnership, the three original churches have been able to establish 28 more—including one in a village that was infamous for voodoo….”) Video of the heavily promoted fundraising event has been erased from the Samaritan’s Purse website as a result of our questions to USAID.”

They note that Samaritan’s Purse, working hand-in-hand with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), is able to benefit from government funds by skirting along on paper-thin technicalities, confirmed by USAID officials, but who seem to lack the political will to do anything about it. This is a stark confirmation of several isolated reports and allegations regarding the activity of missionaries in Haiti. It’s bad enough that some Christian groups are taking advantage of the chaos in Haiti in order to win souls, but now it seems we’re paying for it as well.

No Pagan Drivers for Lowery: Former Democratic state Representative John Lowery is being taken to court by Eugene Keeler after he was allegedly fired from Premier Well Services (owned by Lowery) for being a Pagan only hours after being hired. Keeler has the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is being heard by a judge who’s dealt with Lowery before.

The EEOC case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, which could be interesting. When Wright ruled that a winter solstice display could be put up on the state capitol grounds — along with the traditional nativity scene — Lowery led the Arkansas Legislative Council denouncement of her decision, saying, “When this is allowed to happen in high places by people in authority societies become chaotic, economies collapse and nations are taken over by other nations.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette interviewed Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League about the case, though the article is behind a paywall if you want to read it. It should be interesting to see what happens in this case, hopefully it will be reported more widely, and more accessibly, than it has so far.

Do Religious Symbols Count Even If You’re a Racist? The Jewish Chronicle notes that a jailed racist, convicted of inciting racial hatred in the UK, had his Thor’s hammer pendant confiscated because it had “fascist meaning and neo-Nazi overtones.” After a complaint, it seems that Michael Heaton, an Odinist, had the pendant returned. The piece closes with a quote from a CST (Community Security Trust) spokesperson that seems to imply that, in their opinion, Odinism doesn’t meet the “relevant criteria” for equal treatment as a religion.

A CST spokesman said: “Norse and Odinist symbolism features extensively in Nazi and Pagan circles. Legislation on religious rights can make questions such as this a complex matter. But you might well question if this kind of symbolism should meet the relevant criteria.”

While I personally believe that Heaton is a vile, foul, sad, criminal, his odious beliefs don’t wipe away his rights under the law. To call into question whether genuine religious symbols appropriated by racists are still valid is to glide down a slippery slope that would eventually ban all religious symbols. Also, for an organization like the CST, who are watchdogs against antisemitism, to conflate Nazism and Paganism in such a casual way is troubling, to say the least.

The Boundaries of Civil Religion: Former Wild Hunt guest contributor Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, writes an essay for the USC blog The Scoop about the recent memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, and reactions (or non-reaction in some cases) sparked by the opening invocation of Dr. Carlos Gonzales.

The media response–or rather the general lack thereof–was telling. Those motivated to comment publicly on the blessing were mainly conservatives troubled by its implications. For example, Brit Hume of Fox News was baffled, saying, “By the time it was over with, he had blessed the reptiles of the sea, and he had prayed to the four doors of the building, and while I’m sure that all has an honorable tradition with his people, it was most peculiar.”  TheWashington Examiner went much further and called it a “a stark statement of  pantheistic paganism” and “a blatant violation of church and state.”

Glossing over the apparent hypocrisy–the biblical references in Obama’s eulogy did not seem to touch off a similar nerve–perhaps Gonzales’ invocation can be read as a vague nod to a loose, politically correct “spirituality” appealing to the so-called “liberal elite.” Yet the left wing of the blogosphere also had little to say about Gonzales’ invocation. (There was some insightful discussion from this vantage point taking place on a popular and intelligent Pagan blog called the Wildhunt.)

Gilmore notes that many American aren’t used to being taken outside “a generic and lightweight form of ceremonial deism,” as was done by Gonzales’ Native blessing. A transgression that may have sparked the absurd over-reaction is some quarters. She also touches on the “othering” of religious minorities in the United States, such as was done in this case, and that mainstream journalism has done a poor job in enlightening the public to their worldviews. The whole essay is worth a read, and you should check it out.

Seeing the Future in Russia: The AFP reports on the popularity of doing fortune telling in Russia between Christmas and Epiphany, and why that tradition endures to this day.

Psychologist Svetlana Fyodorova puts the faith in fortune-telling down to Russians’ close links to their pagan past. “Russians love fortune-telling because it frees their subconscious,” she told AFP. “As compared to Europe, in Russia Christianity is young and the traces of a pagan traditions can still be felt here,” she said.

Something that no doubt worries the Russian Orthodox Church, who are increasingly testing the waters of social control now that they are ascendant once more. With signs of a crack-down against religious minorities intensifying, those who look for signs in the wax, or throw shoes out the window, should be careful.

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

  • Reminder: We are in the midst of our second annual Winter Pledge Drive! If you value this blog, its mission, and its content, please consider making a donation to keep The Wild Hunt open, ad-free, and updated daily. Spread the word, and thanks to all who have donated so far!

The Washington Post has feature up about the growing body of academic literature on the counter-cultural art and performance gathering known as Burning Man.

“[Wendy] Clupper [is] among a growing list of sociologists, business professors, theologists and other scholars who view the event’s mix of hipsters, artisans, zany theme camps and outdoor art gallery as more than a party. They see fertile ground for research. When she started her dissertation in 2002, Clupper could find only six other scholarly works focusing on Burning Man. Today there are dozens, including an expanding roster of analytical books. Not since Woodstock’s “3 days of peace and music” in 1969 has a festival captured the attention of so many in U.S. academia. Just as they did decades ago, scholars are asking whether Burning Man is a window to a new kind of community or a Utopian dream destined to crash and burn.”

The article interviews professor Wendy Clupper, Stanford business professor James A. Phills, sociologist Katherine K. Chen, and Cal State Northridge religion and anthropology teacher Lee Gilmore, author of Theater in a Crowded Fire, who did a guest-post for this blog back in June of this year.

No one I’ve ever spoken to (and I’ve been attending and researching this event since 1996) has ever come right out and called Burning Man a religion–Pagan or otherwise–and the event’s organizers have repeatedly stated as much for years. However, I think in some ways it can be considered to be a pagan (note the lower case) phenomenon. In this meaning, I see the uppercase term “Pagan” as referring to our various Neopagan traditions–that is the sets of practices, beliefs, and communities that are seen as (albeit loosely) constituting our family of religions–while I use the lowercase term “pagan” as a more general adjective.

In this sense, I am thinking of Michael York’s concept of “root religion,” which identifies paganism as a set of shared–yet diversely constituted–primal religious tendencies that broadly underlie all global religions. As he stated, “inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate.” (see York’s Pagan Theology)

Burning Man has a similarly embodied, experiential, and ritualized quality. This feeling is in part engendered by the encounter with nature in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. In the beauty and essential simplicity of this vast dusty arena–as well as in the visceral physical experience of its arid and demanding environment–many participants encounter a sense of the transformative and numinous.

This growth in the academic study of Burning Man in some ways mirrors the growth of scholarship around the modern Pagan movement. Once a tiny fringe interest, Pagan Studies now has a formal “Group” status within the American Academy of Religion‘s annual meeting, with a growing number of publications to draw from. As our culture becoming increasingly post-Christian and multi-religious, I think there will be greater emphasis and interest in religions, movements and social phenomena like Burning Man that are thriving within this new social/cultural atmosphere. The acknowledgement that these developments are, as Gilmore puts it, “more than a party.”

Greetings Wildhunt readers and thank you, Jason, for sharing this forum with me for a day.

I’ve just published a book called Theater in a Crowded Fire that sets out to examine what people say, do, and think around questions of religion, ritual, and spirituality at the Burning Man festival. I could pepper readers here with dozens of lively stories about ecstatic bonfires, dusty temples, and wild propane hunts (and some of these tales are told in the book). (If by chance you’re not familiar with Burning Man, this is as a good place as any to start.) But instead, I hope you’ll bear with me while I put on my professor’s hat for a spell and wax academic about the links between Burning Man and Paganism, and in turn what I think this teaches us about the nature of religion and culture.

No one I’ve ever spoken to (and I’ve been attending and researching this event since 1996) has ever come right out and called Burning Man a religion–Pagan or otherwise–and the event’s organizers have repeatedly stated as much for years. However, I think in some ways it can be considered to be a pagan (note the lower case) phenomenon. In this meaning, I see the uppercase term “Pagan” as referring to our various Neopagan traditions–that is the sets of practices, beliefs, and communities that are seen as (albeit loosely) constituting our family of religions–while I use the lowercase term “pagan” as a more general adjective.

In this sense, I am thinking of Michael York’s concept of “root religion,” which identifies paganism as a set of shared–yet diversely constituted–primal religious tendencies that broadly underlie all global religions. As he stated, “inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate.” (see York’s Pagan Theology)

Burning Man has a similarly embodied, experiential, and ritualized quality. This feeling is in part engendered by the encounter with nature in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. In the beauty and essential simplicity of this vast dusty arena–as well as in the visceral physical experience of its arid and demanding environment–many participants encounter a sense of the transformative and numinous.

This sense is also nurtured by the festival’s extravagant ritualism. Just as Pagans gather seasonally to consecrate the rhythms of life, Burners annually create their event in order to celebrate catharsis and ecstasy. In addition to the central and definitive ritual bonfire, there are numerous other rites that have transpired at the festival over the years–massive ephemeral temples dedicated to memory and mourning, anti-consumerist parodies of Christian evangelism, operatic performances invoking Vodou lwas, Shabbat services conducted in the skeleton of a gothic cathedral, yoga and meditation classes, reiki attunement sessions, Balinese monkey chant –the list could go on and on. All of this speaks to the persistence and importance of ritual as meaning making device. While Burning Man explicitly lacks any avowed theology and consistently ducks easy classification as “religion” (in an uppercase sense), it displays numerous ritualistic elements and motifs that echo this underlying root paganism.

Of course, some Burning Man participants are explicitly Pagan. However, one of the somewhat surprising finds of my research (I interviewed or surveyed over 300 participants) was that the number who stated specific affiliations with Christianity or Judaism was slightly higher than the number who directly identified with less “mainstream” traditions (in the U.S., at any rate), such as Paganism and Buddhism. This could be an accident of my sample, but it generally seems that Burning Man typically draws those who adhere to no tradition, or who speak of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” (I delve further into and critique this notion in the book.)

As expressions of “root religion,” one of the things that both Burning Man and contemporary Paganism have in common is their use of diverse cultural symbols in their rites. Questions of cultural appropriation and authenticity are, I realize, sensitive issues in Pagan and Indigenous communities. But ultimately history shows that religions are not static and that hybridity and syncretism are key forces in cultural change, as processes of both defining and transgressing boundaries. As diverse traditions and cultures come into contact across contexts, they inevitably borrow from and occasionally merge into one another, while also retaining or rejecting certain core elements. In this sense, both Burning Man and Paganism point to the ways in which religious and cultural systems are at once mutable, dynamic, and creative, as well as conservative and enduring through their use of various ancient, mythic, and “pagan” symbols.

Ultimately, I think Burning Man is a fascinating case study of some of the ways in which what we call (for lack of better terms) religion and spirituality is evolving in what we call (again, for lack of better terms) postmodern culture. As with the contemporary Pagan movement, Burning Man blurs the boundaries as to what is generally considered to be “religion.” For many (though by no means all) participants, Burning Man satisfies a set of desires similar to those conventionally fulfilled by religions, but which increasingly seeps outside of clearly demarcated institutions and doctrines.

Finally, in addition to the book, on the chance that anyone is eager to dig more deeply into my thoughts on these topics, readers might also be interested in my occasional posts on Burning Man’s Blog as well as a recent interview on Religion Dispatches. And if you’re interested in following my ongoing work on Burning Man, I’d be delighted to be able to keep up with you via facebook.

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. The author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual & Spirituality at Burning Man, she has been in, out, around, and studying the Pagan community (mostly Feri traditions) for the better part of 20 years.

From June 20th through the 27th I’ll be presenting at the 30th annual Pagan Spirit Gathering, at Camp Zoe in the Ozark Region of Missouri. Because Internet and phone connections aren’t a sure thing out there in the wilderness, I won’t be able to blog as usual. But don’t despair! As I’ve done in the past, The Wild Hunt will be featuring a wide assortment of vibrant, challenging, and innovative voices from within (and sometimes without) modern Paganism while I’m gone. Here’s the run-down of The Wild Hunt’s amazing guest bloggers!

Sunday June 20th – Lee Gilmore

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. The author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual & Spirituality at Burning Man”, she has been in, out, around, and studying the Pagan community (mostly Feri traditions) for the better part of 20 years.

Monday June 21st – The Wild Hunt’s Summer Solstice Post

My usual holiday round-up in honor of Midsummer!

Tuesday June 22nd – Kulasundari Devi

Kulasundari Devi is the president and founder of the Sri Kamakhya Mahavidya Mandir, a non-profit Hindu Shakta Tantric Goddess temple in Alameda, California that operates with the blessing of the renowned Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple in Assam. She is both a practitioner and scholar of Shakta Tantra, and holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy & Religion from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In addition to her work with the temple, she is currently pursuing a PhD studying Tantra and Goddess worship in Northeast India, and travels there regularly. Sundari has an extensive background in Goddess spirituality and mysticism of both East and West, which she has practiced for nearly 20 years. You can learn more about the Hindu Goddess, Tantrism, and traditional worship at her website,

Wednesday June 23rd – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and related divine figures) and a member of Neos Alexandria. He has published a collection of poetry called “The Phillupic Hymns” (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008), as well as a number of essays and poems in the various Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes to Artemis, Hekate, and Isis and Serapis, with several more due out in the near future (for Zeus, Pan, the Dioskouroi and Ereshkigal). Lupus’ day-job (as a professional academic and adjunct instructor) and general daily life is nowhere near as interesting as any of the above, and is therefore best glossed over!

Thursday June 24th – Jordan Stratford

Jordan Stratford is a priest, screenwriter, filmmaker, and author of books on religion and spirituality.

Having received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology with his ordination as a priest in the Apostolic Johannite Church in 2005, he briefly studied the DMin program at Wisdom University but is currently pursuing Doctorate of Ministry Studies at St. Raphael the Archangel Theological Seminary. He served as the Rector of the AJC’s Regina Coeli Parish in Victoria BC from its founding until 2008.

His work has been cited in college course material (Haverford College) and in doctoral dissertations (Graduate Theological Foundation), and he was interviewed in a feature article on Gnosticism in 2006 in US News & World Report along with NT Wright and Dr. Marvin Meyer. Additionally he has been widely interviewed and featured on blogs, podcasts and websites relating to Gnosticism, Esoteric Christianity, Paganism, New Religious Movements, and the Independent Sacramental Movement.

He is the author of “Living Gnosticism” (Apocryphile, 2007) and an upcoming book on Alchemy for Quest Books.

Friday June 25th – Matthew Ellenwood

Matthew Ellenwood is a music director, voice teacher, and the artistic director of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe. He is also one of the founders of Brotherhood of the Phoenix a Neopagan order for gay, bisexual and transgender men who love men, where serves as the Senior clergyman for the Order, and the Senior mentor of the Brotherhood’s seminary training program.

Saturday June 26th – Cosette Paneque

Cosette is a reader and a write. She loves technology, coffee, and lip balm. She’s a long-time Pagan avoiding bugs in South Florida. Cosette blogs at From Jupiter, and is outreach coordinator for the Pagan Newswire Collective.

Sunday June 27th – Christian Day

Salem impresario Christian Day has made the Witch City his full-time career and often speaks about Salem and Witchcraft in the media. Hi is the proprietor of two of Salem’s most popular shops, HEX and OMEN, and hosts Salem’s annual Festival of the Dead each October, which includes a psychic fair, dumb supper, and the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball. Every Wednesday night at 9pm, Christian and Salem Strega Lori Bruno host HEX Education on and will welcome Jason Pitzl-Waters as the featured guest on the July 7th episode.

Please give all of them a warm and hospitable welcome, I’m certain they will all contribute something special to The Wild Hunt. If all goes well I should be back to my regular posting schedule by Monday June 28th. While I’m gone, my colleague at the Pagan Newswire Collective, Cosette Paneque, will be holding the reigns of admin power. So if there is a blog or comments related issue while I’m gone, please drop her a line. She will also be dropping in Pagan news-items during the week as she sees fit (so feel free to send her story tips as well). My connection to the outside world will be spotty at very best while I’m at PSG, so please keep that in mind, and don’t be offended if I don’t get back to you.