Archives For New Age

Don Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Following Our Bliss,” reports on growing pains at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, for the Religion News Service. According to Lattin’s piece, there are growing complaints about the “corporatization” of Esalen, long a haven for spiritual seekers, with some claiming it is “turning into a spa for the 1 percent.”

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

“David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend. What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest. Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.”

Jeffrey Kripal, author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, tells Lattin that what Esalen is going through are classic generational struggles that all religious movements face, the “institutionalization of charisma.” In addition, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says “we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations” and that those stirring up discontent aren’t tuned into what Esalen is like today.

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.” “They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO. “Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Interestingly, Lattin’s article doesn’t directly cite the critical site Esaleaks, or mention the recently released (and earlier leaked) leadership culture survey, which showed a cautious, “reactive,” culture of leadership at Esalen. As the resort hits its 50th anniversary, their troubles ask larger questions about the overlapping “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements. Movements that have had quite a considerable influence on modern Paganism (take a look at Esalen’s past teachers list as confirmation).  Lately, with the United States dealing with one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, with the high rate of unemployment, and with the rise of populist backlashes to the status quo (especially in the Occupy Movement), we are more sensitive than ever to the money and power-related failings of movements which claim to be working for the benefit of all.

This crisis of identity at Esalen comes during a time of scandal for the New Age/Human Potential movements, from Anusara’s sex-and-power shake-ups, to the deadly power-tripping of “Secret” teacher James Arthur Ray. It truly does seem like a “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more about a lack of accountability to the values that these communities claim to espouse. There has always been scandal in the New Age movement, but in better times it didn’t seem to hit as hard, nor did the stakes seem to be as high. There was a long-running joke in the Pagan community that the difference between a Pagan event and a New Age event was where the decimal point was placed in the check you wrote to attend, but I’m starting to think it goes a little deeper than that. Yes, our relative poverty compared to the New Age has kept us humbler, less out of touch with the world around us, but I also think that because we’re a movement of religions, we are fundamentally different from the “spiritual but not religious” elite.

The New Age movement is, at the end of the day, a means towards transmitting a set of technologies for living, usually acquired for a monetary price. Your theology is ultimately immaterial, which is why it can encompass both Oprah and Robert Anton Wilson. Because a number of those technologies overlap with the beliefs of modern Pagans, we have sometimes seen our teachers “cross over” to their high-paying events (though not often), and many Pagans have happily attended New Age seminars looking to pick up new teachings. That overlap, however, should not be mistaken for one being the other. Wicca and other Pagan faiths were once mistakenly called “New Age religions,” but that’s a misnomer, one that was eventually corrected as more research was done. We are spiritual and religious.

Pagan faiths are also going through generational struggles, though they are more about evolving our stances on social issues, or creating new leadership, than about money. We are more worried about building simple infrastructure than evolving that infrastructure into resorts for the rich. Perhaps a day will come when Pagans, too, will argue over corporatization and whether we are out of touch with the non-rich, but I somehow doubt it. Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some attempt to automate the process. We will never, I predict, collectively escalate far beyond the middle-class in our ambitions. That may frustrate some of us who yearn for “New Age money,” but it will also spare us the crisis of conscience and leadership faced by institutions like Esalen.

A massive fire broke out yesterday in Long Branch, New Jersey, claiming 10 businesses and 14 apartments. Luckily, no human life was lost in the fire, though some pets were killed. Among the businesses that were destroyed was Sacred Circle New Age Center, a local meeting point for area Pagans, who were deeply saddened by the news.

Sacred Circle after the fire. (Photo courtesy of NJ Pagans FB Page)

Sacred Circle after the fire. (Photo courtesy of NJ Pagans FB Page)

“…we’ll be there for them when they re-build, once we find out more info, if they need anything we can start a fundraiser or donations…This is so sad today for our Community to lose a business but so grateful they are alive and well.”

The owners of Sacred Circle, Adam Kane and Al Romao, released a statement yesterday about the fire.

“To everyone in our community. With a very heavy heart, today Sacred Circle was burnt down from a fire that started several doors down from our store. We are fine and many of the tennants in the building are fine, but some of our four legged friends in the building unfortunately did not make it. Please send prayers to them. We want to thank everyone in our community for the ourpouring of love, prayers, energy and support coming our way during this difficult time….Adam and I very much felt it and thank everyone. By the looks of everything, the building and store are destroyed, we will update everyone on our process and progress as we find things out.  To everyone, your continued love, support and prayers and very much appreciated.”

The most recent pictures show damage that is near-total, placing in doubt the ability to salvage any stock. This early in the process, it will be difficult to say if the owners will re-build, or open a store in a new location. When shops like this are closed or destroyed, it’s more than losing a shopping opportunity. Since the idea of Pagan temples and community centers are still in their early days, many Pagans still rely on Pagan or New Age shops for local networking and finding a communal safe space. An important face-to-face compliment to connections made via social networking. Hopefully the community in Long Branch can rally together during this time of trial, and use this tragedy to knit closer bonds. I think prominent New Jersey Pagan blogger Mrs. B speaks for us all when she says: “Our prayers are with you Sacred Circle.”

This Sunday, I have updates on some previously reported stories.

Sacred Paths Center’s Fiscal Crisis: As I reported on FridaySacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area (aka “Paganistan”), sent out a message that they were in dire fiscal straits and needed over 7000 dollars immediately if they were to avoid closure. Now one of the SPC’s board members, CJ Stone, has been interviewed by PNC-Minnesota about the situation.

“We were working from a membership model. A Pagan Community Center has been the dream of several Twin Cities groups, working for the past thirteen years. You would think if the idea of a Pagan Community Center, supported by members, was possible, it would have happened by now. Thirteen years is a long time. When Teisha (Center Executive Director) said , “We have a problem, we have to solve it”, we finally asked, “Are we even using the right model?”

The answer is NO. We have already gotten the members we are likely to get. Even with a tremendous response, say 500 members, it would be barely enough. We just can’t do it. We made the mistake thinking the members would support it. We learned you can’t support a Pagan Community Center just on membership, at least not without years of work to build it up. We just have a month. We need some big donations now, to get off the membership model as a primary source of income, and continue. Then we can get on to better retail, more targeted retail, better service to our teachers and students. Finding a community that needs what we have got, and then serving it clearly and directly.”

The SPC board has estimated that they have to raise $7,500 immediately, and $12,000 by the end of July to remain open and viable for the longer term. So far 20% of their goal has been raised, this includes matching funds from an anonymous donor. We’ll keep you posted on this story as it develops.

James Arthur Ray Aftermath: After the negligent homicide convictions for New Age guru James Arthur Ray, Mitch Horowitz, author of “Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation,” ponders whether we should regulate retreats and rituals. While Horowitz acknowledges that Ray-inspired regulations “could be valuable,” he ultimately opposes government intervention.

The public should be alert to such situations—but not at the expense of the free exercise of spiritual experiment that has long characterized our religious culture. When considering crackdowns on ersatz sweat lodges or extreme rites, Americans ought to take guidance from what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1944: “The price of freedom of religion . . . is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish.”

Horowitz endorses better education, something the new not-for-profit organization, SEEK, (Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge), endeavors to do. Meanwhile, the story of Ray’s deadly sweat lodge ritual doesn’t seem to be going away, the Guardian just did a lengthy write-up about Ray, anti-Ray activists (and cult observers) are not letting him slip out of the spotlight, and you can bet there will be appeals once he’s been sentenced.

Winnemem Wintu Postpone Coming of Age Ceremony: Back in April I mentioned that the Winnemem Wintu Tribe in Northern California was coordinating a petition drive to close a small section of the McCloud River so they can hold their coming-of-age ceremony in peace. In previous years a “voluntary closure” was ignored by local power-boaters who shouted racist and threatening epithets at the Tribe. Now, the Winnemem Wintu have decided to postpone this year’s coming of age ceremony because the US Forest Service refuses to enforce a mandatory closure.

“For more than five years, we’ve asked the Forest Service to enforce a mandatory river closure for the ceremony’s four days in order to give us the peace and privacy we need for a good ceremony. They have continually refused to honor this request, even though it is within their power to close the river. Because Marisa is the young woman training to be the next leader, our Chief decided the risk was too great and the indignity of holding a ceremony without complete privacy could no longer be tolerated.”

The Winnemem are planning to try again for a mandatory closure next year, and are considering filing a complaint with the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. You can keep up with this story by following the tribe’s Facebook page, and their blog dedicated to this issue.

Harry Potter and Witchcraft: Over the years I’ve looked at conservative Christian responses to the ever-popular Harry Potter books and movies. How they “glamorize the power of evil,” inspiring opposition that bordered on parody. Even the Bush administration worried over the demonic powers of Harry. But it looks like the great battles over Harry Potter seducing children into the practice of Witchcraft have finally burnt out, with former critics starting to admit they might have overreacted a bit.

“William Brown, president of Cedarville University, an evangelical college east of Dayton in Greene County, agreed that Christians’ opinions of Harry Potter have changed. “The world did not come apart and children did not immediately become witches and warlocks because of Harry Potter,” he said.”

That’s a big admission from an evangelical heavyweight. It really shows how the oxygen has gone out of this issue (author JK Rowling essentially admitting it’s a Christian allegory probably helped). Not that there won’t continue to be those who find it evil, but the Harry Potter culture war may finally be ending.

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

The post-rockist critical world of popular music has seen the rehabilitation of several previously out-of-favor genres. Disco, metal, goth, even (perhaps especially) teen-pop. Young musicians, looking for fresh sounds and new ideas are casting further and further afield from the (classic and indie) rock canon. The Los Angeles Times looks at the latest previously derided genre to get a shot a redemption, one that I thought my readers would appreciate, New Age music.

New Age music preached spirituality, environmentalism, self-evolution and the like, yet when musicians and the major record labels saw the successes that an auteur like [Steven] Halpern had with his cottage industry, big money soon followed. “New Age music was one of the very first completely amateur-driven genres,” said Mcgowan. “Yet it became commercialized around the same time as Ronald Reagan’s remaking of America in 1984, where something that started as a countercultural hippie movement was completely co-opted.” New Age became big business, leading to subsequent Halpern releases with oddly utilitarian titles like “Music for Your PC” and “Attracting Prosperity,” not to mention the international success of Enya, who has sold more than 75 million records worldwide.

And yet for all of this co-option and financial success, for this new generation of music makers and artists, New Age music strikes at this trend in the 21st century. For Portner, the music serves as an aural balm: “Being on tour and listening and playing loud music every night, I just want to listen to something that’s going to calm me down after.”

Which might be how this new wave of New Age helps a generation of listeners who don’t remember Reagan, the ’80s or when Whole Foods Market was just a funky grocery store and not a corporate conglomerate. “We are in such deep need of chilling out these days and popular culture for this generation doesn’t leave you with any room for meditation or space,” said Mcgowan. “Sitting and quietly listening to a New Age record is the opposite of checking your Facebook every two minutes. It’s as far from that kind of mentality as you can get.”

This revival isn’t just manufactured hype, blogs brag about scoring old New Age cassettes, labels are re-releasing out-of-print classics, and ultra-hip music emporiums like Boomkat feature a number of New Age-inspired albums. So for all of the Pagans out there who were buying New Age albums and cassettes during the genre’s original hay-day, it looks like your collections have ripened into hipness. Dazzle your 20-something hipster coreligionists when you whip out that original pressing of Clannad’s “Legend,” or knowingly talk of how you were into Enya “before she got big.” What should be interesting to see is if this renewed interest in New Age sounds translates into experimentation with the practices and concepts that were associated with the music.

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

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

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

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

I have three theories:

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

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

“What right does Ray have to mimic, mangle, and manipulate Native ceremonies that have been carefully handed down among indigenous cultures over millennia? Ray does not own any rights to Native spirituality, because they are owned collectively by indigenous peoples and cannot be sold.” – Valerie Taliman, Navajo, president of Three Sisters Media

When three people died at the end 0f 2009 in a sweat lodge ceremony led by New Age guru, “Secret” booster, and two-time Oprah guest James Arthur Ray, few, including Ray himself, could have anticipated the “accident” (as he described it) would lead to three convictions of negligent homicide. That it would bring mainstream media attention to the long-fought issue of cultural appropriation, dampen commerce in the normally recession-proof New Age markets of Sedona, Arizona, and possibly change the way many non-Native practitioners approach their teachers and spiritual technologies. As news of this verdict ripples outward, I want to spotlight three different perspectives on what these deaths, and the subsequent conviction of Ray, mean: Native Americans who have seen an indigenous spiritual technology misused in such way as to cause the death of three people, the families and friends of the victims, and the modern Pagan community, which shares some overlap with the New Age community, and has wrestled with issues of indigenous appropriation for several years.

Turning to some of the Native reactions first, the initial outpouring seems to be a mixture of relief at a conviction, ongoing anger at Ray, sadness for the victims, and some emerging thoughts on how Tribal governments should approach appropriation in the future. Heather at the activist site Don’t Pay to Pray said she was “surprised & pleased” at the verdict, and is currently working on a longer response.  Maria Myers, Ojibwe/Lakota, is praying that those who died “can finally have some peace” and that this is the end of “sweatlodge deaths.” The most significant Native response so-far has been from Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and a Texas trial court judge. In an editorial for Indian Country Today, Russell talks about the abuse of Indian ceremonies and proposes the idea of Tribal governments banning the selling of ceremonies.

“Indians seeking a way out of being blamed for abuse of ceremonies they don’t want public in the first place have one weapon. The First Amendment does not apply to Indian nations, since the First Amendment bans “establishment of religion” and for many tribes spiritual practices have been the glue holding them together, in some cases for millennia. Tribal governments can ban the sale of ceremonies. This ban could only be applied to tribal citizens but it could arguably be applied to them wherever they are. If they put the tribe’s spiritual heritage up for sale, disenroll them, so that they may claim to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but not Indigenous.”

In a statement made shortly after the sweat lodge deaths, Lakota Pipekeeper Chief Arvol Looking Horse asked “all Nations upon Grandmother Earth to please respect our sacred ceremonial way of life and stop the exploitation of our Tunka Oyate (Spiritual Grandfathers).” Whether the abuses of Native ceremonies by Ray and those like him can be halted through Tribal governmental laws or calls for respect from Indian religious leaders remains an open question. New Age leaders like Kiesha “Little Grandmother” Crowther continue to make tenuous claims to authenticity while charging for ceremonies, and faux-Native sweat lodges still occur, though there are signs that may be changing.

“At the time of the deaths, sweat-lodge “experiences” were widely offered by tour guides, spa owners, and motivational speakers as lures for clients seeking a taste of Native American spirituality. But the Sedona incident prompted an apparent decline in the use of commercial sweat lodges, a trend that pleases many Native Americans, who believe sweat lodges are sacred and should not be commercialized. Now some see the Ray tragedy as karma.”

I am in contact with other Native voices regarding this issue, and will be spotlighting them in future posts. As for the friends and families of the victims this conviction it is a small piece of justice, and perhaps the beginning of closure. Liz Neuman’s ex-husband and her children said they were “satisfied” with the conviction that they “believe justice has been served.” The family of Kirby Brown, in a public statement, thanked the jurors, and announced the formation of a new organization designed to prevent more deaths at the hands of would-be gurus.

“As the horrific details of the three deaths emerged in this trial, we realized that the potential danger posed by “self-help” gurus extends well beyond James Ray.  Since Kirby’s voice has been forever silenced, her family will now speak for her.  We have launched a not-for-profit organization, SEEK, (Self-help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge) to educate the public about the self-help industry. It will empower all seekers to ask important questions and consider possible “red-flags” before following a self-proclaimed “guru”, even if they have been vetted by the public media.  We will work to protect those desiring personal growth by exposing scam artists and frauds. SEEK will advocate for professional standards, and explore avenues of accountability for this totally unregulated industry. The SEEKsafely.org website is officially ready for participation. Kirby, our “super nova”, would be proud that we stood together, each day to speak and seek the truth.”

There’s been a long and ongoing debate concerning the regulation of self-help/seminar culture. Will this conviction spur new action here? Or will the unscrupulous teachers simply lie low until the dust settles? As with the issue of appropriation, there’s no quick and simple answer.

Finally, I would like to spotlight some Pagan and polytheist voices on this verdict. While the New Age movement and modern Paganism are two separate and distinct phenomena, there is some overlap with teachers and authors, and both communities have long wrestled with accusations of cultural appropriation. So I think it is apt to turn to some of our own voices on this issue, and move these conversations forward.

One of the most outspoken voices regarding Ray and the cultural appropriation of Native ceremonies is Celtic Reconstructionist Kathryn Price NicDhàna. She has a released a statement on the verdict, and discusses the racism and invisibility of Native voices during the trial and in the media.

“The James Ray trial has provided a few small openings to educate about cultural appropriation and the cultural genocide perpetuated by frauds like James Arthur Ray. But mostly it has been horrible and disappointing: Newagers on parade, racism, and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Three people are dead and up until today nothing had really changed, except that a lot of ignorant non-Natives now think anyone can attend a sweat lodge and it’s only inappropriate if you make it too hot and too long. Or they don’t understand that what James Ray led was not a Native ceremony, and now they mistakenly believe that Native people have scary and deadly practices. Some Pagans who have commented seem to think it’s only a matter of a few mistakes in construction and timing, “Oh, he used plastic tarps and overdid it.” In terms of non-Native perceptions of Native people and Native lifeways, I’d say the net result has been more of the same ignorance about Native traditions, just on a bigger scale.”

While NicDhàna does think this case is an opportunity for education, she is concerned that not much has changed with the New Age or Pagan communities. She warns that if “attitudes about cultural integrity and cultural misappropriation” don’t change the next deaths could happen at a Pagan gathering. Preventing those possible deaths seems to be forefront in the mind of Pagan author and neoshamanic practitioner Lupa, who argues that competency is the key factor at issue in this tragedy.

“Let’s instead focus on increasing and maintaining competency. Not “What does this person believe?”, but “What is this person doing, and is it safe?” What reduces competency? Is it the proliferation of inaccurate information on how to enact certain rites when the correct information is often restricted in access? Is it people having unhealthy relationships with the money that represents resources for everyday survival? Is it mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it any/all of these and more? What can we do about these things that doesn’t just involve repeating “Don’t Pay to Pray!” and “You’re Doing It Wrong!”? How do we answer both the concerns of marginalized indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, and those of non-indigenous people who do find New Age and neoshamanic practices spiritually, psychologically, and personally fulfilling? This, I feel, is a lot more productive start to dialogue than the assumption that James Arthur Ray is the rule, not the exception.”

Pagan author and philosopher Brendan Myers explores the moral dimensions of this tragedy, and critiques the relativism that tolerates unsafe line-crossing within ritual.

“I’m aware that this conclusion may seem controversial. Many pagans like to believe that there is no such thing as a universal moral truth, and many recoil at the use of the word ‘should’. James Ray’s sweatlodge puts that kind of relativism to a life-and-death test. As a final remark, my friends, may I say that you do not need to undergo a heat endurance test to the death in order to know that you are strong in spirit.”

Patheos columnist and author P. Sufenas Virius Lupus echoes Myers in criticizing “the underlying assumption that spiritual things are always more important than physical things, including one’s own physical well-being and one’s own physical limitations.” Lupus stresses the importance of an “opt-out” to any ritual setting, one that is respected by the ritual leaders. A practice that could have saved three lives in Sedona back in 2009.

There is much more to unpack and say on the issues raised here. I am committed to continuing the conversation within the Pagan community regarding cultural appropriation (and misappropriation), regulations, and ritual safety. In the days and weeks to come I’ll be highlighting more voices. Native and indigenous voices, as well as Pagan voices. Since this incident occurred I have been convinced that this is an issue that our interconnected communities need to pay attention to and learn from. For now, I feel that a small measure of justice has been done in Ray’s conviction, and hope that the reverberations from this case can bring forward new conversations, greater understanding, and healthier practices.

Local and national media are reporting that the jury in the James Arthur Ray trial has convicted the self-help guru of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a sweat lodge ceremony held in 2009 at a Sedona resort. Ray was not found guilty of the more serious charge of manslaughter. He faces a possible prison sentence of up to 11 years.


Video footage of closing remarks.

“Jurors deliberated a bit less than eight hours over two days. They began deliberating Tuesday, 16 weeks to the day after the trial began March 1 in Yavapai County Superior Court. [...]  Juror questions to the two Arizona medical examiners testifying for the prosecution ranged from what advice one would give people about to participate in a sweat-lodge event to whether a body could sweat properly in a highly humid environment, to how much organophosphates it would take to kill someone in two hours. Jurors asked various witnesses who took part in the event how it compared to previous sweat lodges, how much hotter it was and whether Ray helped people after the ceremony.”

This is big news, and I’ll be providing both Native and Pagan reactions to this decision soon.

ADDENDUM: Here’s video of the verdict being read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of April a Colville, Washington man and his 14-year-old stepdaughter were found dead, the seeming results of a murder-suicide or mutual suicide pact. The two admitted in letters left behind that they were in love, and much was made of the fact that both allegedly claimed to be adherents of Wicca.

“Ann Lykke, 36, said she found letters after the two disappeared that indicated they were having a romantic relationship. “I didn’t believe it until I found the proof when she was gone,” Ann Lykke said in a brief telephone interview Thursday from Colville. Lykke said her husband and daughter practiced the Wicca religion, and shot themselves because they believed they would spend the afterlife together. Lykke, a hypnotherapist, said she is a Christian.”

At this point we know almost nothing about the two, what their beliefs actually were, or what exactly happened that led to their deaths. There is certainly no teaching within Wicca advocating, or even mentioning, the benefits of suicide. The investigation into what happened is ongoing. However, none of that stopped the Canadian-based National Post from highlighting a truly offensive and grotesquely distorted anti-Pagan and anti-New Age screed published by MercatorNet that uses these deaths as a bludgeon to paint these belief systems in a negative light.

“The recent case of an apparent double suicide in Washington state by an English man and his 14-year-old stepdaughter is a stark reminder of the risks involved in neo-pagan worship and certain New Age practices. The pair were involved in a romantic relationship and both were Wiccans. Their Christian wife and mother, the real victim of this horrifying incident, believes they took their lives in the hope of spending eternity together. Wicca is a revival of pagan beliefs and rituals which emerge in the 1950s and 60s. It does not endorse murder, suicide or underage sex, though it does list ritual sex as a “magickal practice”. It could be argued, not without reason, that the ill-fated pair were mentally ill. But it would be wrong to conclude that their practice of Wicca was merely incidental to their actions.”

This offensive attack was written by Sue Alexander-Barnes, a Catholic convert who admits to spending a “couple years” exploring “Eastern and New Age religions.” Like many converts, she has a zeal that seemingly blinds her to the massive planks and logs within her own faith tradition. Hilariously, MercatorNet claims to be above the political fray, that they “respond with logic and evidence” and “do our best to be civil and courteous.” Yet, these ideals don’t seem to stop them from publishing an article that positively quotes a Christian scholar who calls the New Age movement a “spiritual version of AIDS,” ironically grabbing the quote from an article that debunks its fear-mongering.

I could stoop to their level and talk about the massive problems the Catholic church has with sexual abuse, despite its (allegedly) theoretically superior ethical framework. But instead let me point out why I feel Sue Alexander-Barnes has done us an injustice.

  1. She provides no evidence that Wicca condones, encourages, or  accepts murder, suicide, or underage sex. In fact, she even admits this point in the article.
  2. She provides no evidence that the fact of some Wiccans consensually engaging in “ritual sex” in any way promotes illegal or harmful acts. She simply says it “could be argued,” but anything “could be argued,” I could argue that the author’s lifestyle will lead to horrible things but I wouldn’t be right simply because I’m capable of arguing it.
  3. She wrongly conflates New Age and New Thought belief systems with modern Paganism. This is a common rookie mistake (perhaps she should read some academic material that doesn’t come from the Vatican). There may be overlap on certain topics, and some Pagans may exist within both cultures, but they are very different and very separate movements. The fact that she veers so quickly from Wicca to The Secret undermines any real argument she may have had against the religion. It would be like me criticizing Catholicism by invoking the New Apostolic Reformation.
  4. By wrongly conflating the New Age movement with modern Pagan religions she makes sweeping statements that have no foundation in fact. To apply the claim that Pagans have “little time for reason, science or technology,” for instance, shows a massive misunderstanding of our faiths, which largely embrace modern technology and scientific advances.
  5. She cites no credible evidence for any of her claims against us. The only Wiccan document she cites is the 1974 American Council of Witches’ “Principles of Wiccan Belief” to supposedly bolster her assertion that we “encourage the cult of the self” (which then leads to murder-suicides). Yet that very document consistently undermines the idea of a “cult of self.”

In short, it’s a hit-piece, and a sloppy one at that. If that’s the route MercatorNet wants to go down, fine, but it’s sad that a supposedly mainstream journalistic outlet like the National Post would promote it at their religion blog. Using a tragedy in this manner undermines the credibility of both outlets, ensuring that we should not put any weight into their views regarding modern Paganism, or indeed any topic dealing with non-mainstream permutations of faith or belief.

A few quick updates on stories previously reported here at The Wild Hunt.

Archdruid Terry Dobney (no longer) in Trouble: Just yesterday I wrote about the legal plight of Terry Dobney, Archdruid of Avebury and Keeper of the Stones, who was accused of welfare fraud. Today, and I’m going to break my no-linking-to-the-Daily-Mail policy just this once, it is being reported that Dobney has been cleared of all charges.

A jury found Dobney not guilty of three charges of false representation to gain benefits and exemption of liability following a three-day trial at Salisbury Crown Court. They accepted his claim that the cash was collecter for his elderly mother and acquitted him on a majority verdict. [...] Speaking outside court, he said: ‘Truth, honour and justice has prevailed.”

I’m very heartened to hear this news, and glad to spread the word. I hope that the Religion News Service (RNS) follows suit and also posts an update on this story, one that was isolated to the tabloids in the UK.

Huckabee Gets Grilled on David Barton: I’ve spoken at some length at this blog about potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s troubling admiration for Christian pseudo-historian David Barton, a man who believes Pagans aren’t protected by the 1st Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. So far, no mainstream media outlet has grilled Huckabee about how far his admiration goes, or why he thinks Barton’s views should be taught in public schools. Which leaves satirist Jon Stewart of The Daily Show to pick up the slack. In a nearly twenty-minute interview posted to The Daily Show’s website (part 1, part 2, part 3), Stewart tries to figure out how deep Huckabee’s admiration goes.

Huckabee tries very hard to separate himself from Barton, while reiterating what a great historian he is. Sadly, Stewart never asks him the question I would love to ask him, which is whether or not he believes that the First Amendment protects the religious rights of all Americans, not just the Christian ones. Stewart does claim he’ll try to bring Barton himself on the program, but I can only imagine in would be a cold day in heck before that happens. Still, this interview does put the Barton association on the table, and perhaps some “serious” journalists will be now inclined to dig a bit deeper.

James Arthur Ray’s Bad Sweat History: On Wednesday, the trial of James Arthur Ray, accused of negligent homicide when a sweat lodge ceremony went horribly wrong and killed three people, took a dramatic turn. Judge Darrow will now allow testimony regarding previous sweat lodge ceremonies that Ray has held, something the defense has fought tooth-and-nail to prevent.

“Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk argued Wednesday that the medical testimony has taken place and that the alleged suffering of participants in Ray’s pre-2009 sweat lodge ceremonies established a pattern she said was inescapable: that when Ray led a sweat lodge at the Angel Valley Retreat Center, people got sick, and that when others did so, no one got sick. Defense attorney Luis Li reiterated his argument that the pattern theory was evidence of propensity and not causation, and that even if such evidence were relevant, it should not be admissible because the sweat lodges were not identical from year to year. Darrow ruled for the state, though, a move that defense attorney Tom Kelly said meant “the… floodgate is open. We’re eight weeks into trial and the rules have changed.”  The defense team moved for a mistrial on the basis that the timing of the ruling denies Ray a fair trial, but Darrow denied that motion.”

Key witnesses for the prosecution, freed from the restriction of not mentioning Ray’s previous sweat lodge ceremonies brought forth some pretty damning information.

“In 2007, Mercer had observed a tall woman exiting the sweat lodge with her eyes rolling up in her head before she collapsed onto the dirty ground. He dragged her over onto a tarp. He also described three women who had come out of the sweat lodge who stared right through him. They didn’t even know their own names, said Mercer.   In that year, he estimated about ten people needed assistance after exiting the sweat lodge.  In 2008, he saw a woman come out with severe muscle cramps. She’d remained locked in a fetal position for half an hour to fourty-five minutes. In both 2007 and 2008 he saw numerous people vomiting and collapsing.

It is becoming very clear that 2009’s deadly sweat ceremony wasn’t some isolated accident, but that Ray held court over multiple poorly led sweats where people were clearly in distress. Which clearly paints him as negligent, and no doubt has his defense team scrambling for something better than conspiracy theories about poisonous wood.

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