Archives For post-Christian

The United States of America is a secular, pluralistic, nation that is home to hundreds of distinct faiths, philosophies, and traditions living, working, and playing side-by-side. Our diversity has often been touted as one of our great strengths, that we don’t succumb to endless internal wars, chaos, and strife, that the American experiment largely “works.” That said, no matter how “pagan” our democracy, our republic, is, we can’t but acknowledge that Christianity has been a driving force in our collective history, and in the history of Western civilization as a whole. Christian colonizers pushed out indigenous peoples and beliefs, and tried to build a new Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill.” However, partially due to the strife between Christian denominations, our nation on its founding erected “a wall of separation” between (Christian) church and state, and our history has experienced waves of disestablishment and religious “awakenings” ever since.

Today, despite the softening Christian character of our nation, our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian), with almost mandatory public shows of Christian piety from the majority of our leaders.

In the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan says that Christianity itself is in crisis, and that the “ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”

“All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been? That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.”

In a live-chat discussing the story, Sullivan explicitly links the crisis of our current political dysfunction with the crisis of Christianity.

I do not think the crisis of our politics can be resolved without addressing the crisis of American Christianity. Because the corruption of Christianity has corrupted American public life and we must be rid of it to move forward. Hence my coinage of the term Christianist. I use it out of respect for real Christianity, as much as concern about its current partisan politicization.”

Reading the article, and the live-chat, the question came to me: what about us? What about the 22% or so of Americans who aren’t Christian? The “others” and “nones” on those surveys. How do we live in a society where the dominant faith is experiencing a crisis? How do we make our voices heard in a landscape that has devolved into “Democrat Jesus” vs. “Republican Jesus,” where all moral arguments are couched in the language of Christianity?

Where once President Franklin D. Roosevelt might utter the now-unthinkable phrase  “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” today the spirit of that epithet may as well be launched at Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths that are seen as odd, suspect, or foreign. Meanwhile, Christianity itself grows ever-more polarized and the ranks of those who claim no religion (“nones”) swell to over %15 of the population. The “pagan” answer to this problem might be a better pluralism, embracing that we are entering a new age, and provide more seats at the table for a variety of moral and religious perspectives. To remember a world where embracing many gods wasn’t seen as a weakness, but a strength.

Sadly, most Christians (right and left) see the answer to this crisis as a return to “true” Christianity (whatever that means to them). Sullivan writes the same prescription that hundreds, if not thousands, of Christ-following “doctors” have written before.

“This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves.”

I’m truly sympathetic to the version/vision of Christianity Sullivan describes, but no matter how eloquent the words, or how in tune with my personal morality it may be, it still comes down to fixing a problem by doing Christianity “better” (or “purer” if you prefer) in some fashion. The problem with this is the triumphalist thread that runs through the roots of all exclusionary monotheisms. Sullivan himself inadvertently touches that root when he approvingly quotes Catholic monk Thomas Merton (from the “New Seeds of Contemplation”), saying his words are “at the kernel of what I believe is the struggle we are all involved with.”

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”

Even at its most poetic, its most refined, the ongoing slur within Christianity of gods that are not their God must always continue. I say that with sadness, because I greatly admire Merton, but even he was not immune to the notion that his faith was an evolutionary and moral step forward in religion. The idea that Christianity can be apolitical, except in times of great injustice, is a kind of folly as there will always be those who interpret the times as times of great injustice. For some, there will always be an “injustice” so long as other moral codes, other gods, dare to hold sway, or even stand their ground. When Sullivan endorses New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”), I can only remember that Douthat is also preoccupied with fighting “Dan Brown’s America” (because, you know, Paganism) and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

My greatest concern within this crisis is how we tiny communities and groups, we of the 22%, weather the contractions of a post-Christian world being born. So long as our voices, our solutions, are ignored, I fear that we’ll always return to a status quo of Christianity competing with itself in a paper-thin American secularism, thinking its theological and political poles represent diversity of opinion and thought. Only a future of coexistence, not Christian dominance, is tenable for those of us who fall outside that faith’s borders. As the generational plate tectonics shift, as the anxieties of those in power grow, we need more who are willing to reach out their hands, to avoid the worst realities of such shifts. Make no mistake, we are caught in another faith’s crisis, and how that faith treats the “others” and the “nones” will reveal the tenor of our republic for generations to come.

Since the 2010 elections, and some would argue since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Christian social conservatism in the United States has been flexing its muscles. Anti-abortion legislation is at record highs, contraception is a hot-button issue once more, same-sex marriage (not to mention gay soldiers) continues to be used as a political football, and disturbing moments of Christian nativism have been creeping back into our national discourse. There are two popular theories as to why religiously-motivated culture wars have intensified at this moment. The hubris theory, which posits that Christian conservatives have already “won” in changing the American landscape and now are slowly pushing for even more, and the desperation theory, which envisions a demographically doomed conservative Christian rump fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitability of their inconsequentiality.

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future [...] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old.According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

That January 2012 New Republic article by Michael Kazin, quoted above, draws on the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, authors of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In it the two political scientists argue that our religious culture has become increasingly polarized, while at the same time fostering a broad interfaith tolerance. Putnam and Campbell were recently given pride of place in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs to talk about the intersection of religion and politics (hint: they don’t like it), with much of the piece given over to talking about “nones,” individuals who claim no formal religion.

“In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference. Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right.”

What many have pointed out, including those who’ve gathered data on this growing demographic, is that “nones” aren’t anti-religious per se, they are simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). In short, as some would have it, we are becoming a nation of heretics. The big question is, if traditional (ie Christian) religion as we know is declining, if we are entering a post-Christian era, what will take its place? According to religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of the recently released “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” we are at a pivotal moment in history in regards to that question.

“The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.”

Bass makes it plain that this awakening isn’t isolated to Christianity, or even to monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

I’ve mentioned before that the rise of the “nones” could be a very good thing for modern Paganism, and for religious minorities in general. Many “nones” are picking up spiritual practices from nature and the New Age, and scholars like Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future,” believe that nature-based spiritualities are best equipped to survive the collapse of the traditional religions.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

This all sounds like great news, but it should be noted that Taylor, and Bass, envision a push-back from traditional religions. The numbers may be  shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order, but the near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents. For many of these Christians the answer is simple: teach young people the “real,” “authentic,” Christianity that has been distorted by the modern world (an argument that works on both the Christian right and left).

“It all comes down to teaching and role-modeling the elusive real fundamental Christianity to young people. [Drew] Dyck’s book [“Generation Ex-Christian”] , and books like “UnChristian”“Generation Hex”“Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more, all call for a return to an elusive central core of faith that is pure enough to withstand the rigors of engaging the wider secular/non-Christian world.Christians love these books, because it not only addresses a problem that worries them, but tells them that the solution is to become more Christian as a way to solve the problem.”

The latest call for revival comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” comes out this April. In it, he makes a “urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity” to “confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.” Douthat, a proud hurler of the Cynthia Eller brickbat, does not want to live in a “Dan Brown America” and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

In the mind of Douthat, and many others, it all comes down to (traditional) Christianity vs. Nature Religion (ie pantheism, New Age beliefs, “false” Christianities, and Paganism). The “green dragon” of environmentalism run amok. A preoccupation spawned by the existential dread of losing one’s invisible privilege in our society. Hence, the uptick in culture-war issues discussed at the beginning of this piece. Of course, being a Pagan, I’m hoping for a day when we truly do enter a post-Christian society. When non-Christian voices, and non-religious voices, truly get seat at the table (as opposed to occasional sympathetic Hollywood films or appearances on reality television). That the moment of reckoning for religion in America swings away from a reestablishment of traditional Christian power, and towards the inclusive awakening envisioned by Bass. A pluralistic nation that lives up to its pluralistic (and pagan) foundations.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the “nones.”

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Two days into the campaign and I'm already over half-way to my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven't pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

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

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

A recent essay by Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches, and a post by fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark, shone new light into a phenomenon that I’ve pondered for a long time now: the general anxiety over America’s (and more broadly, the West’s) shifting spiritual practices and demographics. Michaelson, taking note of a recent anti-Yoga hit-piece in the New York Times, blasted a certain tendency to “ridicule any non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-neurotic spiritual practice.”

“How ironic to criticize spiritually-minded people for indulging themselves, when what’s really indulgent is to coddle the fear of anything that might disturb the status quo, might actually attack the neurosis and doubt that make a successful reporter tick. Don’t lose your edge, that’s the important part. Don’t ever give in to—dare I say it—opening your heart.”

Michaelson goes on to equate this rationalist prejudice with “the fears of a Santorum or a Bachmann.” Which brings me to Clark’s post, which links to pieces discussing Public Policy Polling’s 3rd annual TV news trust poll. It found, as it did in previous polls, that while liberals and independents trust a wide variety of television news sources, conservatives tend to trust just one: Fox News. While this study says interesting things about political polarization and epistemic closure, I think it also says interesting things about religion and spirituality in the United States. For Fox News also plays on the anxiety concerning the shifting sands of spirituality, but does so in a manner quite different from the snobbish ridicule of a New York Times, for them its about a culture war between Christianity and the forces of secularism. See, for example, their coverage of Buncombe County Board of Education’s policy on distributing religious materials. While most outlets focused on Ginger Strivelli, a local Witch who challenged the distribution of Bibles, the Fox News piece emphasizes cultural change and upheaval.

“Traditionally, that “grand experiment” has involved Judaism and a handful of Christian denominations. But as non-traditional faiths spread into new communities, longstanding customs such as prayer, Christmas plays and Bibles that once went unquestioned in public schools are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, not on Wiccan principles,” Bobby Honeycutt, who attended public schools in Weaverville during the 1970s, said. “Our children have access to more non-Christian print material in the libraries and online than they really do Christian stuff,” he said.”

For someone who believes a move away from Christian principles is a vital threat to America’s power and stability, passages like that must only reinforce their worry. So in different ways, these mainstream media outlets from across the political spectrum continue to feed this anxiety, one that is then exploited by canny politicians.  So many stories involving non-Christian faiths or practices, when analyzed, just feed into this larger meme.

And on, and on, and on. As religious minorities continue to press for equal treatment, as more and more Americans engage with practices perceived to be outside the accepted cultural boundaries of normalcy, so the anxiety ratchets up. How Pagan is Halloween? How Hindu will Yoga make you? Should you even vote for a non-Christian? Who does this anxiety serve, and why is it being peddled so fiercely by so many? It all comes down to fear of a post-Christian planet, a world where the West is no longer dominated by one religious or cultural context.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

Back in August of 2011, I wrote about statistical models and studies concerning the slow decline of Christian dominance, and how as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people. While this shift will hardly see Christianity’s statistical dominance toppled any time soon, it does mean a future where compromise and coexistence will be emphasized over top-down hegemony.

“The future isn’t about dominance, but about coexistence. Many faiths and philosophies sitting at the table, instead of one (or two) faith groups telling everyone else what the agenda is. The numbers are shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order. The near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents, but they’ll soon lose their unified monopoly on social and political agendas. Alongside the accepted Christians-Catholics-Jews tri-faith understanding that emerged in the early 20th century will be the Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, practitioners of indigenous religions, and yes, Muslims.”

What can we do? While there’s little that can be done to stop the anxieties that come from slow and massive demographic changes, we can demand accountability and balance from our media outlets, engage in outreach and interfaith dialog where it is appropriate, and work to ensure that the boundaries between Church and State hold firm. At the end of the day, we have to understand that this anxiety is really a testament to how influential religious minorities in the United States, and in the West, have become. As trade unionist Nicholas Klein said in 1918: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” We are no longer being ignored, the time of ridicule and attack is at hand, but as visionaries we know that the time of monuments will come.

I truly admire it when public figures bluntly state their true views on a subject. There is so much hedging, retracting, and re-positioning in modern politics that it can be hard to pin down anyone on anything. So when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 10,000-strong First Baptist Church of Dallas, introduced and endorsed presidential contender Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit it was something of a jolt to hear him publicly proclaim what many Christians secretly profess.

“That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult,” Jeffress told reporters here. “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”

There it is: “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” That’s the bottom line. No matter how conservative you are, how in-line your values are with the Republican party, a massive chunk of the grass-roots and conservative king-makers won’t embrace you if you aren’t (the right kind of) Christian. As Andrew Sullivan says, “If you turn a political party into a church, as the GOP essentially now is, sectarianism will eventually emerge.” There is only one exception to this “don’t vote for non-Christians” rule, and that is if the only choice is between Romney and Obama.

“I’m going to instruct, I’m going to advise people that it is much better to vote for a non-Christian who embraces biblical values than to vote for a professing Christian like Barack Obama who embraces un-biblical values.”

Of course many conservative Christians have been trying to make the argument that Obama isn’t actually a Christian for years now. So in their minds it would be non-Christian vs non-Christian (In which case thumbs-up Romney? I guess?).

According to a Pew poll, 68% of Americans are ready to vote for a Mormon president. That support or understanding is built on a “big tent” view of Christianity. If Mormons are just another flavor of Christianity, then it’s OK to vote for them (and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been on a charm offensive for years). However, that support evaporates if you aren’t seen as religious. 61% of voters see atheism as a negative when considering a candidate, no doubt numbers are similar if you have religion but are part of a “cult” and not seen as part of the Judeo-Christian mainstream. As Jeffress would say: “Private citizens can impose all kinds of religious tests.” As it stands now a third of white evangelical Protestants (34%) say they are less likely to support a Mormon. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a potentially damaging percentage when you take into account the fact that more than half of Republicans are evangelicals.

This is a problem for the Republicans. Not because they prefer Christians, but because Christianity is losing its hold on America, or “softening” as Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves would put it. If you become the party of “Christians only” (outside of rare exceptions) you’re setting yourself up for long-term demographic irrelevance. As Americans become more comfortable with atheists, agnostics, and minority religions, the more a political party whose grass-roots demand theological purity suffers. Right now we are in a place where it seems only a Christian (or possibly a Jew) could be elected president, but as the calculus changes, the groups that are more agile in embracing a post-Christian future will ultimately benefit.

As I was putting together a roundup of stories for today, I noticed an ugly thread running through them all. A unifying ethos of fear, intolerance, ignorance, and hate towards any understanding or practice that fell outside a very narrow interpretation of Christian monotheism. Of a “Christian” America and a “Christian” West. They are all very different stories, but they all seem to be about enforcing an increasingly tenuous status quo, desperate sandbagging against a post-Christian ethos in the West.

“…a post-Christian world is one where Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but one that has, gradually over extended periods of time, assumed values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian (and further may not necessarily reflect any world religion’s standpoint). Generally, this can therefore mean the loss of Christianity’s monopoly, if not its followers, in otherwise Christian societies.”

This is no easy transition, and resistance to it takes many forms. From accusations of “gnosticism” towards the progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, to the clear cutting of forest on the San Francisco Peaks because the politicians, government officials, and business interests, don’t (or simply can’t) acknowledge the concept of sacred land. The push-back can be as simple as someone shoving hate literature through the door of Pagan-owned shops, or as horrifying as a brutal racially-motivated attack against a Native family, seemingly condoned by local police.

Johnny Bonta was knocked unconscious with a bat, his nose and sinus cavities broken and bleeding, with stab wounds on his neck. Lisa said Jacob Cassell taunted the family as the sirens approached, telling them, “You hear those cops coming? They’re not going to help you. My daddy is a cop in this town, and nothing is going to happen to me. You f***ing n*****s are going to jail.” When Lyon County Sheriff’s officers arrived, they took statements and began filling out police reports with Cassell and his friends, but they did not take statements from any of the victims. When Lisa asked why they were not being questioned for a statement, no one responded. “They ignored us,” she said, before she suffered a seizure and required medical attention.

Why? Because for an unjust social and political structure to remain standing it must forever patrol its boundaries and make sure all perceived threats (real or not) are dealt with. All possible areas of rebellion must be reminded that they are subservient to this order. As those who are most invested in seeing this order, this “Christian” civilization, sustained start to see total dominance slip through their fingers the more reactionary and fear-mongering their rhetoric becomes.

“This “freedom” will include much more than a perpetual pansexual pagan party. It will, and already does, include libel, slander, intimidation, corruption of youth, revolt in congregations, suppression of parental rights, revision of language, disease, loss of employment and loss of life. [...]  Have we already reached a tipping point where only catastrophe can bring renewal? The sages among us – those “haters” and “bigots” who keep trying to sound the alarm – need to stay focused and not lose hope. We must keep educating others that this is not a civil-rights issue, that we have not gained freedom, but instead are selling ourselves into bondage. Most of all, we must not give up the fight, because only God knows the outcome.”

I’m sure it will surprise none of you that the author of the above quote, Linda Harvey, has penned one anti-Pagan book, and contributed to another. Naturally all those who are victims of this rhetoric, this violence, are told that it will all stop once we do one simple thing. As a spokesperson for Texas governer Rick Perry’s upcoming faith-rally “The Response” said: “There’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.” That’s a very certain version of the “living Christ” as the “gnostic” attendees of the Wild Goose festival will tell you.

The future isn’t about dominance, but about coexistence. Many faiths and philosophies sitting at the table, instead of one (or two) faith groups telling everyone else what the agenda is. The numbers are shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order. The near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents, but they’ll soon lose their unified monopoly on social and political agendas. Alongside the accepted Christians-Catholics-Jews tri-faith understanding that emerged in the early 20th century will be the Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, practitioners of indigenous religions, and yes, Muslims. To quote Leonard Cohen, democracy is coming.

Despite the violence and madness, I’m an optimist at heart. I believe we can find an accord. That there is a table big enough for all of us to sit at. That all voices can be heard and respected. Right now though, we’re living through the fear of a post-Christian planet.

  • 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.”

While modern Pagans, Hindus, Native/indigenous adherents, and various African diasporic practitioners in America may have some significant commonalities that make banding together to fight for religious freedoms and equal treatment a pragmatic option, we are all part of a far larger grouping known as “religious minorities” that’s a grab-bag of just about every faith that isn’t some form of Christianity (about 75% of the United States if you lump Catholics and Protestants together ). This larger unchosen demographic fellowship contains everyone from Muslims to Rastafarians, and is hardly what one would call a happy family. Still, in a country where Christian expressions, traditions, and allowances can seem hegemonic, there are some shared experiences.

“Imagine having an exam or mandatory meeting on a holiday with the religious importance of Christmas. It’s a regular occurrence for religious minorities in the United States … In many ways, religious minorities get the short end of the stick. Having her high school’s homecoming on Yom Kippur was not a shocker to Emma Peck-Block, whose family was one of the few Jewish ones in the small town of Menomonie, Wisconsin. Like many minorities, Peck-Block went to what many minorities call the “Christmas argument.” “We caused a stir and asked, ‘If it was a basketball game on Christmas, would you change it?’ and they said, ‘Of course,’” Peck-Block said.”

The CNN report quoted above goes on to present the argument that religious minorities may have an “advantage” because we form stronger religious identities and bonds with co-religionists. Surely that is partially true, and it’s why many Christian denominations present themselves as minorities despite their collective cultural and demographic dominance, often framing our mere existence as an attack on “Christian America”, or exaggerating the size and influence of various religious minorities to form a more intense group identity. However, I don’t agree with Rabbi Saul “Simcha” Prombaum that religious minorities should take an accommodationist stance when it comes towards seeking equal treatment.

“Prombaum has some advice. “You’re better off finding a way to accommodate yourself rather than force acceptance when you live as a minority in a majority culture,” he said. “Instead of forcing the majority to bend, it’s better for you to enlighten the population.” Do you agree? What do you believe are the advantages of being a religious minority, if there are any? Should minorities force the majority to bend or do you agree with Rabbi Prombaum?”

The idea that we should keep quiet, not rock the boat, and hope that eventually we’ll sway the majority by being very nice and informative is a recipe for remaining perpetual second-class citizens in a supposedly secularly governed country. Without litigation, without protest, without some fierce personalities who were willing to stick their necks out, modern Paganism would still be a tiny, secretive, and wildly misunderstood group of cults, our social standing not much different from what we had back in the 1960s. While some modern Pagans do indeed yearn for some kind of return to that time, just as some Christians yearn for a return to various early “purer” points in their own faith, it is neither a practical or wise choice for a family of faiths that is now growing rapidly with virtually no proselytizing. We are far too along in our journey to reverse course, we can only accept what we have become, are becoming, and fight to ensure we are free to practice as we wish. To be treated equally under the law, or continue to see our affiliations used against us in the courts, in the classrooms, in our prisons, in our workplaces, and in our military.

In addition, the demographics are changing. Continual Christian dominance isn’t a sure thing any longer. Most likely not in my lifetime, but eventually, America we’ll see a true shift into “post-Christianity”, a world where the Christian world-view and morality is no longer solely dominant. When that time comes, all of us who were once in the “religious minorities” will have to decide what kind of society and culture we’ll have. Will we pursue the fierce secularism of France? Or will America end up looking a lot more like India?

“India is secular and a democracy but a country with a billon-plus population — consisting of hundreds of tribes, clans and castes following myriad beliefs — can be pretty fickle when it comes to defining ’sensitive’ topics and easily susceptible to parochial politics … If countries like France lay emphasis on the separation of religion and state, in India, most aspects of public life are inter-connected with religion, not to mention caste, tribe and what not.”

The path America takes, not to mention countries dealing with similar tensions, like Canada, the UK and Australia, will come fraught with drawbacks, tensions, and problems, no matter which way we collectively turn. But what is certain is that we need to make sure we are taking an active role in shaping our future, politically, legally, and socially, or else the decision will be entirely out of our hands. There’s no guarantee that the post-Christianity our Pagan children and grandchildren face will be one friendlier to our faiths and traditions. If building a better future for us means daring to ask our “Christian nation” to “bend”, then so be it.

Just a few quick notes for you this Sunday.

Wiccans in Livingston Parish: A local NBC affiliate in Louisiana interviews Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller in the aftermath of local uproar over a Pagan festival being held at Gryphon’s Nest Campground in Livingston Parish. In the interview, Eller stresses that Wiccans aren’t a group of evil people looking to destroy the town with their wickedness.

“Residents of Livingston Parish, Louisiana say they don’t want an upcoming pagan festival to take place near the town of Killian. One woman wants to set the “spell-casting” and “devil-worshipping” rumors straight. Self-described Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller says the beliefs of her religion are far from evil, and promises nothing harmful will take place at the festival.”

It’s nice to see some sympathetic local coverage, though I really wish journalists would get over the “self-described” epithet when talking about Pagan clergy. Can you imagine the trouble if they referred to a local evangelical leader as a “self-described” pastor? Here’s hoping the upcoming festival is as uneventful as the recent fundraiser that was held.

Interview with Stephen Prothero: I realize that religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, has been somewhat divisive amongst my readership, but I think both critics and supporters might enjoy listening to this short interview with him on the State of Belief radio show/podcast.

This weekend on State of Belief, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero critiques the premise that all the world’s religions are essentially the same.  He joins host Welton Gaddy to discuss his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

You can download the whole program, here. Or you can subscribe to State of Belief’s podcast.

The End of the WASPs? The Wall Street Journal, prompted by the looming reality of a Protestant Christian-free Supreme Court of the United Sates, examines the decline of America’s Protestant Establishment (aka the white anglo-saxon protestants, or WASPs) and what that might mean for our future.

“The Protestant downfall can be attributed many things: the deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections. Yet many also point to the shifting dynamics of the faith itself, with mainline Protestantism giving way to the more fire-and-brimstone brands of Evangelicals in recent decades. The Episcopal Church, usually seen as the church of the Establishment, has seen some of the most pronounced declines in recent years.”

The article also points out that Hindus and Jews are shifting the demographics of affluence away from the Protestant standard of generations past. Meanwhile, Diana Butler Bass at Beliefnet heaves a great sigh for the quiet passing of Protestant cultural dominance.

“I will miss the fact that there will be no one with Protestant sensibilities on the court, no one who understands the nuances of one of America’s oldest and most traditional religions–and the religion that deeply shaped American culture and law … I can’t help but think that losing the lived memory of American Protestantism will be a loss for all of us indeed.”

I think the various “virtues” that are ascribed to Protestants by the Wall Street Journal and Bass are a bit over-stated, and not as exclusive as some would be led to believe (I even agree with Rod Dreher that this isn’t a big deal). But I do think this yet another sign of us moving into a post-Christian America, one where Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity, is just one voice among many, and not the driving cultural force it once was.

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

Top Story: The issue of sectarian prayers before government meetings may be heading to the courts again, this time in Lancaster, California. After the ACLU of Southern California demanded that the Lancaster City Council stop having sectarian prayers before meetings, a local ballot initiative was overwhelmingly passed in support of the prayers.

More than 75 percent of voters in the Antelope Valley city gave their OK Tuesday to Measure I, which sought public approval for officials to select clergy of different faiths to open meetings with invocations “without restricting the content based on their beliefs, including references to Jesus Christ.”

But something being popular doesn’t make it constitutional, and even though the invocation process is supposed to be random, a legal fig-leaf to ward off lawsuits, the overwhelmingly Christian population of Lancaster has meant that most of the prayers have been to Jesus Christ. On top of this, recently re-elected Lancaster mayor Mayor R. Rex Parris made it abundandtly clear what sort of community he feels he is leading.

“We’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that,”

Those comments came in the wake of Lancaster City Councilwoman Sherry Marquez saying that beheadings were “what the Muslim religion is all about”. So to say that things are tense in Lancaster, religiously speaking, would be fair. In an opinion piece published today by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, they discusses the inevitability of a lawsuit, the current tangle of legal precedent regarding religion in the public sphere, and why the Lancaster invocation program is unconstitutional despite its randomness.

“People of varying religious beliefs should be able to attend council meetings, or any other legislative sessions, without feeling marginalized … given the dominance of Christian congregations in almost all corners of the country, a rotating guest list is going to result more often than not in Christian prayer … Though a nondenominational prayer might satisfy the vast majority of Americans, aren’t atheists, agnostics, members of polytheistic religions and, for example, Buddhists — whose faith does not include a belief in a supernatural-related God — entitled to feel equally comfortable at these sessions? … there is no getting around the fact that what the courts call nonsectarian prayer is actually polysectarian monotheistic prayer. To someone who isn’t from one of those faiths — primarily Christianity, Judaism and Islam — this sure looks like establishment of a particular religious belief.”

I applaud the LA Times for actually acknowledging the existence of polytheists when pondering sectarian invocations and various permutations of ceremonial deism. You can bet that I’ll be keeping track of this (inevitable) case as it works its way through the courts. As for the Lancaster City Council, they are supposedly going to begin a series of discussions to promote “greater intercultural understanding”, but I’m not going to hold my breath for any major changes in the attitudes of local politicians.

Millennials and Post-Christianity: USA Today reports on a rather explosive survey conducted by LifeWay Christian Resources that suggests most young adults, even Christian-identified young adults, aren’t really interested in Christianity or its religious institutions.

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows. If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.

Only around 15% are “deeply committed” to Christianity, around 8% belong to “non-Christian” faiths, and most young Christians just aren’t interested in proselytizing. This data, if it holds true, could mean that post-Christian future I keep talking about may be here a lot sooner than we imagined, making the legal maneuvers by conservative Christians to enshrine Christianity in the public square nothing more than a desperate rearguard action.

That Bones Episode About Witches: Remember how I mentioned that forensics/cop dramedy Bones would be airing a special Kathy Reichs-penned episode, “The Witch in the Wardrobe”, that will air on May 6th? Well, here’s the teaser video.

Leaving aside for the moment Booth’s crack about people you don’t want to see naked, and the various stereotypes that will surely be dragged out, I am cautiously optimistic about this episode since Reichs has sympathetically tackled Wicca before in her novels. So I’ll be tuning in, and will let you know what I thought of it.

Livingston Parish Still Doesn’t Like Pagans: Remember Livingston Parish in Louisiana? You know, the place that passed an obviously religiously-motivated ban on fortune-telling, were taken to court by a local Wiccan, defended the law against the advice of their lawyer, and then lost? Well it looks like Perry Rushing, chief of operations for the Sheriff’s Office, is on the same page as the Parish Council.

“A scheduled pagan festival is under the scrutiny of the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office. “Obviously, we don’t like this type of activity, but if they are following all of the laws to the letter of the law, then we can’t do anything about it,” Perry Rushing, chief of operations for the Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday. “We vehemently oppose this type of activity in Livingston Parish.” The pagan festival is scheduled to be held the last four days in May at Gryphon’s Nest Campground Inc. at 19306 Bull Run Road in southeastern Livingston Parish.”

Here’s a tip to the Sheriff’s Office, you better make sure that festival isn’t harassed, either by you, or by trouble-makers who think your comments mean you won’t be on the job. You see, you’re now on the record as being “vehemently opposed” to the event, opening up your performance to outside scrutiny. I’d keep in mind what idealogical rigidity did for the Parish Council and act accordingly.

What’s Wrong With a Black Heimdall? Some folks are up in arms over the decision to cast a black actor, Idris Elba, in the role of Heimdall in the Thor movie. You see, Nordic gods are supposed to be all white (except Hel, of course, who’s literally half-black)!

At the beginning of the month he told a media conference that he saw his casting as an encouraging step. His view was not shared among the more vehement of fans. ”This PC crap has gone too far!” wailed one. ”Norse deities are not of an African ethnicity! … It’s the principle of the matter. It’s about respecting the integrity of the source material, both comics and Norse mythologies.” Fellow fans were quick to nod their horn-helmeted heads. ”At the risk of sounding like a bigot, I think this is nuts!” said another …  Elba, who shot to fame as the erudite and thoughtful gangster Stringer Bell in the critically acclaimed television series The Wire, has addressed such concerns in recent interviews. ”There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character?” he told the British magazine TV Times. ”Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

It should be pointed out that this is an adaptation of a comic book, and not, say, an adaptation of the Eddas. Not to get all nerdy here, but to echo someone else’s point, the Marvel comics gods are extra-dimensional alien beings, they aren’t “Nordic” in any cultural sense. Further, the comic books have strayed from the “lore” so many times that anyone trying to make an argument about fidelity to a cultural pantheon in the real world is seriously barking up the wrong tree. Besides, I always thought the gods could appear in any form they wished, even “white” Nordic gods.

Thorn’s Podcast Pledge Drive: In a quick final note, author and ritualist T. Thorn Coyle is holding a pledge drive in support of her excellent podcast Elemental Castings (full disclosure, I’ve been interviewed for it), which she has professionally produced at a recording studio.

“The quality that so many of you have remarked upon comes partially because the podcasts are recorded by professionals in a studio, rather than on my computer at home. This costs money. Inspired by the Wild Hunt’s Winter Pledge Drive, my hope is that if you enjoy the podcasts, you will make a Beltane pledge to donate $1-2 per episode so that we can keep providing these amazing conversations to the magickal community for purposes of education and enjoyment.”

All the details you need to donate can be found, here.

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