Archives For Religion

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

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

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

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

Photo: VICE / Phil Clarke Hill

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

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

Shinto and Politics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 5, 2014 — 14 Comments

Back in November I pointed to an article in the Japan Times on the recent ascent of a politically oriented brand of Shinto, the indigenous faith of that island nation. Because of the role Shinto played in Japan during World War II, this has made some people very nervous, despite protestations from organizations like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership that their mission is merely “renewing spiritual values” in their homeland.

“In the past, Ise Jingu (shrine) was the fountainhead for unifying politics and religion and national polity fundamentalism,” author Hisashi Yamanaka recently told the Asahi newspaper. “Abe’s act is clearly a return to the ways before World War II.”

After I linked to that article,  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a polytheist who has participated in many Shinto ceremonies at a local temple in Washington state, warned against engaging in “Shinto-y slope arguments.” 

“I don’t think that a better understanding of Japan’s Shinto cultural and religious heritage being given to students in modern Japan is a bad thing at all–in fact, they would greatly benefit from knowing more about the symbols and phenomena which their parents revere but are often at a loss to explain, particularly in the post-World War II period for the reasons described above. There is no “Shinto-y slope” involved in knowing more about this religion, which could provide an important corrective to corporate greed and environmental degradation not only worldwide, but also within Japan specifically (especially in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster), which is sorely needed in the world today. The people who advocate such a return to their indigenous values do so in a context in which the questions of religious and cultural separation are not as clear as they are in Western contexts, nor are they as relevant. And, I really don’t think that the people involved, no matter how stern and formal they may be, are foolish enough to suggest some of the excesses that occurred in earlier State Shinto contexts be replicated today–or, at least, let’s hope they aren’t thinking in those directions, and attempt to assume the best of intentions meanwhile until proven otherwise rather than resorting to the fallacious “slippery slope” arguments, no matter how tempting and popular they may be.”

So, with the qualification that we shouldn’t rush to judgment, it’s time to revisit the issue of politics and Shinto, this time involving our own Vice President, and the issue of diplomatic relations between Japan and other Asian powers like South Korea and China. It all revolves around a visit to the politically volatile (even in Japan) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

“U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour trying to persuade Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, two weeks before a trip there sparked a furor in Asia, diplomatic sources said. Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, on Dec. 26, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading Washington to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner. With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to visit in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring nations will likely be high on the agenda. The turmoil, which undermines American interests in the region, could dash Abe’s hopes of boosting Japan’s U.S. security alliance.”

As noted in the Japan Times piece, Prime Minister Abe is deeply invested in the revitalization of Shinto within Japan, and sees Shinto as a way of restoring an essential “Japanese-ness.”

“This group is dedicated to “restoring Japanese-ness” by promoting Shinto values. They oppose female imperial succession, promote official visits by prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, and oppose the construction of a non-religious site of war commemoration and the ‘removal’ of the spirits of  war criminals from Yasukuni, push for constitutional revision and patriotic and moral education, oppose free trade of agricultural products because of what they describe as traditional ties between rice cultivation and Shinto, oppose giving permanent residents the right to vote in local elections and the sale of forest land, water resources, or ‘important property’ to foreigners, and oppose separate family names for married couples and “gender free education” which they see as examples of support for equality between the sexes gone too far.” – Matthew Penney, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Concordia University, Montreal

In short, they’re the rough Shinto equivalent of culturally conservative Christians here in America. But why is Joe Biden interfering? Why would the American embassy in Japan make plain their disappointment in Abe’s visit to this controversial shrine? Because it is destabilizing relations with other Asian powers, who see these moves as overtly political, a return to a Japan that once invaded their territory. The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, issued an editorial advocating for a secular war shrine, noting the ramifications of having political leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

“The world is feeling uneasy as Cabinet members and other senior government officials of Japan and China trade barbs at international conferences over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views about history-related issues. Abe has stressed his willingness to hold talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, repeating, “The door is always open for dialogue.” But such overtures alone cannot make a difference. It is time for the Japanese leader to start taking concrete action to treat the festering sores in Japan’s relations with these countries. [...]  We also ask people who support the prime minister’s visits to the shrine, especially young generations, to listen to our thoughts about the matter. The feeling of mourning over the deaths of war victims should be respected. But Yasukuni Shrine cannot be described as a simple place for praying for the spirits of the war dead. It is a religious facility burdened by its past links with Japan’s wartime militarism. If the prime minister or other Japanese political leaders visit the shrine, their acts hurt the feelings of many people in Japan as well. Yasukuni is fundamentally different in nature from the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. Those who don’t learn from history will suffer reprisals from history. And young people with hopes for a bright future will suffer the most from such reprisals. We hope this will not be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, the United State’s involvement in this issue has not gone unnoticed here at home. Tez M. Clark at The Harvard Crimson advocates a “hands-off” diplomatic strategy, saying the government went too far in publicly chiding the Prime Minister for his visit to the shrine.

“What makes Abe’s most recent visit unique is the fact that the Ambassador Caroline B. Kennedy ’80, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan, issued a statement condemning the visit, stressing that “the United States is disappointed.” Personally, I agree with the U.S.—and with the 69 percent of Japanese who said Abe should have considered diplomatic relations—that Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni shrine was rash and insensitive, given the current political climate in East Asia. Unlike Germany, the other major Axis power, Japan has not sincerely made an effort to apologize for its brutality during the war. Despite numerous apologies by the central government over the decades, Japanese politicians have been consistently insensitive to the countries harmed by the Japanese Imperial Army—one of the more recent examples being a Japanese mayor who referred to the wartime rapes of thousands of East Asian women as “necessary.” But while Abe’s actions were not optimal, the U.S. overstepped its bounds by issuing a reprimand for his conduct. Kennedy’s statement was especially impolitic in tone, treating a head of state as though he were a petulant child.”

The intersection of religion and politics will never be simple, especially when something as seemingly simple as a temple visit can ripple out into damaging international relations. This story about the politics of Shinto in Japan should be sign that we all need to understand religions that fall outside the monotheistic norm far better, especially for those who engage in religious journalism. Most of the time, Shinto is presented an entertaining cultural sideline for foreign reporters in Japan. Focusing on the dances, movements, music, and spectacle, with very little understanding of the context. This needs to change. Shinto is as important a topic in Japan as Christianity is here in America. It is a faith that helps define the nation, and is key to understanding motivations that can seem baffling to an outsider.

“A survey by the Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 46 per cent of Japanese thought that he should not go there, while 40 per cent said it was not a big deal. What mattered most for Abe was quite simple — 56 per cent of those who voted for the Abe administration supported the visit, while for 35 per cent it was a no-no. For Japan’s domestic consumption, Abe’s visit has given him a much-needed boost as he continues to struggle to beef up the country’s economic growth. He has added a new arrow — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stimulus — to the three-arrows package of fiscal incentives, monetary loosening and structural reforms. Unsettling mood However, the mood is unsettling within the region. The further deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea could have far-reaching economic repercussions for economic integration in Asean and East Asia.”

For modern Pagans, a deeper understanding of Shinto is also beneficial, not just as a study of a non-Christian indigenous faith that has survived into the post-Christian modern era, but in understanding what a revival of modern Paganisms (and polytheisms) could mean. What will the beliefs and religious structures we endorse translate into once we have a taste of real power? Are we ready not just for infrastructure, but for the way shifting beliefs shifts a culture? Japan is a nation wrestling with how best to engage with Shinto in the modern world, and different factions have different ideas of how that should happen. This diplomatic incident gives us an opportunity for deeper thought and study, calling us to pay closer attention to faith outside our own borders.

The island country of New Zealand has just released data about religion from its 2013 Census, and the figures point to a nation where the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are the largest grouping, with Catholicism trailing in the distance.

Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō, over 10 metres high and are only accessible by boat or kayak. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō, over 10 metres high and are only accessible by boat or kayak. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“According to Census 2013, 4 of 10 Kiwis have said they follow no religion which makes New Zealand one of the most secular countries in the world. The data revealed that a Christian majority in New Zealand is uncertain with less than 1.9 million Kiwis affiliated with a church compared to more than 2 million in 2006. Paul Morris, a religious studies professor at Victoria University, said New Zealand was moving into “new territory” with Christianity no longer a prominent part of society. Mr Morris said Christianity is not the clear majority when it comes to religion since 1901.”

Anglican Ink notes that the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in New Zealand have both been shedding numbers, and another Anglican site points out that the Christian population is getting older and older.

“Last census there were 41,000 Anglicans over the age of 80, only slightly less than those under 10. But this still means that many Anglicans in 2006 have changed their affiliation since then – probably to “none”. Meanwhile, for the first time in New Zealand history Roman Catholics outnumber Anglicans. Catholics now number 492,324, although they too have declined slightly from the last census. The big growth has been in those of “no religion,” up from 32.2% last census to 38.6% this census. And when we add in those who objected to state their religion or who didn’t answer the question, a majority of New Zealanders (50.82%) now have no religious profession.”

So, a country that’s probably most famous (in American minds at any rate) for being the place where the Lords of the Rings films were made (among other blockbuster fantasy pictures), is now also famous for being a country that’s part of a slowly encroaching post-Christian West. So, now that Christianity is definitively on the wane (outside of a small number of Protestant denominations), are religious minorities growing? What about modern Paganism? Are there many Pagans in New Zealand? Yes, yes there are. If you tally up the Wiccans, Animists, Druids, Pantheists, and self-declared Earth/Nature Based religionists, they number over 5000.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 9.04.44 AM

Now, around 5000 Pagans doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that New Zealand isn’t only about Christians and “nones,” it’s one of the most ethnically diverse nations on Earth. Thanks to where New Zealand is positioned, there’s a large Hindu community, a small Shinto community and, of course, Māori traditional beliefs, and Māori new religious movements like Ringatū and Rātana. The cumulative effect is that New Zealand must govern a nation where no single sect or religion holds absolute sway. Post-Christianity doesn’t mean the absence of Christianity, merely that it must co-exist with other faiths within a culture.

“A post-Christian world is one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but that has gradually assumed values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian (and further may not necessarily reflect any world religion’s standpoint, or may represent a combination of either several religions or none). Generally, therefore, post-Christian tends to refer to the loss of Christianity’s monopoly, if not its followers, in historically Christian societies.”

So, in short, New Zealand is a more diverse, and less traditionally religious place. It can be seen as a bellwether for larger nations that are undergoing the same process, and hopefully, we can all learn from how the island nation moves forward in serving their diverse land. For more on Paganism in New Zealand, see the website for the New Zealand chapter of the Pagan Federation International.

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.

Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Ronald Hutton (center) with Pagan scholars and Cherry Hill Seminary staff.

  • The Economist reviews Ronald Hutton’s new book “Pagan Britain,” and finds that it presents “more questions than answers.” Quote: “Mr Hutton leads readers to question not only the ways in which Britain’s ancient past is analysed, but also how all history is presented. He is also a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes. Though he offers many interpretations of each archaeological finding, such variety serves to expand the reader’s imagination rather than constrain it. Towards the end of this engrossing book, Mr Hutton laments the way the open-ended questions of ancient history and archaeology appear unsuited to television, a medium that prefers definitive answers.” The book is out now in the UK, and will be released in the United States in February (though it seems you can purchase the Kindle edition now).
  • Courts in the UK have, for the first time, awarded a Wiccan monetary damages over claims that she was fired for her religious beliefs. Quote: “Karen Holland, 45, was awarded more than  £15,000 by the courts in what is believed to be the first payout of its kind in  Britain. Her Sikh bosses insisted they fired her after  they caught her stealing. But she accused them of turning on her when  they found out she was a Wicca-practising pagan and took them to an employment  tribunal, which ruled in her favour.” As the article states, her employers were Sikh, not Christians, as some might suspect. Her employers say they will appeal the decision. More on this story here.
  • The killing of women accused of witchcraft and sorcery in Papua New Guinea continues to be a hard problem to solve, with tough news laws facing the issue of proper enforcement. Quote: “Nancy Robinson from the United Nations Human Rights Commission says toughening up the laws is no solution if they’re not implemented. ‘Implementation is the big obstacle,’ she said. ‘You may have a law but then if you don’t have the police capacity to enforce it, or if the police themselves view the situation of sorcery related killings with indifference then we still have a big issue of how to address impunity. Those who perpetrate this violence know full well they’ll get off scot free – this has to change.'” You can see all of my coverage of this issue, here.
  • The Quietus revisits Enya’s “Watermark” on its 25th anniversary. Quote: “Essentially, Watermark is a deeply weird album in the context of its bright and garish era, and as well as that a strongly and confidently female album. It also stands out as a record inspired by spiritual music in a mainstream pop world that has in recent years chosen to end the centuries-old musical dialogue between the secular and religious, the sacred and profane.” As the author points out, Enya’s influence has never been stronger, with critically acclaimed artists like Julianna Barwick employing elements of her sound.
  • There’s going to be an epic fantasy movie starring Egyptian gods? Apparently so. Quote: “Up-and-coming Australian actress Courtney Eaton has nabbed the female lead in Summit’s epic fantasy Gods of Egypt. Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites and Geoffrey Rush are the male leads in the story, which is set in motion when a ruling god named Set (Butler) kills another, Osiris. When Osiris’ son Horus (Coster-Waldau) fails in his attempt at revenge and has his eyed plucked out, it’s up to a young human thief (Thwaites) to defeat the mad god Set. Eaton will play a slave girl whom the thief falls for.” Currently scheduled for a 2015 release.
Solstice Stonehenge revelers in 2009.

Solstice Stonehenge revelers in 2009.

  • This week a new visitor center will open at the world-famous Stonehenge in England. Its goal? To give visitors who may never walk among the (restricted access) stones, and sense of that experience, in addition to giving an overview of the many scholarly theories about Stonehenge’s purpose. Quote: “With tourists and day-trippers barred since the late Seventies from entering the circle in order to protect the stones from damage, there has been a fierce and long-running debate on how the site should best be displayed. But on Wednesday a new £27 million centre will open at Stonehenge with a 360 degree cinema at its heart where visitors can ‘experience’ standing in the ancient circle.” Currently, Pagans are allowed access at the solstices and equinoxes, but many want greater access. Concept art for the center can be found here.
  • The Christian cross that stands on Mt. Soledad in California, which some had the audacity to claim was “secular,” has been ordered removed by a federal court. Quote: “A federal court has ordered the removal of the controversial Mt. Soledad cross near San Diego. The towering symbol of Christianity, built in 1954 on the peak of Mt. Soledad, is a 43 foot high Latin cross – and it sits on government-owned land. By ruling that the cross violated the First Amendment, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns has tried to put an end to a 24-year-old legal battle over the constitutionality of the display. Critics have long argued that the cross, built in 1954 and dedicated on Easter Sunday as a “gleaming white symbol of Christianity,” clearly violates the First Amendment.” It isn’t known if an appeal will be made.
  • Protestant Christian notions of “religion” are being destabilized. Quote: “Religion is nothing if not practiced, nothing if not communally created by and for people who find meaning, yes, but also find ways to put our bodies into relation with other bodies. Religions are sensually established and engaged through sights and smells and sounds, as human bodies sway and sing, pray and play. Rituals are carried out, ancient stories are told anew, the candles are burned, and the flowers garlanded. Religion is embodied practice, done with others, extending far beyond ‘belief in god.'”
  • Religion Clause points out that the Defense Authorization Bill, recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, contains religious freedom language for military personnel. Here’s the language: “Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such expressions of belief as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.” So talk about polytheism all you want, Pagans!
  • Either you have to include everyone, including Satanists, or you have to remove sectarian expressions of religion from federal property. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
  • Here’s an article discussing the traditional African beliefs and practices employed in the funeral and burial rites for South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Quote: “‘We as Africans have rites of passage, whether it is a birth, marriage or funeral. Mandela will be sent off into the spiritual world so that he is welcomed in the world of ancestors. And also so that he doesn’t get angry,’ said Nokuzola Mndende, a scholar of African religion.”
  • Remember that story about Hopi relics being sold in France against their objections? Well, it looks like the Annenberg Foundation purchased the items, and will be donating the items back to the two tribes who were leading the protest. Quote: “Hopi cultural leader Sam Tenakhongva said in the same statement that the tribe hopes the Annenberg decision to intervene “sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility.” “They simply cannot be put up for sale,” he said.”

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

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.

Still from 1973's "The Wicker Man".

Still from 1973’s “The Wicker Man”.

  • With the new “final cut” of the 1973 cult film The Wicker Man debuting in British theaters, a number of outlets are running new reviews, and the Guardian runs down how the film was made. Quote: “Christopher Lee was the obvious choice for Lord Summerisle. He had a patrician air, and this wonderful voice for incantations to the gods. Casting Howie was much harder. Michael York turned it down, David Hemmings had other fish to fry. Edward Woodward had always played counter-establishment parts on TV, but actors are always pleased to be cast against their image. He understood the script perfectly and grew into the uptightness of the role beautifully – the consummate actor.” Here are a selection of recent reviews: The Guardian, The Scotsman,  WhatCulture!, The Hollywood Reporter, The Arts Desk, and Salon.com.
  • At The Atlantic, Benson Daitz writes about how he oversaw a Santeria-style exorcism for prison inmate, and why that was the right decision. Quote: “Ron placed a large brown grocery bag on the floor, from which he produced a beautiful king conch shell. We all walked into the exam room, and standing in front of Jose’s staring face, Ron lifted the conch shell above his head and smashed it into a hundred pieces on the floor. Then he picked up a sharp piece of shell, gripped Jose’s left wrist, and cut an X into his forearm, blood oozing out from the pattern. Then, with another piece of shell, he cut a matching X into his own left forearm. Jose did not flinch. Facing Jose, Ron bound their cut arms together, palm-to-palm, with a red bandana. They spent the night in the clinic like that, tied together.”
  • At Aeon Magazine, Nigel Warburton argues that conversation, not isolation, is essential to breakthroughs and innovations in philosophy. Quote: “Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance [...] Besides, why would a thinker cast seeds on barren soil? Surely it is better to sow then where they’re likely to grow, to share your ideas in the way most suited to the audience, to adapt what you say to whoever is in front of you.”
  • Guardian religion editor Andrew Brown poses the question: How do religions die? Quote: “Perhaps it is easier to think in terms of gods dying, rather than religions. And if we were to classify religions as involving different forms of worship, then you could certainly think that the extinction of worship towards a particular deity would count as the extinction of that religion. Certainly we can be sure that the religion of the Aztecs is dead with their gods, along with hundreds of thousands of others we can no longer reconstruct, and all the pre-literate ones whose existence we remain quite unaware of. Robert Bellah has a nice passage on this ‘Perhaps the end of Mesopotamian Civilization was marked, not by the last cuneiform document to be produced, but by the last prayer to be uttered to Marduk or Assur, but of that we have no record.'” Considering how many Pagans are devoted to reviving and reconstructing belief systems thought lost, this seems like a provocative question.
  • At the Religion in American History blog, John L. Crow takes a look at African-American esoteric religion. Quote: “One of the most significant African American religious tradition to fully incorporate a large variety of esoteric components, including portions from the Moorish Temple, is Dr. Malachi Zador (Dwight) York’s United Nuwaubian Nation. Operating for over 40 years, the Nuwaubian’s have an active presence in America, Canada, and the U.K. They have established temples and bookstores in a variety of cities, recruited tens of thousands of members, and yet, to date, there is only one monograph about them, The Nuwaubian Nation: Black Spirituality and State Control (Ashgate 2010) by Susan Palmer, and one significant essay in the JAAR, by Julius H. Bailey in 2006. Most other references in academic literature to the Nuwaubians are in passing, and usually only related to its incorporation of UFO and aliens in its religious teachings. Yet, UFOs only scratches the surface of how involved with esotericism the Nuwaubians are.” Fascinating stuff.
John Constantine. Art by Andrea Sorrentino.

John Constantine. Art by Andrea Sorrentino.

  • The occult comic character John Constintine, who was once dramatized on screen by Keanu Reeves, is in development for a television series at NBC. Quote: “NBC has ordered a script from Warner Bros. TV that’s based upon the DC Comics anti-hero John Constantine, an enigmatic and irreverent con man-turned-reluctant supernatural detective who is thrust into the role of defending citizens against dark forces.” I would like to take this opportunity to implore the writers to mine the early Jamie Delano years for material, instead of the crasser, and in my mind inferior (though more popular), Garth Ennis years.
  • Shoma Chaudhury writes about the role of women in India, and how they are trapped between the image of “slut” and Goddess. Quote: “The hopeful story about India is located elsewhere. The success of these women has a deeper foundation. Crucially, unlike almost every other democracy in the world – unlike either the US or UK – equal rights for women were enshrined in the very conception of the nation. Unlike First World countries, where women had to fight elemental battles for something as basic as suffrage rights, the Indian Constitution recognised equal rights for women from the very moment of India’s birth. No matter how imperfect the practice therefore, what we have as moral ammunition, are sublime articles of faith. It would’ve been wondrous if these articles of faith had worked as a miracle cure. But pitted against centuries-old social attitudes, they function rather as slow oxygen in the system. This oxygenation, however, should not be underestimated.” I think a crucial point here is that goddess worship, and legal rights, aren’t enough. That cultural attitudes must also change in order for women to be truly empowered.
  • Two accused “witches” in Zimbabwe are claiming in court that they are actresses hired by a local “prophet” to drum up business. It seems like it was a big con-job, one that authorities initially fell for. Quote: “A police source said: ‘His plan was to see people flocking to his so-called shrine – so spiritually powerful witches couldn’t fly over it. It was all a grand set-up.’ Police and prosecutors will face uncomfortable questions over how they took the women’s story at face value – even going to the extent of presenting them in court as witches.” Where-ever there’s a moral panic, there will be someone wanting to profit from it.
  • The Weekly Standard looks at the enduring popularity of supernatural fiction. Quote: “Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are.”
  • Druid Ci Cyfarth poses the question: What can a Pagan learn from the Five Pillars of Islam?  Quote: “In this article and the next, I’ll be looking at my understanding of each of the Five Pillars of Islam, considering what the practices of modern Pagans might have in common with Islam, and thinking about how Islam might inspire us to explore new elements of our paths we may not have considered.” Here’s part two of the two-part series.

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

For the last year and a half, 2011 census data has been trickling out from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations, each giving a picture of the growth of modern Pagan religions and related belief systems. First out of the gate was Australia, where Pagan faiths grew, though modestly. Still, that growth was enough to underline the expanding religious diversity of the island nation.

ABS Queensland census figures. Picture: Megan Slade Source: CourierMail

ABS Queensland census figures. Picture: Megan Slade Source: CourierMail

“Religion is the only optional question on the census form; there is no requirement to give any answer. But in the last census 16,849 were happy to declare themselves as pagans, 8413 Wiccan witches, 2454 Satanists, 1046 said they were druids, 1395 pantheists, 2542 Zoroastrians, 2921 follow Jainism, 2161 Scientologists, 1485 are into theosophy and 1391 are Rastafarian. The cloak of secrecy has dropped. ‘We live in an era in which there is a religious supermarket and punters pick and choose the religion that corresponds best to their line of thinking,’ said expert in religion, Associate Professor Pradip Thomas from the University of Queensland.”

After Australia, came England and Wales, where the number of modern Pagans nearly doubled since the last census.

“Now, initial 2011 religion figures for England and Wales have been released, and while the numbers haven’t exploded into the hundreds of thousands, adherents to some form of modern Paganism has nearly doubled in the last ten years. Depending on how forgiving you want to be as to which groups are “Pagan” in some form, they now number over 80,000. In addition, the base number of people identifying as “Pagan” shot up to nearly 60,000.”

Now, Scotland has released its 2011 census data, including how many Scottish Pagans there are.

other_religions

Putting it all together, it means we have over 5000 adherents of Pagan-related faiths in Scotland. Meanwhile, the number of people claiming “no religion” continues to rise in all of these countries. As James R. Lewis might put it, Pagan faiths have continued to mature and grow at normal (and sustainable) rates after the 1990s “Teen Witch” boom. Plus, looking at new data from the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC), which looks at the religious beliefs of American college students, it seems clear that steady growth will continue for the foreseeable future, and may even expand in the next couple decades.

Worldview by Religious Identification

Worldview by Religious Identification

“Overall, the Spirituals are closer to the Religious when it comes to the supernatural but closer to the Seculars when it comes to the social and political. Most claim an institutional religious identity. They are closest to the tradition that the American religious historian Catherine Albanese calls Metaphysical in her magisterial volume, A Republic of Mind and Spirit. While Kosmin and Keysar’s survey is not a random sample of college students in a statistically strict sense, the range and size of their sample is more than sufficient to make a strong provisional claim. A dozen years ago, they transformed the world of American religious demography when they discovered that the proportion of Nones had doubled in the 1990s. The rise of the Spirituals may be next.”

As you can see “spiritual but not religious” students are far more inclined toward “other religions” than their secular or religious peers, and there’s growing evidence that this category is on the rise. In short, modern Paganism is growing, will continue to grow, and shows no signs of slowing down in the years to come.

When I first started blogging about religion and Paganism, I was an active follower of sites like Get Religion, The Revealer, and the many personal blogs of “Godbeat” religion journalism pros. I didn’t so much consider myself one of their number, more an essential link between mainstream religion journalism and my increasingly diverse community. An advocacy journalist hoping to see better reporting about modern Paganism.  Back in 2009, when the existential crisis of traditional media upheaval was in full swing, I even wrote about the exodus of longtime religion journalists and what that meant for us.

“What has become ever-clearer to me is that it may be years before the mainstream media reorganizes and stabilizes enough to start spending resources on religion reporting again. In those years the only religion stories that will be getting regular coverage are those that will involve millions of people or dollars (or votes). Religious leaders will have to be powerful (or scandalous) enough to demand attention from reporters on the “hard” news-beats. This will leave minority faiths with an ever-dwindling access to news that could have a direct effect on their lives. Religion coverage could increasingly become an editorial page instead of an investigation [...] if we can’t report on ourselves, we may find no one else willing or able to.”

GetReligion_bioFast forward to 2013, and niche mainstream journalism, especially religion reporters, are finding it tough as the “news hole” shrinks. As ever, Get Religion, now part of the Patheos empire, sounds a somewhat somber tone.

“It will be interesting to see if the Tennessean, a Gannett paper, fills Smietana’s position. USA Today, Gannett’s flagship paper, lost its longtime religion writer Cathy Grossman earlier this year when she took a buyout. If USA Today has hired a new religion writer, I’d love to know about it. I know that The Associated Press had two full-time national religion writers until a few years ago. As far as I know, Rachel Zoll is the only one left. The Dallas Morning News, which once had an award-winning religion section and three or four full-time religion writers, has no Godbeat pros, as far as I know. And after my last post, Kevin Palau informed GetReligion that The Oregonian’s religion and ethics writer Nancy Haught told him in an email that she had been let go.”

The truth is that disruptions caused by the rise of digital “new” media (which isn’t that new anymore) haven’t really abated. We saw former religion-site king Beliefnet slide into feel-good irrelevance, CNN and HuffPo launch religion sections, the rise of Patheos (which even hosted this site for one year), and the rise of the Washington Post’s opinion-centered On Faith section (which has sort of faded a bit in recent years). Meanwhile, the old Godbeat pros keep moving to greener pastures. The shift has very much been in favor of opinion forums over journalism, because everyone loves a soapbox, and paying professional journalists to cover a beat costs money (while many people are willing to give their opinion for free). Sites like Religion News Service seem increasingly like a newsy oasis in a sea of commentary.

Looking at the state of religion reporting today, my words from 2009 seem somewhat prophetic. Few institutions are interested in pouring more money into religion journalism, and the religion journalism we do get is almost exclusively focused on major scandals, whatever the Pope said this week, and whatever conservative Christians want to argue about. Good incisive coverage of modern Paganism, or of religious minorities in general, has been few and far between. The recent victory of getting Asatru and related terms added to the Religion Stylebook only came about because of a mainstream media blunder regarding reporting on the Thor’s Hammer symbol being approved for veteran’s grave markers and headstones.

“[Religion Newswriters Association President] Ann Rogers. After reading about my interactions with Public Radio international over its poorly researched and disrespectful coverage of Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” the modern iteration of Old Germanic religion), Ms. Rodgers asked me to pick ten terms important to Ásatrú and write definitions for the online guide. Before my submissions, the guide contained no entries related to Ásatrú.”

Beyond that? We enter the realm of tabloid sensationalism. Bad coverage of a star’s adherence to an African Traditional Religion,  dirt-digging masquerading as interest in better coverage, and bottom-feeding trolls hoping to get somebody offended. If you look closely, you’ll notice a trend: Paganism, when it hits the national wires, usually does so from editorial writers or tabloids, not from the serious “Godbeat” pros that places like Get Religion lionize. We’re simply not on their radar, despite a number of compelling and important stories involving modern Paganism. For instance, a lot of ink has been spilled lately on the upcoming Supreme Court hearing for Town of Greece v. Galloway, but not a single one has noted the important role modern Pagan faiths have played in shaping invocation policy, or the fact that a Wiccan was one of the non-Christian prayer-givers that Greece put forward to inoculate themselves from lawsuits. We have literally been invisible because the “Godbeat” is too busy parsing the Pope (or scanning the classified ads, I suppose).

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

“These cases, and the “model invocation policy” itself, are haunted by the involvement and activism of modern Pagans. It isn’t just that Greece included a Wiccan sectarian prayer among thousands of Christian prayers. The ADF’s policy blueprint was partially constructed around two 4th Circuit cases involving public prayers and modern Pagans: Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped create the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. These two cases helped set the precedents that advocates of sectarian prayer have been navigating through, and their efforts at mob-rule prayer sectarianism will finally be tested by America’s highest court.”

0f5d2972-2c89-4c6e-aaee-9ad8ede31df9I suppose I shouldn’t blame them, resources are tight, and you’ve got to sell papers/draw page-views, but I think the fact that Religion News Service published a story about the “abused goddesses” ad campaign without talking to a single Hindu is telling (note to reporters, I rounded up some responses here for you). The message to religious minorities (intentional or not) is clear: we’re too busy, and too strained, to care about what you’re doing, even if it has larger ramifications outside of your communities. Local media outlets are somewhat better, and you can still find a number of “meet the Pagans” articles every year around Pagan Pride Day season and Halloween, but we’re trapped in a never-ending introduction loop. Always shaking hands, never getting to that serious discussion we wanted to have. So the job of reporting on our interconnected communities will increasingly fall on our own shoulders.

Just as in the early to mid 1990s, we are entering a period of intense mainstream pop-culture interest in the occult, ghost hunting, the paranormal, and above all, Witchcraft. That means eventually the attention will come, but it may not be the kind of attention we might like. We are more diverse than ever before, and the need for Pagan journalism to inform our community, and to in turn influence mainstream narratives, has never been greater. We need to redouble our efforts, and I’ve been happy to see more sites like A Bad Witch’s Blog and Invocatio working to report on their geographical/theological corner of our larger community. This November, at The Wild Hunt’s annual fund drive, I hope to expand what we can do, but we’ll speak on that another time.

Perhaps the Godbeat as we knew it needs to fade away, so a new kind of God(s)beat can emerge. One not so beholding to the all-Christianity, all the time, reporting lens. So In that sense I’m glad the Godbeat is changing, because for us, it truly can’t get any worse.

A Few Notes on Palo

Stacey Lawless —  May 24, 2013 — 9 Comments

Nsala malongo! I’ve been learning about Palo cosmology and history over the last couple of months, and slowly unraveling some of the confusion I had about how the religion works. I thought I would offer up some of what I’ve learned, detailing a little of our worldview and the fact that there are different denominations, or ramas, of Palo. (By the way: any mistakes here are entirely mine, while the goodness in this piece must be credited to my teachers.)

And without further ado . . .

The dead

The dead are the basis of everything in Palo.

We call them the bakulu, which means ancestors, but the concept of “ancestors” tends to make Americans think of family trees. “Bakulu” can (and does) refer to lineal ancestors, but the dead are so much more than that. They are the basis of all life. They are the stuff of the material world, and the sea of possibilities that configure and reconfigure the fates of the living.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence. The horizontal line represents the boundary between the living and dead.

We do think about and work with individual dead people: named ancestors, spirit guides, the beloved dead uncle who always gave you good advice. Sometimes they come to us in dreams and intuitions; sometimes, if we’re fortunate, they come to us in possession and bless us with their healing and wisdom.

But we also think of the dead as an anonymous collective, a force, a field, a sea. The KiKongo word “Kalunga” means simultaneously the collective dead, the saltwater ocean, and the cemetery. To the people of the kingdom of Kongo in central Africa, whose traditions gave birth to what would become Palo, the land of the dead lay below the sea. The surface of the sea was the demarcation between the living and the dead, a site of creative tension and power. Graves, too, were points of contact, and dirt from a grave carried the power of the deceased person within. You can still find seashells left on graves in Black family cemeteries in the United States, a trace of the old philosophy.

The spirals of conch shells symbolize the cyclical nature of existence in Kongo thought: death is hardly an end, merely a transition to a new existence. The dead are being continually reborn, crystallizing into their lineal descendants, or appearing as trees, pools and stones, plants and animals. Everything in the material world is a form of the dead, precipitating out of Kalunga like grains of salt out of seawater, to exist for a while before being dissolved again.

Nzambi

The source of the living and the dead is Nzambi a mpungu. Nzambi is neither male nor female, and is the ever-present majestic force that brought creation into being and permeates it. In Palo we tend to think of Nzambi in these terms, as the creator, because the Kongo traditions in general have been in continuous dialogue with Christianity for centuries. But Nzambi can also be thought of as the first ancestor, emphasizing the continuous cycle of life and death. In that sense, creation just is, with no beginning and no end.

The mpungos

And then there are the mpungos. Mpungu is a KiKongo word that refers to power generated by something, or, as my Tata once put it, “a hot stove can have an mpungu.” So in essence, it’s just a force. However, some lines of Palo have developed certain of the mpungos into major powers, even to the extent of conceiving of them as divinities. The Internet is full of descriptions of the mpungos, who have names such as Chola Wengue, Siete Rayos, and Zarabanda, and the tendency is to syncretize them with the Orishas of Santería. Not all ramas (which are, essentially, Palo denominations) work with the mpungos in this way, however.

The Ramas of Palo

The way a rama regards mpungos and the dead seems to be one of the major distinctions between lines of Palo. (There are many other distinctions, but they have to do with ways of conducting ritual.) There are numerous ramas, but the three main ones are Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa.

Palo Mayombe is probably the oldest one. It works primarily with the ancestors of blood and spiritual lineage, and in the past, if you were not of Bantu descent, you could not be initiated into Mayombe houses. (“Bantu” refers to a group of related African languages, of which KiKongo is one, and by extension to the ethnic groups that spoke these languages.) Mayomberos tend to see the mpungos as natural forces only, not divinities, and to downplay them in Palo practice.

Palo Briyumba developed out of Palo Mayombe and broke away from Mayombe’s ancestral focus. Briyumberos began to initiate non-Bantus. They also developed pacts with dead spirits who had no blood or lineaged connection to the Paleros, putting them to work and in some cases effectively enslaving them. Briyumba came into its own during Cuba’s wars of independence, and saw justice in conscripting the bones and souls of deceased oppressors to serve those they had formerly abused. In Briyumba, the mpungos are used to give attributes and direction to the dead who serve the Briyumbero.

Kongolese crucifix

A Kongolese crucifix

Palo Kimbisa developed in Oriente, the eastern part of the island of Cuba, and has absorbed influences from several other traditions, including Haitian Vodou. (There is a long history of contact between Oriente and Haiti, which is only about forty miles away from the eastern tip of Cuba.) Some Kimbiseros make extensive use of Christian symbolism, and some work with the Catholic saints. One theory of Kimbisa’s origins is that they lie with Kimpa Vita’s Kongolese Christian reform movement, which blossomed in the kingdom of Kongo for a few years in the eighteenth century, before being brutally repressed. Kimpa Vita had thousands of followers, many of whom were subsequently sold into slavery in the Americas. It is an intriguing theory, but nobody knows for certain if it’s true.

It is Kimbisa that regards the mpungos as divinities, finding parallels between them and the Orishas, and focusing much of their work and veneration upon them, instead of upon the dead. The dead in Kimbisa are the medium that the mpungos use to affect the world.

 * * * * *

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this. When I was starting out on this path and trying to read everything I could find on Palo, I was very confused about who or what Paleros worked with, and what was up with all the crucifixes and Orisha comparisons and whatnot. If I can straighten a little of that out for other readers and seekers, that’s great. In fact, let me try this: if you have questions about Palo, bring them up in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in my next post. (Just bear in mind that I’m new at this and there may be things I can’t answer due to ignorance or oath.) Malongo yaya!

On May 8th data from Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey was released, including data on religion. The big headline from this data is that people claiming no specific religion, often called “nones,” now make up around 24% of the Canadian population.

“Observers noted that among the survey’s most striking findings is that one in four Canadians, or 7.8 million people, reported they had no religious affiliation at all. That was up sharply from 16.5 percent from the 2001 census, and 12 percent in 1991. The Canadian trend seems to mirror but even exceed levels of non-affiliation in the United States. A 2012 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life pegged the ratio of religiously unaffiliated Americans at just under 20 percent.”

Pagans from Vancouver, Canada.

Pagans from Vancouver, Canada. (Photo: Vancouver Pagan Pride)

The National Household Survey recently replaced the compulsory census, so the results will be statistically less reliable, but this is the best new data on religion in Canada we can access. This includes information on modern Paganism. According to the new data, there are around 25,495 Pagans, of which 10,225 are Wiccans, making them the largest sub-grouping.  This is a slight bump up from 2001, where the combined number of Pagans was estimated at 21,085. So it seems the Pagan population is growing slowly, or even remaining largely static (which mirrors results in Australia). Related belief system numbers include 1,000 Pantheists, 2,230 New Age practitioners, and 15,125 Unitarians. There were also a whopping 40,195 “others” who didn’t fit any of the religious categories given, so we have no idea how many of them might be nominally Pagan in identity.

An aboriginal elder burns tobacco during a ceremony at Little Norway Park in Toronto, part of the national day of action.(Dwight Friesen/CBC)

An aboriginal elder burns tobacco during a ceremony at Little Norway Park in Toronto, part of the national day of action.(Dwight Friesen/CBC)

In addition to these numbers, a number of non-Christian faiths experienced growth over the past decade in Canada. There were 64,940 practitioners of a traditional Aboriginal spirituality in 2011, way up from 29,820 in 2001 (more on Canada’s Aboriginal peoples here). Hindus grew from around 300,000 in 2001 to around 500,00 in 2011, and Buddhists gained around 70 thousand adherents in the past decade, approaching 400,000. For more numbers, see the Statistics Canada website. On the whole, Canada is becoming less Christian, more diverse, and more individual in its religious choices. The Province of British Columbia could be a bellwether for the country’s future, a pluralistic society where its people are “travelling in several religious directions at once.”

“New data released Wednesday suggests pluralistic B.C. is travelling in several religious directions at once. Many residents are becoming more devout following a great variety of world faiths. But other residents are endorsing secular world views and drifting into private spirituality. [...] Only 41 per cent of Metro residents are Christian, compared to a national average of 67 per cent. B.C. has the fewest Christians on average of any province or territory.”

So, taken as a whole, these are very encouraging trends. But are there really only 25,495 Pagans in Canada? There’s plenty of room to argue that there are more. First, the National Household Survey is “subject to potentially higher non-response error than those derived from the census long form,” so Pagans could be undercounted. Secondly, we don’t know how many individuals who claimed “no religion” or “other religion” may well be “one of us.” It’s conceivable that thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of individual Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists are “hiding” in other categories. Still, it’s good to have some new data on Paganism from our neighbors to the north, and to know that our numbers continue to climb.

Ghosts have become popular in the last decade or so. Paranormal investigation, or “ghost hunting,” shows chronicle the adventures of people armed with an assortment of sensory equipment, most of which is easily available online in case you want to start your own investigative team. Or you can apply for admission to one of the many teams already in existence. For those who want to dabble in exploring hauntings, but not jump into the life of a researcher, there are scores of haunted sites and ghost tours you can pay to visit.

What has stirred up this interest in ghosts? One theory is that the availability of sensory devices like EMF readers and the ovilus have made it possible for more people to go out in the field and pursue their interests in the paranormal. That doesn’t answer the question of where the interest comes from, though. Is ghost-seeking simply another manifestation of America’s current interest in the occult? Is it an attempt to scientifically evaluate the existence of spirits (rather like some forms of 19th century Spiritualism)? Some investigators seem to be doing a grown-up version of legend-tripping, armed with gadgets instead of candles and incense.

Other investigators, though, have gotten involved because they want to help the dead.

Ahmadi Riverwolf

Ahmadi Riverwolf

I spoke with two women who work with Cressona Paranormal in Pennsylvania. Ahmadi Riverwolf is a Yayi Nganga in Palo Kimbisa (a Yayi is a full priestess, Palo Kimbisa is another rama of Palo – a different denomination from Mayombe, so to speak). Jhada Addams is an Omo Yemaya (a Santera crowned to the Orisha Yemaya). Both had mediumistic tendencies before initiating into their respective African Traditional Religions, but have since discovered a calling to help the dead. Ahmadi has been on a couple of investigations with Cressona Paranormal, while Jhada has served as a consultant on one.

Jhada: For me – my entire gig is trying to give the spirit what it needs to elevate. Light. Prayers. Songs. If it needs to go, I help it break free so it can go. If it wants to stay, I then have a conversation with the homeowner about how to live in harmony with the spirit.

Ahmadi: They want to be acknowledged, they have unfinished business, or they need help to be elevated. Sometimes they want to leave where they are and don’t know how.

I asked Jhada and Ahmadi how working with the paranormal team fit their religious practices. Both stressed the deep importance of the ancestors in the ATRs.

Jhada: In both Palo and Santeria, ancestors are VENERATED. Appreciated and incorporated into daily life. You have to remember that from which you came. It’s ESSENTIAL. There are so many spirits out there, cast adrift because so many people in this country can’t handle death – it’s heartbreaking.

Ahmadi: They deserve respect, honor, acknowledgement. We would not exist without them.

I asked them to expand on this a little. There’s a difference between ghosts or restless dead and ancestors in the ATRs – ancestors have “crossed over,” to use the common phrase. They can and do act in the lives of their descendants, but are refined, profound spiritual forces, not the confused shades typically encountered in true hauntings.

Jhada: I’ve run across urns that people had simply dropped off in antique or oddities/bargain shops – with just a rime of ashes in the bottom. The family member didn’t even care enough to wash the urn out properly.

Ahmadi: That just sickened me.

There was a time I found a headstone carelessly chucked into a rubbish heap in a local cemetery. I picked it up and could hear a woman cry that she had been forgotten. The loneliness of the spirit was palpable. I took her home and she’s been on my altar ever since, decorated with bling and happy.

Jhada: I do what I can to ease their spirits, and their crossing.

By working with Cressona Paranormal, Ahmadi and Jhada explained, they benefitted from all the perspectives the team brings to their investigations – including practical experience with things that go bump in the night for entirely mundane reasons, like plumbing.

Jhada Addams

Jhada Addams

Ahmadi: Sometimes our beliefs can color our judgment. We need to approach these cases with a spiritual, yet clinical eye sometimes. We are going into people’s houses. ANYTHING could happen. Many are things not paranormal at all. Or magic.

Calming people down is sometimes the biggest challenge.

Ahmadi also noted that many physical conditions, allergies, and pharmaceutical side effects can produce symptoms that may seem like spiritual activity.

For those who think they might be interested in working with the dead, Jhada and Ahmadi stressed that the best first step is start honoring the ancestors.

Ahmadi: Anyone can set up an ancestor altar and light a candle and a glass of water. Set up a spot with mementos and pictures.

Jhada: And, honestly, everybody should. If nothing else, for their own dead.

Ahmadi: And if something happens like flickering lights or an opening door, say Hello!!