Archives For Religion Dispatches

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.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

  • The New York Times profiles Angel Silva, a practitioner of Palo Mayombe, who’s in a legal showdown over whether the healing crystals he sells on the street in Union Square are works of art, or if he’s simply vending without a license (as local police believe). Quote: “Mr. Silva insists he needs no city permit because his stones are artistic sculptures covered under the First Amendment, and he hopes to convince a judge of this in Manhattan Criminal Court at a trial next month. Lines of customers form on Mondays, when Mr. Silva offers free spiritual healing. He delivers his psychic readings of their life issues, from cheating spouses to chakra imbalances, and he treats some people at the nearby sidewalk tree, to better connect to the gods of the forest.” What’s refreshing about the story is that it steers clear of some of the sensationalism usually accompanied with reporting on Palo. For a perspective of a Pagan who moved into the practice and religion of Palo, check out the columns Stacey Lawless contributed to The Wild Hunt.
  • Back in June I spotlighted “America Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem” by Owen Davies, which debunks the popular notion that we stopped killing and persecuting “witches” after 1692, and shows that belief in witchcraft persisted throughout this country into the 20th century (and beyond). Now, appropriately enough, The Salem News interviews Davies about the book. Quote: “Witchcraft beliefs and the persecution of supposed witches during the Salem trials era and beyond seem like another world, aspects of another time unconnected with ours, but they are not. At the heart of witchcraft accusations are fundamental fears, misfortunes, insecurities, uncertainties and personal experiences that people in America experience today.”
  • The Sault Star profiles the Wild Ginger WitchCamp in Ontario, and finds that people from “all walks of life” are in attendance. Quote: “Forget your Halloween and fairy-tale images of witches. The people gathered at Unicamp for the weekend are therapists, teachers, artists and students, nurses and midwives, computer programmers, parents and grandparents. Here there are no voodoo dolls, black magic spells, curses or consorting with the devil. The only bubbling cauldrons are in the kitchen, where Alta, who has cooked for Wild Ginger for years, works her own kind of sorcery, producing delicious meals for the seventy campers.” I think it is interesting that the mainstream press is finally starting to notice the international network of Witch Camps, a phenomenon that has quietly existed under the radar for some time, even within many corners of the Pagan community. 
  • At The Washington Post’s On Faith section, scholar Charles C. Haynes debunks the notion that the United States is a Christian nation. Quote: “Religious diversity at America’s founding made a necessity of religious freedom because no one group had the power or the numbers to impose its version of true faith – Christian or otherwise – on all others [...] Any attempt to establish a Christian nation, therefore, always has been and always will be unjust, dangerous and profoundly un-Christian.”
  • Poet Annie Finch writes about her mother, the Witch. Quote: “My mother Maggie, as she likes to be called, has referred to herself as a witch for a couple of decades now — at least since she was in her early 70s. That was around the time she started adding 8,000 years to the date: She would date her letters to me 9989 instead of 1989 and 9992 instead of 1992, to signal that she was reckoning time from the estimated beginning of Goddess worship. Nowadays, at 92 years young, she talks about the Goddess often, keeps an altar with a Goddess statue from Malta, and regularly wears a large pentacle around her neck.”
Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

  • Last year I interviewed Feri initiate, activist, and Wild Hunt columnist, Alley Valkyrie after she was arrested protesting for the rights of the homeless in Eugene, Oregon. Now, the verdict is in, and Alley Valkyrie has been vindicated. Quote: “Lane County violated the constitutional rights of a local activist last year when it had her cited for trespassing following her refusal to leave a public plaza after officials closed it, a Eugene Municipal Court judge has ruled. In her decision, Judge Karen Stenard said the county’s reason for ejecting protesters and shutting the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza — that the area had to be cleaned because human feces were smelled in the area — was too broad and did not pass the rigorous test required for government actions that restrict constitutional freedoms. As a result, Stenard dismissed the charge of second-degree trespassing filed against protester Alley Valkyrie.” You’ll no doubt be hearing more about this from Alley personally, but for now you can read a recent column she wrote about her activism on behalf of the homeless in Eugene. Congratulations to Alley Valkyrie! 
  • American Horror Story’s new season, subtitled “Coven,” will deal with Salem Witches escaping to New Orleans, Vodou practitioners, a serial killer, and how oppressed minority groups will sometimes attack one another instead of their true enemy. Quote: “This season, Minear said, will focus on themes of oppression of minorities of all kinds. ‘Within that idea, the idea of minority groups going after each other and doing the work of the larger culture for the larger culture [will be explored],’ Minear said. ‘While there is a strong feminist theme that runs throughout Coven this year, there are also themes of race, oppression and there is a very strong theme of family, specifically mothers and daughters.’” I would like to ask the television gods for this to not suck, because it actually sounds kinda interesting. 
  • There are so many problematic elements to these teenage exorcists under the leadership of Satanic Panic bottom-feeder Bob Larson, and Slate.com ventures into just some of them. Quote: “What Duboc captures is troubling: Large groups of people come to these exorcism events, often because they are struggling with drug addiction or because they have long-term mental health problems, sometimes because they’ve been sexually abused. Larson and the girls blame all of these people’s problems on demonic possession, and proceed to play-act exorcisms on members of the audience.”More on this from Jezebel.
  • Famous paranormal radio host Art Bell is coming out of retirement to host a new show for Satellite radio company Sirius. Quote: “A Sirius representative contacted Bell through social media a few months ago, leading to the formation of his show, ‘Art Bell’s Dark Matter.’ He’ll talk about things like UFOs, ghosts, near-death experiences and weird aspects of science. He’ll do interviews and take calls from viewers. Scott Greenstein, Sirius XM president and chief content officer, said the show will be ‘uncensored, unrestricted, uncluttered and utterly unique.’” As someone who once worked a graveyard shift job, and heard Mr. Bell on the radio “back in the day,” expect lots of conspiracy theory, weird science, yeti calls, alien abduction stories, and Freemasonry allusions.  Oh, and he would bring Pagans on the show from time to time. 
  • The Huffington Post UK Student’s section features a story on Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s Grey School of Wizardry. Quote: “As Headmaster, I cannot help but identify strongly with Albus in Harry Potter. He is so much like me that I have often been referred to as ‘the real-life Dumbledore’ and I was personally distraught upon reading the account of his death.”
  • Religion Dispatches asks: Why is the State Department opening an Office of “Religious Engagement”? Quote: “Constitutional or not, official interfacing with “faith-based organizations” will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as “religions” and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

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.

Last month AlterNet published an essay by psychologist (and ex-evangelical Christian) Valerie Tarico that posits the Internet as an eroding force on “right-belief” organized religions. According to Tarico, the Internet destabilizes the “defenses that keep outside information away from insiders.”

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

“Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.”

For those of us who exist in faiths outside the dominant religious paradigms here in the West, this is the sort of message that appeals to our own growth narratives. The notion that free access to information will break the shackles oppressive, narrow-minded, faith communities  have placed on their adherents. However, Elizabeth Drescher at Religion Dispatches refutes this narrative, saying that the Internet hasn’t really done that much damage to communities with well-policed borders.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

Again and again, we see that the promise of ideological cross-pollination and the hope of more robust dialogue through social media participation has not widely been realized. A review of research on political engagement online by Jennifer Brundidge and Ronald E. Rice, for instance, suggests that access to diverse viewpoints and richer information on the internet tends primarily to benefit those of higher socioeconomic status, allowing deeper insight into the political Other without necessarily changing minds. Internet practice among those at lower socioeconomic levels, on the other hand, tends to reinforce like-mindedness. Further, the most religiously active Americans, according to a 2011 Pew study, are no less likely to use new technologies than are their un- or irreligious neighbors.”

As the near-constant stream of image-oriented memes on my Facebook feed tell me, we do a pretty good job of insulating ourselves from opinions we don’t like. We can always “hide” the posts of relatives and friends we don’t agree with, but don’t want to offend by actually un-friending. Drescher also points out that the explosive growth of “nones” mainly comes from the once-robust mainline (liberal) Christian churches that encourage their youth to explore other traditions and viewpoints.

“As I am regularly in the uncomfortable position of announcing to the members of my own declining denomination, progressive churches in many ways form their young people to leave their communities. Teens and young adults of all sorts may well be noodling around on the web encountering new religious ideas and practices. But it seems to be the case that progressive kids—kids whose parents would never for a minute consider taking them on vacation to a creationist theme park, or drill them in apologetic strategies with which to face down atheists—are more likely to be open to new religious perspectives and practices than are conservative young people.”

But what about Pagans? Has it helped us? The Pagan embrace of the Internet has been a much-studied aspect of our modern interconnected communities. Our reliance on social media sites, and the Internet, has become a common feature in many Pagan circles. I would argue that is has allowed us to evolve and grow at rates virtually impossible during the years of letter-writing and searching the bulletin boards of your local occult/New Age shop. It is a tool that is helping us become more visible, and organize in ways that would have been almost impossible 30 years ago.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

As for the “nones” I believe their rise, even if it’s at the expense of “liberal” forms of our dominant monotheisms, is ultimately a boon for our interconnect communities. The rise of “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” give us a safe space, a cultural buffer to grow and experiment in. It destabilizes the narrative of inevitable Christian power, and opens the door to minority faiths having a stronger voice in discussions around religious rights and moral issues that affect us all. It creates the opportunity to visualize a post-Christian culture.

“What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.”

So the question of whether the Internet will “harm” organized religion might be the wrong one. Perhaps the question should be is if the Internet empowers religions that were usually kept out of the cultural spotlight, and that it is this empowerment  that will ultimately “harm” religions that try to enforce a single cultural moral norm for everyone else.  But what do you think? Is the Internet a boon for Pagans? Does is harm organized religions directly, or does it simply re-create our current world in a virtual feed?

After the 2012 elections here in the United States I posited that this was a post-Christian election, and that the results could be a glimpse into the future of America’s electorate. Now, as information from the election is further dissected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something significant has indeed shifted in the religious outlook of our voting public. The Public Religion Research Institute calls it the “end of a white Christian strategy.”

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

“The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). [...] Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

In short, it doesn’t really matter that Romney decisively won white evangelicals, as minority Christians and non-religious voters more than made up for that deficit. At Religion Dispatches, Katherine Stewart says that the religiously unaffiliated (ie “nones”) are the demographic that should really worry Republican strategists who’ve placed almost all of their eggs in the evangelical Christian basket.

“Like any group of this size, the religiously unaffiliated aren’t monolithic. About a third self-identify as atheists, while the rest say they are agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or simply uninterested in religion. They are spread fairly evenly across education and income levels. And they’re politically diverse when it comes to economic ideas. But they do seem to largely agree on one thing: that mixing religion with politics is a bad idea.”

“Mixing religion with politics is a bad idea.” It has always sounded good as a principle, but often ignored as evangelical Christians (and Catholics) were seen as vital to winning national elections, and so politicians from both sides of the aisle catered to them, willfully mixing religious rhetoric into their political stances. However, if you read the tea leaves in the run-up to this election, you could see some shifts starting to appear. Like the fact that both Obama and Romney spurned Rick Warren’s religion test/presidential forum, or that the Democratic party was willing to play offence on gay marriage and abortion, areas where they usually play defense.

“Never before have the culture wars been fought so forcefully on both sides. While the spectacle of Republicans declaring holy war has become old hat, this was the first election in which one of the parties explicitly endorsed same-sex marriage; this was the first election in which one party defended a woman’s right to reproductive freedom without apology or hesitation; and this season also saw the passage of a number of same-sex marriage ballot initiatives, as well as the election of the nation’s first openly lesbian senator.”

For years I’ve been yammering on about post-Christianity, slow demographic shifts, and the “nones,” thinking this tipping point was years away. Now, everyone seems to be talking about how “post-Christian” and “European” we suddenly are.

“There isn’t any question that American culture is in a transition from a dominantly Christian culture to a dominantly secular culture. We can no longer expect America society to uniformly embrace Christian values or morality. How the Christian community chooses to respond to this will be critical. Angry rhetoric, and bitterly contested lawsuits and elections create adversaries, but no one ever made an enemy by offering the hand of friendship, helping the down and out, mentoring kids, giving generously to others or helping people after a hurricane get their lives back together.”

That quote, from Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, isn’t unique. While the reliable fire-breathers are getting apocalyptic, some of the more thoughtful conservative Christians are starting to realize that non-Christians, and the non-religious, aren’t going away any time soon, and that younger voters are far more liberal on social issues than previous generations.  As R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said: “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed, an increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

So, the question now is what will future election battles look like? Obviously in heavily conservative Christian districts the old Christian culture-war stand-bys will hold true for a while longer, but what about the swing states? What about the national elections in 2016? Will religion cease to be an issue at all? Will campaigns actively court the non-religious, will they even court non-Christians? Will there be a true cease-fire on the old culture war lines of birth control, abortion, and gay rights? All of this remains to be seen, but for now, it seems we’re living in the post-Christian future faster than I had ever envisioned.

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.

XKCD by Randall Munroe

XKCD by Randall Munroe

  • Considering how many times Wicca has been called the “fastest growing religion in America,” by both supporters and detractors, the latest XKCD comic reminds us to not get too wrapped up with the numbers, because they can be deceptive.
  • At Religion Dispatches John Morehead writes about Burning Man, and the fear it generates of an “alternative Pagan social order.” Quote: “For evangelicals like Matthews, Burning Man embodies deep-seated fears which can also be seen playing out in other aspects of American culture. Many conservatives fear that America is undergoing decay, and this is taking place in the spiritual realm as well. A lingering economic malaise, coupled with our continued cultural fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, provides a context in which Burning Man functions as a Rorschach test.” The whole thing is worth a read.
  • The University of Texas at Austin has published a new psychology study in the June issue of Child Development that shows a “reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age.” Study lead author Cristine Legare noted that “the data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.” 
  • The Americans United Wall of Separation blog critiques efforts by Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to carve out exceptions for religious bullying at public schools. Quote: It attempts to carve out an exemption for protected “religious” bullying. In several states, Religious Right groups have attempted to exempt bullying and verbal harassment based on sincere religious beliefs. In other words, a fundamentalist Christian kid can harass a gay student as much as he wants as along as he sincerely believes what he is saying. Some yardstick there!” You can read the FOF-ADF document, here.
  • A married couple’s strife leads to arson, and hospitalization for both. Both admit on the record to having marital issues, yet the headline, and part of the article, is about how the wife believes in Voodoo due to past instances where she called the police with, quote, “bizarre accusations.” There doesn’t seem to be anything Voodoo related with this incident, so why include in the headline? Seems prejudicial to the wife, and distorts what could be a tragic, and sadly common, case of domestic violence escalated to extreme levels.
  • Rev Dr Peter Mullen must live a small, sad, life. How else can you turn watching the opening of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics into a concern-trolling editorial about how we’re descending into Paganism? Quote: “But then I looked further and thought, at least, that I glimpsed a little of what this confusion says about modern society. We are indeed eclectic. And the old word for this, when applied to widely held beliefs and practical behaviour was “paganism” – the worship of many gods: that mountain of confusion classically represented by the panoply of argumentative deities on Olympus. Only an eclectic contemporary paganism could allow the godless Big Bang to walk hand in hand with the sacred flame.” Seriously. Can someone take this guy out to a movie or something?
  • The Republican National Convention is now over, and I know everyone wants to talk about Clint Eastwood’s interview with Invisible Obama, but I wanted to point out this exploration of Tuesday night’s closing invocation by Samuel Rodriguez, a member of the radical spiritual warriors of the New Apostolic Reformation. Quote: “Blessing the convention was National Hispanic Leadership Conference President Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who has served as an apostle in C. Peter Wagner’s International Coalition of Apostles and has extensive ties to Wagner’s movement.” I’ve covered this movement quite a bit over the years, and their ascendancy/integration within the Religious Right is troubling for those hoping for a “big tent” religious conservatism, or a more moderate conservative Christianity.
  • Erynn Rowan Laurie, author of “A Circle of Stones” recently completed a pilgrimage to Ireland, and she has posted the first installment of her write-up. Quote: “Our visit to both of the wells was held in a deluge. I think every well we visited while we were in Ireland, with the exception of Brigid’s Well in Mullingar, was rained on. We certainly connected with the watery side of Brigid’s powers during our pilgrimage! Prayers were offered for Brigid’s blessing on our work, offerings were made, and intentions set in the pouring rain. I remembered all my friends and the folks who had donated to my travel funds for the pilgrimage at her well, offering prayers for them, as well.” I look forward to future installments!
Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

  • We carved and shaped a giant goddess image into the earth, but please don’t think it’s Pagan, says a spokesperson. ”Northumberlandia is just a lady, she doesn’t represent anything, but I think it’s understandable that people have their own interpretations.” Chas Clifton retorts: “Check back at one of the quarter or cross-quarter days.”
  • For those inspired by Aristophanes classic play Lysistrata, you might wonder, do sex strikes really work? Slate.com says “yes,” but mostly as way to draw attention to an issue. Quote: “The Togolese group cites as its inspiration a strike organized in 2003 by a women’s peace group to encourage the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.) Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did force an end to the war, but their tactics were more complicated than a simple sex strike: They also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the peace group, wrote in her memoir that the months-long sex strike had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, “What about the sex strike?” is the first question everyone asks.”

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.

On Thursday, Religion Dispatches featured a guest editorial from Joseph Laycock, religion scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism.” Laycock examined the most recent crackpot theory from crackpot conspiracy theory king David Icke, he of the “reptoid hypothesis.” In short, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics were part of a brainwashing Satanic conspiracy, and in turn a rallying cry to the spiritual warriors, the “experts in evil” skilled in rooting out these hidden conspiracies. While Icke is largely a figure of fun, a comical nut who sees evil vortexes and reptoid hybrids under his couch, Laycock reminds us that this is no laughing matter.

“While the theories can be entertaining, when too much momentum forms behind them they have historically resulted in moral panic and the persecution of innocent people. The Satanic Panic that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s is constantly threatening to return.

“Constantly threatening to return.” Is this true? Could the madness that were the Satanic Panics really manifest itself again, in an almost identical fashion? It’s hard to believe, until you start looking for the signs.

[Judy] Byington is an authority on Satanists, and as a clinical social worker she spent years helping others heal from wounds so deep most would shrink from the task. With the permission of her clients, she has written about one woman’s experience of growing up within a coven and surviving. The book is called “Twenty-Two Faces.” “This is a huge breaking story validating the existence of human sacrifices of children in our society,” Byington said. [...] They have secret combinations. They live in duplicity. They torture and sacrifice the innocent. They give birth in secret so the babies they sacrifice have no birth certificate record. They take the time to learn speaking Latin backwards from what is called the Black Bible.”

That’s not an archive story from the mid-1980s, that’s from a paper in Utah, dated July 28th of this year. Those of us old enough to remember the moral “Satanic” panic of the 1980s and 90s will find the narrative put forth in “Twenty-Two Faces” eerily familiar.

“As the only known survivor-intended-victim of a human sacrificial ceremony, Jenny Hill is living proof that ritual abuse is, in fact, a reality. With great courage and in open defiance of her sadistic abusers, Jenny wishes her story told. The ending will shock you.Referring to journals written throughout childhood, Jenny Hill and her multiple personalities document how as a five year-old, she overcomes trauma by turning to prayer while utilizing her alter states to compartmentalize abuse at the hands of a master mind-control programmer from Nazi Germany. After suffering deaths of a high school sweetheart, plus her only girlfriend, she somehow completes Army medic training, receives a nursing degree, prepares for a church mission and becomes a mother. Simultaneously led by sex-addict Head Alter J.J., intrepid alters assume frequent control, engaging in larceny and prostitution. With her children, her lifeline, the increasingly desperate nurse escapes a drugged-out pimping husband, blacks out in a job interview, comes to nine days later as an inpatient headed for the Utah State Psychiatric Hospital and only then learns what her life has really been.”

It really is as if someone took the 1980 book phenomenon “Michelle Remembers” and used it as a guide.

“The book documents Smith’s memory of events recovered during therapy, documenting the many satanic rituals she believed that she was forced to attend (Pazder stated that Smith was abused by “the Church of Satan,” which he states is a worldwide organization predating the Christian church). The first alleged ritual attended by Smith took place in 1954 when she was five years old, and the final one documented in the book was an 81-day ritual in 1955 that summoned the devil himself and involved the intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel, who removed the scars received by Smith throughout the year of abuse and removed memories of the events “until the time was right”. During the rites, Smith was allegedly tortured, locked in cages, sexually assaulted, forced to take part in various rituals, witnessed several murders and was rubbed with the blood and body parts of various murdered babies and adults.”

Unlike Icke, this is no joke. This is the very tinder that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people as they were accused of being a part of underground Satanic abuse organizations. We often forget how pervasive anti-Satanic propaganda was back then, with many journalists and talk-show hosts (even Oprah) diving right into the hysteria. The West Memphis 3, released almost a year ago, were probably the most well-known victims of this panic. Jessie Misskelley’s former defense attorney Dan Stidham, in an interview with John Morehead, painted a picture of the Satanic hysteria that surrounded the trial.

“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”

We are still dealing with the fallout of this era, with a dedicated core of true believers keeping the fires burning, all that has to happen is for the right/wrong set of circumstances to line up, and it all erupts again. Indeed, this time it could be worse, since it’s far easier to do “research” and even the usually reserved Catholic church is ramping up the rhetoric about demon possessions, exorcisms, and even underground Satanic cults.

Peg Aloi: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?

Father Gary Thomas: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.

PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States. 

FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories stated to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.

It’s a tinder box, all it needs is a match. Will they target Witches and Pagans? Adherents of Santeria or Palo? Those who venerate Santa Muerte? It’s impossible to say, as it will depend on how the panic manifests, but any group that gets confused with “Satanists” are fair game in such a scenario. It is for this reason that more Pagans need to engage in serious ecumenical, intrafaith, and interfaith work,  and move into more proactive advocacy and anti-defamation initiatives. This advocacy shouldn’t be from small start-ups on Facebook, but from the dominant organizations within our movement, the groups that have built networks and connections over the span of 20 or 30 years. We need to be ready in case an incident that none of us could foresee sparks an ugly backlash against us or our allies. We need to be ready in case our society panics.

Joseph Laycock, scholar and author of “Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism,” examines media coverage of the killing of two boys and one woman over the span of four years in Mexico, allegedly the work of Santa Muerte cultists. Laycock’s Religion Dispatches piece argues that “these murders will likely have lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” that they are a “Manson moment” that will have potentially harmful reverberations in the years to come.

Santa Muerte

“It goes without saying these murders are unconscionable, and a tragedy. But attempting to find a grand pattern, or a reason, in a connection to so-called ritualistic violence brings authorities no closer to preventing such crimes—while greatly increasing the likelihood that innocent people will be persecuted.

It is almost a certainty that at some point in the future the events that have unfolded in Nacozari will be presented as “proof” that Santa Muerte is an inherently violent tradition. As Saint Death’s popularity spreads and the Latino American population continues to grow, this is not a theory we can afford to entertain.

If we can accept that not all Beatles fans are Charles Manson, we must also have faith that not all who pray to Santa Muerte are Silvia Meraz.”

Will these incidents provide the tinder necessary to fuel a new moral panic in the United States? We’ve already seen some declare that illegal immigration wasn’t simply a problem of policy, economics, or laws, but a religious war between antidemocratic religious “fanatics” and Western Christendom. Nor is Santa Muerte isolated in this rhetoric, as Santeria has also been invoked in the increasingly polarizing debate over immigration policy in America. These tensions seem likely to increase as the religious landscape in Mexico becomes increasingly diverse (and the diversity continues to filter north).  R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” notes that the once-dominant Catholic church faces “significant competition from Pentecostals, neo-Christians, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even “heretical” folks saints, such as Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde.”

“Among two of the most dynamic religious practices in the Mexican megalopolis [of Mexico City] are the cults of Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, and Santa Muerte. Centered in the notorious barrio of Tepito, devotion to Saint Death takes place beyond the pale of the Church. Just a few miles away, the Church of Saint Hippolyte draws tens of thousands of devotees to its monthly celebrations of Saint Jude, who shares Santa Muerte’s devotional base of marginalized youth.”

Mix growing outsider faiths, increasingly inflamed rhetoric over the issue of illegal immigration, and reliably bad journalism on often misunderstood religions like Santeria and Palo, with an incident that seems to validate the worst fears of those who are already negatively disposed towards non-Christian or syncretic traditions and you have a potential powder keg. Isolated criminal actions can be, and have been, used to prove the existence of a widespread malefic network. In “Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend,” Jeffrey Victor talks about how Charles Manson and Jim Jones were used to create a stereotype of criminal Satanism.

The stereotype of criminal Satanism merged imagery of fanatical religious cults with that of psychopathic criminals like Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson. This dramaic imagery had great mass media appeal. Satanic cult stories were first able to find a channel to a national audience when they appeared in small town newspaper reports as a possible explanation for an epidemic of spurious claims about cattle mutilations. Later, small town newspaper reports about a wide variety of crimes, from a cemetary vandalism to serial murder, began to attribute the crimes to “Satanists.”

Replace “Satanism” with “Santeria” and you can see the pattern emerging once again. “Santeria Panic,” fueled by fear, bad journalism, and extreme events like these “sacrifices” to Santa Muerte. In fact, back in 2010 Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, made explicit the link between the old panic, and the one that seems ready to emerge.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

So if this is the new “Manson moment,” the thing that will spark a new moral panic that could have “lasting consequences for alternative religion in North America,” it raises two practical questions for modern Pagans. How do we derail this trend, stopping it before it ruins thousands of lives as it did during the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and early 90s, and how do we form a workable political coalition with practitioners of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, and other groups that will no doubt inhabit the eye of such a storm?

During the recent Hindu-Pagan panel at PantheaCon 2012, I suggested that our faith’s friendly interactions move to the next stage, that we form a national advocacy group that merges our resources and concerns. Perhaps the timetable on that needs to be moved up and expanded. Considering the amount of overlap between modern Paganism and the African/Caribbean diasporic religions, we certainly can’t afford to simply claim it’s not our struggle. A new moral panic about non-Christian faiths would damage us all, and that’s something none of us can afford at this critical juncture in our movement.

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.]

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.

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! Happy 2012 everyone! 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.

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.