Archives For Religion News Service

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.

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.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

  • A new documentary, The Art of Disappearing, tells the story of Haitian Voodoo priest Amon Fremon, who visited the People’s Republic of Poland in 1980. Quote: “What I did learn from the brief research I did on him, is that he believed that he was a descendant of Polish soldiers who were abandoned in Haiti, after the Haitian Revolution. They intermarried with Haitians, and may have established themselves at a settlement in Casales. And although they probably practiced Catholicism in the early days, some would later become practioners of Voodoo.” Sounds interesting!
  • The definition of who’s an Indian in the United States is causing some heartache (and fiscal strain) as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act rolls out. Quote: “The definition of “Indian” in the section of the law that deals with the insurance exemption appears to be the same as the one in 25 USC § 450b. That means only members of federally recognized tribes and shareholders in Alaska Native regional or village corporations are considered “Indian.” But that definition is narrower than the one found in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was made permanent by the ACA. For example, California Indians with allotments have long been considered eligible for IHS care.” A hearing is scheduled to address these concerns.
  • Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll is becoming this generation’s Pat Robertson. Quote: “He’s been heavily criticized by Christian voices across the spectrum, and according to reports, several attendees at the Catalyst Conference in Dallaswalked out during his talk. He’s even being marginalized by some Reformed Christians (i.e. Calvinists) who precipitated his rise to prominence. “I’m not a Mark Driscoll kind of Calvinist,” some have remarked to me.” There’s good money in being a divisive lightning rod if you can withstand the weather.
  • StudioCanal has initiated a worldwide search for long-missing footage from the 1973 cult-classic film “The Wicker Man.” Quote: “Director Robin Hardy has endorsed a worldwide appeal launched by StudioCanal to locate original film materials relating to cult horror classic The Wicker Man. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film about a policeman (Edward Woodward) sent to a remote island village in search of a missing girl, whom the townsfolk claim never existed. It also stars Christopher Lee. StudioCanal intends to mark the occasion by releasing the ‘most complete version of the film possible’.” There’s a special Facebook page created for the hunt. There have been a number of attempts to get at the “original” directors cut, with an “extended” version released in 2001 (and later packed in a deluxe box set). I’d love to see a high-quality restored director’s cut. 
  • “Evil spiritual entities” is not a real diagnosis. There’s no evidence base. 
  • Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon (no, not that Arthur Pendragon) is protesting plans to display human remains at the Stonehenge visitors center in England. Quote: “This is out of step with the feelings of many of the people and groups I represent, who would rather the ancient dead were reburied and left to rest in peace and, where appropriate, samples kept for research and copies put on display [...]  We shall not take this development lightly and will oppose any such intention by English Heritage at Stonehenge. I cannot rule out non-violent direct action against the proposals.” As I’ve noted before on this site, there is no consensus among British Pagans on this issue, with many, most notably Pagans for Archeology, opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains. Read more about King Arthur, here.

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.

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.

According to Grey Matter Research, Americans think our country is far more religiously diverse than it actually is. In a survey of 747 adults the research and consulting firm found that most underestimated the size of Christianity and over-estimated the size of atheists, Muslims, and other religious minorities.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

“The typical American adult pegs religious affiliation in the U.S. as follows:  24% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 19% unaffiliated, 9% Jewish, 9% atheist or agnostic, 7% Muslim, 7% Mormon, and 5% from all other religious groups. In reality, according to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans are right on target with the proportion of Catholics and the “all other” category, but way off target on the rest of the landscape. The typical American badly underestimates how many Protestants there are in the country, and way overestimates the presence of religious minorities such as Mormon, Muslim, and atheist/agnostic.”

In fact, if you check the Pew Forum data from 2008, you’ll see that Muslims in America only comprise 0.6% of the population. In contrast “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” comprise 0.7% and “New Age” faiths (ie Pagans) comprise around 0.4%. There are more Buddhists in the United States than there are Muslims. Likewise, respondents guessed large for  atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated. Speaking with the Religion News Service, Grey Matter president Ron Sellers noted that media attention is a likely reason for the over-inflated guesses of non-Christian or non-religious populations.

Sellers also mentioned that with Mitt Romney running for president as a Mormon and the current emphasis on Islamic-American relations, “smaller faith groups also may be getting disproportionate media coverage.”

Likewise, younger Americans, who tend to have more friends who are atheists or religiously unaffiliated, guesses in favor of their own experience. Also unsurprising is the news that adherents of a particular tradition tend to guess high on their own numbers.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

“One thing that is clear from this research is that people tend to overestimate the proportion of their own faith group.  Among people who identify with the Catholic Church, the average estimate is that 39% of the country is Catholic.  Not only is this estimate much higher than it is among non-Catholics, it is far higher than the reality of 24%. Similarly, among people who identify with a Protestant faith perspective, the average estimate is that 27% of the population is Protestant.  While this is far higher than the numbers among non-Protestants, it is still almost half the correct figure. Among people who identify as atheists or agnostics, the average estimate is that 16% of the American population is atheist or agnostic.  As with Catholics, not only is this estimate far higher than among any other group, but it is much higher than the reality.  Finally, among people who express no particular faith identification, the average perception is that 35% of Americans believe in God but have no actual religious preference.  Again, this is nearly double the average American’s perception, and far higher than the real figure in the U.S.”

So what’s the take-home message of this data? Sellers says that “this skewed perception of religion in America may benefit smaller faith groups and be detrimental to Protestants.” In other words we are over-estimating the influence of religious minorities, and under-estimating the influence of Protestant Christians. This may seem like a good thing, a hastening of the demographic shifts many of us existing in religious minorities have been waiting for, but it could also feed into the fears of certain Christians who are increasingly uneasy with our mere existence. Then again, maybe feeling like a religious minority could teach a valuable lesson to those willing to encounter it.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

People are over-estimating religious minorities, and those with no religion at all, but maybe this misconception will instill a willingness to embrace secularism once more, to re-enforce those church-state separations so that the “others” don’t exert undue influence. In which case, beware Christians, Pagans are growing at an alarming rate! Quick! Everyone join Americans United for The Separation of Church and State, it’s your only hope!

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

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few quick news notes for you this Sunday.

A Hindu Education: While there are a growing number of Hindu temples and house of worship in the United States, it can still be hard for American Hindus to find a place to practice their religion. Even more frustrating is when there is a local temple, but its teachings don’t line up with your own beliefs. Religion News Service reports on how some Hindus are getting together to provide religious education for their children, mixing tradition with views that can be more progressive than is found in some temples.

Manjusha Kulkarni (center left) and other moms play the role of Brahmin or priests, while their children, the untouchables, stand at the edge of the room during a lesson on caste. The self-organized Bal Kendra group teaches Hinduism from a progressive perspective. RNS photo courtesy Santa Monica Bal Kendra

Manjusha Kulkarni (center left) and other moms play the role of Brahmin or priests, while their children, the untouchables, stand at the edge of the room during a lesson on caste. The self-organized Bal Kendra group teaches Hinduism from a progressive perspective. RNS photo courtesy Santa Monica Bal Kendra

“At a Hindu temple, the religious leaders might be defensive about an issue like caste, said Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of South Asian Network and one of more progressive parents in the group. Kulkarni says she never enrolled her daughters in a formal religious education program because she had bad experiences at temples. One priest, for instance, told her that women shouldn’t work outside the home, Kulkarni recalls. After Hurricane Katrina, another priest dismissed her five-year-old daughter’s questions about suffering.”

It’s an interesting article, not only because it illustrates the diversity within American Hinduism, but because it shines a light into a situation that may soon be true of modern Pagan faiths as well. There’s been a lot of talk about building temples, community centers, and houses of worship for our community, but it’s inevitable that such institutions, even at their most broad-minded, won’t please everyone. To a certain extent, no matter how much infrastructure we end up building, we’ll always embrace a hybrid of home-based grass-roots teaching alongside more formal attempts at religious education and collective worship. For more on Hindu-Pagan relations, please see my entry on our joint PantheaCon panel.

The Sights of the Pagan Alliance Festival: Photographer Greg Harder, a member of PNC-Bay Area, has posted a photo-set from the recent 11th Annual Pagan Alliance Festival in Berkeley, California.  The 2012 Keeper of the Light is T. Thorn Coyle, pictured below, during the parade.

Thorn Coyle, photo by Greg Harder

Thorn Coyle, photo by Greg Harder

You can see more photos, here. Here’s a video of Lady Yeshe Rabbit performing at the event. Here’s another video, shot by the folks from Oak Myth Masks, who seemed to enjoy the experience.

A Polytheist’s View: Inspired by my recent post about Pagans and Jesus, and my rebuttal to a Catholic blogger’s “praise” of ancient paganism, author and scholar P. Sufenas Virius Lupus provides a lengthy meditation on Christianity through a polytheist lens. Here’s just a short excerpt of a very smart, must-read, essay.

Ancient Roman bust of Antinous. Hadrian age (AD 117-138), National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Ancient Roman bust of Antinous. Hadrian age (AD 117-138), National Archaeological Museum in Athens

“I find myself arriving at the following conclusion. I am a polytheist (and an animist) because I find that these viewpoints best describe my own experiences to me, and they are the framework in which I can best understand and use those experiences toward productive ends for myself and for many (though not all) others. Yes, I love my gods and I love that they have been a part of my life: that is the very basis for my experiences. But when understanding myself theologically, this is the position I find myself in, and I think it’s a good one. My viewpoint on the gods tends not to invalidate their possible existence in other religions, thus I am very happy to concede that Iao Sabaoth, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Allah, various angels and saints, and a number of other divine beings exist; I still worship and interact with a few of these from time to time, to varying degrees of success, and some of them have had transformative and powerful influences on my own spiritual development and experience over the years in the past, which I do not wish to ever forsake or invalidate. However, I’m under no obligation to think of these deities in the same manners as those who are members of religions who consider these deities to be the “only” deities in existence. Gentlidecht, as well as the practices of many other people that I respect a great deal as spiritual colleagues and co-religionists, do not have difficulties with the beings of these other religions, and some of the practices and ideas that arise from them; but, they’re still polytheists, at the end of the day. While monotheists’ own theologies within their religions are perfectly valid for themselves (unless they actively harm others, which they do far more often than all of us non-monotheists would prefer), I will not by any means grant them a validity outside of that relative validity; even the best-intentioned among them would do more than that for me, and I’m fine with that.”

Really, go read the whole thing, you’ll be glad you did.

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