Archives For Slate.com

Yesterday, Slate.com’s advice columnist, journalist Emily Yoffe (aka “Dear Prudence”), tackled the issue of a Christian woman married to an “atheist” who has recently embraced Wicca. Here’s what she had to say.

There are several troubling aspects in Yoffe’s advice to the “devout” Christian wife, starting with the assertion that her husband has “radically underwritten the rules” of their relationship because he’s shifted from atheism/agnosticism to a theistic belief system (albeit not Christianity). Despite the fact that “Kent” is described as “sweet, attentive, and loving” Yoffe seems to sympathize with the wife’s concern, describing Kent’s newfound Wiccan beliefs as “sacrilegious incantations” and that if Wicca has become the “organizing principle” of his life he may have broken the “spell” of the marriage. Alongside this advice are satirical animations that portray the co-worker who introduced Kent to Wicca as a devil pouring out “goat blood,” implying a Satanic or cultish tone to the change.

I can't see how this would offend anyone.

I can't see how this would offend anyone.

I’m not sure what sort of ideological (or theological) blinders Yoffe is wearing here, but an alternate reading of this tale is apparent to anyone who is a member of a minority faith in a predominantly Christian nation. The wife was fine with Kent’s lack of faith so long as it appeared that he might someday convert to Christianity (He would occasionally go to church!), but once he became interested in a belief system that was not Christian, what was professed to be a blissful marriage took a dark turn. In reality, being married to an atheist should be no harder than being married to a Wiccan, at least from a Christian perspective, both reject the salvation of Christ and the Church. This seems more about the wife’s unsaid expectations, not about Kent’s sudden embrace of Wicca.

This video is an important examination of how far modern Pagan faiths have to go. While people have heard of terms like “Wicca” they still seem to connect it with fantasy depictions, demonic imagery, or cult-like descriptors. People like Yoffe don’t seem to know that Wiccans and Pagans still live in fear of losing their children in custody battles, or that Wiccans had to fight for a decade to have the Wiccan pentacle engraved on government-issued headstones and markers. It doesn’t connect with Yoffe that Wicca is a serious belief system, one that has spread worldwide, one deserving the same respect as any other faith she may be familiar with. I think this advice would have a very different tenor if Kent had become Jewish, or Muslim, or even a Buddhist, but it seems that Wicca is still beyond the pale, at least for Yoffe and the devout Christian wife.

Newspapers and magazines, whether print or electronic, keep a store of “evergreen” content to republish at various intervals, usually seasonal. The thinking being, why rewrite on the same theme over and over again? That article about how you love flowers in the Springtime is never going to go out of style, so long as there are indeed flowers in the Springtime. But sometimes pieces even a few years old start to sound dated, or rely on arguments and “common wisdom” that is no longer valid today. Which brings me to Slate.com reprinting a 2005 article by Mark Oppenheimer about Wicca’s celebration of the Winter Solstice and how the religion is “undermined” by false historical claims.

“Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. There’s no better time to examine this penchant for dissembling than at winter solstice on Dec. 21, which Wiccans say has been their holiday for thousands of years. For it’s just such unfounded claims to old age and continuous tradition that may keep Wicca from growing to be truly old.”

For the most part? Ouch! Now I’m the first to admit that certain strains of contemporary Paganism, including Wicca, have been, shall we say, “creative” with the past, but I’ve got a problem with this sort of article being re-published (and not just because it takes a jab at Wiccans). First off, even in 2005, this piece was years behind the curve of what was actually happening inside Pagan communities in America and around the world. Modern Paganism has been re-evaluating and questioning certain historical claims for decades now. Aidan Kelly was causing a stir nearly ten years before historian Ronald Hutton explored Wiccan historical claims in “Triumph of the Moon”, and Hutton’s book was published ten years ago! Oppenheimer even grudgingly admits in the article’s closing that changes have been going on.

“There’s evidence that many Wiccans may be wising up. Starhawk has backed off her boldest assertions and now concedes that some part of her original historical matrix may not be true. The debatable notion that Hanukkah is also based on solstice celebrations has been floated but has not caught on, even among diehard Goddess worshippers. Both Starhawk and Carol Christ, another prominent Goddess evangelizer, told me they had no reason to believe the Hanukkah theory. Chastened by the attacks on their bad historiography, Wiccans are growing more likely to say that their faith is based on a love of Wiccan practices, rather than on particular historical claims. It’s a heartening development when religious belief isn’t dependent on the latest archaeological findings. Wiccans might no longer have to sacrifice intellectual rigor to get their spiritual sustenance.”

That this historical re-evaluation has been going on for years should have been evident to Oppenheimer, since one of the sources he cites and praises, Charlotte Allen’s 2001 piece for The Atlantic, came to the same conclusion.

“…both Starhawk and Eisler, along with many of their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as they have done with respect to the new research about their movement’s beginnings.”

So why even write about (and continue writing about) a problem that’s in the process of resolving itself? Perhaps because Oppenheimer has an ax to grind? Back in 2006, Oppenheimer published a book entitled “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” that claimed to look at how 60s counterculture shaped religion in America, but quickly drew some interesting boundaries for the sake of “clarity”.

“The alternative groups we identify with the late 1960s were far smaller than imagined, and some historians, easily infatuated with the new and the sexy, have been led badly astray…there has never been reliable evidence of widespread Satanism or paganism…One might argue that by excluding the preponderance of cults, sects, and communes from this study, we are denying them the status of “religion.” That is correct – but for the purpose of clarity not condescension…religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice. A belief that you must tithe, or donate of a portion of your income to your church or faith community…religions require sacrifice and exclude other religions.”

You see, in Oppenheimer’s imaginary, arbitrary, definition of religion, Wicca, and other modern Pagan faiths aren’t “real” religions because we, in his imagination, don’t sacrifice or tithe (or own lots of real-estate). That his assertions about sacrifice within our communities are largely ignorant and untrue don’t seem to matter, just as he ignores the important and significant role modern Pagans did indeed play in shaping culture during the 1960s. But hey, anything to save a little work doing research for your book, right?

Ultimately, what gets me isn’t that Slate.com wants to re-publish a critical article about Wiccan history, but that it wants to re-publish a critical article from someone who has barely skimmed the surface of the topic (with his whopping two citations), who seems to have a chip on his shoulder regarding the subject, and who actively ignored our faiths when he actually did write a book on religion. Surely we can do better than this for evergreen material? Oh, and Mark? For the record there are several hundred thousand modern Pagans in America alone, not “thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe”. It looks like your article’s assertion is a bit out of date, you might want to contact Slate.com for an update lest you look hypocritical.

You have to wonder if Slate.com is getting somewhat hard-pressed to find subject matter and writers for their regular “Faith-Based” section. How else to explain them getting journalist Robert Wright, author of several game theory/evolutionary psychology-boosting books, including his recent “The Evolution of God”, to write about Neo-Shamanism? Wright, who seems to be a proponent of the outmoded and inaccurate idea that monotheism is a more evolved form of belief than polytheism (Publishers Weekly points out that he uses a “naive and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion”), is so eager to debunk popular myths about shamans that he makes some rather sloppy assertions right out of the gate.

“The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles.”

While there is certainly some significant overlap between modern Paganism and Neo-Shamanism, the latter isn’t a “subset” of the former. Nor is modern Paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. These are all distinct religious/social movements with different starting points, ideologies, and goals. Wright is confusing the overlap of practitioners and subcultures (and the tendency of some academics to lump them together for the sake of convenience) with some sort of neat nesting-dolls order of New Religious Movements. Meanwhile, before Wright talks about all the indigenous shamans who were fakes and confidence men, he wants us to know that he isn’t trying to offend.

“But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.”

So big of him, don’t you think? Despite admitting that some shamans may have indeed been honorable and wise, he still wants to point out that some were not. As if human nature hasn’t taught us that some people, no matter how exhaulted their status, can still take part in some very real moral failings and abuse their power. In fact, Wright pretty much admits that there may be some real value to various shamanic ideas and practices (he “praises” them by comparing their worldview to followers of early Abrahamic religions), he just wanted us to take off our rose-colored (shamanic) glasses.

“I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.”

So to sum up, Neo-Shamanic adherents (who are a subset of Pagans, who are a subset of New Agers) need to remember that some indigenous shamans were fakers and frauds, but really, there is some  (early Abrahamic-esque) wisdom and good stuff to be found there. Heck, “ordinary consciousness could use some transcending”! So I guess now that the Neo-Shamans (not to mention the traditional indigenous shamans) have been taken down a peg by Wright, those crazy diamonds can all shine on. I have to wonder, was there really a point to this article? Did Slate.com actually pay him to just ramble on about animal bladders full of blood and how often shamans got lucky? Of all the topics he could cover, why was Robert Wright writing about Neo-Shamanism?

Johann Hari at Slate.com, heartbroken by witnessing the ongoing brutal persecution of women and children as “witches” throughout Africa, reads through two recently released books, “The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World”, and “The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village”, for insight.What he finds are some haunting commonalities as European, American, and African people from different eras find the “other” within their own ranks. Scarred communities responding to collective trauma by lashing out at the primal giver of life.

“Yet this doesn’t explain why witch hunting keeps taking the same form every time, with only mild variations. Why, in particular, is it almost always targeted at women? … Demos [author of “The Enemy Within”] believes there is a primal reason for this. “A mother—a woman—is the primal Other, the nonself from which the self is progressively distinguished; further, she disposes a kind of absolute power to meet, or reject, infantile need,” he writes. “As such, she retains forever afterward an aura of what a discerning psychologist has called ‘magically formidable’ qualities.” So when we begin to suspect all-powerful dark forces, we suspect women first—because our mothers once held all-encompassing powers over us.”

So perhaps the two sides arguing over who exactly were killed during the European witch-hunts are both (to differing extents) right. There most likely wasn’t a surviving witch-cult dating to before the advent of Christianity, but perhaps women were especially targeted because on some level they became representatives of the primal mother. A communal subconscious rebellion against a dark Creatrix who they blamed for their suffering and torment. So the Mother (and her young offspring) must be cleansed and destroyed. Of course Hari points out a far simpler reason for why women were targeted, they were easy prey.

“I think this misses a starker and simpler explanation. Women are generally weaker than men. They are less able to defend themselves from braying mobs. They are easier to pin down and turn into a screaming, denying receptacle of evil. The mobs usually choose the weakest women of all—old women and little girls.”

Hari’s article ends with the “Satanic Panic” and “Satanic Ritual Abuse” madness of the 1980s (a madness we are still feeling the ramifications of) as proof that it can still happen in advanced and “rational” America. Indeed, Hari references former VP candidate Sarah Palin’s interactions with self-proclaimed “witch-hunter” Thomas Muthee as proof that this madness never fully goes away (it can be of little coincidence that Palin’s Third-Wave pals, with their anti-goddess rhetoric get along so well with a man who lies/brags about terrorizing women). That example, and the (so-far) isolated cases of witch-related abuse here on our own shores, should keep us ever vigilant (especially when it is very dangerous to be a “witch” in a recession). We must, as Hari writes, in times of hysteria and panic demand hard evidence and settle for nothing less.

“…the hysteria will happen again. We don’t know yet who the victims are, but they are out there, oblivious. There is an enemy within—dormant in our own fragile minds and emerging with paranoid intensity at times of stress. Our only antidote is to insist on evidence. Whenever there are charges against a person or group, we must ask insistently: How do we know? Show me the proof. Show me three times. Show me 10.”

A reoccurring question at The Wild Hunt has been: “why should Pagans care about witch-hunts in Africa or the Middle-East”? While I have argued (somewhat pragmatically) that as modern Pagans and Witches spread around the globe, we will have no choice but become a factor in places that are persecuting “witches” (as is already happening in India and South Africa), there is another possible answer emerging. That all witch-hunts are connected by a common thread of fear and hatred, and if they aren’t addressed and stopped by the forces of tolerance and rationality, they become like a virus spreading beyond the “host” community.

I certainly don’t agree with everything Starhawk says, but she does have a point that modern Pagan Witches have chosen to reclaim the label “witch” for themselves. It is folly to think the African or Middle-East witch-hunts will forever stay safely away from the “real” Witches in America, Europe, or Australia, or that when it is exported it will be forever contained in immigrant communities. Someday, if we continue to insist that women and children being killed as “witches” if faraway lands isn’t a “Pagan” problem, we might wake up to find our own communities poisoned by a need to find “the other” within their own ranks. What better place for the panicked and hysterical to look than the increasingly public and “out” community of self-proclaimed “Witches”?

Slate.com contributor Lee Ann Kinkade (she previously wrote a piece on intentional communities) outs herself as a Witch, and reveals the less glamorous side of practicing Paganism.

“This picture leaves out an important detail, and I don’t mean the whole human-sacrifice-and-stealing-Christian-babies thing. Planning a ritual, whether it’s for Halloween or any other holiday, is a conflict-filled battle. It’s like trying to herd jack rabbits on horseback. Those who practice witchcraft tend to be strident nonconformists, and the very nature of paganism, which has no unifying body or text, means that we have no obligation to believe the same thing or listen to anything beyond the dictates of our own consciences to unite in perfect accord. Often we flow together, achieving unity in which we are transported beyond ourselves, connected with the earth we love and the energy we feel from it. And just as often, we don’t.”

Kinkade shares some personal ritual mishaps from her past, and her annoyance at those who want to be “Pagan for a day” come Samhain.

“It seems like half the people I know want to be pagan on Halloween. I have no problem with a little religious tourism. I’m a bit of a spiritual slut. I have never turned down an invitation to a Seder. Bach thundering through a church transports me. But when I see visions of bacchanals dancing in my nonpagan friends’ heads, I get a little testy. Certain experiences are too comforting, too sacred to be spectacles. For me, Samhein is one of them.”

When an essay run in a major online publication discusses “Pagan standard time” and sloppy ritual preparation, I guess we really have hit the mainstream.