A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East. “A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age?
Last week I deconstructed the Daily Mail’s sensationalist assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. This didn’t stop conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone from flying off the rails, using the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity. “God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?“
So with the discourse on this non-event having sunk about as low as it could go, it was time for the journalistic grown-ups at the BBC to step in and set things to rights.
Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously. Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.
Muck-raking (and hugely successful) British tabloid The Daily Mail reports on the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education’s (SACRE) syllabus for schools in Cornwall, saying that it encourages the teaching of modern Paganism alongside other religions (sorry, I still don’t link directly to them). “Cornwall Council has told its schools that pagan beliefs, which include witchcraft, druidism and the worship of ancient gods such as Thor, should be taught alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the Daily Mail reported. The requirements are spelled out in an agreed syllabus drawn up by Cornwall’s RE advisory group. It says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about standing stones, such as Stonehenge. At the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” The syllabus adds that areas of study should include “the importance of pre-Christian sites for modern pagans.” An accompanying guide says that pupils should “understand the basic beliefs” of paganism and suggests children could discuss the difficulties a practising pagan pupil might face in school.” Something about this story tickled my memory, so I did a quick search of my archives and found a very similar story from 2010 about religious education in Lincolnshire County (also reported on by The Daily Mail). Beyond the misleading headline, “Schools get go-ahead to teach Paganism alongside major religions,” you find a quote from the Assistant Director of Children’s Services making it clear that there is “no direct guidance about whether [Paganism] should be included in the school curriculum and it is left to individual schools to make a decision about whether to include it.”
[The following is a guest post by Dr. Amy Hale. Dr. Hale is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Celtic cultures, with an emphasis on modern Cornwall and contemporary Esoteric culture and history.]
On Saturday May 14, the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, celebrated 60 years of existence with a day of lectures, culminating with the launch of the new book The Museum of Witchcraft: A Magical History. The day of talks, titled “Guardians of Magic” featured lectures about three key, yet sometimes poorly recognized, figures in 20th century witchcraft and magical culture. The day kicked off with Kerriann Godwin and Joyce Froome presenting “Cecil Williamson-Life of an Occultist” an engaging profile of the man who founded the Museum of Witchcraft in 1951 on the Isle of Man. This was followed by Jason Semmens’ presentation on the life of William Paynter, a Cornish folklorist of the mid 20th century who collected tales and artifacts related to witchcraft and cunning folk.