Lay Down Your Weapons

Some years ago now, I wrote a book about speaking to the Gods, not too surprisingly titled ‘God-Speaking’ and I, as a lifetime first, went to and presented at a Pagan conference.

Heady stuff. I read a passage, talked a little extemporaneously, and then opened the discussion up. As it turned out, the locally-famous University-Professor anthropologist keynote speaker had attended my presentation and he asked what for him was a very cogent question,

“How did I know that I was really talking to the Gods?”

He offered me some choices that seemed, to him, applicable:

  • Accuracy of my God-driven prognostications
  • Ability to manipulate outcome because of my ‘in’ with the Gods
  • Recognition (and, implicitly, respect) by other humans of my God-bothered status.

I had to stop and stare at him for a moment because his qualifiers were so odd-sounding to me when applied to my perception of religious occurrence….

“No,” I explained, “those are all external-to-me yardsticks you are suggesting. My system is internal— I believe in the Gods so when the Gods speak to me I believe that the Gods are speaking.”

Then we had a back-and-forth about the system by which I differentiate Gods-speech from wishful thinking and delusional ideation and closed the discussion politely, but I could see that he was wholly unconvinced (after all, he is an anthropologist, not a believer).

However you qualify it, whatever logic you prop it up with, wherever you reference lore or Deity to support it, belief is always a circular argument. Fundamentally, belief is a feeling. Feelings are like weather— here they are, now you must accommodate/plan around/take into account what the weather is before you act. I live in an area with a lot of weather— sometimes it’s literally killer cold in the Winter; in the Summer it’s often hot and humid (although not lethally so); we have earthquakes intermittently.

That’s what belief is like, I think. You have ‘strong convictions’ (aka deep feelings) about your beliefs and the actions that result from your beliefs can be devastating. But, unlike weather and feelings, we control our actions. No matter how much I believe that there are Spirits in everything, that the Gods speak to me, that the Earth is sentient I am never forced (by myself, by my beliefs, by my Gods, by the Spirits) to act, although sometimes feeling and ethics push very hard.

Quite a while after that very first time I presented at a Pagan conference (it still makes me paralyzingly shy but only for a moment, generally) just a few weeks ago (think of that device in old-style movies where the pages of a calendar flutter past, although that’s almost inexplicable now) I was talking to my sister and she alluded to the numerous times that she, as a child, was invited to attend church services, go to Sunday School, or participate in Vacation Bible School (we were raised by an Ethical Humanist and a lapsed Catholic, so we had absolutely no religious instruction as a part of our home culture).

“Why did it never ‘take’, do you think?” she said, “The families who took me had belief, but it never rubbed off on me….”

We thought about it for a moment

“Father trained us in logic and argumentation from when we could speak, and there’s a logical disconnect between the teachings of Christ and the dogma and culture of whichever church that we would be unable to look past.” was my opinion.

My sister wouldn’t have challenged the minister in the pulpit (that would be rude), but otherwise only reason and factuality applied in our young world. I can still make a discussion between us end in laughter by mimicking my father, “That’s Not Quite…..CORRECT. (devastation follows)”

dickjanePicture to yourselves the bitter argument my third grade teacher and I got into when I felt she failed to refute my disagreement about the ethics of Dick and Jane— her position was, “This is the RIGHT answer!!”

And that is the essential position of the average church-goer, “My beliefs are correct!”

My position (as per Dick and Jane as well as life) was “I think I have a defensible argumentation, a reasonable conclusion, a cogent opinion, here….. can you refute it?”

….in case you’re wondering….

*Dick, Jane, and Sally all went to bed. Dick fell right asleep; Jane was wakeful but quietly waited in bed for sleep to come; Sally kept getting up, demanding drinks of water, fretting, etc.

The teacher believed and got everyone in the class but myself to agree that Dick was ‘best’. I argued that Jane alone exercised self-control and so was ‘best’.*

Neither I, nor Teacher Mary (I went to Quaker schools where, in the facile and untrue name of equality, we addressed our teachers by their first names), nor the slightly-famous anthropologist can effectively argue about belief. She believed Dick was the ‘best’; the anthropologist thought real-world results must support belief. To them it just is or isn’t, no two opinions can apply.

But I believe for myself alone and the anthropologist for himself. The believers who took my sister to church events (although they were offering her a for them lifesaving chance) and my sister declining to believe can only be sure and in control of their own actions, not anyone else’s. Which is as it should be.

All of the above people, as well as all believing people everywhere, have a corollary belief that their beliefs (although all different and often conflicting) bring well-being and good outcomes into their lives. This is one of the main reasons (apart from the saving from hell-fire to follow) that people proselytize/share their beliefs. Even the anthropologist offered me good outcomes as the obvious support and lure for belief.

The disconnect is where you draw the line between selfishness and help from the Gods. Both spell casting and prayer for getting a job, finding the right home, winning the lottery et al always have the other-hand outcome that someone else does not get those benefits. Even spells/prayers for health and healing presuppose that those are the best results. But it is likely that we do not know what the best results are, globally, and even locally we may be wishing for short-sighted results.

Well, results in my real life do support my beliefs, but not in the way the anthropologist envisioned.

Speaking to and acting for the Gods benefits me— I achieve things I wouldn’t attempt without Their promptings, I perceive things differently through Their telling, I understand things that I found baffling before. But I’m not more right, nor richer, nor more respected through the agency of the Gods. I’m not even, strictly speaking, happier. I am more fulfilled but less comfortable, so how one defines ‘happy’ obtains here.

The distinction between ‘crazy’ and ‘God-bothered’ also isn’t about happiness or rightness. External to the Gods and our interaction am I participating in a meaningful way with ‘normal’ society (i.e. eating regularly, fairly appropriately dressed, maintaining a household, fulfilling my obligations) and not acting outside my previously-held moral system nor assaulting people against their will? That is, are the responsibilities I have taken on for the Gods ‘benefiting’ me? Benefit in the sense of not eroding and perhaps enhancing the well-being of my personal-self package rather than benefiting me by making me rich, famous, or ‘right’.

I hold that it is my responsibility to dedicate myself to Beneficent Gods, although clearly I have a fairly moderate standard about what’s beneficial. I undertake things which are challenging and difficult for me because They ask me to. I can see, although without complete understanding and narrowly, that the ends They are promoting through me are in agreement with my own ethical standards (Theirs are not fully comprehensible to me). As well, They acknowledge the necessity of my having down-time in which to eat, sleep, and interact in a non-God-driven way. And, in the end, I can refuse a task or association without punishment although, of course, I am also refusing whatever beneficial broadening of my character or widening of my understanding would then have occurred. In dedicating myself to one or some of the Good Gods I have a responsibility to listen and try. They have a responsibility to speak and instruct without abrogating my free will.

In my perception, the directive ‘EveryBeing has Free Will’ stands hand-in-hand with the Prime Directive ‘Don’t be a Douche’ and forms the root from which all ethics spring. So when I say, “I am sent messages by the Gods” and other-person says, “You are delusional” there doesn’t have to be an intrinsic disagreement between us; we are both making statements of belief. Although either one of us could easily slide over the line into douchey ass-hattery in the tone, delivery, or content of those statements they are not conflicting— I could be both delusional and God-bothered at different times, I could be receiving messages no matter how many other people thought me to be delusional, I could be straight-up crazy and other-person’s opinion wouldn’t change that.

Those infrequent times that the Gods send me a message for someone who’s not listening to Them I always try to make that perfectly clear, “This is what the Gods are sending… but you must make up your own mind about either believing or not and then about either following Their advice or not; I don’t have any stake in the exchange, it’s between you and Them.”

That example’s easy; so is the one when a believer says, “My God’s going to send you to hell.” Who hasn’t been consigned to the Tedious Lake of Fire? Generally, the fact that I don’t follow ( ‘believe in’) their God is what started the cascade and not really an answer. Strictly speaking, I do believe in their God but I don’t acknowledge Him as my God and so I believe that He has no power over me. Sometimes that’s a little too abstract for hell-fire believers; my fall-back is that if, contrary to my belief, Hell-Fire God is the Supreme Being than judgement is firmly stated to be His prerogative and hell-fire believer isn’t actually going to get a vote about me at all.

As I said, those are the easy ones. There are moderately challenging ones like ‘As a biologist, you cannot believe in Gods.’ even though I clearly do. My answer is that evolution is a tool of the Gods of Creation, although frequently I then have to explain how evolution really works. Finally, on the gripping hand, there are the difficult ones; the ones we feel strongly about. (Not that the believers consigning me to the Tedious Lake of Fire are wishy-washy about it but you need deep feelings on both sides to start a battle.)

  • ‘Politics belong in the expression of my religion!’ ‘Politics and religion are quite separate!’
  • ‘I identify as a follower of a well-known God. I am a racist/bigot/anarchist/an owner of a BMW…’
  • ‘I follow That God! Ze does not permit followers that are pick-one-of-the-above!”
  • ‘Some people who associate themselves with Specific Pagan Religion are racists/bigots/anarchists/owners of a BMW…’
  • ‘I am an important/dedicated/long-term member of that religion! How dare you call me a racist/bigot/anarchist/an owner of a BMW!’

These are beliefs. The individual expression of one’s religion is necessarily belief, and cannot effectively be argued. People do, of course, argue about belief all the time because their beliefs are important to them but it always and immediately devolves into unreason… ‘You can’t believe that!’ ‘I do believe that!’

Even invoking the God of Logic does not work; look at what happened to people identifying as ‘Wiccan’. Eventually the followers of British Traditional Wicca had to create a new name in order to distinguish between themselves and ‘Self-Initiated Wiccans’.

Give it up.

You can’t stamp around inside other peoples’ heads; they’re not accessible to you. You can try to slide in a nice, well-oiled idea but sometimes it’s just in one ear and out the other. You can legislate against hate-speech and hate-action but not hate-thought. You can argue ideas but not with unsupported accusations.

scarecrowWe all have beliefs. We should try to express them with grace and cogency, to use internal logic in our belief system, to listen to well-expressed differing opinions, to accept that beliefs differ. However, you cannot beat me to death with a straw-man nor can I grab it away from you and beat you to death with it— scarecrows aren’t that durable.

“I hate what you said, so you’re a hateful person” is just a bad weapon, set it down.

Judith O’Grady

judithis an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


Pagan Anarchism can be purchased here.

What’s A Nice Atheist Like Me Doing At Gods & Radicals?

“The Sources” by Emy Blesio (oil on canvas)

 

Recently, some criticisms of the Gods & Radicals community have included condemnation of the inclusion of a self-proclaimed atheist — me — among the contributors.1

What’s an atheist doing at Gods & Radicals?  It’s a fair question.

The truth is, while I am an atheist, I am also a non-theistic humanist, a Gaian pantheist, an archetypal polytheist, a naturalistic animist.  And which one I answer to really depends on how you ask the question or what aspect I am choosing to emphasize at the time.

I am but atheist north-north-west.

When the wind is southerly, I know a god from a geist.

My worldview does not accommodate supernatural beings that exist separately and independently of human beings — and in that sense I am an atheist.

And yet, my world is full of gods.  Let me give you an example …

Each morning, I wake up and greet the rising sun with arms upraised and an invocation of Indra, adapted from the Rig Veda, on my lips:

Scaling heaven, splendor encompasses you,

Chariot-Borne, sun-bright, and truly potent,

You pour forth, bursting the clouds,

Giving life to sun and dawn …

You say the sun is no god?  What is it else that rules outside our selves?

I saw that there are, first and above all,
The hidden forces, blind necessities,
Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
Various or one: for great and strong and good
Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
What is it else that rules outside man’s self?

— Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book”

Do I believe the gods are real?  Of course!  What could be more real than the sun?

For ages, humankind, we’ve wanted to celebrate what brings us life. What is this thing that allowed us to emerge. …

The Sun. The Star.

That right there is the source of all of our myths and allegories and hopes and dreams. It gave life to the world; gave birth to life.

Its core burns at ten million degrees and it consumes millions of tons of matter per second – we ourselves are made of remnants of its fallen siblings.

The preconditions for our humanness, that, certainly, is what god is right? ‘Let there be light!’

— Jason Silva, “What is a God?”

But you say, it’s impossible to interact with this god?  Not so.  I interact with it every morning when I open my eyes to the growing light.  I interact with it every time I step outside and feel its warmth on my flesh, my cells absorbing  its rays.  I interact with it every time I take a breath of air which is warmed its radiation.  I interact with it every time I eat a vegetable which transformed its energy into life-sustaining matter.

True, the sun does not hear or respond to my prayers.  You might say it is indifferent to me.  And yet, in a sense, I am an extension of the sun.  I am its energy transformed into living matter.  I am the light of the sun made conscious, capable of reflecting back on itself, seeing and appreciating its own warmth and beauty.  “Indifference” does not seem a fitting word to describe this relationship.

“I want to know why beauty exists, why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?”

— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Why does the sun hold such beauty and power for us?  Because there is a sun within us too, an inner sun god.  Indra, to whom I call in my invocation, is just one of the names of this god.  He is the power of the sun personified.2  Indra is my internal sun — the part of me that is called forth by the sight of the rising sun.  The sun god without speaks to the sun god within, and the sun god within responds.

Have you ever felt the sun rise within you?  Words like “archetype” and “symbol” are inadequate to capture this experience.

You say this Indra is not real because he is “in my head”?  It’s true it is all in our heads, but if we think this makes them less real, then, as Lon Milo DuQuette has written, we have no idea how big our heads really are.

For the pioneers of modern psychology, Freud and Jung, the deepest levels of the psyche merged with the physical body and the physical stuff of the world.  Ecopsychologists like James Hillman and Theodore Roszak extend Freud’s id and Jung’s collective unconscious and draw the rational conclusion that what these terms imply is literally the world.

The most profoundly collective and unconscious self is the natural material world.

— James Hillman, “A Psyche the Size of

the Earth”

What meaning does the phrase “merely psychological” have if the psyche is “the size of the earth”, a literal anima mundi which suffused with subjectivity, interiority, intimacy, and reciprocity.

But you say this Indra is not real because he is not separate from me?  But if that’s the case, then you and I are not real either, because we are not separate:

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our interconnectedness makes us more, not less, real.  From this perspective, the more we emphasize the separateness of the gods, the less real they become.

What does any of this have to do with being a “radical” or with anti-capitalism?

In order to answer that, I need to explain briefly the relationship between capitalism and the disenchantment of the world.

According to Morris Berman, “The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment,” which Berman defines as “nonparticipation”  and “alienated consciousness.”  A disenchanted consciousness sees everything else, even living beings, as objects — objects to be bought and sold, in the case of the capitalist form of disenchantment.

Capitalism is one of the driving forces behind the disenchantment of the world.   It alienates workers from the products of their labor, but it also alienates us from the physical world, from nature (including our own bodies).  Capitalism disenchants the world by reducing everything to resource and commodity, fungible and without intrinsic meaning.

Nothing we come upon in the world can any longer speak to us in its own rights. Things, events, even the person of our fellow human beings have been deprived of the voice with which they once declared their mystery to men.

— Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture

This disenchantment of the world happened, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature — gods and spirits can be objectified too — but when we stopped feeling our connection to nature, when we lost our sense of essential participation in the world.

The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short was a place of belonging. A member of the cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.

— Morris Berman, The Re-Enchantment of the World

The re-enchantment of nature, then, is a means overcoming capitalist alienation.  It means relating to nature once again as our home — in the deepest sense of that word.  (The prefix eco- means “house”.)  It means cultivating a profound awareness of our interconnectedness — our kinship  — with every other living being — and, yes, even with the rocks and other unconscious, yet animate, matter.

So let’s go back to my morning ritual …

When I raise my arms in greeting to the sun, I am re-storying myself to my proper place in the universe.  I am re-placing myself in the vast cosmic drama which began billions of years ago, when stars were born and died, and spread their life throughout the universe.  I am re-calling the time when the rays of the sun gave life to our first simple-celled ancestors.  I am re-membering how my body and yours evolved in response to the sun — how our sensory organs were shaped by a long and delicate process of interaction with the world around us, how our eyes were shaped by and then finely tuned by the light of the sun and its reflections off of the myriad surfaces of the natural world.

… when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big—but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I am also reviving the energetic process which sustains my life today.  I am re-cognizing my kinship with all other life — both human and other-than-human, both plant and animal — all life that depends on the energy from the sun — as well as to the winds and waters whose cycles are driven by the sun’s rays.  And I am re-connecting the experience of the light and warmth outside of me to the experience of psychological light and warmth inside of me — as above so below.

This simple gesture of greeting the sun is one way of re-enchanting the world.  Ritual gestures like these work together as an antidote against the disenchantment of capitalism …

… the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”

Doing this reminds me of my place in the cosmos — not a “stranger in a strange land”, not a exile from heaven, and not a mere consumer of widgets and producer of GDP — but a child of Sol and Terra, kin to wolf and salmon, redwood and moss, earthworm and parasitic wasp.  Knowing I am a part of this earth, and it me, and that my destiny in continuous with it, helps me see capitalist alienation for what it is.  It helps me find ways to resist that alienation and to imagine a different kind of life.

So am I an atheist?  Yes, but that’s not all I am.  I am also a worshiper of many gods … and a radical too.  And as surely as the earth is my home, so is Gods & Radicals.


With gratitude to Rhyd Wildermuth and others who have defended my participation in this community.


Endnotes:

1 I am not the only non-theistic writer at G&R.

2 Indra was a sun god in his earliest form in the Rig Veda. In later forms, he became a god associated with rain and lightning.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


Both issues of A Beautiful Resistance are available not just in print, but as digital downloads as well.  Follow these links for Everything We Already Are  and The Fire is Here.

 

Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis, by Adam Elsheimer - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150626

Gods in disguise

Every time an advance is made in people actually respecting and accommodating others’ bodily autonomy, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, or other difference, you are sure to hear the cry “it’s political correctness gone mad!”. A similar cry, of “Alphabet Soup!”, goes up whenever a new letter is added to the LGBT+ acronym.

What you are hearing is the sound of the privileged complaining about a loss of privilege (otherwise known as ‘playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting than other people‘, or ‘getting away with stuff that minority groups would not get away with’, e.g. Ryan Lochte, Brock Turner, and many other similar cases).

Examples of advances in respect for others include the word cisgender being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, having gender-neutral toilets, labelling food for allergens, providing food for people with special requirements (halal, vegan, vegetarian, coeliac, etc), providing electricity for disabled people to recharge their wheelchairs, implementing consent policies at Pagan events… the list goes on. You name it, someone will probably have exclaimed “it’s political correctness gone mad!” (or something very similar) in response to every social advance that has ever been made, right back to that dangerously radical innovation of giving the vote to women, or perhaps even further back than that.

Where does this insidious phrase come from? Its history is quite convoluted, but it has often been used as a pejorative term, and was fairly obscure (and a left-wing in-joke) until it was taken up by conservatives who were opposed to progressive educational policies. After George Bush Snr used it at a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan in 1991, its use became widespread among conservatives to refer to anything they regarded as an “imposition of liberal orthodoxy”. It use rapidly spread to the UK, where it is used every time someone wants to do something inclusive and someone else perceives that their privilege will be eroded by being more inclusive.

One example of privilege is that non-disabled Pagans don’t have to worry about wheelchair access to venues, and expect public Pagan events to be low-cost or free, so when event organisers book a venue, they are constrained by these expectations to look for lower-cost venues, which often don’t have wheelchair access. When it is suggested that all public Pagan events should be wheelchair-accessible, even if it costs more, you are sure to hear cries of “it’s political correctness gone mad” – despite the fact that accessibility is actually a legal requirement for public events.

Similarly, inclusive Wicca advocates an expanded understanding of concepts like polarity, and a few tweaks to Wiccan rituals, to accommodate a more up-to-date concept of gender and sexuality. To hear the howls of protest from some quarters, you would have thought that inclusive Wiccans had advocated abolishing the whole of Wiccan liturgy, or something. (Meanwhile, many people outside Wicca are baffled that we are still having a conversation about this in the early 21st century.)

As Neil Gaiman wrote, however:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

(Yet another reason to love Neil Gaiman.) He goes on to suggest that people should try replacing the phrase “politically correct” wherever we can with “treating other people with respect”. And now, thanks to a New Zealander called Byron Clark, there’s actually a Google Chrome extension that does exactly that.

The latest version of “it’s political correctness gone mad” has emerged from some sections of polytheism: the accusation of “putting politics before gods”. It is particularly insidious because it implies that those of us who care about respecting the rights of our fellow humans (and of other animals) are somehow impious.

The central tenet of my religion is “only connect”: connect with other beings, respect their autonomy, honour their dreams and aspirations, and recognise the divinity within them.

I believe that divinity is immanent in everything; every being has the seeds of godhood within them. Some choose to trample on the seed, others choose to nurture it towards growth – but divinity is everywhere, however dimly reflected.

If I deny the divinity immanent in my fellow beings, then I am also denying the divinity of gods, who are expressions of the same divinity.

Therefore, in my world, treating other people with respect is honouring the gods. The ancient stories of gods and angels visiting humans disguised as mortals are metaphors to express this idea. You never know whether the stranger to whom you showed hospitality and respect was a god in disguise – so you may as well behave as if everyone you meet is a god in disguise. Because actually, they are.

 

Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.

 

 

How “Gods Before Politics” Perpetuates Privilege

(A version of this essay was previously published at allergicpagan.com.)

“Ever and always, the Gods come before politics.” — John Beckett

What does “political” mean?

There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.

Some of the confusion has to do with definitions.  When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting.  And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting.  And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?

But politics is a lot more than elections and voting.  It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets.  Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.  Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”  If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.

When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.  Not the marketplace.  Not school.  Not church.  And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.

Why?  Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity.  You’re either doing one or the other.  There’s no escaping it.  And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.

Privilege makes politics invisible

And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege.  And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious.  The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated.   So much of privileged talk is like this.  While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.

It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity.  But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you.  Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.

Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article here on G&R entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:

“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]

“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”

In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles.  Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”.  He writes:

“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”

That is a political position, an explicit one.  And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.

Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:

“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“F**k off.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”

That was a political action.  If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too.  And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.

The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar.  If the answer is “no”, then ask them why.  Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not.  If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not.  That answer will inevitably be political too.  We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.

Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs?  Is so, congratulations, your circle is political.  If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political.  Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter?  If so, good job, your group is political.  If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.

The luxury of being “non-political”

Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist.  As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:

“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.'”

Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political.  We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort.  We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us.  And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces.  Other people don’t have that privilege.  What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.

(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so.  We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way.  If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)

It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism.  There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens.  There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans.  There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans.  But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political.  Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.

If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political.  And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo.  In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.

Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).”  He’s right about that.  Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t.  Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.  And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.

change

The politics of the gods

Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source.  If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out.  But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march.  We need both, obviously.  But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?  If it’s the former, then you’re being political.  If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.

And what about our gods?  Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?  If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo.  And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political.  If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political.  But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly.  And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.

Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …

il_fullxfull.411443169_6ark
Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)
duo
Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right? (Sources: Left: “The Tree of Life” by Laura Zollar; Right: “Pagan Gods – Wincest” by Milla1990)

Our choice of gods is a highly political act.  I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods.  As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:

“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]

“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]

“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”

Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics.  But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being.  The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way.  In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares.  As I’ve written before:

“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power.  Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

The notion that the pagan gods are embodiments of virtue seems like a very Christian conception of deity.  Compare Beckett’s statement, “Ever and always, the Gods come before politics”, with the one below:

jesusisking

Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?

I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is.  And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it.  So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett.  But people like him and me need to get this.  We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political.  The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged.  It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t).  And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.

The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Faith & Politics in Paganism

Public domain image.

Public domain image.

Should we link our politics and our faith?  This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community.  Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.

I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip.  Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful.  But even I was drawn partway into this one.  I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me.  It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck.  For me it did both.

One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith.  That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.

Religion Informs Culture

There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one.  That’s true.  But we do have a distinct Pagan culture.  Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)

The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right.  Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world.  Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far.  Culture is something we talk about as being an important force.  Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.

We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state.  Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion.  We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).

But religion is also a part of culture.  The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule.  Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution, which happened in the mid-seventies.  The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized.  But there are remnants.  For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.

This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec.  There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.

However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique.  It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places.  And we’re learning how to do it better.  For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes.  They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues.  Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies.  I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.

This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.

Ethics

Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity.  Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing.  The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will.  Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.

Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual.  In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions.  (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions.  Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason.  At least, that’s what I think.)

Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us.   This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on.  We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go.  Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community.  Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all.  We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars.  It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what dogma actually is.  Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.

Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down.  But as Brendan Myers once tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic!  Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.

Where am I going with all of this?  I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics.  Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms.  A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility.  I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so.  And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.

Deities Inform Your Politics

Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics.  A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg.  A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order.  Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.

alley-fist

A Personal Perspective

Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe.  I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.

One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery.  “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.

There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect.  Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty.  My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.

As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed.  Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically.  It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.

Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies.  Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression.  This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board.  It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone.  I get more done that way.  And I get encouragement when I need it.  I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals.  But dammit, they’re doing something.  And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”

Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work.  I have written before about how Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant.  At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given.  I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.

But over time that relationship changed.  I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women.  And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions.  I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.

And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer.  She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia.  She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed.  Hence, the choice of my Craft name.

I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics.  It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it.  And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners.  In other words, the 1% of their time.

I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance.  In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.”  I can’t keep my mouth shut.  It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out.  Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.

Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues.  I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either.  I hate fighting.  But sometimes I have to.  If I don’t, who will?

There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day.  I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating).  I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.

But the blogosphere is not one of those places.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics.  The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora.  If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to.  But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.

*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph.  Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


 

Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like  A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (featured above).

How Goes the War? Taking Stock and Initiating New Magick for Change

How goes the war, witches and magicians?

I think that since September 2015 it’s going rather well.  There have been a lot of interesting shifts in the way things are going in the world.  For one thing, in October, the Liberal Party of Canada, headed by Justin Trudeau, finally toppled the Conservative Harper Regime, which was well on its way to transforming Canada from its social democratic roots into a Corporatist paradise.  Those who support an anti-capitalist (or anti-corporatist) viewpoint can’t be as happy with that as we would be about an NDP victory in Canada, but it’s definitely an improvement.

For another thing, the American Presidential primaries have never been so interesting!  It’s fascinating to see how Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who’s been speaking from the same place since the 1960s is suddenly a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.  Not that you’d ever know this if you only followed the mainstream media!  Their deliberately misleading coverage in their desperate desire to preserve the status quo has been even more interesting, and it inspired my last article.

But it’s a truth that in magick one must be especially careful of what one wants to accomplish, because you may end up with unintended consequences. Donald Trump may be one of those unintended consequences.  Those of us working magick for change were not very specific about what form the change should take, were we?  Clearly Trump is setting out to destroy the modern Republican party, which is clearly either our foe or a powerful ally thereof, but perhaps the cure is worse than the disease.  It scares me a little that Americans seem ready to elect the 21st century equivalent of Mussolini.

So what’s to be done?  Well, perhaps more magick is called for.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and when you use magick to break down, you must also use magick to build up.

So it’s time now, I think, to call upon the growing and healing spirits of transformation.  With spring (and March 15) just around the corner, it’s time to call upon that energy of renewal.  When the system comes apart, what will replace it?  Let’s all lend our energy to the United States right now, where much of the world’s future is about to be decided (like it or not,) and then let’s spread that power out into our own lands:

Statue of Liberty of New York by Axelle B (public domain image).

Use whatever your usual procedures are to enter into a Journeyworking (spirit travel.)

Visualize a bald eagle flying high over the land.  See it flying high above you, searching.  It cries as it finds what it seeks and it lands on the shoulder of Lady Liberty, who is bearing Her torch of freedom.  She smiles and nods Her greeting to you.

Who is Lady Liberty?  Is She just a symbol, a statue?  Or is She something more?  She bears a strong resemblance to Athena to me.  I think perhaps She is a new goddess.  And as an American goddess, the fate of Americans matters to Her.

Ask Her to lend Her support to those working for the cause of liberty, freedom, and justice in the upcoming Presidential election process.  Ask Her to withdraw Her support from those who are not working in the interests of those causes.  Ask Her not to take a side in personal political preferences, but to keep in mind the personal motivations of candidates that we cannot see and the long-term consequences that we may not be able to predict.

If you, like me, are not an American, then reach out to impress upon Lady Liberty how the American Empire affects the entire world, and why we who are not U.S. citizens care about the future of American politics.

As when dealing with the Wild Hunt, be aware Lady Liberty may ask you to perform a task in return.  Listen for guidance.  If you are willing to agree to the task, do so.

Visualize the torch of freedom illuminating those who are doing the work of freedom with a glowing spotlight or halo.  Hear their words being amplified to spread to those who need to hear it.  See that light spreading out over the United States, and then the whole world.  And where it touches the yokes of the ones who would enslave us, let those yokes be burnt to a crisp.

The eagle takes flight over the illuminated landscape and lets out a cry of joy.  Lady Liberty smiles.

Return to your body and make whatever offering you feel is appropriate.

And let’s cross our fingers!

* I deferred my intended subject for the next article because I felt that this was a little more urgent.  My article on the pitfalls of internet media will follow next week.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


We’re currently in the editing process of the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance! Pre-order, subscription, and underwriting information is here.

Millennium

612px-Lützelburger_Hohlbein_Kämpfende_Bauern

 

Black birds come screeching through the skies

On winds of war, as waters rise.

And prophet’s eyes begin to gleam

Beneath their floating hair. This dream

Of smoke and fire shall end at last!

A whisper rises from the past –

Millennium – as pillars shake

Millennium – as gods awake

Millennium – as flowers bloom

In mouths of corpses, and the tomb

Springs open to reveal the Host

Arranged for battle, ghost by ghost,

With banners flapping, black and red.

Women's_March_on_Versailles01

Millennium – “We are the dead

Who rose with Spartacus and fell,

Who sang John Ball Has Rung Your Bell,

Who marched with pitchforks on Versailles,

And those who answered Boukman’s cry,

Who rode with Makhno in Ukraine,

And those who died defending Spain.

We are the dead of all the earth

Who died to bring this day to birth.

The dead who dreamed another world

Have come to you with flags unfurled.

The burning wheels and turning gears

Have come around. The end is near.

Our work remains undone. But you

(Millennium!) shall see it through.

So take your mental spear, and go!

Cast down all thrones. Let forests grow

Where burning mills once filled the sky

With smoke and flame. Let empires die,

Till none is slave and none is king.

Then heal. Then build. Then sing.”

 

– Christopher Scott Thompson

The first image shows peasant rebels marching into battle in 16th-century Germany. The second image shows the march on Versailles in 1789. Both are public domain.