Friday, December 19, 2008


Yule goat
Ornamental Yule Goats made of straws, used for Yule decoration in Scandinavia.

Happy Winter Solstice (yes Virginia, axial tilt is the reason for the season)
Io Saturnalia!
Merry Yule
Happy Kwanzaa
Happy Hannukkah
Merry Christmas
Joyeux Noël
Fröhliche Weihnacht

and a huge variety of other fascinating festivals!

Friday, December 12, 2008

theoretical models of Paganism

I was wondering if Heelas and Woodhead's four categories of congregational religion were useful for thinking about Pagan and related traditions too.

Some voudouisants stress the all-powerfulness of the loa and the relative powerlessness of humans — could this be an example of a religion of difference?  And when it really focusses on experience of the loa in possession, could that be an example of a religion of experiential difference? Many Pagans speak of being chosen by a deity (and having little choice about which deity picked them) — this also seems to stress the relative powerlessness of humans in the face of divine prerogatives.

Some reconstructionists stress the similarity of deities to humanity, do not practice magic, and stress the importance of tradition — could this be an example of a religion of humanity?

Many other Pagans stress the importance of inner experience and cultivate individuality — could this be an example of a religion of experiential humanity?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

No to bigotry, yes to life

I've written before about the difference between interfaith dialogue, evangelism and proselytising.

Now a particularly sickening and insidious example of "evangelism" (or is it proselytising?) has been highlighted by my fellow Wiccan blogger over at Witches and Scientists.

So, a message to Christians of an evangelical and/or proselytising persuasion:

People of other religions than your own are not "lost". They didn't get "sucked into" the other religion because they somehow failed to notice the existence of Christianity. If they looked at Christianity, they probably rejected the disgusting doctrines espoused by some Christians, but not all, of exclusivity (the idea that only Christians can get to heaven), penal substitution, and the idea that the divine isn't immanent in the world, and is only masculine. They probably rejected the utterly sick idea of "dying to the world and living in Christ". They probably saw the humanity and spirituality of a gay friend and rejected the sick and perverse doctrines that seek to prevent that gay friend living and loving to the full.

Instead, we embraced the idea that all religions are paths to the Divine (with the possible exception of those espousing the above-mentioned doctrines); that the Divine is immanent in the world - that each rock and tree and living being is filled with the Divine - and that the messages of compassion, love and spirituality shine forth everywhere, in all times and places. And that all forms of love and pleasure are sacred, rituals of the Goddess of life and love (including same-sex love).

So, no thanks, we don't need the narrow, warped, cramped, life-denying, exclusivist, dreary creed of the sort of Christians who write utter drivel like "Generation Hex".

We are very happy to embrace as kindred spirits the kind of Christians who are prepared to acknowledge that other religions and lifestyles are valid paths to the Divine (and there are many more of them every day, thank the gods) but we will never, never compromise with the evil bigots who promote homophobia, bigotry, and hatred of other religions.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

the privatisation of religion

Hell In Little Axe: An Oklahoma Mom’s Chilling Battle With Religious Bigotry (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

The thing that interests me about this story is that the two mothers who didn't want their children indoctrinated were themselves Christians, but still got labelled as "atheists" by the bigots who ran the school.

The picture here seems a lot more complicated than atheism vs religion -- it's about the privatisation of religion and individual liberty vs state-sponsored religion.

Sociologists of religion (Heelas & Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution, 2005) have identified four main categories of religious group, which "new" atheists would do well to take note of, since it seems counter-productive to lump all religionists in the same category - many people who practice a religion agree with atheists that secularism is a good thing.

Source: Spirituality in Counselling and Psychotherapy
By Dennis Lines
Published by SAGE, 2006
ISBN 1412919576, 9781412919579

Heelas and Woodhead also identify two main ways of engaging with spirituality: "subjective-life" in which the individual spiritual life is paramount; and "life-as" in which individuality becomes subsumed to the collective identity. These attract different types of people and have very different results. In the past, adherents of subjective-life spirituality were generally regarded as heretics and often killed or persecuted.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

gender bending

According to the Gender Analyzer, there is an 84% chance that Stroppy Rabbit is written by a man. Well, a friend did once tell me that I am a gay man trapped in the body of a woman...

deep, so deep

The Stroppy Rabbit is an INTP, according to Typealyzer, a website that works out the Myers-Briggs personality-type of your writing (spotted by Chas, whose blog is an ISTP):

INTP - The Thinkers
The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Friday, November 21, 2008

religions as software

Christianity is like Microsoft:

  • It's a large corporate venture, bent on world domination
  • Once you've installed it on your hard drive, it's really difficult to get rid of it
  • Nearly everyone's got it (and they use it in schools), so it has become the default option
  • It is incompatible with other software
  • It takes up a lot of space on your hard drive
  • It fails to conform to international standards
  • But the user interface is attractive and the support is 24/7
Paganism is like Linux:
  • It's dead set against Microsoft
  • It's small and developed by a dedicated community of geeks
  • It comes from Northern Europe
  • The support arrangements are a bit patchy
  • It's eclectic and has lots of shareware
Reconstructionism is like programming via the command line:
Satanism is like a computer virus:
  • It's parasitic upon Microsoft and exploits its vulnerabilities
  • People blame it on the Linux geeks but it's actually done by spotty teenagers with no social life
  • Naive Microsoft users are always claiming there's more of it about than there actually is (there are only about 100 actual Satanists in the UK)
Google is like an insidious cult:
  • It appeared from nowhere and everyone thought it was peace-loving and non-corporate and cool
  • Now it is trying to take over the world by stealth
  • It started with the motto "Don't be evil" but then got into bed with a totalitarian regime
The New Age is like Facebook:
  • Light, bright and has lots of shiny gizmos
  • Uses social networking to connect people
Quakers (Friends) and Unitarians are like Apple Mac:
  • Generally owned by intellectuals and arty types; not corporate
  • Adheres to international standards
  • Great user interface; universally agreed to be cool
  • But hardly anyone actually owns one
Wicca is like Firefox:
  • Wicca discovered the Divine Feminine way before Christianity, and now they're stealing our clothes (so everyone will think they discovered Her) - Firefox invented tabbed browsing way before Microsoft, and now Microsoft have finally adopted it, and everyone will think they invented it
  • Both Wicca and Firefox have a great logo
  • Both adopted by a small community of dedicated users
New Atheists are like teenage computer hackers - they have no clue about what they're trying to hack into or how it works, but they like to create a virus or two (sorry, meme...)

(By Yewtree. If you pass this on to anyone else, please link back here).

See also: Religions as ex-girlfriends by Al Billings

sexual ethics

Just spotted this interesting chart of different religions' attitudes to sexual ethics in 1994. Well, if it was a choice between those seven, I'd rather be a Buddhist. Since they omitted Paganism, here's a summary:

Pagan attitudes to....

Sex between consenting teenagers
OK as long as they use contraception
Sex between an adult and a teenager
Unacceptable (difference of power)
Premarital sex
Blessed ("All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals")
Extramarital sex
Only if both parties to the marriage agree to it
Divorce It's a fact of life (and is provided for in the wording of the handfasting ceremony)
Masturbation Fine
Abortion Most Pagans are pro-choice
Contraceptives Encouraged
Married clergy
Married, single, we're not fussy
Female clergy
Yay! Priestesses are everywhere
Homosexual orientation
Blessed (fabulous actually)
Homosexual sex acts
Blessed ("All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals")
Same-sex weddings
Ordination of homosexuals
Lovely (you just try and stop 'em)

It would be interesting to know if there was any difference between different Pagan traditions on any of these issues.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Witchcraft" in Africa

African "witchcraft" has been in the news again recently.

Here is my view of this issue:
  • There are African traditional religions which include magical practitioners. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these practitioners were mislabelled as "witches" by Christian missionaries and colonialists. At that time the word "witch" still had almost entirely negative connotations. When these people's roles are being translated into English by Africans, they don't use the term "witch".

  • African traditional religions have two categories of "witchcraft":
    1. involuntary "witchcraft" which is a disease that the "witch" often doesn't know that they have. This is a complete misuse of the word "witch". (See Witchcraft among the Azande by W Evans-Pritchard for an anthropological study of this type of witchcraft belief.)
    2. sorcery or malevolent "witchcraft" - again, this has its own set of African words which probably don't map precisely onto the European concepts.
    Please note I don't believe that either (a) or (b) above actually exist, certainly not as an organised practice. Unfortunately evangelical Christians in Africa do believe in (a) above (and probably (b) as well), and are using it to get converts and money by stirring up a witch panic and torturing children (many of whom are rescued by the excellent charity Stepping Stones Nigeria).

  • During the late 19th and early 20th century, various European writers began to see witches as just traditional healers who were misunderstood, and so the word "witch" came to have positive connotations in some quarters; Gerald Gardner picked up on these writings and created Wicca (or the people who initiated him did so).

  • This new positive understanding still hasn't reached many evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, who regard all magic as being of the devil. The more enlightened Christians understand the difference between contemporary Pagan Witchcraft, the negative stereotypes of the 19th century, and the magical practices of African traditional religions.

  • In some circumstances, it may help to label traditional healers & magicians as being like Wiccans (where Wiccans are held in positive regard); in other cases, it may not (where Wicca is regarded as just another decadent Western practice, for instance).

  • Labelling all magical practitioners as "witches" is a bit too much like saying that anyone who does anything that looks like shamanism is a shaman, when they may have their own indigenous term and understanding of the practice which is different from that of the original shamans of the Tungus in Siberia. People's practices should be understood on their own terms, and not in terms imported from another context. It is quite correct to say that understanding it in terms of "black magic" versus "white magic" is very unhelpful. I'm just going one step further and saying we should be extremely careful in applying European terms, metaphors, or concepts to the situation; if we do so, we need to understand it in terms of the historical factors which might be causing the situation, and to be aware of the differences as much as the similarities.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Religion, privacy and democracy

A guest post from Shlomoh Sherman (and very good it is too):

Religion, privacy, and democracy
By Shlomoh Sherman
May 8, 2008

Several disquieting stories have come to my attention recently; they all concern academia. I found out a long time ago that academia is about the worst set of professions that you can get into. It attracts the worst types, and the decent ones who find their way into the professions usually wind up getting eaten by the sociopathic sharks.

Several friends of mine who are teachers have found themselves being harassed and forced to resign for no other reason than that the administrator took a personal dislike to them. There is the story of a young female teacher who went on a vacation to a resort where the parents of one of her students also were vacationing that year. The parents noticed that the teacher was wearing a bikini and a belly button ring. Upon her return to work, she was notified that she was fired for wearing a bikini and belly button ring on her vacation, something which the school administrators felt was unbecoming behavior for their staff.

There is also the story of a teacher and her husband who recently appeared on the HOWARD STERN SHOW. Someone at the school must be a Stern listener because several days later she was fired for appearing on the Stern Show. By the way, in case you are wondering, neither she nor her husband did anything on the show that could be considered improper behavior.

You would think that Americans, or anyone for that matter, are entitled to their privacy. Don't we claim privacy as our "God given" right? For the moment, we can forget that God does not give us ANY rights; He gives us rules, or so they say. But He especially does not give us the right to privacy! We HAVE no privacy in front of God. He watches our every move like some celestial Peeping Tom. He spies on us. He snoops. He sticks His enormous nose into our [private] business. Well, if snooping is good enough for the Overseer in the sky, it's good enough for His worshippers. And don't His clerics tell us that it is good to confess? What is it that we need to confess? What I do in private is none of your business. But is that so? The fact is that "privacy" is a relatively new concept. It did not exist in the pre-modern world. Both in the ancient world and the medieval world, the idea of the "private individual" was unthinkable. The individual person was only thought of as a member of a group, - either a family, a church, a community, a town. No person was ALLOWED to be an isolate. There was no such thing as individual responsibility except to the group to which one belonged. There were even societies in our primitive past in which an individual's crime was seen as the crime of his group. If someone killed a person belonging to another family, for example, he and his entire family might be put to death.

Although we like to think that we live in a modern society, especially in America, the fact is that most Americans have carried the pre-modern past into the present. The pre-modern past existing in the present always seems to express itself in religious communities, especially in those communities which are known as Biblical communities, namely Jews and Christians. But these communities and their beliefs and standards have a major impact on the national community as a whole. In this century so far, the impact has been greater than the impact of the secular humanist community - because the majority of Americans identify themselves as "Christian", and it is from their ranks that many of our elected officials come to office. It is from their ranks that many of our lawmakers get into power. It is then that America finds itself at the mercy of the pre-modern mindset.

Our social and empirical scientists have discovered a lot during the past 200 years. Much of what they have learned has benefited society in no small measure. And yet, in this unhappy century, their gains and achievements are being minimized by the INTRUSIVE mentality of those who wish to return us to an earlier, unhappier time. The pre-modern mentality seeks to undo the work of the creators of democracy.
In a democracy, we are supposed to have a right both to our privacy and to our opinions. Neither of these rights was given to us by God. They were given to us by Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and their comrades, men who were able to see the oppressiveness of communities where there was a lack of rights, communities in which mindless, illogical, mean-spirited rules deprived individuals of privacy and freedom.
The men who made our country wanted us to live in a place where you and I are ENTITLED to think for ourselves. Hence they created a nation free of gods and clerics, so they believed.

However if you look at the philosophical state of our country today, you can see the betrayal of the Founders' dream. The overwhelming majority of Americans actually believe that the United States is, or should be, run as a theocracy. They may not use that word but it comes down to the same thing. Example: It is constitutionally illegal to require a "religion" test to anyone seeking political office. Yet the case de facto, if not de jure, is that anyone declaring him/herself an agnostic, atheist, secularist, or humanist will not be elected to public office in most places, and certainly not to the high federal offices such as president. The whole issue of personal belief ought to be a private affair. If I run for office, what I believe or disbelieve is none of your business, and I ought to be allowed my so-called "god-given" right to privacy in matters of personal conviction. However, because the majority of my fellow Americans are addicted to the premises of the so-called "great monotheistic religions", I have to put up with the public's scrutiny, or to be blunt, snooping into my head. Amazingly, even the Press sees nothing wrong with this. In most of Europe and the civilized modern Western world, this invasion of privacy would be an outrage!

It's bad enough that the average citizen has this attitude. It's worse when our lawmakers have it. Several years ago, in a town in Texas, the police broke into the home of a homosexual, without a warrant, and arrested him and the other man with whom he was having sex, on the charge of sodomy.

The idea that there are even laws on our books against certain sexual acts committed by consenting adults in the PRIVACY of their own homes is bad enough. What's worse is that the laws of states such as Texas allow the breaking into your home and mine to actually arrest and try citizens who are not harming anyone or causing any trouble.

Our religious culture causes people to be wrapped up and emotionally involved in the private pleasure of their neighbors. It's absolutely Orwellian. Our century betrays the fact that we have never quite gotten away from the Puritanism of the days of Salem. Four hundred years ago, people in Salem were not allowed to think for themselves. Their private thoughts and acts were unquestionably public domain. Many in this century feel they ought still be public domain. More and more, our country is intruding into our private lives and diminishing what privacy we think should be ours.

I can understand, in the age of terrorism against the West, that cameras are now everywhere. I can even understand the government tapping telephones in order to catch criminals. I understand that after 9/11, I have to give up some of YOUR civil rights so that I will be safer. What I don't understand is that the majority of Americans sanction ideas that are similar to those of the Taliban. I understand that in certain countries there is government scrutiny into every aspect of life. But this is America, not Afghanistan. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are our promises. Dude, where is my Liberty? I know that I don't have the liberty to steal from you. But at least, give me the liberty to express my beliefs and live my life as I see fit so long as I don't hurt anyone.

Don't fire me from my job just because I wear a belly button ring on my vacation, or appear on a radio show that you don't happen to like or whose philosophy is not about mom's apple pie or Jesus' benevolence.

Democracy, as understood by any intelligent, philosophically minded American, implies a degree of privacy. Yet an amazing percentage of Americans who
consider themselves the MOST American, believe that they and their government have the right to impose their standards of belief on you and thereby deprive you of what you think and do in private, and that belief is motivated by pre-modern ideas of group guilt and group snooping, behaviors condoned and approved of by a deity. What I don't get is how these people reconcile their inappropriate moralistic behavior and attitudes with their belief in the democracy of America.

I've thought about this for many decades and I have come to some conclusions. Americans who claim to believe that America is great because of its freedom and democracy and yet, at the same time, say that they believe that our American society ought to be forcefully run by Biblical imperatives, are hypocrites, knowingly or not. Religion, especially Biblical religion, expressed as Christianity and Judaism, is incompatible with real democracy.

Biblical religion militates against free expression. It opposes what we think and do in private, mainly because it opposes our private pleasures. It posits that people are sinful by nature and that they are "born in sin". Anyone born in sin is a slave, not a free person, and he who is born in sin does not deserve freedom or pleasure; at least he should be closely watched! If need be, what little freedom and privacy he has left should be taken away from him.

Believing Christians and Jews who say they are for democracy are hypocrites. Jews are somewhat less hypocritical than Christians. Fundamentalist Jews will tell you that the TORAH is a fascistic document. Some ultra-Orthodox individual actually once used that expression with me. As far as I am concerned, if you are less of a hypocrite than someone else, you are still a hypocrite. And in my book, religious hypocrites are the worst kind because they believe themselves to be morally superior to me.

I confess, I do have my faults. But among them are not the desire to snoop on someone else's bedroom activities, nor the desire to prevent people most in need of condoms from having access to them, nor the desire to tell a female how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, nor the desire to have Harry Potter removed from the public library, nor the desire to engage in the prevention of scientific and medical research which might benefit mankind, nor the desire to tell you how to live your life philosophically, nor the desire to kill diversity of opinion in my country.
What is the supreme proof that fundamentalist Biblical religion is antithetical to our democracy? The answer is the belief in the Messiah. One cannot call himself a Christian if he does not believe in the coming of the Christ, nor can one call himself an Orthodox Jew if he denies that God will one day raise up a Messiah for the People of Israel.

About 16 years ago, when the Internet was still new, I participated in an Internet discussion group on Religion. A Christian lady wrote to me and said that she understood what would happen when Christ came back: "[He] shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." What an incredibly wonderful vision. What the lady wanted to know is what do Jews believe will happen when the Jewish messiah comes at last. Unfortunately I do not have the original response that I sent her. But I can repeat the basic answer I gave to her.

I said: "Regarding the messiah that our religion has taught us, when he comes, a new age will be initiated on earth. Israel will be gathered to the Promised Land and the third Temple will be rebuilt. Nations will not go to war any longer since all people will love their neighbors as they love themselves. Whatever sinful nature man may possess, that is, his YETSER HARA, will be subdued. There will be no crime, no sickness, no hunger, and no poverty. All people will speak and think with one accord. "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." What an incredibly wonderful vision. However, I do not believe that there is any such thing as a free lunch, not even in messianic times.

Here is the side of the coin that the wonderful folks who wrote the Bible left out.
When the Messiah shows up [either the Jewish or the Christian One], the first thing to go will be the Constitution of the United States which "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution." The document which came into being as a result of the shedding of American blood will be shredded. Remember, this is the document which ensures that people can come to this country if and when their own countries deny them freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. It guarantees them the right to privacy which the Bible somehow overlooked. It gives them the right to wear a belly button ring and to appear on the Howard Stern Show unmolested.

But remember one important thing. The Messiah is a king; he is the ultimate king. He is the king of kings. As such, he requires no constitution to govern. He IS the constitution. The articles of his divine constitution are WHATEVER HE SAYS, and you had better "observe to do according to the Divine Law; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left hand". So we won't need no STEENKING Constitution. In your home, you will not have the privacy to be on YOUR Internet, watch YOUR videos, read YOUR books, practice YOUR sex, and think YOUR thoughts. He is the Messiah; they will be HIS Internet, video, book, sex, thoughts. If he says that Howard Stern and belly button rings are out, they are out, no matter what YOU think. In fact, don't think! The Messiah will do your thinking for you. All you'll have to do is live your life as though you were on Aldous Huxley's dream-inducing drug, Soma. Only it will be called Dwelling in the Presence of the Lord, or some such meaningless phrase. Enjoy! To paraphrase Henny Youngman, "Take my MESHIACH, please!" I'll take my freedom and privacy, and whatever pleasure I enjoy that hurts no one.

Here's the rub. Americans fought and died long ago in order to get rid of a king, in order that WE would not have to live under the tyranny of a king.

Paul, the prophet of the Christians, told his followers to be good little servants and follow the DICTATES of the king. And the king often dictated that his followers be food for lions. When his followers became kings themselves, they made those who thought for themselves food for flames.

Like any sensible person, I too want what a messiah is supposed to bring. I want to see an end to war, and end to crime, to sickness, to want. But I am not willing to sell my soul for those things. I believe we can be our own messiah. If we wish to end war then we will have to heavily persuade those who fly airplanes into buildings to stop doing it. If we wish to end crime, we will have to get to the point where we can weed out the sociopaths among us. If we wish to end sickness, we will have to allow our scientists to proceed with work that can lead to "miracle" cures. And lastly, if we truly want to put an end to want, we will need to stop being greedy, and those of us who own over 90 percent of the wealth and resources will need to start loving their neighbors with fewer resources, and allow them at least the basic necessities of life.

Once we stop worrying about what others are thinking and doing in private; once we allow other people liberty and the pursuit of their own vision of happiness, we won't have to worry about them intruding on our liberty and happiness. In order to do that, we will have to subordinate allegiance to kings and clerics, towards working for the greatest good for ourselves. Before the modern era, many nations existed which believed they were "under God". They were no more under any deity than our nation is. Any nation which professes itself better than other nations because it is more under God, expresses the height of arrogance "for after all these things do the Gentiles seek".

Some may find comfort in their churches. That is their business and their constitutionally given right. But they will not find ultimate answers for our problems in the pews. Thomas Paine, a great American patriot, once said, "My mind is my own church." We should follow his sound example.

"A notable event was the recent emergence from the non-theistic closet of a public official, Congressman Pete Stark of Fremont, California, announced that he did not believe in a supreme being. Will other public officials do likewise?
It will be fascinating to see if Dawkins can make significant inroads on the American religious scene. Recently, there has been an outpouring of books by prominent authors aggressively challenging the dominant role of religion in American life. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Richard Joyce, Lee Silver, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens. Is change in the air?"

By Irwin Tessman
Skeptical Inquirer Magazine
January - February, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spot the difference

Further discussion has arisen from the synchroblog on interreligious dialogue.

I guess to me the differences between the different styles of communication are as follows:

Interfaith dialogue: Hello, I am a Pagan. I honour both the masculine and feminine Divine, and a multiplicity of deities immanent in the world. I would be interested to hear about your religion.

Evangelism: Hi, I'm a Pagan, and I'm here to tell you that the Goddess really loves you and is yearning to connect with you. She can make your life so much more meaningful.

Proselytising: Hi, I'm a Pagan, and I'm here to tell you that if you don't honour my specific vision of the Divine, the consequences will be disastrous (both cosmically and personally).

(Last 2 styles of communication unlikely to be heard from Pagans, though you might get Baha'i-style "all religions are one" type statements from a few Pagans, or "Jesus was a Pagan really". No. He wasn't. Really.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

polytheist pastafarianism

Making pasta; illustration from the 15th century edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of the Arabic work Taqwīm al-sihha by Ibn Butlan.Why be a monotheist Pastafarian? You should also honour fusilli, macaroni, lasagna, tagliatelle, vermicelli, ravioli, gnocchi, penne, ziti, strozzapreti and all other forms of pasta. Join the Polytheist Pastafarians.

The illustration is clear evidence that Pasta comes in many forms and is woven by the Great Goddess of Pasta.

Rather like the Three Fates of Greek mythology, who weave our fate and that of the gods, the Great Goddess of Pasta weaves the destinies of all the other Polytheist Pastafarian deities, including the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

the secret name of FSM

Niklas Jansson's adaptation of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam depicts the Flying Spaghetti Monster in its typical guise as a clump of tangled spaghetti with two eyestalks, two meatballs, and many "noodly appendages". It has been revealed to me that in actual fact this universe was created on an otherwise quiet Thursday afternoon at around tea-time by one Zgwrr Xchg'h'yuj, a bored graduate student who turned on the proton collider experiment in our parent universe. The by-product of the proton collision was a baby universe, which growed and growed to become the one we know, love, and live in.

So both the New Atheists and the religious theories of creation and emanation are wrong. Pastafarianism is partly correct, because Zgwrr Xchg'h'yuj in fact looked very much like His Noodliness.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I've finished my dissertation, "Do Pagans see their beliefs as compatible with science?" (short answer: yes). Thanks to all those who took part in the survey.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Del Martin, co-founder of the Daughters of Bilitis and campaigner for LGBT rights, died yesterday. Her wife, Phyllis Lyon, survives her. They were one of the first same-sex couples to be married in San Francisco in both 2004 and 2008. They became lovers in 1952.

Having struggled for the rights of LGBT people for half a century, may she rest in the arms of the Goddess. Blessed be.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

queer spirituality

Kittredge Cherry (a Christian blogger and author who is Pagan-friendly) asks, "Gay spirituality vs. everybody spirituality: A new closet?".

A few Pagans (such as Riverwolf and myself) have already commented. What do you think?

I think there is a distinct queer spirituality, not necessarily for any essentialist reasons, but because the queer spirituality that I have observed transcends more boundaries, includes more imagery that others can't handle, and GLBTQ people have carved out a niche for ourselves in traditions that sought to exclude us or ignore us. Also, it's not yet safe or appropriate to merge it all in with other forms of spirituality, because queer people are still excluded in many traditions, either by outright homophobia (as in many forms of Christianity) or by unthinking heterocentrism and gender essentialism (as is sometimes the case in Pagan circles).

Thursday, July 31, 2008

New article by Michael York

As editor of the Pagan Theologies wiki, I am delighted to announce that Professor Michael York has kindly contributed a specially-written article to the site.

It is entitled A Pagan defence of theism and is very interesting:
we are not talking about monotheism. Paganism is either bitheistic in comprehending divine reality as ‘The God’ and ‘The Goddess’ or, more traditionally, polytheistic – entertaining the possibility of many gods and goddesses. But ‘theism’ here is the substitute term for ‘supernatural’. Personally, I do not like this last and tend to avoid using it as much as is feasible. The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.
» Read more

Monday, June 23, 2008

enormous pile of books

These are just some of the books I have referenced for my dissertation:

There is now another pile of books the same size next door to this one!

the original stroppy rabbit

A painting seen in a shop window in York:

(if it's not the actual picture after which I named this blog, then it's by the same artist)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 2

Dawkins' view of religion really is rather odd. He appears to think that because people believe in stuff, they have a separate compartment in their minds that is set aside for religion, where reason and empiricism are not allowed to penetrate.

He also tends to regard religious ideas as contagious memes, rather as if they had an objective existence like a computer virus. Of course, the meme is a useful metaphor, but it's not objectively real (much like deities).

Pagans tend to take the view that they had an experience, and it might have been a hallucination, or it might have been a projection, or it might have been a manifestation, but much of the time to realise that it's not what the experience actually was, but how it was experienced that is important, and what its effects were. We did a ritual - do we now feel better as result? Good, then it worked. Those of us with a more empirical cast of mind might spend time tinkering with it to make it work better; and those of us with a reasoning-about-things cast of mind might spend time wondering how it worked; but most people are just happy that it worked. That's not to say that we should not be on our guard against doctrinal no-go areas creeping in (because they are in some traditions, especially "hard" polytheism) but for the most part Paganism is gloriously doctrine-free (except for the doctrine that we don't have doctrines).

Anyway, on to the specifics.

On pp 125-126, Dawkins says "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious". This is a twisted view of what mysticism and mystery is. For one thing, mystics have historically been persecuted by the Christian Church because their connection with the Divine bypasses official channels; for another thing, the mystics are generally much more loving and humane than the Church, because mystics identify with the whole of existence, whereas the Church wants to bring everything under their dominion. And mysticism, for the most part, is like the "Eisteinian religion" that Dawkins praises in chapter one. The Mysteries are something that can only be experienced and not described. The ancient Greeks had two words describing the Mysteries: aporrheton (that which may not be spoken, the lesser secrets) and arrheton (that which is inexpressible, the greater mysteries). The reason that mysteries are revealed in sequence is because the mind is unprepared for the greater mysteries and can only approach them via the lesser ones. Unfortunately the Christian Church suppressed all the Pagan initiatory mystery traditions as competing paradigms. Had they taken the advice of Symmachus (as New Atheists could also benefit by doing), things might have been better:
We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)
Dawkins goes on to say that "one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied by not understanding". This is definitely not true of the majority of religions. It is certainly true of a large swathe of Christianity, but not of Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Sufism, etc.

On page 163 he describes natural selection as if it were a force with agency; I know it's a metaphor but he'll just give the creationists a loophole by talking like that; he should be more careful.

Chapter 4 should be entitled "Why there almost certainly is no Creator" (rather than "Why there almost certainly is no God") because he is only talking about the concept of the Creator, and not other concepts of the Divine.

On page 166, in listing characteristics of religion, he only lists the negative behaviours associated with (fundamentalist) religion. Later, he (quite correctly) goes on to say that our capacity for morality is nothing to do with religion and transcends it; I would say this was also true of our capacity for immorality.

On page 168 he quotes a comedienne as saying "religion is basically guilt with different holidays". Very funny, but this is not true of the joyful and life-affirming traditions which do not dwell on guilt, such as Unitarianism and Paganism.

On page 174, he sets out to show how religion is a by-product of other propensities of the human mind. A very interesting idea, as religion (like language) must have evolved from other cognitive functions. However, he maintains that religion is a harmful by-product of these other functions. The example he gives is that it's good to believe what your parents tell you, because they have lots of information about which plants are good to eat and which are poisonous; but the downside is that you will also believe all the weird stuff they tell you (i.e. religion). There are two things wrong with this argument: firstly, not all religion is about obedience and gullibility; and secondly, there are lots of positive aspects to religion which must be beneficial by-products of other cognitive functions. Dawkins' working definition of religion is far too simplistic.

Why can't religion (in the sense of connection with the world around you) be seen as a positive emergent complexity arising from smaller components? Surely the mystics' capacity to love their fellow beings (an extension of genetic kinship) is a positive by-product? Or the heretic's quest for truth and following their own conscience?

On page 177, Dawkins cites JG Frazer's evolutionary theory of folklore and mythology, which is largely discredited (NB this is not the same as Darwinian evolution). Humanity has not proceeded in an orderly fashion from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism; beliefs do not evolve by natural selection. Dawkins also uses the analogy of language evolving from a single source (sometimes called Proto-World) and diverging; however this theory is largely discredited among linguists. If he's going to stray into other academic disciplines, he should at least check the current state of research in those disciplines. Nevertheless, language is quite a useful analogy for religion; but Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic model of the spread of ideas is much more helpful than the evolutionary model.

On page 180, he suggests that the cognitive predisposition to dualism gives rise to religious thinking. I agree that there is a cognitive predisposition to dualism (anthropological and psychological research has shown that this is the case, for example the work of Emma Cohen), but I disagree that it gives rise to religious thinking; rather, it gives rise to supernatural thinking (but then Dawkins assumes that all religion believes in the supernatural). But what about all the monistic religions like pantheism, most of Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Unitarianism?

On page 188, he cites JG Frazer's Golden Bough as evidence of the diversity of human irrational beliefs. This is rather a circular argument, because that is precisely the use to which Frazer intended his work to be put (he would have been shocked and dismayed at all the Pagans who mine it for rituals). Also Frazer's comparative method has long been discredited in anthropology as too selective (he developed a theory and then went around looking for examples to back it up, which is precisely the opposite of the scientific method, as Dawkins should know).

On page 189, Dawkins says that languages evolves. As already stated, evolution is not a helpful metaphor for language (or religion) though another biological model, the growth of rhizomes, is a useful analogy.

On page 190, he says that reason is the enemy of Christianity. Very true; however I seem to recall that Pope John Paul II declared a truce in his encyclical about reason and faith. Reason is not regarded as the enemy in Paganism or Unitarianism or Judaism, however; indeed in the case of Unitarianism it's one of their three key concepts (reason, freedom and tolerance).

On page 191, he describes the theory of memes, which is interesting but by no means accepted by all theorists of culture. As stated above, I find the rhizomatic model more persuasive.

On page 199, he defines faith as "belief without evidence". That is how I always used to define it, until I came across this marvellous quote from Alan Watts:
"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."
On page 203, he describes the development of cargo cults, and wonders if they are a good model for the evolution of religion. Well, at least cargo cults are logical and based on empirical observation, at least the way Dawkins describes them!

On page 212, he quotes the various obnoxious fundamentalists who have written to him to tell him he'll burn in hell etc as typical examples of religious adherents. I don't think these obnoxious bastards are typical of religion in general at all. Besides, I've come across some pretty obnoxious atheists (e.g. on a discussion board, there was one who wanted to ban all talk of religion; the other more sensible ones asked how the ban would be enforced) but I don't thereby assume that all atheists are like that.

On page 220, he compares the naturalist model of altruism as having some evolutionary advantage with the authoritarian idea that people are moral because God is watching and he'll get you if you misbehave. I completely agree with the quote from Einstein on page 226, that "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." The idea that altruism has evolved is reassuring, because it means it's innate and internal rather than cultural and external; but where is the element of choice if everything is genetically determined? I find something heroic in the idea of doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, and not because someone (God) or something (genes) is making you do it. Our genes presumably predispose us to be bad as well as good, so we still have a choice, surely? Consciousness is an emergent property of life, not pre-determined.

If altruism as a by-product of some other cognitive function is benign, why not some aspects of religion, such as feelings of being connected to other people (human, animal and plant)?

On page 227, he quotes the horrible views of Ivan Karamazov. I hope, though I have no evidence, that Dostoevsky was setting up Karamazov as a straw man to highlight the horribleness of his ideas.

On page 232, he mentions absolutist morality. Not all religious adherents are absolutists in matters of morality (think of the famous quote from Jesus about the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law); Dawkins doesn't appear to be saying that they are, but some readers might infer that view.

On page 237, he acknowledges the worthwhileness of liberal Christians like John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway. If he can appreciate them, why doesn't he realise that lots of religious adherents are like them, and more of them every day?

On page 245, he talks about the autocratic behaviour of Yahweh in insisting that the Ba'al-worshippers among the Israelites be killed. Yes, the Bronze Age priests of Yahweh were a thoroughly unpleasant bunch of murderers - but he doesn't stop to ask why the worship of Ba'al was so persistently attractive. Could it be because Ba'al is an immanent nature deity, associated with trees?

On page 251-252, he discusses the thoroughly unpleasant doctrine of substitution or atonement; however this disgusting and pernicious doctrine is only found in Western Christianity, and not in Eastern Orthodoxy.

On page 254, he starts quoting more frothing mad fundamentalists as typical of religion. This is simply not the case.

On page 257, he talks about the intolerance of the Abrahamic religions towards other faiths. This is certainly true of large swathes of Christianity, but not all of it. For example, St Francis preached against the crusades, and many Christians (such as John Shelby Spong) are coming to appreciate the wisdom of other faiths. Islam became intolerant as a result of the crusades. Judaism has only become intolerant again recently, due to specific historical circumstances. Such intolerance is not usually found among polytheistic or pantheistic religions, because they have a theology that can cope with other views of the Divine.

On page 259, he admits that internecine struggle is often caused by factors other than religion, but that religion is often used as a label for the perpetuation of conflict. True, but if religion didn't exist, some other identity marker would be used instead, like language, skin colour, territory, etc. (all of which have been used as excuses for the perpetuation of conflict).

Is it inevitable that conflict will arise as a result of different religious views? Maybe, but I suggest that it is often a convenient excuse for a desire to label an out-group, and if there wasn't another religious group to pick on, another label would be used instead (like colour, sexuality...).

On page 261, he discusses the indoctrination of children. The vast majority of Pagans are opposed to the indoctrination of children and against the establishment of Pagan schools; and even those who are bringing their children up as Pagans are not inculcating them with a dislike of other faiths, or of atheism.

In a 2005 survey by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation), 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said 'another faith'; and 12% said 'none'.

[Part 1 of A Pagan response to Dawkins]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Campfire or umbrella?

Many people have referred to Paganism as an umbrella term encompassing the various Pagan traditions. Recently, however, there has been quite a lot of jostling for centre position under the umbrella, with various groups feeling as though they have metaphorical rain running down the backs of their necks. It could even be said that some groups were trying to run away with the umbrella, claiming they invented it and everyone else is just touting shoddy imported versions.

Maybe it's time we stopped thinking of Paganism as an umbrella, and started thinking of it as a campfire. That way, we are all standing round the centre (whatever that is - perhaps the deities, or Nature) and warming our hands, but anyone who gets too close will get singed. Also, the warmth of the campfire radiates out much further than the shelter of an umbrella, and has fuzzy boundaries (unlike an umbrella, which has a defined edge); and the light from the campfire can be seen from the nearby campfires (which are friendly religions with a similar ethos, like Unitarians and UUs, Quakers, Taoists, liberal Hindus, traditional indigenous religions, etc). And those who like to visit the other campfires and swap stories (like me and Cat and Peter) can be within the ambit of both campfires.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Stop calling us NeoPagans

I am dismayed by the re-emergence of the term "NeoPagan". It is being used by Christians to refer to Pagans, and also by polytheists and reconstructionists to refer to other Pagans.

Stop it. Just stop it. Here's why:
  • Ancient "pagans" didn't refer to themselves as pagans; the term was invented as a supposedly pejorative one by the early Christians to refer to "those hicks from the sticks" who weren't hip to the new religion. Ancient "pagans" were following a particular tradition, such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Mithraism, or their local ethnic religion. If we have to refer to them as pagans, we should use lower-case p to indicate that they didn't identify as such.
  • Modern Pagans are Pagans because we identify as Pagans and have adopted the name for ourselves.
  • It makes no sense for polytheists and reconstructionists (who have only been around for the last decade or so) to refer to Wicca (which has been around for 50 years) and Druidry (which has been around for 200 years) as NeoPagans. Like it or not, we've been around longer than you. If anybody is "neo" it's the reconstructionists. Nor can reconstructionists claim to be 100% accurate in their reconstruction of ancient pagan traditions.
  • It makes no sense for Christians to refer to NeoPagans either. People don't refer to Protestant Christians as Neo-Christians; so please don't refer to us as NeoPagans. And use the capital letter please, it's rude to use the lower-case p unless you're referring to ancient pagans.
  • I'm not a character from The Matrix.
Here's some suggestions for terms to use instead:
  • If you are trying to distinguish between ancient pagans and contemporary Pagans, just use the terms "contemporary Pagans" and "ancient pagans". (Don't use "modern" because we're now living in the postmodern era, so modern is now retro.) It's not hard. There may be a case for Isaac Bonewits' coinages MesoPagan and CryptoPagan, however (but then no-one uses those terms pejoratively).
  • If you want to distinguish between reconstructionists, polytheists and other types of Pagan, just use the term "eclectic Pagan" to refer to people who don't belong to any specific tradition, and refer to Wiccans and Druids as such.
Of course if anyone wants to self-identify as a NeoPagan, I don't have a problem with that, I'm just fed up with the snide use of it by others.

Friday, June 06, 2008

New Facebook group

We're Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.

Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved practising human sacrifice.

In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.

Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.

We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.

Not on Facebook? Express your support in the comments, or join the Yahoo group.

Update: I have now created a blog, Pagans for Archaeology, to accompany the groups.

Here we go again

The exhibition of Lindow Man at the Manchester Museum has prompted an article in British Archaeology's Spoilheap column complaining about the way the exhibition was planned, and how it has ended up with hardly any educational content about Iron Age people, or interpretation around the different theories of how and why Lindow Man died; instead the exhibition focuses on the reburial controversy.

The article complains that 12 Pagans were involved in the discussions around the exhibition, because it says Pagans are only a small group. On the other hand, several archaeologists and museum curators were involved, and the article claims that they represent everybody. I'm not sure that they do "represent everybody", as not everyone subscribes to the Enlightenment discourse that they represent. My main complaint is this, however: why weren't Pagans who DON'T want remains reburied consulted? Manchester Museum is aware that we exist (I hope I left them in no doubt about that when I attended the Respect conference there) so why weren't we included?

When I wrote to British Archaeology about this issue in 2004, my letter was edited so that it was not apparent that I am a Wiccan. Thus somewhat negating the point I was trying to make, that not all Pagans agree with Emma Restall-Orr et al, and many, if not most, completely support archaeological and historical understanding and investigation of the past.

Why is my position, which is that of a reasonable Pagan, being ignored by British Archaeology? Is it because representing Pagans as irrational sells more magazines?

I completely disagree with reburying remains, and want them to be available for archaeologists to study, so that the ancestors of all of us can be remembered and memorialised by recovering their stories, to the benefit of everyone who wants their identity rooted in the past.

Besides, surely Pagans have got better things to worry about, like the destruction of wildlife habitats, war, death, famine, environmental degradation, etc?

Friday, May 30, 2008

So be it ardane...

ROFLMAO! This version of the Craft Laws (which were in any case made up by Gerald Gardner one Tuesday afternoon when his coveners started questioning what he said) is very very funny.

I particularly like number 33:
It hath been found that two people sitting around with a bottle of Chianti discussing Atlantean Grandmothers will become fond of each other, if only because of the Stockholm Syndrome. Therefore, let it be resolved that a human being shall be taught in the Craft only by another human being, and screw the middle-class morality of the 1950's.
I've always felt that the so-called Craft Laws were a pile of foetid dingos' kidneys. Sorry Gerald, but what were you thinking? And as for claiming that they were ancient.... oh please, gods give me strength.

Personally I think that rules (in the sense of guidelines which are emergent from the context and agreed upon by all members of a group) are a good idea, in order to prevent one ego dominating all the others; but it seems that the rules invented by Gerald would have exactly the opposite effect, so it is excellent that someone has parodied them so mercilessly.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Which Cat do you believe in?

To put it another way, Pagans don't believe in Ceiling Cat or Basement Cat.

We believe in (well, hypothesise the existence of) Floor Cat (the divine, or deities, being immanent in the universe - spirits of place, etc).
more cat pictures

A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 1

I have been reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006).

The reason that I have objected to the book previously is because he tars all religion with the same brush (as intolerant, irrational, imposing orthodoxy, and crushing all independent thought and opposition), and dismisses anything that doesn't resemble this picture as being "not really religion". From what I have read of the book so far, my criticism still stands.

It should be said at the outset that I really don't believe in the God that Dawkins doesn't believe in. On pages 15 and 20, he says he is criticising "supernatural gods", in other words, ones that transcend nature, or are outside the universe. I don't believe in those. My theory is that what we call gods are personifications of places and phenomena - they are the names and personalities we give to that which is in Nature, part of Nature (immanent). By so doing, it is possible (by some hitherto unfathomed quantum weirdness) that we evoke consciousness in these things, or it could be that we are merely projecting it onto them. Nor do I believe that there is more than one level of reality; when Pagans and occultists talk about planes, we're not talking about spaces like geological strata, but modes of consciousness (Luhrmann, 1989: 276). I certainly don't believe in a Creator (some Pagans do, in the sense of some sort of consciousness that started the Big Bang) - I believe that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, and not the other way around.

But I don't believe that this invalidates the project of religion (at least not the way I and many others practice it). Religion is about reconnecting, to community, the universe, and reconnecting the parts of ourselves (bringing unconscious material into the light of consciousness, as Jung put it). I find "Einsteinian religion" (Dawkins, 2006: 20) very attractive, and also think that it bears a close resemblance to much of Paganism and Unitarianism. He also complains about people using "Einsteinian religion" to justify strong theism - well, fundamentalist Christians are very unlikely to use the views of universalists, pantheists and Pagans to justify their position, because they think we are all godless and immoral.

Right, so, on to the specifics. If I haven't mentioned a particular point, it means I agree with it, with the proviso that not all religion resembles the caricature of it depicted by Dawkins. Though there were some bits I agreed with so much that I just had to mention them.

Dawkins (2006: 1-2) asserts that a world without religion would be a world free of persecution. This is not necessarily the case, as there are many wars and conflicts caused by ethnic tension (e.g. the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda). Alister McGrath, in The Dawkins Delusion, spends a lot of pages refuting this suggestion, and points out that religious people also do a lot of good (caring for the sick, etc.)

I must wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins about the practice of indoctrinating children into their parents' religion, though. I think this practice is wrong and immoral and bad. Fortunately, the majority of Pagan parents agree with me. A Covenant of the Goddess poll in 2005 found that 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said 'another faith'; and 12% said 'none'.

On page 14, Dawkins states that he doesn't believe in a soul that outlasts the body. Well, Buddhists don't believe in the soul as a transcendent unity of consciousness and identity either; and nor do most Pagans - most Pagans believe in reincarnation as a transfer of some aspect of the self to a future incarnation, a "seed" of consciousness, if you like.

Most Pagans would also agree with the statement that there are no miracles except for natural phenomena; most Pagans would characterise the operations of magic as being part of Nature, manipulating the energy in things.

Dawkins also characterises 'pantheistic reverence' as non-belief -- well this is true if he means non-belief in the supernatural. But many Pagans object to the term supernatural, as we are deeply suspicious of claims to something existing beyond the universe.

On page 19, he says that using the term God in a metaphorical or pantheistic sense is wrong because most people mean 'supernatural creator' by the word. No, most Christians, Jews and Muslims mean 'supernatural creator' by the word. The creator in Hinduism, Brahma, may be a creator, but he is immanent, not transcendent (not supernatural). Pagans who do believe in a creator (or more likely creatrix, or in some cases, creators) don't tend to be that interested in worshipping it/him/her/them, regarding it as too big to be interacted with (because if it's immanent in the universe, the universe is an awfully big place, so it must be awfully big too). "Space is big, really big. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." (Douglas Adams) Anyway, many Pagans refer to "deities" (lots and lots of them) or to "The Goddess and the God" to indicate that they are not talking about God in any Abrahamic sense.

On page 26, he says that "any follower of any religion believes that theirs is the sole way, truth and light". That is simply not true. What about all the many people who participate in interfaith dialogue? What about the Unitarian Universalists, who explicitly say that all religions contain truth (and many of whom are non-theists). What about the Quakers, who say "Be open to new light, wherever it may come from?" What about the Sufi universalists? What about the vast majority of Pagans?

On page 31, Dawkins states that "any creative intelligence of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution". I completely agree. But it doesn't rule out the emergence of consciousness as the product of complex systems other than ourselves.

On page 33, he states that Hindu polytheism is "really monotheism in disguise". This is true of some schools of Hinduism, but as Hinduism is non-creedal, there are many many paths within it, some of which are henotheistic, some of which are genuinely polytheistic, and some of which are monist (there is a monad of which the deities are emanations).

On page 34, he states that "theology has not moved on in 13 centuries". Really? What about John Scotus Eriugena, Spinoza, Teilhard de Chardin, A N Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Paul Tillich, Henri Bergson, feminist theologians (the Pagans among these are pantheistic), etc etc.

He also quotes Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was a deist (believed that the Divine was the first cause and then left the universe to itself). He also claims that Jefferson and others like him would have been atheists if they had lived in a more atheistic time. That seems like special pleading to me. How does he know what they would have believed?

On page 35, he asks, how did ancient pagans cope with polytheological conundrums (like is Thor the same as Thunor or Indra?) Who cares, asks Dawkins. Well, modern Pagans, that's who. There are some "hard" polytheists who are so vehemently non-monotheist that they will not even countenance Thor and Thunor being the same entity. Personally I think they are different cultural overlays on the same social interaction with a natural phenomenon.

On page 36, he dismisses feminist theology with "what is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male?" Since many feminist theologians are pantheists (whom he graciously approves of) this seems unfair.

On page 37, he says that he is inclined to treat Buddhism and Confucianism as philosophical systems rather than religions. In this, he is simply falling into the trap of defining religion by what the West thinks it is, rather than as it actually practised by the rest of the world. Buddhism certainly has practices designed to further the process of enlightenment, which makes it a religion in my reckoning.

On page 46, he says that secularism is the only basis for interfaith harmony - I completely agree.

On page 47 and 48, he discusses the two types of agnosticism, PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle) and TAP (Temporary Agnosticism in Practice). This is an interesting model, but I'm not quite sure where I fit within it. I think that there are some things that are unknowable (what happens to consciousness after death; what it's like to be another person; and what it is like to see from the perspective of the whole universe) and on these I am a PAP. I think there are other things which we do not know now which we one day will know (a scientific explanation for "magic"; whether or not string theory is true; etc.) and on these I am a TAP. Existence of the Divine? Not sure which category I would put that one in. If there is an underlying consciousness to the universe (in a pantheistic or animistic sense), then yes, I think it is possible for science to detect it - but maybe not the very materialist form of science we have now. I guess that makes me a TAP on this issue.

On page 50 he says that he suspects TH Huxley (who coined the word agnostic) was bending over backwards to concede a point. This is special pleading again. He may have been doing that, but unless he explicitly says so in the text, it is only a hypothesis.

Similarly, on page 57, he says that he simply does not believe that Stephen Jay Gould could have meant much of what he said in Rocks of Ages. This is not a rational statement supported by evidence - it is simply a manifestation of Dawkins' prejudice. Why on earth did Gould publish the book unless he meant it (at least at the time; he might have changed his mind later)?

Another useful tool is the scale from theism to atheism on page 50 and 51. On this scale, I am at around 5 or 6 (Dawkins is a 7). But I still think religion is a useful tool for personal transformation, because the process of initiation in Paganism closely resembles the transformation of the psyche outlined in Jungian psychoanalysis.

On page 55, he discusses the concept of NOMA (the idea that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria). The research I am currently conducting indicates that most Pagans do not agree with the NOMA view (nor does Dawkins).

He further says that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic; I'm glad he admits this (I'm thinking Oppenheimer here). He then suggests that we cut out the middle man in matters of morality. Quite so - this is precisely what non-creedal religions like Paganism and Unitarianism do. Most adherents of both these religions do not admit of any authority in matters of conscience beyond the self. (And I'm not about to start accepting Dawkins as either a moral authority, or an academic authority on the study of religion; he is far too blatant about having an agenda.)

He also says, well should we pick and choose among the world religions until we find a morality that suits us? No, he concludes. However, there is another possibility - that we use our discernment (an evolved emergent quality, to be sure) to triangulate between them, seeking out points where they agree and attempting to create a synthesis (but still not blindly accepting what they say unless it accords with reason, freedom and tolerance).

On page 58 and page 64, he quotes from a Richard Swinburne (a prominent Christian theologian, apparently). What R. Swinburne says to "explain" the Holocaust is thoroughly disgusting, and Dawkins rightly dismisses it as tosh. I can't believe this is the best that Christian theology has to offer as an explanation for suffering, though. If it is, they need to get some new theologians, and fast.

On page 59, he claims that religions rely on miracle stories to impress the faithful. Well, that's not true of all religions. Many spiritual traditions are based on the idea of personal transformation through various means. If they do not provide personal transformation, adherents lose interest and go elsewhere (but with most forms of Christianity, fear of damnation keeps them involved, which is a thoroughly immoral way to go about retaining members).

On page 60, he starts talking about prayer, but he is only talking about petitionary or intercessory prayer (asking for stuff). What about the type of prayer that is more like meditation or communing with the universe?

On page 67, he effectively declares war on religion, superstition and irrationality. Erm, isn't that a bit of an irrational response?

Not everything has to be rational. Love is irrational. Actually, the emotions and the reason need to work together in harmony. Too much emotion is bad, too much rationalism is bad. There's a great SF story called The Cold Equations, where a little girl stows away on a spaceship, implying certain death for all on board if they don't push her out through the airlock. In the story, she ends up being pushed out through the airlock. It's one of those horrible ethical dilemmas that one hopes would never actually happen in real life - but it serves to show that reason by itself is cold and heartless.

On page 71, he mentions Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of quasars, but fails to mention that she is a Quaker. (I have no idea whether she is a theist or not, but she does practice a religion.)

On page 88, he discusses whether mystical experiences are all mad, psychotic and delusional. I think it depends on the nature and outcome of the experience. In the Preface, Dawkins says that he sometimes experiences a quasi-mystical oneness with the universe (and he knows that this is not delusional or psychotic). Well, lots of other people have this experience, and it's a wonderful experience. If it promotes greater compassion for others and wonder at the natural world, surely that is a good thing? If on the other hand, you hear voices telling you to go out and kill people, that's not a mystical experience, that is a psychotic delusion.

Dawkins (2006: 103-4) states that there have been 43 studies since 1927 on the relationship between intelligence and educational attainment and religious belief, and all but four found that the higher a person's intelligence and educational attainment, the less likely they were to have religious beliefs. Leaving aside the question of what is meant by intelligence and religious beliefs, my research findings would appear to imply that being more highly educated does not conflict with Pagan views, nor make them less likely (perhaps because Paganism is non-creedal). 69% of my respondents had attended higher education courses, and 29% of the subjects studied were scientific (archaeology, psychology, natural sciences, space sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering). Of course, this may be because the sample was self-selecting and not randomly selected; perhaps the more highly-educated would worry more about the compatibility of their Pagan views with science, and thereby be drawn to the questionnaire. Nevertheless, other researchers have noted the predominance of middle class people in Paganism (Luhrmann, 1989: 29; Adler, 1986: 449) and several studies have noted that Pagans are voracious readers, regardless of educational level (Clifton, 2006: 13).

On page 104, he discusses Pascal's Wager, the idea that you might as well believe in God, because if you do and it all turns out to be true, then you'll go to Heaven, and if it's not true it won't have done you any harm; whereas if you don't and it turns out to be true, you'll go to hell. Dawkins very effectively demolishes this horrible and disgusting idea, except that he forgot to say that a God who sent people to hell for not believing in it would be thoroughly immoral, vindictive, and horrible (and Eastern Orthodox theologians have made the same point).

On page 107, he discusses the word "faith" (by which he means blind faith). Most Pagans are very uncomfortable with the word "faith". I regard my "beliefs" as working hypotheses to explain my experience, and so do 38% of the respondents to my questionnaire on Pagans and science.

That's as far as I have got at present. I will write more when I have read more of the book.

To sum up, I agree with his dismissal of the supernatural; I think that "spirits" and "magic" are properties of nature in the same way as consciousness is. I do not agree that religion is about "worshipping a supernatural creator". Pagans revere the divine in Nature. 65% of my sample agreed that deities and other spirits have developed out of our social and ritual interaction with place and space, and 72% agreed that the divine is (or deities are) immanent in the universe. 20% were neutral on this issue. (The ones who didn't agree that the divine was immanent in Nature were also the ones who didn't believe in the divine.)


Adler, M. (1986) Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Clifton, C. (2006). Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. New York: Altamira Press.

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[Part 2 of A Pagan response to Dawkins]

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Rose

The rose is the flower of Venus and the symbol of love in all its delicious variety. It is symbolically linked to Adonis, Aphrodite, Dionysus and Eros. Greek lovers gave roses as a courting gift to their eromenoi. “So must you beautiful boys arm yourselves with roses,” wrote Philostratus in the second century CE.

According to mythology, Aphrodite trod on the thorns of a white rose-bush when she rushed to succour her mortally-wounded lover Adonis. Her blood stained the petals red, and this is how the red rose came to be. The red rose is sacred to Venus and Aphrodite, who rule over love, life, creation, fertility, creation, beauty and virginity. The open rose is a symbol of the feminine, while the rosebud is a symbol of the masculine, and suggests same-sex love, especially in the Middle East. In a sixteenth century text by Mehemmed Ghazali (d. 1535), the relaxed anus is compared to the “laughter of a thousand roses”, and the closed anus to a “silent rosebud”. In nineteenth-century French bohemian circles, men-loving men were dubbed “les Chevaliers de la Rosette” (the knights of the little rose – the little rose signified the anus). The rose also symbolises the short intense life of a beautiful being who does not bear fruit – the eternal ephebe.

In alchemy, the rose symbolised the Divine Androgyne, and both Rosicrucian and Sufi writings make extensive use of rose imagery. In the Rubai'yat of Omar Khayyam (a Sufi poem), the rose represents the ephemeral nature of life:

Look to the Rose that blows about us---"Lo,
"Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow:
"At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
"Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

Similarly, in an Irish ballad, the rose symbolises regret at the passing of youth:

'Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone.

In Rosicrucianism, the rose-cross contains the mystic rose as the wheel and the divine light of the universe, and the cross as the temporal world of pain and sacrifice. W B Yeats evokes these themes in his poem, To the Secret Rose:

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
Far off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

Yeats also used the rose to represent the Christos in his poem To the Rose upon the Rood of Time:

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.
The Compass Rose or the Rose of the Winds represents the cardinal directions and the winds, and is used as a symbol of various things in the Cochrane Tradition.

The rose is also a symbol of secrecy – the term 'sub rosa' denotes this, and a carving of a rose is hung in council chambers as a reminder to be discreet. In Alchemy, it was also a symbol of wisdom, and the rebirth of the spiritual after the death of the temporal. In Egypt, the rose symbolised pure love freed from carnal desire, and as such, was an emblem of Isis and Osiris (Aset and Ousir). In Hebrew symbolism, the centre of the rose is the sun, and its petals are the infinite variety of life. The Adept's Rose has 22 petals (one for each Hebrew letter and path of the Tree of Life); the inner ring of three petals denotes Air, Fire and Water; the middle ring represents the seven planets; and the outer ring represents the twelve signs of the zodiac.

According to Persian legend, essential oil of rose was discovered at the wedding-feast of the Princess Nour-Djihan and the Emperor Djihanguyr. A canal was dug, and the surface of the water was covered with rose-petals. The heat of the sun caused the oil to separate from the petals and float on the surface of the water, and the production of rose-oil began soon afterwards.

Essential oil of rose (extracted from Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia) can be used to purge the vascular and digestive systems and soothe the nerves. It regulates menstruation and is good for genito-urinary infections and as an antiseptic. It is also an aphrodisiac. Rose water reduces inflammation and can be used as an eye bath for conjunctivitis, or in a poultice applied to the temples to relieve a headache. Rosehip syrup is an excellent source of vitamin C. Red rose petals can be used for dyeing cloth, and any colour can be used to make rose-petal wine. Rosaries were originally made of dried rosebuds, and the beads are still carved in the shape of rosebuds.

In magic, the thorns of the rose are used for protection. Rose petals and hips are used in healing magic, and to relieve stress. Drinking rosebud tea before going to bed is said to induce prophetic dreams. Planting roses in the garden is said to attract faeries, and rose-bushes are said to grow best when they are stolen from another garden.

Yvonne Aburrow


Aburrow, Yvonne (1993), The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees. Chieveley: Capall Bann Publishing.

Conner, Randy P., David Sparks, and Mariya Sparks (1997), Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Lore. London and New York: Cassell.

Fitzgerald, Edward (trans.) The Rubai'yat of Omar Khayyam.

Yeats, William Butler, The Secret Rose.