Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We are rising!

No-one outside Paganism seems to have noticed that the number of out and proud Pagans has doubled since the last census.

Census 2011
Animism 541
Occult 502
Druid 4,189
Heathen 1,958
Pagan 56,620
Pantheism 2,216
Reconstructionist 251
Shamanism 650
Thelemite 184
Wicca 11,766
Witchcraft 1,276
Total = 80,153

Not included in the above total: Traditional African Religion 588, Vodun 208, Taoism 4144, Shinto, 1075, New Age 698, Native American Church 127, Chinese Religion 182, Satanists 1,893.

Here's the Office of National Statistics page with the spreadsheets if you want to download a copy and play with the numbers yourself.

Census 2001
Pagan 30,569
Wiccan 7,227
Druid 1,657
Pantheist 1,603
Heathen 278
Asatru 92
Animism 401
Ancestor Worship 101
Celtic Pagan 508
Total 42,436

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The complexity of marriage law - update

Legal (permitted by law and recognised by the state):
  • Opposite-sex church weddings (couple legally married and registered)
  • Same-sex civil partnerships in a register office / registered premises for weddings
  • Opposite-sex marriages in a register office / registered premises for weddings
  • Religious civil partnerships (civil partnership ceremonies in a religious building)

Being made legal soon:
  • Same-sex weddings in register offices and those churches & synagogues that want to do them (couple legally married and registered)
  • A transsexual person married to a person of the opposite sex to their original sex wanting to change their birth certificate to reflect their new sex will no longer have to divorce their partner (because when same sex marriage is legal, they can stay married).
  • A transsexual person civilly partnered to a person of the same sex will be able to change / "upgrade" to a marriage (8.5 on page 27 of the consultation outcome document)
  • Pagan same-sex handfastings in Scotland

The new arrangements for trans people are still not very satisfactory, as the conversion from one type of legal recognition to another will cost them money. This is particularly annoying for people who have already had to change their relationship status under the previous arrangements.

Not forbidden by law, but not recognised by the state
  • same-sex blessings in a church / synagogue
  • Pagan handfastings (weddings) in England & Wales
  • Blessings of polyamorous relationships
  • Humanist weddings - both same and opposite sex
Illegal (not permitted by law):
  • Opposite-sex civil partnerships in a register office / registered premises for weddings
  • Marrying more than one person

Legal (permitted by law and recognised by the state) in Scotland only:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gerald Gardner and homophobia

Was Gerald Gardner homophobic?

— Very probably, yes. (See Lois Bourne's memoirs.)

Does this matter for practitioners of modern Wicca?

— No.

Why not?

— Because whilst Gardner is respected as the founder of modern Wicca, his views on many issues are seen as a product of his time. in the 1950s and 60s, not being homophobic was the exception, not the rule. I can remember as recently as 25 years ago, it was rare to find a heterosexual man who was not homophobic. Now, thankfully, it is regarded as abnormal to be homophobic (at least in the circles that I move in).

Gardner does not have the same status in Wicca as Jesus does in Christianity. He is not believed to be some kind of messiah figure. Wiccan practice and tradition is not about Gardner, it's about magic and Nature.

There are some practices in Wicca that are heterocentric, but people are changing these to be more inclusive of LGBT people. If the coven you are in is not changing to include you, there are other covens that might be more flexible. There's also the option to start your own coven.

These heterocentric practices may have been started because of Gardner's homophobia, so in that sense it is still relevant, but for heavens' sake, Wicca is less than a  century old, so it's perfectly possible to change things. Tradition is not set in stone; it evolves.

A good place to start is the excellent book, Cassell's Encyclopaedia of queer myth, symbol and spirit.

Further reading on LGBT sexuality and Paganism.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Liberal Christianity made me a better Wiccan

I am not a Christian, but I highly value the liberal Christian strand in Unitarianism, as its alternative interpretations of the new testament in particular have helped to liberate me from the oppressive and painful interpretations I received from my fundamentalist and evangelical upbringing. People who do not have that particular painful experience perhaps can't know the fear - and actual physical pain - that it induces. I am very grateful to liberal Christianity for liberating me from that fear. Despite being a Pagan since the age of 17, I still had that fear (of hell, basically) lurking at the bottom of my psyche, encased in a volcano of anger. Once the anger had gone, the fear was still there, and it is liberal Christian interpretations of the Bible that have liberated me from that fear.

On a more positive note, I also value the fact that I can find a lot of common ground with liberal Christians, on values, shared appreciation of the beauty of Nature, and frequently shared understandings of the nature of the Divine as immanent and loving and including both genders as well as transcending gender.

If we have travelled by very different paths and still arrived at a similar understanding, that suggests we might be onto something. I met an ex-Franciscan who has a remarkably similar apophatic understanding of the Divine. I have met Unitarian Christians with a deep appreciation of the Divine immanence in Nature.

As a dear liberal Christian friend remarked approvingly, "Ah, so liberal Christianity made you a better Wiccan?" To which I replied, "Yes."

Liberal Christianity liberated me from my fear so that I could concentrate on my spiritual path of joyous communion with the Divine in Nature, with spirits of place, and with the land.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tackling homophobic bullying

I have just written to my old school to ask them how they are tackling homophobic bullying.


Dear Ms Trigger,

As a former student at Bitterne Park Comprehensive School, I’d like to raise an issue that’s very important to me. This will be the third time I have written to the school to ask about this. I was very disappointed that I did not receive a reply to my previous emails, but perhaps this time it will be different.

I recently read Stonewall’s School Report, research conducted by the University of Cambridge into the experience of 1,600 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people in Britain’s schools. I was concerned to discover that more than half of LGBT young people are still experiencing homophobic bullying in schools, and almost all of them regularly hear the use of homophobic language. The study also found that this bullying not only negatively impacts on young people’s happiness and attainment at school, but can also have severe consequences for their mental health and well-being.

I remember that when I was a student at Bitterne Park, Section 28 was still in force, and a close friend was on the receiving end of homophobic bullying, and the teachers could not do anything to stop it. I myself was also on the receiving end of homophobic bullying, and found it demoralising.

Thankfully, the University of Cambridge research showed that in those schools that take simple steps to tackle homophobia, for instance by challenging homophobic language, levels of homophobic bullying decrease markedly and young people report feeling happier and more welcome in their schools.

In light of Anti-Bullying Week, which is coming up on 19-23 November, I thought you might like to know about Stonewall’s School Champions programme, which has been specifically designed to help schools develop strategies for tackling homophobic bullying. The programme is already working with schools across Britain and if you’d like to find out how to become one of them just visit: Stonewall also has a wide range of education resources available on their website to help teachers reduce and tackle homophobic bullying – available at

Thank you for taking my concerns into consideration and I look forward to hearing back from you. If you’d like more details about what Stonewall is doing during Anti-Bullying Week, you can visit

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Charitable giving

I think we need to move away from a human-centric view of the world towards a deep ecology view, that is what has got our species into so much trouble. Social and environmental justice are part and parcel of the same thing. If you care for the environment, you are also caring for its inhabitants, which include people. And animals are people, in my book. They are sentient, they feel compassion and love, they have distinct personalities.  Yet another reason why I am a Pagan. 

I know some people who only give to charities that help people in the UK, because they seem unable to see that we are all part of the same world, and that if people in other countries are suffering, then it will eventually have an impact on us - indeed, already is, what with the number of asylum seekers (who are very welcome as far as I am concerned).

Other species' suffering, because it impacts the ecosystem, will eventually have an impact on humans anyway. Not that I think giving to animal and environment charities needs justifying on the grounds of the effect on humans, any more than I think giving to non-UK-helping charities needs justifying on the grounds of how it will help people in the UK.

My regular charitable giving goes to Survival International, RSPCA, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Stonewall, and Sight Savers. I also buy the Big Issue and shop in charity shops. I used to give to Greenpeace but recently I have become concerned about their campaigning methods.

I need to do a charity audit and decide which charities I will donate to, and why. I think I need to increase my giving to animal and environmental ones.

Friday, September 28, 2012

What is a Christian?

Unitarian Christians (and others) have been trying to broaden the definition of Christianity since the 1830s, when the publication of Rammohun Roy's The Precepts of Jesus caused a furore among conventional Christians of the day. Rammohun Roy could not accept the doctrines of mainstream Christianity. He also called into question what is meant by Christianity in his writings, which were published in England by the Unitarian Society. Roy's story also raises the issue of what religion is – is it the original form or impulse, or the "accretions" which subsequently accumulate, or a combination of these? Is it about values, beliefs, or practices, or a combination of these? All of these issues were raised by Roy and his contemporaries over his views and those of the Unitarians, and the issues are still being debated today in many contexts. There was considerable dispute (between the Baptist missionaries of Serampore and the Unitarian Thomas Aspland) over whether Unitarians were Christians, and whether Roy himself was one; this depended on whether Christianity was defined according to values and monotheism, or by belief in the divinity of Christ. In declaring Roy to be a Christian, early nineteenth century Unitarians perhaps sought to broaden the definition of Christianity to include themselves. Roy used the same techniques and sources as the Unitarians to answer his critics: German biblical criticism, the history of the Arian controversy, the discourse of radical dissenters, and rational scepticism.

In the 1950s, apparently, it looked for a while as if Christianity was going to be defined as a broad movement of people who subscribe to the values of Jesus - but then two things happened: an upsurge of secularism, and an upsurge of evangelicalism. After that, it became increasingly difficult to define Christianity as anything other than conservative evangelical fundamentalism, belief in Jeeesus as your Personal SaviorTM, and belief in penal substitution theology (the idea that he died for your sins).

James Martineau once famously wrote that he didn't want to describe himself as a Unitarian, because that was the name of a doctrine; instead, he wanted to be called a Free Christian.

This is at the root of the reason why the full name of the Unitarian tradition in the UK is the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. A bit of a mouthful, isn't it?

But what is a Free Christian, or a liberal Christian? They are usually people who are working out their theology for themselves, and consider Jesus' moral example, and his teachings, to be more important than doctrines about him as a Saviour who died for people's sins. (I am sure there are more complicated explanations than that, but that will suffice.) They are also usually inclusive of LGBT people and tolerant of other religions, seeing them as equally valid paths to God / the Divine.

A Unitarian Christian is a slightly different critter, as this is someone who is both Unitarian and Christian. Again, they are working out their own theology, inclusive towards LGBTs and consider other religions equally valid; but they are also likely to hold Unitarian views of God, meaning that Jesus is not viewed as the second person of the Trinity.

But the name "Christian" does encapsulate a doctrine: it expresses the view that Jesus was Christ.

But it depends what you think a "Christ" is, and whether you think he was the only Christ, or whether there are more of them. The word Christ just means "Anointed One" and is a Greek translation of the Jewish word Messiah, also meaning "Anointed One". Some Jewish thinkers have suggested that there may be a messiah in every generation.

James Martineau also famously said:
“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine”
 Buddhism is a project to make more Buddhas. Buddhism does not claim that Buddha was the incarnation of a deity.

What if Christianity was a project to make more Christs? Well, funnily enough, there is a very ancient form of Christianity that is exactly that. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the rite of baptism is called chrismation (anointing), and the aim of the Christian life is theosis (becoming divine).

Many, if not most, liberal Christians, Unitarian Christians, and Free Christians reject the notion that Jesus was "Very God of very God" and emphasise the human Jesus, his moral example, and his teachings.

But what if, as Martineau said, the Incarnation was true of humans universally? In Judaism, Isaac Luria taught that we all contain a divine spark; and Judaism has always taught that people are made in the image of God.

If the Incarnation is true of humans universally, then we must all develop our inner Christ (or Buddha, or Aradia).

If Christianity was a project to make more Christs, that might be interesting.

Further reading on liberal Christianity:
I am not a Christian and I never will be one (Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, and my tribe), but I am delighted that there is a strong liberal movement within Christianity. It provides an alternative to those who don't embrace exclusivism, homophobia, and intolerance of other faiths, and shows that another way is possible.

it would make a lot more sense if people talked about Christianities instead of Christianity. (And what about all those Christian churches that dissented at the Council of Chalcedon?)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Science fiction religions

There have been several new religious movements based on science fictional religions. Wikipedia has a list of fictional religions, not all of which come from science fiction. The most famous example of a real-world recreation of a science fiction religion is the Jedi from Star Wars, but there is also the Church of All Worlds from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Cullenism, based on Twilight. Recently I came across a recreation of the Bene Gesserit from Dune with its own training manual (PDF). I have no idea how serious this actually is but it looks as if it is an attempt to create a serious BG order. I think what all these new religious movements have in common (apart from the Church of All Worlds) is that they try to be too prescriptive about what people should practice and/or believe. On the other hand, the Bene Gesserit manual admonishes its readers:
“Beware of manuals! Manuals create habits!”

Except for the preliminary teachings tailored to the acolytes and postulants, we try to avoid admonitory sayings, but since this is our first edition and we must break the virgin soil, you will forgive the many errors inherent in this work. Someone had to do the plowing. Do not argue over the possible meanings of the contents of this manual. Words are dead things. Truth changes. Facts are fragile. Be Warned. Understand nothing. All comprehension is temporary. We realize, however, that a foundation is necessary, no matter how impermanent it may be. This is a real manual for real Bene Gesserit. It is not a guide book for children and their role-playing games. This is a guidebook for strong women to do great things.

Why do we have manuals? Answer: To disprove them.
Yes indeed - but then why write a manual at all?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Some thoughts on Islam

Islam, like all religions, is a highly complex cultural phenomenon. People try to lump all Muslims together and assume they all think the same thing, as if they were some vast lumpen mass. If they actually took the trouble to get to know some Muslims, and get to know a bit about Muslim culture, it would help.

There are lots of things to admire about Islam. The 99 names of Allah reflect different aspects of the Divine, such as compassion, peace, forgiveness, and subtlety. Muslims recognise other religions of the book as worshipping the same deity. The coming of Islam brought peace and stability and prosperity to the warring Arabian peninsula.

The Muslim world (Dar al-Islam) has traditionally been much more tolerant towards religious minorities within it than was true of Christendom (which either expelled or forcibly converted Jews and Muslims, and then tortured them and burnt them if they reverted to their previous religions). Under the Ottoman Empire, and in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain before the reconquista), religious minorities were tolerated - they may have had certain restrictions, but they could practice their religions. When the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, they slaughtered most of the inhabitants, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, so that the streets were running knee-deep in blood. When Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) took over Jerusalem, anyone who wished to leave was allowed to do so without let or hindrance. Saladin's noble and chivalrous behavior was noted by Christian chroniclers, and he became a celebrated exponent of the principles of chivalry.

The Renaissance in Europe happened because of the art, culture and science that came from the Muslim world. Muslim scholars had been gathered together in a group called the House of Wisdom under the Abbasid Empire to translate classical texts into Arabic. Muslim scholars not only translated texts but also wrote treatises on science, astronomy, astrology, medicine, mathematics, the arts, and so on. The names of many scientific instruments and areas of knowledge come from Arabic. Alchemy, chemistry, algorithm, alcohol, almagest, and so on. Many star-names are Arabic, or come from Arabic, and very beautiful they are too. The poetry and literature of the Arabs was also outstanding. There are still many Muslim scientists today. And also, Ibn Battutah, a medieval Muslim traveller from Morocco went all the way to China and wrote down what he saw on the way - he travelled much further and more widely than Marco Polo, and stayed longer in the places he visited.

The Arab world also had very advanced ceramic techniques - probably because of the emphasis on geometric designs in mosques, because of the ban on graven images.

Fairly early on in the history of Islam, there developed a difference in emphasis between two groups: the Sufis, whose emphasis was more mystical; and those who preferred the more legalistic side of Islam. Indeed, Islamic jurisprudence is complex and subtle. There are several different forms of Islamic law - so it would actually be very difficult to impose sharia on Muslim communities in the UK, because they all come from different places where Islamic law has developed differently.

Two major groups in Islam are the Sunni and the Shia. The Sunni derive all authority from the Prophet Mohammed; the Shia recognise a line of holy men who are descended from the Prophet.

The word "Sunni" comes from the term Sunnah, which refers to the sayings and actions of Muhammad that are recorded in hadiths (collections of oral testimony regarding Muhammad, collected not long after his death).

"Shia" is the short form of the historic phrase Shīʻatu ʻAlī, meaning "followers", "faction", or "party" of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, whom the Shia believe to be Muhammad's successor.

Sufism or taṣawwuf is defined by its adherents as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a ṣūfī. Sufis believe they are practicing Ihsan (perfection of worship) as revealed by Gabriel to Muhammad. The Sufis have produced a lot of really amazing mystic poetry, such as the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz; and many inspiring saints, such as Al Hallaj and Rabia. Their worship services (zikr or dikr, meaning remembering the name of Allah) are very beautiful.

Wahhabism is a conservative and fundamentalism form of Sunni Islam. It is particularly strong in Saudi Arabia. It has gained influence for various reasons over the rest of the Muslim world, partly because its adherents are very wealthy, and partly because of the rising hostility between the West and Islam, which creates a vicious downward spiral.  Wahhabis also distribute a version of the Holy Qu'ran annotated with their interpretations of it.

There are aspects of Islamic practice which don't appeal to me. I believe the body is sacred, and sexuality is sacred, so the idea of modesty does not appeal to me. I support the right of Muslims to wear hijab (modest dress for both men and women; although in many Islamic countries it has been the modesty of women that has been the most policed and commented on). I disagree with extra emphasis being placed on hijab for women, which is the case in some Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia; but there are hijab codes for both men and women. If people want to indicate their devotion to their deity, good for them. I don't think it qualifies them for extra respect, but they should be accorded as much respect as anyone else, and I absolutely and unequivocally condemn violence against people observing hijab codes.

I also dislike the anti-gay rhetoric coming from some Muslims - but I also dislike the anti-gay rhetoric coming from senior figures in Christianity, which is currently considerably louder, or at least getting more media attention. I abhor the fact that in many Islamic countries, being gay carries the death penalty, and sincerely hope that this will change.

[Update: There are also advocacy groups for LGBT Muslims, and a prominent Muslim spokesperson who stands up for LGBT rights.]

As a vegetarian, I can't say I particularly like the slaughter of animals for festivals in some Islamic countries; but that's not really a core part of Islam. If you insist on eating meat, then I think  dhabihah (the correct method of slaughtering meat so that it conforms with halal) is more humane. It says that you should bless the animal with the name of God before killing it, and the killing should be swift and humane. Muslims are taught throughout the Qur'an that all animals should be treated with respect and well cared for.

One of the interesting things about Islam is that it is all about the consensus of the ummah (the community); there is no Pope and no Archbishops. There is more than one imam. If you don't like the interpretation of the Qu'ran (a fatwa is an interpretation of the Qu'ran) that you get from one imam, you can go to a different one.

Just like any other holy book, the Qu'ran contains contradictory passages and bits that are confusing. There are many passages advocating peace, compassion and tolerance; there are also exhortations to violence. The same is true of the Bible. That is why exegesis is a delicate art and these books should be taken as a whole, not just quoted in bits taken out of context, and above all they should not be taken literally.

Like all other religions, there are fundamentalists in Islam. I don't like fundamentalism in any religion; but I have to say that Christian fundamentalists are just as dangerous as Islamic fundamentalists, if not more dangerous, because they have access to power and influence and money in one of the most powerful countries in the world, i.e. America.

Most Muslims just want to live in peace with their neighbours. They are mostly peace-loving and compassionate people - something that news programmes consistently ignore.

So, for goodness' sake, people, get educated about Islam. I have only skimmed the surface here, but it is a very complicated topic, just like all other religions.

Friday, September 07, 2012

What's wrong with the Incarnation?

Many Christians think that other religions don't like the idea of the Incarnation because they're offended by the idea of God becoming human.

The thing that is specifically offensive about the idea that Jesus is the only way to God is the idea that stems from it that all other religions are wrong, and that unless you have "accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour" you will go to hell. So according to this insane and offensive theology, that means Gandhi and other great luminaries are in hell.  (Then there's penal substitution theology, which is also offensive, but that is a separate issue.)

I don't have a problem with the idea of Jesus being divine. I do have a problem with the idea of his being the one and only incarnation of the godhead. As far as I'm concerned, we are all divine.

In polytheist religions, the idea of humans becoming divine, or the divine becoming human, crops up frequently. There's Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu. There's Oðinn, who is either a deified human or a god who became human. There's Aradia, who was Diana's daughter and came to earth to teach Tuscan witches their craft, and how to resist oppression. There are many, many deities who became human, and humans who became deities. So the idea that other religions have a problem with the Incarnation because they don't like the idea of God becoming human is laughably ignorant.

In Judaism, the soul has three components - the nefesh (the animal soul, which disperses at death), the neshamah (the divine part, which returns to God at death), and the ruach (the breath of God, which gives life). The more spiritually developed you are, the greater the neshamah becomes. When Jesus told his disciples that he would send his ruach (his Holy Spirit) to be with the disciples at death, he meant he would send that component of his soul to be with them. This insight must have got lost in the early centuries of Christianity when the Judaic elements were eradicated from Christianity by opponents of "Judaizing".  Anyway, the point here is, that in Judaism, everyone is a child of God, and has God within them. (For more on this, see my earlier post, The Trinity and Jewish theology).

In the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), they say that everyone has "that of God" within them, and refer to the Inner Christ or the Inner Light. The idea is to uncover that light (not hiding it under a bushel) and let it shine.

In Unitarianism, which rejected the doctrine of the Trinity back in the 16th century, the view is usually that everyone has the Divine within them, too. James Martineau, a great 19th century member of the tradition (who actually identified as a Free Christian), said:
The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.
What a truly great concept - the incarnation is true of all humans. Or as Shakespeare (religious beliefs unknown) so memorably put it:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
In Buddhism, we all contain the potential to become enlightened, to become a Buddha, to become divine. We are all Future Buddhas.

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, although they believe that Jesus is the one and only divine incarnation, they also have the concept of theosis, which means that because Jesus opened the way between the human and the divine, we can all become divine. Indeed, Jesus himself said, "I have said, ye are gods."

So, no, the thing that annoys people about the Incarnation is not the idea that God became human - it's the idea that it only happened once.

Everyone has "that of God" within them - the neshamah, the ruach, the seed of a Future Buddha, the potential for theosis.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Belief-O-Matic update

I noticed that I haven't done the Belief-O-Matic questionnaire since 2010 - so here's an update. It's a pity they don't have a category for Wicca.

Unitarian Universalism 100%
Secular Humanism 98%
Liberal Quakerism 84%
Atheism 67%
Taoism 66%
Liberal Christian Protestantism 64%
New Age 62%
Theravada Buddhism 59%
Mahayana Buddhism 58%
Neo-Paganism 58%
Reformed Judaism 53%
Scientology 50%
Sikhism 48%
Jainism 47%
New Thought 47%
Church of Christ, Scientist 41%
Orthodox Quakerism 34%
Bahá'í Faith 28%
Hinduism 26%
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints 15%
Conservative Christian Protestant 14%
Islam 12%
Seventh-day Adventists 8%
Jehovah's Witnesses 5%
Orthodox Judaism 3%
Roman Catholicism 0%
Eastern Orthodox Christianity 0%

Friday, August 24, 2012

Letter to the book-burners

Dear Wearside Women in Need,

I am dismayed by the article that appeared on the BBC website today, describing how your charity plans to burn copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I am not planning to read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I agree that the character of Edward Grey is a stalker and potentially abusive. (Also, it is a very badly written book.)

However, Edward Grey is not abusive because he is into BDSM. He is abusive because he is a stalker who denies Anastasia's autonomy and consistently ignores her boundaries.

The book does not describe BDSM as it is practised by the majority of the BDSM community. BDSM practitioners generally abide by the ethos of "safe, sane and consensual".

There may be abusers who try to hide in the BDSM community, but they are no more numerous than abusers who engage in vanilla sex.

BDSM is not abuse. Please do not conflate the two.

May I refer you to a couple of articles and books which may help to clarify the difference for you:

Furthermore, book-burning is what fundamentalists do. It is profoundly against democracy and the free dissemination of ideas. I do not like Fifty Shades of Grey because it is a gross distortion of BDSM, but at least it has enabled a conversation in the public square about what BDSM is actually about.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Endless Knot

Paperback, 49 Pages
Price: £5.99 
Ships in 3–5 business days
Poetry of place, experience, the seasons, and the sacred. 
Written over many years, these poems are the distillation of experiences of ritual, landscape and mythology. 
Lovers of landscape and nature will enjoy this collection. 
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Also available as an eBook (suitable for Kindle and other formats)

Monday, August 20, 2012

"We", or "I and thou"?

So I went to read a (very long) blogpost about relationships, and how being in a relationship makes people want to refer to themselves as "we".

OK, I confess that I haven't read the whole paper (it was more of an academic paper than a blogpost), but my first thought on reading the author's tweet about it was, "no, I want to be 'I and thou' / 'me and thee' with a partner, and I want that to be reciprocated. In other words, I want to be intimate, but I want my autonomy respected. (I'm thinking of Martin Buber's ideas about "I/Thou" here, too, where the other, the Thou, is sacred and beloved and respected.)

So I tweeted in reply: "hmm, not sure about that, I'd rather be a me and a thee." (I then went off to read the article and posted the comment on which this blogpost is based.)

The author of the article tweeted back "I guess u dont think not wanting to be a 'we' makes u incapable of forming an ongoing romantic relationship? "

To which I replied: "No, I bloody well don't, and I find that insinuation offensive."

And he replied: "not meant as insinuation just clarification that you take the thesis to be wrong."

He then tweeted: "Is your objection to idea of forming a 'we' that you think such a notion undermines autonomy?"

To which I replied: Yes.

Harry Hay came up with the idea of Subject-Subject Consciousness to describe relationships where both partners are equal. He criticised most heterosexual relationships as being Subject-Object relationships, where the man gets to be the subject and the woman is the object.

Luce Irigaray came up with a similar concept, intersubjectivity. Pemberton (2004:252) writes:

Of course the subject is always subject in her own eyes when not objectified and displaced by the gaze and the analytical grid of the other. Subjects speak, think, act, love, cry, scream, ululate, make love, feel fear, carry history, dream dreams. They do this best in a radical intersubjectivity[.]
  (from a chapter in Juschka, D.M., ed. (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: a Reader. London and New York: Continuum.

The trouble with a heterosexual "we" is that it is all too likely that the woman's subjectivity and autonomy is subsumed in that of the man.  Even if the man is trying to be feminist, trying to regard the woman as a subject in her own right. (Maybe this kind of subsumption can occur in same-sex relationships as well, but I do not have enough experience of them to be able to say.)

I am reminded of that advert from the mid-nineties where a couple is speaking to camera. She says "we want to be out painting the town red". He says "we want to be settling down and having a baby". Clearly there is a huge disconnect in their ideas, so that their use of "we" is completely meaningless - and you are left wondering whose agenda will win out. Will they settle down and have a baby, or will they be out partying all night?

Kahlil Gibran wrote a beautiful thing about marriage (I have boldened the bits that I think are particularly relevant to this discussion):
 You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
 Now that seems to me to be a recipe for happiness.

There is also a Celtic wedding vow:
You cannot possess me for I belong to myself. But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give. You cannot command me for I am a free person.
Another recipe for happiness.

I am not saying that being in a relationship that involves being "we" rather than I is necessarily a recipe for loss of autonomy and a subsumption of one person into the other, but there is a considerable risk of that happening.

Someone suggested to me a 40:40:20 rule for successful marriages. That is, you spend 40% of your leisure time doing stuff on your own, 40% with your partner, and the other 20% is variable depending on circumstances. I think that is an excellent idea.

I think that, all too often, what is described as "fear of commitment" is actually a fear of loss of autonomy. A guy once said to me, in all seriousness, that he didn't want a girlfriend because if he had one she would tell him that he couldn't have a hi-fi system. Presumably there are actually people out there who tell their partners that they can't have things, but it's not something I would ever do. I mean, I would expect to negotiate large purchases if they would impinge on necessary expenditure like rent and food, but otherwise I would not want to tell my partner how to spend his/her money (and certainly would not tell them what to do with their existing possessions), and I would not expect him/her to have jurisdiction over my expenditure or possessions, either.

The other problem is, if I am in a relationship with another person, and I say "We think x, y, and z" then I presume to speak for my partner. Unless I have consulted him or her about his/her opinions, and established that s/he really does think x, y, and z, then I have no right to include him/her in my expression of my opinion. Similarly, if someone invites us to dinner, or away for a weekend, I think that I can accept on my own behalf, but not necessarily on behalf of my partner (they might not want to attend for a variety of reasons).  Despite best intentions at the outset of a relationship, it can become all too easy to assume that you know what your partner wants, accept things on their behalf, express opinions on their behalf, and so on.

It used to annoy me intensely when an ex of mine, who could not drive, referred to my car (which I always drove, had bought, paid for, insured, paid for the repairs and road-tax on, and so on), as "our car". In what sense was it "ours"? If he had contributed to its purchase, maintenance, tax, insurance, and been able to drive it, then it would have been "ours". But it was, in every sense, mine.

So no, my relationships will remain "I and thou", subject and subject, intersubjectival. I will respect my partner's autonomy, and will expect him or her to respect my autonomy. We will not grow in each other's shadow. And I expect that our relationship will be all the happier and healthier for it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A simple guide to social media

How to market your brand / book / website on social media:

Set up a Facebook page and/or group where you will post regular news items (from your site and those of other relevant sites). Attract attention to it by posting it in other related Facebook groups (search in Groups for related keywords for your topic). Keep it updated regularly.

Set up a Twitter feed where you will post regular news items (from your site and those of other relevant sites). Attract attention to it by following other similar Twitter accounts (search for related keywords for your topic) and retweet and reply to their tweets. Keep it updated regularly.

Set up a blog where you will post regular blogposts about topical items in your subject area. Attract attention to it by adding other similar blogs to your blogroll (search for related keywords for your topic) and post comments on their blogs. Keep it updated regularly.

If you don't "get" Twitter, there's a remarkably succinct and clear summary of what it is and how it works in today's verdict on the Twitter joke trial. (PDF)

And remember, all publicity is good publicity - except the kind where you are caught trying to sweep your blunders under the carpet. If you do screw up, admit it and apologise. If you have not screwed up, apologise to anyone you may have offended, and point out why you chose to do the thing that you did.

Monday, July 02, 2012

My UFO experience

So apparently it is World UFO Day today, so I thought I would celebrate by sharing my (one and only) UFO experience.

When I was six years old, I saw a UFO. And I mean Unidentified Flying Object. I have no idea whether it was of terrestrial origin or not. It was late at night, and I looked out of my bedroom widow, and I saw this thing (a drawing is on the right) hovering over the trees in the park. It was glowing, but seemed curiously flat - not curved or anything. I was scared, so I got back into bed and hid under the covers. That was it - there were no other phenomena associated with it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A theory of swearing

What makes a swearword?

To qualify as a useful swearword, a word must have one of more of the following qualities:
  • Transgression. It must be a taboo word that is generally regarded as unacceptable, either because it refers to a sexual organ, a sexual act, a taboo person, a deity whose name must not be taken in vain. 
  • Plosiveness. It should contain the consonants "sh", "k", "t" or the vowel sound, "uh", or (even better) a combination of these. (These are the relevant phonemes for English - other languages may vary.)
  • Brevity. It must be short.

The more a swearword is used, the less transgressive value it has, because it becomes part of the user's normal vocabulary, and its transgressive quality is lessened by over-familiarity (my dad came up with this aspect of the theory).

Sometimes you really need to swear because you have dropped a brick on your foot, or discovered that your bank-account is empty in the middle of the month. So you might as well save those really satisfyingly transgressive swearwords for when you really need them. Using swearwords as a hyphen isn't really very cool. (Unless you're Ian Martin, in which case it's absolutely fucking hilarious.)

Ethics of swearing

If a word ought not to be taboo because the thing, person or act referred to is not shameful or disgusting (e.g. witch, "bugger", cunt, prick), then it should not be used as a swearword. Unless it has become so current that the original meaning of the word has been forgotten (e.g. "bugger", "bloody"). Again, this rule does not apply to Ian Martin, who has taken swearing to a high and magnificent art-form.

If the person referred to does not exist, how can they be offended by their name being taken in vain? (Nevertheless, it does seem odd for atheists to say "goddamn" or similar. Maybe they could say "Dawkins!" instead - it has a great plosive quality...)

What's left?

 That pretty much leaves only scatological swearwords.

However, the Latin names of fungi have great possibilities as swearwords. How about "Hidnum repandum!"

Swearing in a foreign language is also rather satisfying, e.g. "Arschloch!"

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Functions of religion

I guess the social function of religion is to maintain social cohesion by suppressing urges that lead to individuality (such as sexuality, magic and mysticism) and providing rituals to guide people through the trauma that this will inevitably create. Examples: the way that mystics, magicians and sexual and gender-variant individuals are shunned and persecuted by religions. Also, rites of passage are designed to negotiate the tensions created between individual impulses and the needs of the group. This is why they take place at times of stress.

This is all very well if the religion functions to maintain a just society, but not if the society being maintained is fundamentally unjust. I also suspect that all esoteric systems will eventually settle down and become religions in that sense - which is why Aleister Crowley rejected the idea of "Crowleyanity". He knew that his path would be turned into a religion for others to follow, and wanted to prevent that.

If you look at the way religious movements develop, their eventual assimilation into the host society is all too frequent. Sometimes they influence the host society, but all too often the reverse is true. Religions start out radically counter-cultural, and then gradually assimilate. If their rules are particularly demanding, this is probably a good thing, but in many cases, it's a bit of a disappointment. Christopher Partridge describes the assimilation process particularly well in The Re-enchantment of the West.

Of course, there are many values promoted by liberal religions which are worth having, like celebrating diversity, radical hospitality, community, and so on. But they still tend towards the sacrifice of individuality for the greater good.

Sometimes it can be painful to be in community with others. There's a certain element of impersonality about it. There is also an expectation of serving the community, and this can be in conflict with individuality, even in very liberal groups.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Does this stuff actually work?

So then, religion and spirituality - do they actually work?

Paganism claims to put its adherents in touch with Nature by celebrating the seasonal cycle of festivals (or at least that used to be its claim - this seems to have been largely sidelined in favour of talking to deities). Does celebrating the seasonal cycle of festivals really put you in touch with Nature? Does it really transform the psyche? Do the rituals actually have a beneficial effect on the practitioners? (If not, at least they are fun.)

Unitarianism claims that it is building the beloved community, and that by being in community together, we can model a microcosm of the world, and create meaningful connections and communities. Does hanging out with people, some of whom one doesn't actually like, really make you a better person? Possibly, in that it is supposed to rub off the corners and make you more tolerant by exposing you to different viewpoints. But you have to really hang out with them and make actual community, not just see them on Sundays.

Buddhism claims that meditation is the transformative ingredient. I do know that the metta bhavana meditation really helped me to avoid conflict with someone I found incredibly annoying - but then maybe I could have saved myself an awful lot of trauma by just having the conflict with the person, because I was damaged by acquiescing to their nonsense.

Quakers claim that their gathered silence transforms the participants. At least Quakers do engage directly in social justice work, and attempt to allow their values to permeate every aspect of their lives. The trouble is, I couldn't actually be a Quaker, because it wouldn't suit me.

Pick and mix spirituality - once memorably characterised as 'a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning' - where, at its worst, you get to do all the bits you like and avoid the rest - just makes people disappear up their own bottoms, lost in a welter of crystals, pastel colours, dolphins, quantum vibes, and Mayan prophecies. Yes, it is necessary to seek rest and refreshment before re-entering the fray of activism - but maybe that would be better gained by going for a nice walk in the woods or listening to a really good piece of music. It certainly isn't gained by paying megabucks for some dubious bullshit.

There's a joke in the Pagan community: "Q. What's the difference between Paganism and the New Age? A: a couple of extra zeroes on the end of the price."

The trouble is, there is no objective way of testing the effectiveness of religion and spirituality. I've done lots of  stuff, and I have become more relaxed and learnt to like myself, but did that happen because I practiced religion and spirituality, or would it have happened anyway? When I think of all the heartbreak and angst I have experienced over various aspects of religion and spirituality, I sometimes wonder if it was worth it. I do know that I have got spiritual burnout and need a rest.

I do not use my religion as a "crutch" - because it does not offer me the consolation of believing in life after death. I sort of believe in reincarnation, but I have no idea what form it might take, or whether the individual personality survives the transition; so there's very little consolation available there.

I guess I have been looking for "spiritual experiences" but I do not think they are really the point of spiritual practices; though they are an agreeable by-product of the process. The point of spiritual practices is (supposedly) self-development.

I started out on my journey because I decided the point of existence was to make the world a better place, and the most effective way to do that was to start on the self. The trouble is, it is very easy to get side-tracked into the whole self-development thing, and forget about the activism for social justice. I am an armchair activist, signing petitions, blogging and tweeting about LGBT issues and other causes - but I don't actually do any direct social justice work.

I think anyone who practices religion and spirituality should be constantly asking themselves, why am I doing this particular practice? Does it benefit me, and/or the wider community? Does it make anyone unhappy? Does it create false hope? Will it build up expectations, only to dash them later?

I think Walt Whitman really hit on something when he wrote:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.
I also think that the Abraham Lincoln quote that I used as the strapline of this blog is a good acid test of whether a religion or spirituality is any good: "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it."

Perhaps also my favourite Carl Sagan quote:
A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.
I do think that living by a particular set of values, rather than a particular set of beliefs, is a way forward, because beliefs about 'spiritual' matters are generally  not very testable or falsifiable, whereas values and practices can be tested empirically, and discarded if they do not work.

To be perfectly honest, I have got just as much benefit (possibly more) out of long walks in the countryside, making music, creating art, and reading novels.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Unitarian Earth Spirit and Paganism

Recently Tony McNeile gave a talk at the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network at the General Assembly meetings in Keele, entitled Forward to Paganism.

My thoughts on Tony's article (as a Wiccan and a Unitarian):

Gerald Gardner was not a loony, whatever people might have thought at the time. He had some ideas which were based on erroneous history (such as the idea of an ancient witch cult, which he got from Margaret Murray), and his ideas about women and homosexuality were a bit off, but he tried to give women respect and equality. And very importantly, he contributed to the return of the idea of the Goddess.

What Tony describes as Paganism is more like Pantheism. But it doesn't really matter what label you give it.
I don't think worshipping the Goddess (or goddesses) is a prerequisite for Paganism, but I do think that being aware that the Divine (or deities) includes both genders, and transcends gender, is important. Women have been disadvantaged by being regarded as second class citizens because of not being reflected in the Divine, and the return of the Goddess has been incredibly important for women.

Very few Wiccan covens are women-only (only a few lesbian separatist groups exist, mainly in the states, and they are not really Wiccan). Men are welcome and equal.

Ritual nudity is liberating.

Magic does not have to be part of Pagan spirituality, but when it is, it is usually used for healing, and it is not irrational. People who practice magic usually have an understanding of it that they have squared with their rational side.

The pagan origins of Easter are now regarded as rather dubious. There is only one reference in Bede, and it's very likely that he got it wrong.

This video makes me uncomfortable

The Campaign for Equal Marriage video, Homecoming, made me uncomfortable.

As I am sure you are aware if you read my blogs or follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I support marriage equality. I want people to be able to marry each other if they want to, or have civil partnerships if they want to, regardless of gender. I want religions that want to perform marriages to be able to marry whoever they want.

So why did the video make me uncomfortable?

The main thing was the military setting. I'm a pacifist. I accept that wars happen sometimes, and that soldiers also carry out peacekeeping roles, but I think that we should do everything in our power to avoid war, and not to glorify it. The guy who is coming home is clearly returning from a military campaign (presumably in the Middle East as he is wearing desert camouflage). Given the controversy over Britain's recent wars in the Middle East, I find this difficult.

Then there's the statement at the end of the video "All men can be heroes: all men can be husbands". This has its good points, in that it undermines the myth that gay men are "effeminate" - but it also reinforces the view that gay men are OK if they're butch, but not if they're effeminate. And what about women who want to marry? What about bisexual and transgender people? What about disabled people who want a same-sex marriage? The statement is almost (but not quite) saying that being prepared to die for your country is what confers civil rights (so no marriage equality for conscientious objectors, then). No - being a citizen of a country is what confers civil rights.

Many GSD (gender and sexually diverse) people have criticised the marriage equality campaign for trying to make GSD people too much like the straights, and/or seeking to reassure the straights that we are just like them. I can understand this criticism; I do not want to be straight, I have never wanted to be straight, and I don't want to reassure the straight population that we are just like them. I think this video is a prime example of trying to reassure the straights that we are just like them. Would I be right in thinking that this video is aimed at people who read the Daily Mail?

What I did like about the video was the tender expressions on the faces of the two men, and the kneeling to propose marriage, and putting the wedding ring on the guy's finger. That was lovely. Put it in a non-military setting and I'll watch it lots.

But please, can we have a video with two guys, or two women, or both, in an ordinary setting?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Support marriage equality

Now is a good time to write to your local county councillors to ask them to support marriage equality.

Here is the letter I have written to my local councillors:
I am writing to ask you to support marriage equality in Oxford County Council.

Thanet has become the first local authority in the UK to endorse the government’s proposals for marriage equality.

Some county councils have not yet made available information on how churches and synagogues that wish to do so can register for religious civil partnerships, and the registration fee is higher than for registering as a marriage venue. Please could you lobby for Oxfordshire County Council to do this.

In addition, I want to see marriage equality in the UK, and would hope that Oxfordshire's county councillors would support this. I want to see religious same-sex marriage made available for those religions and denominations that wish to perform these ceremonies (namely Unitarians, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Quakers, and the Metropolitan Community Church). Pagans would also like to be able to perform same-sex marriages, but as Pagan opposite-sex weddings have no legal standing in England and Wales, the nature of the obstacle to Pagan same-sex weddings is more complex.

Please also support the option for same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships. This is important as many same-sex couples would like the opportunity to be married, and many opposite-sex couples would prefer the less traditional option.

This is also important for transgender people, who may be in either a civil partnership or a marriage currently, and in order to register as the opposite sex to the one they are currently labelled as, would have to divorce their partner and get either a civil partnership or a marriage.
The background to this is that Thanet County Council has endorsed the government's plans.
Thanet has become the first local authority in the UK to endorse the government’s proposals for same-sex marriage. Please ask your councillors to pass a motion supporting same-sex civil marriages & opposite-sex civil partnerships. Find out your local councillors & email them via this website:

BBC report 

Pink News report 
Please ask councillors to support same-sex marriage for those religions who want to do same-sex marriages too.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pantheism quiz

I just took the "Are You Atheist, Agnostic, Pantheist, Deist, Pagan or what?" quiz.

Here are my results:

Dualist Pantheism (100%)  
Literal Paganism / New Age / Animism (100%)  
Naturalistic Pantheism (80%)  
Agnosticism (75%)  
Idealist Pantheism (72%)  
Deism (65%)  
Panentheism (57%)  
Atheism / Secular Humanism (45%)  
Regular Monotheism (44%)

The trouble is, I don't know what a dualist pantheist is...  but there's a Wikipedia entry on it.

Actually, I find it really hard to classify my beliefs under any of these names. I think animist fits me quite well, though.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

You can change

You know, some people become homophobic because of their upbringing. Perhaps they did not have the right parental role-modelling, so instead of turning into a normal balanced human being, they became homophobic.

Homophobia is a disease and requires our compassion and understanding. We should love the sinner and hate the sin. All you need to do is embrace diversity and you can be made whole.

Perhaps homophobes received insufficient nurture from their mothers, or guidance from their fathers, or did not have a positive LGBT role model in their lives.

God doesn't want you to be homophobic. She thinks homophobes are not part of Her divine plan for creation. In fact, God created everyone equal, and just wants you to have a fabulous time and be nice to people for a change. She created love in all its glorious forms so everyone could have a nice time - so quit kvetching and love thy neighbour!

Studies have shown that many homophobic people have experienced same-sex desire themselves, but are just not ready to admit it.

So there is a cure for homophobia.

Come out of the closet and be fabulous with the rest of us!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fiddling while Rome burns

The thing that really amazes me about those religious groups that are opposed to marriage equality is that they really have nothing more important to worry about than who puts what where and whether it is legitimised by the state or not.

Wake up, people! There are asylum seekers to help, starving children around the world, countries that execute LGBT people and emos (oh wait, religious conservatives probably agree with that), climate change, environmental destruction on a vast scale, persecuted tribal peoples... the list is very long - so why spend so much energy on preventing two people who love each other from getting married?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Pagan support for equal marriage

Pagans support equal marriage, and have done for decades.

Unfortunately, in England and Wales, Pagan opposite-sex weddings have no legal standing, and the government has no plans to change that. So - among Pagans, marriage is already equal - a Pagan priestess or priest will happily do your handfasting (wedding) for you, but it won't have any legal standing whether you are marrying someone of the opposite sex or the same sex. A Pagan priest or priestess will also happily do a wedding for transgender people, poly people etc. The Pagan Federation's homepage states that it "regards membership of any organisations that refuse to support freedom of religion and equality of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as incompatible with our aims, objectives and values."

In Scotland, the situation is different. Pagan opposite-sex weddings are legal, and Pagans have joined in the lobbying for same-sex marriage and religious civil partnerships. The Pagan Federation Scotland has signed the Equal Marriage Pledge (see under faith groups), along with the Quakers, MCC, Scottish Unitarian Association,  Humanists, Iona Community, 3 Liberal Jewish groups, and Changing Attitude Scotland (Episcopalians).

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Religious considerations

Interestingly, there's a poll on the Telegraph website to find out if people support same-sex marriage.

The options are as follows:

No - It would be too offensive for many religious people 8.41% (2,927 votes)
No - And I think that even civil partnerships go too far 10.81% (3,762 votes)
Yes - Gay people should have the same rights as everyone else 43.61% (15,182 votes)
Yes - Religious considerations have no place in a modern society 37.18% (12,945 votes)

I selected "Yes - Gay people should have the same rights as everyone else".

I am a secularist because I think that it is the best way to guarantee religious freedom (the freedom to profess whatever religion you choose, or not to profess any religion). But is it true that "religious considerations have no place in a modern society"?

So people who don't think that religious considerations have any place in a modern society obviously think that people of religion should not criticise abuses of power by the rich and powerful, then? (Well, obviously not if the churchmen concerned are themselves rich and powerful, because then they would just be hypocrites.) Many people seem to have conveniently forgotten that many reforms and freedoms were won because of campaigns by people from liberal religious traditions.
Anyway, for whatever reason, I am pleased that over 80% of respondents support same-sex marriage.

Indigenous and autochthonic religions

There is often considerable overlap between indigenous and autochthonic religions, but the two terms are used differently in the study of religions.

An indigenous religion is one where its symbolism and mythology largely relates to the culture of the people with whom it originated.

An autochthonic religion is one which 'sprang from the earth' - in other words it is based on a relationship with the land from which it came; it is not revealed from on high.

An example of an indigenous religion which is not autochthonic could be Judaism, because it is very much connected to being Jewish, but you can be Jewish anywhere, you don't have to be in Israel (though apparently it helps) and it is based on revelation from on high.

An example of an autochthonic religion which is not indigenous could be pantheism, because it is not revealed, but emerges from a relationship to the earth, but is not specific to a particular people. It's also not very organised, but there is a community of pantheists online, so it just about qualifies as a religion rather than just a belief.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Civility and civilisation

Recently there has been a mini-debate among atheists about whether their critique of religion should remain "civil" (i.e. polite).

Clearly they have never read the words of the Book of Proverbs about the most effective way of upsetting someone being to be nice to them. (“If your enemy is hungry give him bread to eat, And if he is thirsty give him water to drink, for so you will heap coals of fire on his head.” (Prov. 25:21,22))

Personally I find that I can offer trenchant criticism of the bits of Christianity that I dislike (penal substitution theology, homophobia, and the idea that other religions are wrong) without offending my Christian friends or making remarks that imply they are all stupid or malignant. Occasionally I get it wrong, and have upset moderate Christians by not being specific enough in my criticism, but for the most part, many Christians agree with my criticisms, or at least find them interesting.

Bigoted and extreme Christians like the odious and repellent Stephen Green do find my criticisms offensive - but he, and his nasty bigoted organisation, have put themselves beyond the pale of civilised discourse anyway. I really felt pleased that my views were deeply offensive to Stephen Green.

I do think that criticism is more effective, and more likely to be listened to, when it is backed up with reason and evidence, describes the situation accurately, and does not include ad hominem attacks. A lot of recent atheist attacks on religion have failed on one or more of these criteria. And conversely, a lot of recent Christian attacks on secularism and equality have dismally failed on one or more of these criteria.

Also, civilisation is founded on being civil. We don't settle arguments by barbaric means such as trial by ordeal, burning at the stake, and torture any more. Instead, the best means of demolishing your opponent's arguments are the well-placed witticism, the cogent argument, and sometimes, just ignoring them as irrelevant. If you really want to upset someone, just ignore them. As Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

This is not a Christian country

Britain is not a Christian country.

The religion of Christianity was imposed by early medieval rulers who wanted to join the urbane club of the European ruling classes, all of whom had jumped on the Christian bandwagon.

In subsequent centuries, majority attendance at church was enforced by fines, and in some cases, imprisonment. The number of people who are interested in spirituality and religion is a minority. Among those who are interested, different models of how it works prevail; and fewer and fewer of them accept the Christian model.

Many of the values which are claimed to be Christian (compassion, forgiveness, love) are universal; and some values which are claimed to be Christian are either secular or come from another religious tradition (tolerance, inclusiveness).

Britain was originally a "pagan" country – that is to say, it had a number of indigenous autocthonic traditions. Now it is religiously and spiritually diverse.

As the recent survey by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has shown, the majority of people who identify as Christian don't actually understand what they are identifying with. Now, I would like to see Christianity becoming more inclusive of different viewpoints, especially the view that other faiths are equally valid; but sadly, since the advent of fundamentalism, what it means to be a Christian has narrowed considerably.

In view of all of the above, I think that disestablishing the Church of England and reducing the role of Christianity in public life is desirable. However, I think there's nothing wrong with having contributions on spiritual and ethical matters by people from many different traditions (including humanism, naturalism and atheism) as part of public life, as long as lots of different traditions get access to the microphone, and not just Christianity.

Spirituality and religion are part of what it means to be human – but they are not exclusive to one religious tradition.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dethroning Christianity

I posted my previous blogpost on Twitter, and received a response from an atheist commenter with a link to an article saying that most Christians do believe literally in the articles of their faith.

Did I mention Christianity in my previous post? (Feel free to read it again to check.) No, I did not. So why do atheists want to take Christianity (or indeed Abrahamic religions) as the norm for religion? I thought they wanted to dethrone it from its prominent place in Western discourse. Some news for you, atheists and Christians alike: religion is not synonymous with Christianity.

The notion that all religion is predicated on belief is a 19th century one, promoted by Christians and colonialists who wanted to discredit other religions, or insisted on seeing them through the lens of Protestant Christianity. This process is well-attested in the academic literature on the subject.

Karen Armstrong (if the New Atheists bothered to read her work properly, instead of relying on soundbites) is right -- belief was not always the most important thing about religion. It may have been the most important thing in Christianity for a great deal of its history; and indeed Western Christianity is rather well-known for murdering people for having the "wrong" beliefs. Though that behaviour gradually came to be regarded as uncivilised after the burning of Michael Servetus and other Unitarians.

In Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Unitarianism / UUism etc there are a number of different schools of thought, giving rise to different practices and enjoying different mythologies. These different schools of thought co-exist happily and do not denounce each other as heretics. Nor do they take their mythologies literally.

There are many Christians who happily accept that they are not the only or the top religion, and who enjoy living in a world of pluralism where people of different faiths and none can learn from each other. Fortunately they are growing in numbers. Sadly, the New Atheists have either not noticed, or have wilfully misinterpreted the phenomenon. And they also don't get other religions, assuming that all religions must think theirs is the only truth and take their mythology literally. Funnily enough, not many New Atheists have studied the sociology of religion, or anthropology, or any other subject which might lead them to a more nuanced and accurate view.

New Atheism is so dim that it's no wonder many atheists and non-theists turned with relief to Atheism 2.0.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Missing the point (again)

PZ Myers and most of his commenters appear to have completely missed the point of Religion for Atheists.

They also completely exaggerate the importance of belief in religions. Alain de Botton is right that whether or not God exists is a boring question. It's been pretty well settled that God does not exist. Some theologians have got round this problem by saying that this is because God is existence, or the Ground of All Being, but then that leaves the question of what that might mean.

I'm glad that the New Atheism has raised the stakes in the theological game, and brought non-realist and apophatic theology to the fore again, but I dislike the way some New Atheists dismiss all religion as harmful rubbish.

Most religions are centred around practice rather than belief. In Hinduism, Paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, Unitarianism, Quakerism and Judaism, belief is not central to whether you count as a member of the religion or not. What counts is either values or practices. The question for Jews is not "Do you believe?" but "Are you observant?" For Pagans, what counts is your attitude to nature, the earth, and/or the land. There are many different schools of thought in Hinduism, Taoism, Paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, Unitarianism, and Quakerism, ranging from theists to non-theists. For Buddhists, deities may well exist, but they are irrelevant. Many Pagans and Unitarians would agree with the Buddhists on this. Many Unitarians are atheists and humanists.

So if it is not about providing an explanation of how the world works or how it came into being, what is religion for? It is about providing a system of shared meaning, and a set of spiritual practices (meditation and ritual), and a community to share ideas, joys and sorrows.

In liberal religions, you don't need to sign up to a set of axioms or propositions which may offend against your reason in order to be part of the community and make use of a collection of stories, mythology, symbols and practices.

Religious community also inspires people to band together to create social justice (although non-religious groups do this too). By consistently encouraging members to treat others with compassion, religious community can be a powerful tool for creating change. Think of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and others who were inspired to change the world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The woman caught in adultery

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Apparently Prof Richard Dawkins likes the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.
[Richard Dawkins] made the broad and uncontroversial point that the Bible includes passages both laudable and vile. As an example of the former and a great teaching he thought most people in the room would immediately get behind, he gave the Gospel injunction, ‘he that is without sin, cast the first stone’.

Alex Gabriel is a bit baffled by this:
Of course literal stonings are undesirable, and of course reacting to transgressions overharshly is worth discouraging. But the point of what Jesus says is, he is without sin. Not being subject to paternally transmitted original sin, Jesus is the only completely sinless human being and was (to commandeer a phrase) born that way. This is what gives him moral authority, as the son of God, over the woman; it’s why only he gets to absolve her sins. When he tells the crowd, ‘You are not without sin’, he is telling them they don’t get to judge her.
Here's the story from the English Standard Version:
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
Now, we could view Jesus entirely as a fictional or mythological character presented by the gospel authors - there is good reason to think that he acquired several legends from other mythological characters, in much the same way as King Arthur and Robin Hood did. Certainly the virgin birth story is as old as the hills, and was told about several Middle Eastern vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, etc). The same goes for the story of the resurrection.

Or we could view him as a real person who has been at least partially misrepresentedby the gospel authors.

The mainstream Christian view is of course that he was the Son of God, in which context Alex's interpretation may well be correct.

Whether we view him entirely as a fictional character or as a real person at least partly misrepresented by the gospel authors, there are two questions we could ask here:
  • What does Jesus mean by "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you"?
  • What does the gospel author think he meant?
Alex argues that Jesus chooses not to condemn the woman because he believes that he has the authority to forgive her because he is without sin, because he is the son of God. Now, the Gospel of John comes from a different Christian tradition than the other three gospels; it is a gospel of signs and wonders, highly symbolic and allegorical, and constantly emphasising the author's belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  But remember, in Hebrew tradition, 'messiah' (anointed one of God) and 'son of God' meant two different things. The gods of other nations were sometimes referred to as the sons of God, and so was Satan (see the Book of Job); and Jesus never referred to himself as the Son of God, only as the Son of Man (which means something like "everyman" or "average bloke").  Not all early Christians believed that Jesus was part of the Godhead ("very God of very God" as Orthodox Christian liturgy puts it). Some were Adoptionists (they believed that God adopted Jesus as his son when he was baptised in the River Jordan); others were Arians, who believed that Jesus was conceived by the union of God and Mary, but that he had not co-existed with God from the beginning of time). There was a bewildering variety of opinions on this, some of which still survive: the Monotheletes, the Monophysites, Diaphysites, and all manner of variations. So the author of the gospel may not have thought that Jesus was part of the Godhead, though he or she did think that he was the Messiah and the Son of God - the doctrine of the Trinity was not finally settled till the Council of Nicaea in 352 CE, and the doctrine of Christ's nature was not settled till the Council of Chalcedony in 451 CE.

Why do I care about this if I think Jesus may well have been a fictional character? Because I like the story, and I think it's important to be able to interpret stories in a poetic and flexible way, but not to infer the author's intentions from later interpretations.

So here is my interpretation of the story.

Jesus comes (as a rabbi among other rabbis) to the temple. He is teaching the people (as a popular rabbi would) when the woman taken in adultery is brought to him. The punishment for her "crime" is a horrible, slow and painful death. Jesus points out that the people who want to kill her for it are also guilty of some misdemeanour or other. The story is silent on whether Jesus thinks he himself is without sin - perhaps the reader is meant to infer that, but it is not explicitly stated. The point of the story is that we should show mercy and not excessively punish people for their bad behaviour, because we have also behaved badly. It's about showing empathy to others.

When Jesus says "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you", I do not think that he's claiming to be without sin himself - that is a later doctrinal position.

OK, so elsewhere Jesus is reported as having said "Therefore be ye merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful" and "Judge not, that ye be not judged". But as far as I can recall, Jesus never arrogates to himself the right to judge. This power is attributed to him later by the Book of Acts and the Book of Revelations.

In fact, Jesus repeatedly extends sonship of God to humans generally. He says "I have said, ye are gods" and refers to God the Father as the father of everyone, not just his own father. So I don't think that Alex's interpretation is justified either by the text, or by the state of Christian theology when the text was written. It may well be the view of later theologians, but that is another issue.

So I think Richard Dawkins is right to like the story. He likes it because it's about being reasonable and empathic, tempering justice with mercy, and taking all factors into consideration, and not being judgmental and self-righteous.

What do you think the story means?