Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Humanism and History: for Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers' recent post on Pagan humanism has inspired a lot of discussion, much of it heated.  I found it more useful than did many of the eternally most offended.  Overall, he provided a reasonably accurate portrait of a school of thought prominent in modern Paganism and Earth  Spirituality. Many people come to Paganism through a love for mythology rather than a desire to cast spells; many more come because they enjoy Pagan gatherings. Myers provided a decent summary of their beliefs and (despite his protestations) established himself as a spokesperson for this burgeoning movement. That being said, I did note a few points worthy of further examination.

Dr. Myers claims that humanist Pagans are "a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome." I might point instead to the European Renaissance. As long-forgotten Greek and Roman texts became more widely available many artists began creating new images of the old gods. Poets retold their legends and updated them for a contemporary audiences.  (For an early version of our festival scene, what about Sir Francis Dashwood's "Hell-Fire Club" and the libertine revels at his Temple of Venus).  And what about Ossian (James Macpherson) or, centuries earlier, Snorri Sturluson, who rewrote ancient legends to educate their people and to serve their own political purposes?
From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers. Some still practice magic (you don’t have to be religious to do that), but will approach the matter with a critical, scientific eye. And speaking of science, they tend to be interested in astronomy, quantum theory, evolutionary biology, and the like, and will take inspiration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and from Bill Nye right alongside Starhawk or Crowley.
First, I note that one need not be a Pagan, a New Ager, a theist, or a follower of any sort of "woo" to practice energy work.  Even under Communist rule doctors and scholars have continued to study Qi, while Ayurvedic practitioners and Yogis work approach prana like technicians rather than acolytes.  And I'd also comment that Crowley's motto for the Equinox was "the Method of Science, the Aim of Religion." Uncle Al, like his contemporaries the Spiritualists, was passionately interested in finding the method behind the magic and in performing falsifiable, verifiable and repeatable magical acts.
Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.
I was unaware of any campaign to deny that the Olympics had their roots in pre-Christian Greece. Neither was I aware that anyone had claimed Stonehenge, the Acropolis, the Pyramids of Giza or the other marvels Myers mentions were produced by Christians, or that Caesar, Hannibal etc. were really Christian.  While a few loud loons claim American government was founded on Biblical principles, just about everybody else recognizes the enormous debt we owe to Greece and Rome.  However, I would also point out that none of the luminaries Myers names were atheists or "humanists." Humanism has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment: identifying pre-Christian philosophers as humanists is anachronistic and confusing.

In his contempt for spiritual "woo," Myers goes much further than the people he claims as role models. He takes as a given that everything in the universe is amenable to rational explanation and if we can't understand something it's only because we don't have enough data.  He assumes that the human capacity for reason and observation is such that we can explain all events using our brain power and the  tools we can create thereby.  He asserts that the old tales of spirits and ghosts and gods are just pretty stories and useful metaphors (which is admittedly kinder than thinking they are signs of mental illness). All these ideas are quite in keeping with Enlightenment-era philosophy: in most of the pre-Christian world they would have been seen as hubris, blasphemy or, at best, nonsense.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ripples of Reverence: Responding to Commenters

My earlier post on reverence has spawned commentary both on my blog and on the mailing list where the discussion originated.  Since there were so many good points raised, I figured I'd compile them together here along with my observations.

In the latest post to her Witches & Pagans blog, Galina Krasskova tells one of the stories which inspired the original entry.
During the course of the three days I taught, I discovered that JD had A) broken a solemn oath to Ellegua (an Orisha, but some of us do have interactions with African Traditional Religions, and this particular incident occurred before JD became Heathen); B) had tried to force a Deity to compel a man to leave his wife and become her lover (this was…what do you know?...unsuccessful); C) had cursed and “attacked” Freya; (I’m not sure what form the ‘attack’ took…I was already rather shell-shocked by that point in her recitation); D) had offended her ancestors (no sh*t, ya think?); and E) had desecrated and befouled a shrine to Nephthys, while visiting a Kemetic colleague after having an argument with said colleague centering around JD’s sense of entitlement to all the magical secrets of the universe (JD demanded an initiation and when it wasn’t forthcoming threw a tantrum). 
The long term results of all of this were rather dramatic—even by my standards and I’ve seen just about everything. Immediately after offending Nephthys (and I was equally appalled at the desecration and the fact that upon pointing out that Jane had desecrated the territory of a Deity, her response was ‘but I like Nephthys.’ Yes, I get all the bright ones in my classes), JD found herself unable to bath. She was, literally, afflicted with an allergy to water. I believe, having done divination and having then consulted with a colleague who also divined, that this was so that JD’s physical form would reflect her spiritual form. Additionally, she lost her job and her home and in the intervening time period (of several years) found herself unable to maintain either in any workable fashion. After cursing and trying to “attack” Freya, she found herself afflicted with certain sexual problems. After offending Ellegua, she began to have recurrent nightmares and night terrors that were getting progressively worse. Her personal luck, as one might expect, was terrible.
JD's actions were certainly uncommonly egregious, but the mindset from which they originated is all too common.  Salena notes:
Comic books touch a creative part of the brain that mainstream societal conditioning really doesn't seem to, if anything adding the comic book ideology of Gods on top of the rigid, mainstream anti-reverence undertones- it's almost as though an all out two pronged approach to war against worship is happening (no, I'm not paranoid). We now have people conditioned to thinking Gods are present only to please us and heck, lets add some creative juice to this and now they not only serve to keep us safe and comfy but they will also entertain and delight us. When we tire of 'their little games' we can just move on to the next toy till we choose to break that one also, or we can play high school boyfriend games with them till the last touchdown of homecoming game has been made. In our favor of course. 
I'm not positive there is anything we actually can do directly to combat this issue. I've seen people bandy about the titles of books some on this email have authored- sure they say they are great but much of the readership is missing something. There is a place within them walled off to understanding the reverence, awe, and sheer holy fear that should be present when working with deity. They 'say' they get it, I don't think they truly do, their actions speak so loudly.
Unfortunately, to engender reverence, they have to be able to express, at a minimum, willful vulnerability. Kneeling before a God is vulnerability, it is saying, 'You are bigger than I.' But here is the core of that question- how do you get someone raised in this culture with no awe, no humility, no understanding of deity, to be willfully vulnerable? This is so very antithetical to our conditioning.
I agree completely. Comic imagery can touch us in a visceral way and evoke deep emotional responses in a way that mere text cannot. And because we start reading it at an early age, it shapes us in a way the Jesuits can only envy. One of the ways we have always brought children into the tribe is through stories. They're the way we transmit our values on to the next generation.  And when we turned storytelling over to other people, we gave them a great deal of power over the future of our culture.

The entertainment industry is in the business of entertainment. Their primary concern is shareholder profit, not the edification and education of tomorrow's leaders. Maximizing profits means selling product to the widest possible consumer base.  The old cradle tales aimed inward, seeking to guide the child into the family, village and tribe. Publishers and producers look outward, seeking to expose their images to as many eyeballs as possible. To that end, they seek to gain the child's attention through flashy art and easily digested story lines. Reverence is a thorny subject at best, especially given the monotheist/multiculturalist tensions in American society. When you talk about worship or spiritual topics you are almost certain to offend one group or another. It's easiest to avoid the issue altogether.  

We focus a lot on the Pagans who are coming in from Fundamentalist backgrounds and want to reject their old religion while retaining many of its core concepts.  This is something different: the Pagans I'm seeing who suffer the worst from this come from secular backgrounds, or from homes where religion wasn't particularly important. This isn't some ex-Pentecostal acting out against Big Daddy Jesus. These are people who have had little or nothing in the way of traditional religious education and have no working models as to what a religion actually is or what it is supposed to do.  

Elizabeth Vongvisith noted:

I for one get super annoyed with fangirls who toil under the delusion that their crush on Tom Hiddleston constitutes a spiritual experience. Lately, I've seen people selling items on Etsy that have quotes from the movies such as "mewling quim" and "puny god" in reference to Loki, which fans are apparently wearing to show off how cool they think Loki is. Since when was being insulted a cause for admiration? If they knew anything about mythology, they'd know that Loki's the one who usually does the insulting ;) 
Best of all, I just read some people on Tumblr speculating that the Loki devotional I wrote is really fangirl poetry based on the comic book character. Boy, will they be surprised if they actually get hold of a copy. So yeah, I'd say the amount of ignorance is distressing, at the least.
I find it interesting just how many people are reporting spiritual experiences that read like bad fan fiction.  The idea that somebody might think it appropriate, advisable or even possible to "attack" Freya boggles my mind -- but it's perfectly in keeping with the classic narrative of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu hero who manages to beat Voldemort/Sauron/etc.

Comic/fan culture fills a lot of the roles which were once covered by religion.  It provides a place for meeting like-minded friends and lovers. It gives devotees larger-than-life figures to venerate and even, yes, idolize.  It provides them with a liturgy which is even called "canon" by devotees. And if you've never trembled before of a God, you can easily mistake the quick emotional punch of mass media artwork and imagery for the awe one feels in the presence of the Divine.  As an added bonus, fan culture tends to pride itself on its "tolerance of diversity."  Meaning that it's seen as bad form to criticize others for their efforts. Given that most Americans already think that "tolerance" means an empty-headed agreement that any idea is as good as another, that makes it really hard to call out the community's drama queenes and delusional dumbshites.  It also means that devotees will often get really defensive when you suggest they may be doing something wrong. You're impinging on their creativity and you're mocking them and stifling their religious freedom yada yada.  And so a lot of people continue wandering merrily along in delusion-land, getting in trouble on those rare occasions when they actually encounter the Spirit World.

What we're dealing with here are people whose mythology and worldview comes from the entertainment industry. They choose deities because they look cool and interesting, the same way they choose graphic novels and movie rentals.  When the series  starts getting boring, they can reprogram their TiVo and watch something else. They were never told that the Gods were real but they were taught at an early age that comics were "just make believe."  They were taught that these images exist for their personal gratification and enjoyment. And they don't have any frame of reference by which they can understand just how totally wrong they are.

And Pythia Theocritos commented on the original entry:

I'm probably going to bounce all over the place when it comes to this subject but I will start with my belief that the modern pagan movement has really created a subculture of religious narcissists. I've been to more than one pagan meetup where the gods are treated as cosmic cash machines, there to grant wishes like trans-dimensional genies, because they exist to console, coddle, and care for mankind.  
The solitary paganism movement in the 90's did little to change this; so paganism isn't about a group of "religions" anymore but glorified self-help and self-help means complete autonomy even when dealing with entities that are gods deserving of worship. As our society becomes secular the idea of "worship" has attained sinister overtones, perhaps due to the me-centricity of modern Western culture, but possibly because so much of Protestantism is based on the idea that all you have to do is ask for forgiveness (and most of the time this doesn't include actual worship or even real repentance ) and everything is all right. 
Would it be fair to say that many pagans bring this mentality into a religious umbrella they already think "has no rules?" And when most mainstream books treat gods like underwear, while referring to the legitimate orthopraxy of Judaism or Christianity as stifling, oppressive, or totalitarian; you don't have a religious umbrella; you have a refuge for a bunch of petulant teenagers who don't want to be 'told what to do' even by their gods.
It seems that we have some agreement (at least in a small circle) that there are serious problems. Which, of course, leads inevitably to a future blog entry wherein we discuss possible responses to these issues.  Stay tuned, folks.

Monday, August 20, 2012

R is for Reverence: Worship in the Age of Comics

Many modern Pagans envision their gods using the only frame of reference they have - movies, TV and comic books.  They are not alone in this. Few can avoid the pervasive influence of mass media: throughout much of the world the bat-logo and the red S are as quickly recognized as the cross and the crescent.  Consider how action movies have fed our misconceptions about life-threatening injuriesforensic science and body images, among other things. For better or worse we are all creatures of our age: as the Renaissance had oil paint and printing presses, we have HDTV and video editing software.

Nor is this entirely a bad thing. During my tenure at newWitch I was proud to present an excerpt from Christopher Knowles' Our Gods Wear Spandex. Knowles makes a strong argument that comics are the mythology of our day and superheroes our demigods and culture heroes.  In Vodou and other African Traditional Religions imagery from religion and pop culture is frequently folded, blended, and reinterpreted to suit the practitioner's needs.  If a Haitian Houngan can see Baron Samedi in Darth Vader, why can a Lokean not see Breaker of Worlds in the Joker's desire to watch the world burn?

I'm not calling on the devout to unplug their TVs and burn their silver-age Spiderman collection. I recognize that people have been inspired to fruitful spiritual activity by The Matrix series, the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If the Gods are present in all things, they must be present in the modern as well as the ancient.  If we are going to honor Them in our space and apply Their lessons to our time, we must incorporate contemporary imagery and ideas into our veneration. If we are going to follow a living tradition, we must both honor old tales and create new ones. Yet while I accept the mass media as a valid spiritual source, I also have concerns about the way it treats religious expression.

Galina Krasskova often rails against hubris among Heathens.  I agree that many Pagans and Heathens have serious entitlement, privilege and arrogance issues. But I also think there's something deeper and more disturbing going on here.  These people treat the Gods and ancestors disrespectfully because they have no idea what constitutes respect; they are irreverent because they have never been shown what reverence is.  If they know precious little about sacrifice for the community or the greater good, they know nothing at all about sacrifice for the Divine. And I believe our contemporary mythology and our ways of presenting it have a great deal to do with that shallowness.

Mass media characters may be loved and revered, but they're not worshipped. You may admire Superman or seek to emulate Spock's logical grace under pressure: you don't kneel in their presence and acknowledge them as holy. Whatever joy or knowledge you gain from a summer blockbuster or a graphic novel is earned from the safe distance of "just a movie" or "only a book." You can root for the rebels without landing in an imperial dungeon: you can cheer for Aslan without fear of becoming a foot soldier in some Narnian war. There is no emphasis on engagement or commitment. The religion that comes out of this worldview is often a Spectacle (in the Debordian sense of the word) where awe-inspiring is demoted to "totally awesome!" and the holy is replaced by "holy shit!"

Now at
Much of this source material is openly hostile to the idea of reverence and worship. For an example, take a look at the recent Avengers film. Loki demands that Stuttgart bow before him. Cowed by fear, many bystanders kneel: the heroic old man who refuses alludes to a certain 20th century tyrant. Later somebody calls Thor a god, leading Captain America to reply "There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure He doesn't dress like that." The climactic scene comes when Loki declares to Hulk "I am a god, you dull creature!" After beating the stuffing out of his opponent, the Hulk sneeringly declares "puny god." (Eric Scott has a great take on this at Killing the Buddha). Similar strains of thought pervade most comics. By demanding worship, comic book gods prove themselves unworthy of receiving it. Their schemes of cosmic domination will inevitably be foiled and they will be reduced to figures of fun.

In this theology the good gods protect Earth with no thought of recompense and only the maddest and most evil of villains demand respect. In this theology personal relationships with your superfriends are the norm: who needs a deity when you can have a drinking buddy? With the advent of fanfic and role playing, it's perfectly acceptable to throw yourself smack into the middle of long-running interdimensional conflicts.  And should things get too challenging you can declare yourself "over" the series and go on to a new fictional universe.  You can discard Kali and take up Kwan Yin the way you might (and should) discard Twilight in favor of Bram Stoker. Given all this, can we be surprised that newcomers have a hard time distinguishing between revelation and fan fiction and between mystical experiences and Mary Sue stories?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Possession, Safety, Law, Mental Illness and Mass Murder: More on the Spirituality of Spree Killing

Kudos are in order to Elizabeth Vongvisith and Del Tashlin for writing excellent blog entries which inspired me to finish this one.  Before parenthood intervened, I wanted to respond to a (now weeks-old) Wild Hunt post on James Holmes and the "demonic possession" narrative wherein Jason Pitzl-Waters stated:
The truth has always been that humanity needs no external spiritual help to do gross and inhumane things to one another, for reasons that can seem as opaque as this current case. We should collective reject any attempt to place a demonic possession narrative, especially a Catholic possession narrative, on these killings and instead focus on practical prevention and using our faith(s) to comfort those affected. Anything else is cynical, self-serving, and unneeded.
Jason rightly castigates the Catholic exorcist for his facile treatment of the issue.  Explaining away atrocity with a pat "the devil made him do it" is intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying: using atrocity to poke jabs at Harry Potter and Tarot cards is just gauche.  But I wonder if we might use possession not as a conversation-stopper but as a topic for further discussion and exploration.

I should note that I am not making any kind of pronouncements on James Holmes' mental or spiritual state.  As my wife Kathy Latzoni (Mambo Zetwal Kleye) pointed out, diagnosing possession on the internet is like trying to diagnose schizophrenia based on a few newspaper articles.   I have not been hired as a spiritual counselor by the prosecution or the defense and I have no way of knowing what spiritual forces, if any, drove Holmes to his terrible act.

But as one of the two people who wrote the book (OK, a book) on possession,  and as a hard polytheist who believes that the spirit world is a diverse and densely populated place, I cannot dismiss the possibility of violent possession out of hand. There is certainly precedent in folkloric and scholarly sources. The Malay "running amok" comes to mind immediately: two mediums and a spirit named Lakwena have instigated decades of bloody, brutal and ongoing civil war in Uganda. If we are open to the idea that spirits can give us good and useful advice we should also consider the possibility that they can lead us into madness, perversity and even murder.

Possession would not exonerate Holmes from the consequences of his actions. Alcoholics have a harder time saying "no" to a drink than someone with ethanol-tolerant genetics. But their disease does not provide a Get Out of Jail Free card when they get into drunken fights or get pulled over for driving under the influence. As Del (who, like yrs. truly, has first-hand experience both with possession and mental illness) says on his blog:
In fact, I take is as a moral imperative that I never excuse behavior that my body does, or words that my mouth utters, by passing the blame onto the Deity in question, even if that’s really what happened. I feel strongly that I am the gatekeeper here – I gave the Deity in question permission to use my body, I am the one who negotiated limits and boundaries, and if the Deity does something hurtful, or even worse, illegal, while wearing my skin, it’s ultimately me who has to pay the piper. I mean, would you actually consider telling a police officer, “Sorry I was running naked with a knife dripping in blood, but it wasn’t me, Sir. It was Kali Ma, who had possessed my body”? I didn’t think so.
The vast majority of possession experiences require planning and an ongoing relationship with the spirit who hopes to ride the horse. Even most cases of "involuntary" possession begin with someone opening a door -- using a Ouija board,  moving into a haunted house, etc. -- and then engaging with what they find on the other side. The spirits may use lies, promises and even threats to gain further access to the individual, but the individual must grant them that access.  (There are occasional truly involuntary possessions, but they tend to occur as mass movements.  The Klikushestvo  or "Shriekers" of imperial Russia and the Tarantella Pizzica of southern Italy are examples of this sort of mass hysteria.  Even here an academic might point out how these arose out of intense social pressures and fractures: a spirit-worker might note that people who are worn down by outside events are just as vulnerable to spirit infestation as to bacterial contagion).

African traditional religions take pains to purify the area before a ceremony and spend a great deal of time and energy on cleansing spaces and people. This is because they recognize the spirit world has some dark and dangerous corners. They understand that there are entities out there which do not have our best interests at heart: they work not for the highest and greatest good but for their own ends.  Not infrequently those ends involve wreaking havoc in the lives of those on this side of the veil.  And just as human sex predators and con artists prey on the vulnerable, these predators are wont to prey on those whose psyches are already fractured.

There's a tendency among many to frame mental illness and spirit possession as either/or.  In practice the lines are rarely so clear-cut.  One well-known Shamanic death/rebirth experience involves treading on the Madness Road -- an intense ego-disintegration and psychic meltdown which resembles garden-variety schizophrenia.  Those who have come back from this path (like yrs. truly) generally come away from the experience with some scars: almost 20 years after my meltdown I still have to keep constant guard lest The Crazy slip in again.  Certain psychological disorders can cause a heightened sensitivity to the spirit world, although they also produce difficulties in distinguishing between signal and noise.  And just as there are mental illnesses which can mimic possession, one can easily write off someone who is spirit-infested as "mentally ill" -- especially when you don't believe in a spirit realm and think that all religious expressions are psychopathologies.

In the Aurora case, we have evidence that Holmes plotted this attack for months. This is not the act of an automaton spontaneously possessed by a devil. If there was spiritual involvement in this, it was a collaborative effort.  Holmes was either the driving force or, at best. a willing participant seduced by something which took advantage of a disaffected, angry loner.  He may very well have planned the entire atrocity on his own. As Jason pointed out, humans are capable of doing all kinds of shitty things to each other without anybody egging them on.  Even if there were spiritual entities involved the evidence at present suggests he was a willing participant in their conspiracy, not a helpless pawn driven to slaughter against his will.

Were we to consider possession or spiritual infestation in a courtroom setting, it's likely that we would apply some variant of the M'Naghten Rule. According to Queen v. M'Naghten (1843) an insanity defense applies if and only if
at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.
By that standard, and given the evidence to date, it appears again that Holmes would be held liable for his actions.  And given that no remotely competent defense lawyer would mount a "possessed by the Joker" defense in this case for any number of reasons, it's most unlikely that this line of reasoning will ever be anything but speculative.

Yet amidst all these speculations I would raise this important point: the spirit world can be a dangerous place.  Murderous entities may be more common than we think. Richard Ramirez and his allegiance to Satan, Kenneth Bianchi's multiple personalities, the "Ugly Spirit" that William S. Burroughs blamed for Joan Volmer's shooting -- there are many thought-provoking examples that might or might not involve the spirit world.  There are many more examples which appear in myths and legends from various cultures and eras.  The idea that the gods are entirely benevolent and the spirit world is a harmless place is of very recent vintage.  For most of human history we have greeted the other realms with caution and trepidation: we assumed that it contained wisdom which could strengthen us but also poisons which could corrupt us.

If we are going to work with advanced techniques like possession, it behooves us to acknowledge this danger. We need to understand the difference between aspecting and full-on trance possession. We also need to realize that when we open ourselves up to shadowing or aspecting we give the entity in question a toehold into our Being, one which a malevolent spirit can use to our detriment.  There are a reason for the various ritual protections we see in trance-possession cultures. When working with those practices, we make alterations and take short cuts at our own peril.  Your new spirit companion might not urge you to shoot up a crowded theater: it's likely smart enough to know that you wouldn't be amenable to such suggestions.  But that doesn't mean that it can't cause all sorts of other difficulties for you and those around you.