What it means to claim religion

I sent The Allergic Pagan’s blog post to my husband, because I felt like it touched on a part of how I see myself as a pagan. As far as the tri-coloured triangle rubric he references, from Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest, I feel like I fall somewhere between the blue and the yellow (greenish – how appropriate). As I’ve said before (perhaps on another blog), Emma Restall Orr’s description of deity resonated very deeply with me – that the “gods” are forces of nature, unconcerned with the goings-on of humans, and capable of bulldozing through all sorts of ritually set plans with “how the world actually works”.

As I have definitely mentioned before on this blog, I see a lot of the ritual work that seemingly happens in paganism/witchcraft/etc. to be largely psychological workings, which probably comes from my exposure to Nancy B. Watson’s Practical Solitary Magic.

He texted me back amazed after reading it. Although this is something that we talk about quite often, he thought that The Allergic Pagan’s post was mind blowing – that people assume paganism is even attached to theism. Which is the gist of the beginning of the post – the blogger was challenged by another blogger as to why he claims to be a pagan if he’s essentially an atheist and humanist.

Which I think brings up an interesting point. When someone says that they are Catholic, is it assumed that they believe in God, take communion and go to church? Or can we safely assume that they, too, forgo ritual and prayer, and just live culturally as a Christian, observing Easter, Christmas, and maybe Lent?  Why would they bother identifying as Catholic?  I would suggest that most Christians that one knows mainly live culturally as Christian and perhaps say a prayer from time to time. They make sure they baptize their children, because it’s a ritual of life. But they may not go to church every Sunday, until the kids need to go through their confirmations and first communions. I know at least one Muslim friend who observes Ramadan mainly because it’s his culture, not because it’s his belief. He doesn’t eat pork because he had a bad experience with it once as a kid, not because he doesn’t believe he should. I have some Jewish friends who, although the husband is an atheist and the wife is fairly agnostic about the whole thing, have taken their children through the Jewish rituals of life because their family is Jewish. However, they all, even the grandparents, enjoy a slice of bacon or ham. Which they serve at their Hanukkah party.

I’ll admit that there are pagan holidays I observe more consistently than others. Imbolc, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Samhain, Winter Solstice usually get at least a candle lit, a happy salutation to the sun or darkness, some introspection, maybe a salt water cleansing of the house. Samhain is the one where I’m mostly likely to do an actual ritual, for various reasons. Winter Solstice sees me turning my handmade mini-Yule-tree topper from the moon face to the sun face. I’ll even hang a piece of red cloth somewhere outside overnight for the goddess Brigid to bless on her walk across the face of the Earth on Imbolc. Lughnasadh, despite me finding an affinity with Lugh after all this time, doesn’t get much notice (except perhaps an instinctual desire to preserve fresh food for winter). Spring Equinox is noticed but I’m often slogging through gray slush and gray skies, so it doesn’t resonate except to raise hope that it will only be another month of slush instead of a month and a half – spring is coming…? And Fall Equinox is usually also busy so it’s a passing “Oh yeah, autumn is here” thought, and probably the creation of a big vat of hearty, tomatoey vegetable soup with some fresh homemade bread.

Which is sort of what I’m alluding to – I live culturally as a pagan, with some Christian cultural stuff thrown in too. I grew up as a cultural Christian before I found that paganism resonated much more with who I was. My family is still culturally Christian and they want to have the big family gathering at Christmastime (on Christmas Day, if possible).

When I am outside, I’m paying attention to nature around me. I’m saying hi to the birds and animals. I’m greeting and thanking the trees that I sit under, sharing a bit of water with their roots, and maybe even leaving a bite of my apple or a few almonds. I’m admiring the sky, the moon, the stars, the thunderstorm raging. I feel the powerful wind lift me. I escort spiders out of my house gently, so that they can continue their complex and important lives safely. I don’t expect Manannan to show up personally to say hi.

So, what does it mean to claim a religion? Does it mean your culture? Your active beliefs? And why do you want to claim a title at all? It makes it easier to categorize, I suppose. I’m a pagan, he’s an atheist, she’s a Catholic. But unless the other person is curious, is it really likely that it will make a person understand who you are? Are you likely to get as a response, “Are you like, Catholic Catholic, or just raised Catholic?” Or you can get all Starbucks-order-y on them and say that you’re a semi-practicing, solitary, atheistic but polytheistic humanist animist Celtic eco-Neo-pagan (no whip). That will generate conversation (or maybe not as it might be intimidating or seem pretentious).

As church attendance dwindles, I don’t see it as a bad thing. I think society is working this out organically. Living as a cultural Christian or cultural pagan doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to say that you’re a Christian or a pagan. Why should someone have to say that they BELIEVE!! to be able to use a word in the English language to describe, briefly, where their beliefs/cultural structures come from? Hell, you might even like Jesus as an archetype to inspire you, and pray to him from time to time. When I’m finishing my morning yoga practices, I practice gratitude towards my deity figures who may or may not actually exist as gods per se.

But when the majority of people around you are operating under the same principle, why is it weird that pagans have to be different than anyone else? There are a variety of pagan types out there (including the tri-colour triangle example above). The “too-busy-to-have-a-big-elaborate-ritual” types are out there too.

A Book Review – Christopher Hitchens – god is not Great

This has been a long time in coming, both in terms of activity on this blog and in finishing and posting this review itself.

I picked up Christopher Hitchens’ book “god is not Great” quite some time ago.  Its bright yellow cover bound and determined to call attention to it no matter how little of the book was visible on the shelf.  From the blurbs on the back of the book, I was expecting somewhat of a well argued thesis on, well, “How religion poisons everything.”

First off, I am sorry that I did not get my book review done before Mr. Hitchens died.  I had a hard time finishing it, because I couldn’t continue reading it.  It was bothering me immensely, and I had to make one last push to finish the final 33 pages in order to honestly complete this review. Tomorrow, I will donate it to the library or leave it somewhere. To allow some other seeker to read it and make their own decisions on it.  Sorry for the spoiler alert, but I disliked this book.

Aside from my personal issues with the writing style he used, which to me sounded condescending and insulting, my primary problem with the book is that he does not argue his thesis statement at all.

His thesis statement is “god is not great, religion poisons everything”.  At least, that is what I understood from the introduction to the book.

He covers a lot of the expected ground for a book with this sort of thesis, which can be summed up by the chapter titles:

Chapter 2 – Religion Kills
Chapter 3 – A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham
Chapter 4 – A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous
Chapter 5 – The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

And so on…

Unfortunately, page after page, chapter after chapter, Hitchens utterly fails to show that it is *religion* which is poisoning everything.  Each argument he makes can be easily summed up in one phrase:

“Humans suck.”

To perhaps put a finer point on it:

“Humans use religion to control, suppress, justify, mutilate, oppress, and kill other humans and destroy other things too.”

But notice, religion isn’t what is poisoning everything.  It is those particular peoples’ use of religion, like any other system that can be bent to someone’s will, that he is holding up as an example of how religion is terrible.

One could argue the same thesis using any other system that humans have come up with.

“Democracy poisons everything”
“Fascism poisons everything”
“Capitalism poisons everything”
“Environmentalism poisons everything”

Each one of these examples can hold that same roster of arguments.  Hitchens isn’t critiquing the system, in this case religion.  He is critiquing how people use it.  He is undermining his own premise, but ignoring that he is undermining it.  Perhaps I’m ignoring his equation of the religion to the practitioner, but as I state in my premise, I think that he should have been more clear in his thesis statement if he was really critiquing the religious people rather than the religious system the people operate in.

Now let’s look at some of his premises – I’m not saying that I disagree with them all.  Some of his arguments are compelling, and his statements seem insightful.

“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” (page 4)

From a completely scientific standpoint, the creation story is not supported at all.  But put it into context – the creation story is how man at that time explained how everything came to be.  Religion was humanity’s science at one point.  Now, science is humanity’s science.

As far as combining the maximum of servility with solipsism, well, I feel like he’s basically saying that following a religion makes you a slave in your own mind, because you internalize something that is not externally provable. It is often an argument that faith is a matter of faith, that it does not require proof.  By definition that does enter into solipsism territory.  And certain religions do encourage service, meekness and humility as virtues, which could result in slavish-type behaviour.

That religion is the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression.  There are ample examples of religion causing and enforcing sexual repression, such as his examples later of the edict told to so many Christian children that masturbation will make you go blind, etc.  Frankly, that is again an attitude from those who are using the religion, and not necessarily an edict from the source material itself.  And as far as being a result of sexual repression… Perhaps a case of “If I can’t have it, neither can you and I will become the best religious enforcer of purity”?  I find that assertion a bit more tenuous.

Finally, religion is grounded on wish-thinking.  The language in this assertion is unfortunately a bit childish, and this begins his use of language to belittle the religious folk.  This doesn’t set us up for a rational discussion, this is belittling and dismissive.

But there are other, more incisive statements:

“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” (page 56)

Indeed, I cannot argue with Hitchens on this laundry list of sins because I myself have made many of these arguments. Many evils have been perpetuated in the name of religion – by the people using religion as their tool. Even in a section running from p.158-160, where he outlines how a young boy was turned into an evangelical superstar, and later revealed how it works, he still is just showing how people can use religion and the mythology of religion as their tool for whatever end they have in mind. That still does not prove the thesis that religion is evil.

One of my main issues with Mr. Hitchens’ writing is his use of language, as I mentioned before. So much of it contains a sneer.

“…his yokel creationist fans…” (p. 85)
“Even supposing this version of events to be correct…” (p.131)
“But given infinite power, one might have thought that a more striking or less simpleminded miracle could have been confected.” (p.141)
“…two equally stupid schools or factions…” (p. 162)
“Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” (p.267)

(That final line was being an apologist for some early atheists’ interest in clearly irrational pursuits such as Freemasonry and alchemy.)

I’ll end with this note – it is a book worth reading. Even though I disagree with how he presents it, Hitchens has undertaken some great research, some good story telling, and reports interesting findings. However, he does not prove his thesis that it is religion that is the problem. Rather, he shows that is it people and their ability to use a religious system to inflict harm and oppression on others which is the problem.

Hitchens is an atheist, and like many I have come across, takes a very superior attitude over people with religious or spiritual beliefs. I would have found the book to be far more convincing and compelling if he had minimized that attitude, and written in a convincing way rather than a belittling way.

Reblogging – Wise Words

Once again, a long silent spell. So sorry. I really am interested in writing here. I just haven’t had words lately.

I was going through my blog roll and read a long and wise post about skepticism and doing one’s homework when it comes to choosing teachers.  This is true in pagan circles (as she points out) as well as other circles.  There are many people who are cults of personality just waiting for someone to fall for their story hook, line and sinker.

So take a read of Sarah Anne Lawless’s post.  It’s a good reminder that we must maintain a healthy dose of critical thinking when we are choosing teachers.


On prayer

Morrigan, show me strength so I may model strength;
Mannanan, show me fluidity so I may model fluidity;
Brighid, show me creativity and practicality so I may model both.

I was praying to my gods while on the bus, on the way to work this week.  I was not looking forward to my day and thought that perhaps a quick prayer to the gods would help.  Perhaps it would remind me of the traits that I know I need.  Perhaps it would bring the thought of my gods to the front of my mind so that I could more mindfully enter my workplace and do the work that I am expected to do with the skills I know I have, but that sometimes get buried under all the associated junk of peoples’ emotional baggage and stress.

But as I was sitting there, looking out the window, crafting the prayer in my mind, I was struck by something.  The way that I could pray and the way that I was intentionally crafting my prayer was different.

I could have prayed in this way:

Morrigan, give me strength so that I can make it through my day;
Mannanan, give me fluidity so I can pass over my problems;
Brighid, give me creativity and practicality so that I can apply both to my issues.

You see how that is different than the  prayer above?  Not only is it more negative, focusing on the problems and what I need help for, but it also externalizes all the good qualities as something I inherently need.  It makes it seem like if I don’t get the results of my prayer, then the gods weren’t listening, or they have some mysterious reason for not fulfilling my request.  It’s like a test.

And that’s not how one should be approaching this.  At least, not in my spirituality. The gods aren’t like Santa.  You don’t send them your wish list and hope to get the shiny new bike under the tree at the predetermined time.  The gods are inspiration.  They guide us by being the example.

In my final version, I am asking for examples of what strength, fluidity, creativity and practicality look like, so that I can emulate it.  It’s asking for my ability to build that in myself.  I’m not assuming that I can’t do it.  In fact, even my prayer is flawed in that I am not sparking it in myself, but sometimes one needs to look to their archtypes for help.  Sometimes, that’s why we’re praying because we can’t see it in ourselves, and we need the reminder of what it looks like to be able to find it.

I wrote an interesting prayer poem years ago that I recently unearthed in a quick cleaning of one of my boxes of papers.  In it, I do ask for Strength, Wisdom, Prosperity, Courage and Favours, but the Goddess doesn’t give me any of them.  She gives me Difficulties, Problems, Brains and Brawn, Danger and Opportunities.  Thus She requires me to build these things within myself.

Praying for a deity to give you something easily is a cop-out.  It externalizes the help and the blame.  It absolves you of the responsibility to do it for yourself, and allows you to continue to blame outside forces for you not achieving, not getting what you want, not having a happy life, not marrying the guy of your dreams, not loving your job, not having that baby.  It allows you to continue to be a victim of circumstance and it prevents you from growing to deal with these problems.  If you pass all your problems on to God to handle, you don’t learn how to handle them yourself.

And so, why not pray to whatever deity you wish to help you grow, help you to build skills, build strength, develop the abilities to deal with your own problems, to chase your own dreams, to live your own life? Why not remind yourself of the example and emulate it, rather than making a wish list and hoping to receive it someday. Pray actively. Live actively.

(Originally posted on December 4, 2012)

Let there be reason

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – post made by an old friend to his diocese on Facebook, from facebook.com/StopPlayingChurch

(The sidebar notes “We acknowledge that this is a general statement and that there are not statistics to back up this claim.  However, we hear this a lot from our atheist members.  It is our hope that we can begin to change this perception – or at least begin the conversation. […]  By Christians Tired of being Misrepresented”)

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this afternoon and stumbled upon this post by an old friend.  He was not someone I would have pegged to become a priest, but he did.  He actually gave me one of the most interesting explanations of anyone I’ve known to the question of “Why did you choose this job?” Although I suppose in his case it’s more of a vocation.

Anyway, I read the little picture and thought little about it.  But then I actually did think about it, and it struck me as not a valid logical statement.

I would suggest that very few true atheists are atheist because of one or even many Christians’ hypocrisy.  In fact, I suggest that other people have very little to do with someone’s loss of a concept of deity in the world.  At least, not in that way.

If anything would happen through the observation of hypocrisy, I think it would be the leaving of a church or community, distancing oneself from that group of people who are silently accepting that hypocrisy and perpetuating it.  I find it difficult to believe that someone would up and say, “Oh, Martha is an embezzling, gambling gossip and unChristian – that’s it, I’m giving up on God if He can allow a woman like that not to immediately burn in Hell for her behaviour.”  One could consider that kind of a reaction a bit much, and potentially the person wasn’t all that attached to their Christianity anyway.  But the real measured response would be to leave that group and seek out a community of more like-minded spiritual folks who one could agree with.

The next step is potentially to become agnostic.  This is far more likely to occur in observing the hypocrisy of religious types resulting in some suffering or racism/sexism/etc., or potentially due to watching the news and seeing all the horrible things going on in the world, or personally suffering some great loss or calamity.  It sparks questioning, soul-searching, anger against the deity in question.  How could a God that is supposed to be all about love allow so much suffering in his children?  How can His plan involve the murder of innocents, of loved ones, of the millions of people who die through disease and famine?  Even the most steadfast in their faith must question when something bad happens.  When, say, a priest is found to have assaulted some children, and the church covers it up.  That’s when one could drift not just from the bosom of Mother Church, but from the teachings themselves.  Something doesn’t add up, they say.  I believe there must be something, but I don’t know that it can be what is described in this book.  Or if they just find an essential schism in the philosophy that develops over time, with experience.  They still retain a vague concept of deity, but they don’t identify with the Christian teachings any more (or insert any other religion here – I’m simply using Christian as an example because it was the premise of this discussion).

The final step to true atheism comes from inside a person.  Atheism is no belief in any form of deity.  None.  There is the Earth, revolving around the Sun, in a manner that can be described by astrophysicists.  There is life continuing due to oxygen inhalation, food consumption, blood pumping and neurons firing.  And then, when these processes cease, there is nothing.  Nothing mystical, no continuation of the soul (or ego), no ghosts, no spirits, no angels, no Heaven, no Judgment, no Hell.  This sort of a change in mindset from Christian has to happen because the person themselves loses or divests themselves of the belief in deity.  Somehow they have reached a point where they do not need to believe in a deity, in some guiding force, in order to be able to make sense of the world.  This is kind of a big deal, as far as someone’s personal philosophy is concerned.  And to belittle it by saying that it comes about because someone observed Christians being hypocritical?  Give me a break.

Also, by assuming that someone divests themselves of a concept of deity due to the observation of hypocrisy, one infers that they can regain it by observing good Christian behaviour.  And not just regain their belief in deity, but regain their belief in the “One True God”, the Commandments and all that.  And frankly, that’s just insulting.  And a little egotistical on the Christians’ behalf.  Sure, the atheist could be fantastically impressed by someone living by the Christian virtues vaunted in the Bible.  But I find it hard to believe that a real atheist, not just someone professing a lack of belief in God because they are currently in a fight with God (hint – if they’re in a fight with God, they still believe that there’s a God to have a fight with), would do anything but applaud someone for being a decent human being and looking out for their fellow human.

So, you know how I would change the statement that began this post?  Like this:

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is people thinking critically about their religious beliefs and finding that they do not measure up to how they observe the world to work.  It’s not the hypocrisy, and it’s not the community of the church or the management of the church.  It comes from within the people themselves, and they will be hard-pressed to return to an unquestioning or even a questioning belief simply because you’re a better Christian.  And frankly, that’s a terrible reason for someone to practice their religion better anyway.

And that is what a believer simply finds unbelievable.

(originally posted August 13, 2012)


In the next couple of posts, I’ll deconstruct some of the ideas that I introduced in my previous post.  The first one I’d like to attempt to tackle is the flakiness idea.

Imagine, for a moment:

She looked up from where she was kneeling, eyes falling on the carven image of the man hanging from the cross.  His expression is one of pain but peace.  She prayed in his name – asking for help, for guidance, for some way of knowing the right thing to do.  She left the church feeling peaceful – perhaps not knowing exactly what she needed to do, but feeling that she could try.

A simple story of communing with one’s God.  Seemingly acceptable – one prays for guidance, for help.

Imagine again:

She looked up from where she was sitting on the cold stone.  The vast expanse of the sky shining above her with millions of stars and the darkness in between.  She whispered her call to the night and flicked the lighter to illuminate and then ignite her message, sending its essence into the air through the smoke and destruction of the paper which bound it.  She bowed her head and touched her fingertips to the middle of her forehead in a salute and then lifted her eyes to the sky once more.  Her intention sent out to the universe, she poured an offering of whisky out onto the ground before returning to her home, prepared to work on her intention.

The unfortunate part of my spirituality is that I often feel awkward trying to explain it in terms that won’t bring up the potential flakiness issue.  This is the power of language.  The difference between a prayer and an intention, for example.  Consider asking God versus asking the universe, or the life-force, etc for help.  Even the actions speak volumes – the difference between praying with hands clasped and sitting in a field, on a rock, looking up at the sky and burning a scrap of paper which has an intention written on it.

The strength of the language and the meaning of the words will cause certain reactions.  Even amongst the extended pagan tribe there is judgment against ‘fluffy bunny’ by the more ‘serious’, against the ‘fashionable’ by the ‘down-to-earth’.  It’s all very reminiscent of any other human interaction.  Someone, for whatever reason, believes that they are superior/are following the ‘right’ way, and those who don’t seem as studious/serious/ get-down-in-the-dirt-and-muck-about enough are judged.  And I don’t want to come off as anti-judgment.  Clearly if we weren’t critically thinking people then anything would be acceptable, nothing would be wrong and there would be a raft of other issues to deal with.  Yes, we need to apply critical thinking.

However, when it comes down to a ‘more pagan than thou’ argument, or a judgment about someone’s dearly held beliefs because what you hear makes you want to change them, correct them or cure them, then we have a problem.  Because that isn’t dialogue, that’s judgment and a ceasing of listening.  To be able to converse, we first must be brave enough to listen and set aside our little internal judges.

I stumble because I have an internal censor sitting right beside my internal judge as well.  In addition to the concern that my explanation be well-received because of the word-usage, I have to dance through my own mental minefield.  I will judge myself as I use words, second-guessing the way I’m explaining something and wondering whether a certain term will set off someone’s internal judge.  So I try to be careful with my language.

For example, a good friend of mine once asked me how my beliefs interacted with my scientific background.  It’s a fair question, and one that I think most scientists receive regardless of their spirituality.  He was interested in the beginning-of-life question.  I thought about it for a moment, and said something along these lines:

My spirituality does not really impact my perspective of the beginning of ‘life’ on Earth.  To me, evolution explains how life developed to the present day.  The energy around life just is – it is a network.  I don’t really have a Creation story.  That’s the Big Bang and evolution story.  My gods and whatnot exist within it fairly happily because I don’t need them to have Created the world.”

He was intrigued by my answer.  I should say that he and I share a similar spirituality, so speaking of ‘energies’ with him didn’t necessarily frighten me, as I figured he would know or guess close enough to my meaning (depending on what ‘energy’ means to him.)

In trying to explain my beliefs to a non-pagan friend, I stumbled more because I was describing my concept of the gods as forces of nature, and feeling no need to worship, per se, but perhaps appreciate and respect being better descriptors of the veneration aspect.  Mainly because I have a feeling that worship doesn’t matter as much to forces of nature – why would a force of nature be concerned with the adoration of a human?  (This concept was first introduced to me when I was reading a book by Emma Restall Orr and I had an “ah-ha!” moment.)  My friend was able to relate to the idea of worship not being strictly necessary because why would a god/God care?

I also attempted to explain why I felt that it was  important to have female deities within my pantheon.  Firstly, I am a woman so I can relate to a female archetype.  Secondly, to encompass the natural generative force, or more simply, because females give birth and it makes sense to me that they have a hand in the constantly renewing world.  But here comes the internal censor and judge saying, “But gods don’t need to give birth actually, right?” to which I reply, “All is symbol anyway.”  In addition, the archetypes that these goddesses stand for resonate with me.  “Isn’t that cherry picking?”  Not at all, one honours all gods, but can be drawn to certain ones because of what they stand for.  I know I need to rein in the internal censor.

So where does the flakiness come in?  Is it flaky to believe in unseen energies, forces of nature, or god and goddess archetypes that symbolize important things in one’s life compared to one big-g god who runs the whole thing?  Is it flaky to revere the amazing things that the Earth and nature can produce and do?  To get goosebumps at the sheer force of a thunderstorm or the surging ocean?  Or is it flaky to think that crystals may have different vibrations and energies that can be tapped to create change in one’s life through a spell?  I will address that question in an upcoming post (or two).

I don’t have the answer.  Flakiness is subjective.  But by creating a dialogue to foster understanding of different viewpoints, I think we can go a long way to breaking down the potential judgments on all sides.  An open mind can create more opportunities for learning.

(originally posted April 24, 2010)