A great deal of noise is now being made on campuses and within the Pagan community about a concept which, I shall argue here, perpetuates at a deep level the very problems it is attempting to address. That concept is “cultural appropriation.” more »
The attempted murder of several Congressmen and shooting of one marks another step in the progressive dissolution of the U.S. occurring before our eyes. That the shooter could have been either from the right or the left indicates how close we have come to widespread political violence. more »
In an inexplicably naïve article Brendan Gauthier at Salon argued that Russia was the only country that seemed to want Donald Trump to be president. But rather than asking why this is so, or wondering what Russia might reasonably do to promote that outcome given that it is so, Gauthier simply repeated a conclusion from a NYT article that referred to unnamed FBI sources saying there was no Russian connection to Trump, at a time when the FBI is obviously seriously partisan. The Times did no more to offer reasoning for its conclusions than he did. Perhaps pride at being scooped by Slate and Mother Jones is the explanation for their openness to claims a careful reporter would want backed up.
What’s in it for Russia?
In fact Russia’s interest in Trump makes plenty of sense and does not involve Trump being a knowing conspirator serving Putin. It simply involves Trump being Trump- an exceptionally vain man who responds to flattery and with a fairly well established record of very poor business judgment. Further, what has already been uncovered makes perfect sense. Here’s why and how. However, it requires taking a Russian point of view.
Russia has a vested interest in weakening the US. more »
I was started along this line of thought while reading Kent Nerburn’s powerful, moving, painful and hauntingly beautiful The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. There are many levels to this book, perhaps more even than the author intended, for one that lies within the narrative throughout is the difficulty of people entering into and understanding other cultures from both sides. But for us Pagans it is particularly insightful in its depiction of the profound differences between a deeply Pagan view of life and the modern view. One of the most central of these distinctions is captured in the images of a line and a circle. more »
I have been both fascinated and appalled at how quickly mostly the political right has abandoned reason and evidence in favor of assertion and arrogance in discussing issues. Here is what I think is going on. I published it in Patheos.
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The Trance of Belief: Part I.
Most of the otherwise reasonably competent people we know who are global warming deniers will say science is a great force for good, but in this case scientists are in thrall to those seeking to enlarge government’s power over us. Most deniers are sincere in saying this. They are blind to the irrationality they demonstrate. Let me demonstrate this with an analogy.
A friend tells you worrisome symptoms you are showing indicate you might have something serious. You visit a physician and he explains you are seriously sick and need an operation. Not wanting an operation, you seek a second opinion, and see another doctor. She also tells you to get an operation. Desperate and fearful, you visit 8 more physicians. Seven echo the first two’s recommendations. However the tenth tells you the science is still out on interpreting those symptoms, and you might have nothing to worry about.
Does a reasonable person give the 10th opinion more weight than the other 9? Especially if the symptoms continue to increase?
The deniers’ logic supports arguing the 9 physicians advising an operation have bad motives. They are doing it for the money. But their claims are stranger than this. Atmospheric scientists distort their scientific work for the money but oil and coal corporations with billions at stake fund deniers from concern for the public good.
The complete irrationality is obvious to any sane person not in a trance.
And that is a clue I think to what has happened.
Some stage magicians are well known for their ability to put people in trance, where they subsequently act in ways they normally wouldn’t and see things that are not there. They can even do this in front of large numbers of people. Not every one is equally susceptible, but as the video demonstrates, many who are not even the magician’s targets are impacted.
Hypnosis is resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted as true. The person’s attention is removed from normal awareness, and encouraged to passively accept what it is told as true. As such hypnosis shares much in common with socialization.
When we are socialized into our culture we initially accept much as unquestioned and often we do so without even knowing we are. In a sense we are hypnotized to see the world a certain way. Unlike hypnotism, our early socialization does not have to override much, the message is usually less focused than the stage magician’s demonstrations, and importantly, societies contain enough contradictions that when we notice one we begin being able to make a space of freedom for ourselves.
The more the socialization consistently conforms to a specific message, the harder it is to free oneself from it. As a saying attributed to the Jesuits goes “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Particularly if the child accepts a worldview carrying powerful emotional energy, it is very difficult for that child to outgrow it later in life.
I want to suggest many global warming deniers are in a hypnotic trance. And that the issue goes well beyond denying the scientific consensus for no good reason.
Of tools and ideas
We usually think of our ideas as ways in which we try and understand our world. They are our tools.
But ideas are more than tools.
A tool can shape our perceptions, like the old adage when the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. But if a better hammer comes to our attention, or maybe a screw driver, we generally quickly exchange the first for the second if it will work better for us. We do not identify ourselves with our tools. With few exceptions they are simply our instruments, and that is why they are valuable to us. I have a hammer, but I am not a hammer. It makes no sense to say I am loyal to my hammer. But my meaning is clear when I say I am loyal to an idea or when I am a “conservative,” “liberal,” “Pagan,” or “Christian.” We identify with an idea, but not with our tools.
There is something subtle but important going on here.
Ideas are fueled by mental energy, and any Witch or other Pagan with much training in these matters knows mental energy plus intent is at the core of magick. Somehow focused mental energy interacts with more subtle realms to bring our normal experience into greater harmony with what our working sought to accomplish. Such workings take on added power when a coven or other small group adds several minds and more mental energy to the project.
If you have followed me this far the rest shakes out in a pretty straightforward fashion.
When we adopt an idea we can either regard it as the best approximation we have so far for understanding something, which keeps it our tool, or we put mental and emotional energy into it, particularly when we identify ourselves with it. The more emphatically we do this the more that idea has a “hold” on us and the more firmly we become attached to it. We enter into a trance.
Trance is a important term most of us don’t know much about. Trance is often defined as focus or immersion in a dissociated plane where at least some normal cognitive functions, such as reason or volition, are temporarily disabled. It is usually thought of as a negative state, which is not my meaning. For example, we are in a trance when we are so deeply immersed in doing art that the outside world disappears or becomes negligible. But whatever the trance, it separates us for a time from our immersion in normal consensus reality. In a hypnotic trance we are subject to the idea implanted in us by the hypnotist. As that Youtube video demonstrated, that idea shapes our perceptions to fit its message.
When we begun to identify with an idea we begin to perform a kind of magickal working, but unintentionally and on ourselves. We are subject to the idea rather than the idea being subject to us. We are its tool, it is not ours.
When we become the tool of an idea our capacities are devoted to defending the idea, and when the idea is seriously challenged, or even exposed to the possibility of a serious challenge, the mind turns off. Some excuse is always given. The subject is changed, the point raised is ignored, or the person making the challenging point is criticized rather than the point refuted. Whatever the excuse, it always means the idea will not be exposed to a serious challenge.
Ideologues, whatever their views, are people in a trance. This is why evidence and rational arguments make so little headway in discussions with them. I am not saying all ideologies are the same in content, only that they are the same in how they shape their adherents’ stand towards them. In all these cases the person has become the idea’s tool for manifesting rather than the idea becoming the person’s tool for understanding.
When we adopt an ideology and identify with it we voluntarily enter into a hypnotic trance where our mental energy goes to feed the idea rather than the idea serving us. The world looks different to us than it did before. Like a hypnotized person we do not see arguments against our position and interpret our experience to fit what our ideology says is the case. Facts appear unimportant or somehow distorted. If a moral failing is pointed out the answer is either to deny it or claim the other side does it too.
Consider Dennis Hastert, once a powerful Speaker of the House and third in line for the Presidency. Hastert is now known to have sexually abused some of his male students. When one later blackmailed him, Hastert violated banking laws when he paid him $900,000. Now that Hastert has pleaded guilty to all this, prominent right wing supporters are writing letters to the judge asking for leniency.
Reportedly none actually discuss what Hastert did both long ago and recently, but instead seek to change the subject. For example, Tom Delay, himself a former Speaker, wrote
I have observed him in many different and difficult situations, . . . He has never disappointed me in any way. He is a man of strong faith that guides him. He is a man of great integrity. He loves and respects his fellow man. I have never witnessed a time when he was unkind to anyone. He is always giving to others and helping anyone including me so many times.
DeLay closed saying “We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few. He is a good man that loves the lord. He gets his integrity and values from Him. He doesn’t deserve what he is going through. I ask that you consider the man that is before you and give him leniency where you can,”
The judge was unmoved and gave Hastert 15 months, considerably above the six-months recommended by prosecutors. He said “Nothing is worse than using serial child molester and speaker of the house in the same sentence,”
One could argue DeLay’ss letter was just evidence of his cynicism and hypocrisy. I think it is more interesting than that.
I suspect DeLay did not really see Hastert’s crimes, either the early ones or the later ones. Their moral and legal significance did not penetrate his understanding. That he so often invoked religion and the Lord in his letter tells me this is the hypnotic prism through which DeLay views the world. Hastert is a fellow battler for the Lord. Given the contents of that prism, acting ruthlessly against God’s ‘enemies’ is as legitimate as not really seeing crimes by God’s allies.
Jeff Sharlet has written careful studies of “The Family” a powerful secretive theocratic organization in Washington with many Congressmen and Senators as members. It’s leader is Doug Coe. Sharlet describes how Coe’s son and heir apparent, David, explained what it meant to be a divinely chosen leader
[David Coe] asked a young man who’d put himself, body and soul, under The Family’s authority, “Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think he was a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because as a member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the “new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.
Humanity has always had sociopaths, but when we see a great many people involved in an organization with such views sociopathy alone can not explain it. Trance can. And the term does not apply just to elites. It underlies tribalism, the collective trance people enter into when they feel their society or way of life is attacked.
Most Americans who endorse torture despite the proven fact it does not provide the information it is supposed to. They are blind to the evidence. In debates I have seen on line torture supporters either ignore the evidence or change the subject. They do not analyze it. Ever.
A weapon of control and domination
Our natural susceptibility to trance makes us vulnerable to manipulation. If we accept someone’s framing of an issue, and accept an identity they offer us, and those pushing this message have the resources to immerse us in the message, a bubble of reinforcement arises that continually strengthens the trance. Movements that subordinate truth and reason to the power of an idea continually seek to create walls of distrust between their members and alternative communities and views.
Global warming deniers exist within such a bubble. This is why they are in so many cases impervious to the evidence. Scientists are not mistaken, they are ill-intentioned. Since scientists are clearly not in control of the world, they must be servants of those who are. The spreading of fear or disdain of all outside the deniers’ bubble is essential to maintaining it, and those with plenty of money at stake are happy to fund what it takes.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Spontaneous orders are natural outgrowths of liberal principles and a better understanding of them sheds light on a fateful split between nineteenth-century American and European liberal traditions that remains very relevant today. This essay is my most complete discussion of liberalism, political theory, and spontaneous orders to date.
From The Independent Review, v. 16, no. 2, Fall, 2011, 173-197 Download
On January 23, 2016, I gave this paper as the keynote speaker at the Conference of Current Pagan Studies, in Claremont, California. It was well received and I want to make it available to anyone who is interested.
Social Justice from a Pagan perspective
What is Social Justice?
Writings on social justice comprise a small intellectual industry, and my paper does not pretend to cover even its leading edge. Instead I will give an abstract working definition I think most of you will find reasonable, setting the stage to explore how Pagan religions might add additional insight to this much discussed concept.
Briefly, justice is fairness and social justice is fairness towards all in society. Unfairness is being treated worse than another without an appropriate reason. This is unjust.
Fairness is not simply a subjective construct even if its outer limits are contestable. Fairness emerges from the reality of what it is to be a social being. Non-human social animals have been shown to have a strong sense of fairness, at least when it is they who are treated unfairly. (Bekoff, 2009, 127-8) We have no trouble understanding why they reacted as they did. If there is anything unique about the human sense of fairness, it is that it extends beyond where our self-interest and relationships connect, to embrace strangers we have never met, including future generations and those in the past, acknowledging and even trying to address previously unfair situations.
Social justice exists when equal people are treated equally and fairly. In the modern world fairness is linked to equality. All people are considered equal in legal status. On the other hand, as fair rules for games demonstrate, people can be treated fairly and some still do better than others. Among individuals or in society, justice need not include equal outcomes.
Assuming general agreement so far, can a contemporary Pagan perspective shed additional light on what constitutes a more just state of affairs and how to approach it more closely? I believe so. A Pagan perspective illuminates issues often lost within monotheist or secular ones, However any arguments we make must be in universal terms if we expect others to take them seriously. more »
A couple of days ago I received an email from a Pagan list connecting to a “New Paradigm” conference where prominent speakers would be libertarians mixing a dose of conspiracy theory, libertarian boilerplate, and New Age rhetoric into a supposed ‘New Paradigm” for a new world. I warned the list’s members not to be taken in and some were appreciative. But given they have re-emerged into my awareness, I think it is fitting that I repost a slightly edited version of a write up I put on a local list after I heard Foster and Kimberly Gamble at an increasingly surreal presentation they gave at the Institute for Noetic Sciences last year.
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An Evening with the Gambles
Foster and Kimberly Gamble are the producers of the well known New Age movie “Thrive.” On Thursday, March 6 they gave a presentation to a packed audience at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in the hills south of Petaluma. I decided to attend although I had long been a strong critic of the movie’s libertarian vision of what a thriving world would be like. Like so many ideologies, libertarianism promises infinitely more than it can deliver. I had been assured by the gathering’s organizer that I would have an opportunity to ask questions and enter into dialogue, and it seemed a worthwhile thing to do. I even took a copy of my new book Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, to give to the Gambles. more »
With small changes this article appeared in The Interfaith Observer.
Can indigenous peoples not practice indigenous religions? What if a non-indigenous person claims to practice their religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? What if they claim they are reconstructing one that died out? What does “indigenous” actually mean and how doe sit relate to both people and religion? While I will offer some general suggestions of my own, the most important part of this essay explains why these apparently simple questions are so complicated.
Even in its initial sense of referring to a people, indigenous has been used in many different contexts with sometimes very different shades of meaning. The term “indigenous” contains all the complexities of cultures and peoples that have chosen a particular place to call home, and among them those that either conquered or were conquered by others, and of the conquerors, either colonialists or other peoples closer to home who themselves may themselves have then been conquered. Its many dimensions do not all map onto the same pattern, and are employed by people claiming indigenaity for different reasons. Indigenous spirituality partakes of all this complexity.
Take a simple but telling example, many Native Americans seeking to preserve their language and other traditions are Christians. They are indigenous people by most criteria, but not practicing what anyone would call an indigenous religion. On the other hand, the Native American Church uses indigenous practices in powerful ways, while incorporating Christian elements and spreading into regions where it had been entirely foreign. But many include the NAC among indigenous religions, and its core practices of great antiquity, as among the Huichol people. And then there are some EuroAmericans who also practice within the NAC. Are they practicing indigenous religion?
“Indigenous religion” refers to something most believe important, but where to draw its boundaries is not agreed upon. If we start with “indigenous people” several characteristics repeatedly appear, but sometimes not all are combined.
• Indigenous people are born within a common culture with a strong identifying sense of kinship.
• Indigenous people voluntarily maintain a sense of their cultural distinctiveness, and seek to preserve it.
• Indigenous people have experienced subjugation.
• Indigenous people are a minority in their country.
• Indigenous people occupy ancestral lands.
• Indigenous people share a common ancestry with the place’s original inhabitants.
• Indigenous people share a common language not spoken much outside their community.
• Indigenous people self-identify as indigenous.
Importantly, people most of us would unhesitatingly call “indigenous” will not necessarily share all these traits.
Also importantly, the term has changed its meaning particularly during the twentieth century. Under European colonialism nonEuropean peoples in colonized areas were commonly referred to as indigenous. In post-colonial times the term was generally used to refer to nonEuropean peoples in areas dominated by people of European descent. Later it has expanded to include other marginalized cultural groups.
One thread uniting most indigenous peoples by these definitions is their historical and ancient connection with specific places. But the Roma are arguably an indigenous people by most other criteria, one without such a connection to the land.
At the same time many people commonly referred to as indigenous resist identification from the outside, arguing that their communities are who determines who is or is not a member.
The most obvious meaning of indigenous religion is applied to tribal peoples practicing different religions centered on specific places, at least some of which were held sacred, and are even said to be where a particular people arrived in this world. The paradigmatic example would be the traditional religions of Native Americans. These peoples are considered tribal, and at the time of European contact were often either horticultural or hunting and gathering, practicing religions in harmony with that way of life. Since before European contact none were influenced by Old World religions, it is easy to call their religions “indigenous.”
By extension the term indigenous has been extended to any tribal peoples whose practices are distinct from Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions. At this point the term begins to show its ambiguities. Hindu traditions are most definitely religions of place, with sacred rivers like the Ganges and sacred mountains like Mt. Kailash. And yet the dominant cultures of India are hardly tribal. Further, unlike what we usually think of as indigenous religion, Hindus have a sacred literature, arguably the world’s oldest and most voluminous.
And yet, the concept of a vast Hindu religion itself results from European colonialism, where an extraordinary variety of practices and beliefs were amalgamated under that label. But today many Hindus so identify themselves. Very much the same thing happened earlier with western Paganism. Celts, Norse, Hellenes, and others saw themselves as engaged in different practices, worshiped different deities, and only became “Pagan” through the imposition of that name by practitioners of Abrahamic religions.
To take another example illustrating complications in expanding the term, Bon is arguably the original religion of Tibetan culture. Buddhism arrived between the 5th and 8th centuries, and became first the state religion and then that of most Tibetans. However, a Naxi priest from a tribal region in Southwest China told me his religion, which to the untrained eye looks like Bon, is different because Bon has incorporated so many Buddhist elements. When he described many of their beliefs it sounded far more in harmony with many NeoPagan themes than with anything Buddhist, I felt very much at home in a ritual he gave, as he did when attending a shamanic healing ceremony I gave. And that ceremony drew on African, Brazilian Indian, and French Kardecist roots.
Tibetans are the indigenous people of Tibet now that it is incorporated into China. Bon would be most easily seen as the indigenous religion of Tibet were Tibet still independent. But if my Naxi informant is correct, Bon is already deeply transformed by Buddhism and most people consider Vajrayana Buddhism Tibet’s religion. At what point does an indigenous religion influenced by more powerful ones cease to be indigenous and become a variant of the dominant religion? This question obviously has relevance to evaluating the NAC in America.
And if we look more closely Native America, these people were far more diverse than simply hunter gatherers and horticultural peoples. Their practices also included agricultural peoples, city states and empires, among the Iroquois something close to a nation state, and in the case of the Maya, their religion included a sacred literature.
Are the African Diasporic religions indigenous? Their sense of place is usually more abstract because their Orixas are usually more universal, being honored in Cuba, Brazil, and West Africa, to name but three of many. They can and do flourish far from any countryside, in large cities. Further, they have often changed markedly from their African roots since being established by slaves. Finally, some Brazilian practitioners are returning to Africa to re-establish connections with practices and teachings long absent, creating a kind of reconstructionist approach within their traditions.
These considerations highlight another dimension of indigenaity. Indigenous cultures were usually conquered by other peoples, usually the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam, particularly after modern science and technology gave Christian nations unrivaled military superiority. Indigenous peoples almost invariably suffered from colonial oppression, including the suppression of many of their religions.
But even here ambiguities and exceptions exist. A long suppressed but still surviving tradition is different from one people are attempting to revive based on old texts. The reason is that these religions were primarily rooted in oral traditions. Those managing to have survived years or centuries of suppression are quite different in this regard from those that did not.
Further, not all indigenous traditions were colonized. Certainly Japanese Shinto was not, nor were Chinese traditions thousands of years old that while suppressed by Mao Tse-tung, have revived once the most oppressive aspect of Communist rule ended. Both are indigenous if the word has any meaning at all with respect to religious traditions. But in both the Chinese and Japanese cases the people are not indigenous by most criteria, they are the dominant culture, and in Shinto’s case a variant was long the state religion.
And then there is the modern NeoPagan renaissance which includes Wiccans, and other traditions which see themselves as reconstructing the pre-Christian conquest religions of Western, Central and Northern Europe. In these cases there is either no continuity of tradition, or for the Romuva perhaps, a very attenuated one. But their practitioners usually see themselves as part of a religious sensibility having much in common with more clearly indigenous traditions. Many practitioners of those traditions see this similarity themselves, sometimes describing them as non-indigenous people practicing an indigenous religion.
Are efforts to reconstruct Roman Paganism in America by non-Italians examples of indigenous religion? Roman Paganism was indigenous to Rome, and focused on sacred places there. It was carried across much of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East by conquering armies, not as something imposed on conquered people, but as an element of the conquering culture. Sometimes syncretism took place. Sometimes, as with Druids and Jews, not.
My purpose in this introductory essay is not to solve these questions. I want to raise them and so provide an over view as to why I think they are unable to be solved in any final ways. Humanity’s spiritual practices are a beautiful tapestry of individual experience, cultural variety, the character of the places where those cultures arose, and both peaceful and imposed historical interpenetration. Onto this extraordinary complexity people have tried to create political, theological, and historical understanding, including classifications and boundaries for something that does not easily fall into neatly defined categories.
I think indigenous religions can best be seen as a kind of rope comprised of many threads. At any point along the rope a thread may be missing or weak, but the rope will still be a rope. Certain threads seem to me particularly important.
One thread is that each religion is relatively powerless within the relevant context that has led to its being considered indigenous. In almost all these cases weaker groups seek to preserve their separateness from larger dominant culture’s religions.
Another is that from an indigenous religious perspective practitioners of one can feel more or less at home when visiting another, compared to their reaction when observing Abrahamic traditions. Consider my story concerning the Naxi priest The larger community itself recognizes a common indigenaity..
A third is a focus on practice, and particularly practice focused on immanent sacrality rather than on dogma or belief. Indigenous spirituality focuses on the sacred in this world, and so on the sacred as it manifests in place. Those most localized to specific places shape their understanding with regard to those places, and those which are less localized have perhaps a more abstract conception, but an abstraction which still finds recognition in specific local places. Unlike traditional Native Americans American NeoPagans do not have a tight linkage of our practices with specific places of sacredness and power. But at the level of a local practicing community we often do have places set aside for special concern and ritual. Here in Sonoma County there is a particular old growth redwood grove that fits this description. At a more inclusive but still local level many see Mt. Tamalpais as a place of a special power and presence. There are others.
Here we find both the connecting thread and why its details are so immensely varied, for places vary, cultures vary, historical experience varies, and so traditions that focus on sacred immanence of place will vary. It would be strange were it otherwise.
If examined individually indigenous religions are tiny, inconsequential mites compared to the many millions and even billions involved in the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. (Leaving Hinduism out of “indigenous” for the moment.) Even comparatively small Judaism dwarfs them.
And yet when combined together these unifying themes make indigenous religion not only humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition, it remains a large one; one accepting its particularistic cultural and regional manifestations and so not seeking converts or to spread their practice except as their devotees themselves move to new places.