neopaganism


Ask ten {pagans, neopagans, Wiccans, Earth religionists, Druids, wizards, ceremonialists, etc.} for an opinion and you’re going to get at least eleven or twelve answers. That said, I feel fairly safe in saying, in reaction to Ms. O’Donnell’s statement that she “dabbled in witchcraft,” and on behalf of all of us, the following: thanks, but we don’t want her.

On the topic of neopaganism, I consider myself a technopagan and I believe technology and ritual serve very similar and sometimes interchangeable purposes: they are each an extension of human will, an opportunity to take refuge in comfortable and familiar sets of actions and ways of staying connected to the world around us. Given that in my view magic is a set of technologies we have yet to externally, objectively understand – that the mysteries are all just science waiting to happen – mixing them together is to me a no-brainer. Not every neopagan feels that way and I understand and respect that but I do not draw an arbitrary distinction between the traditional and the useful; nor am I particularly enamored of pseudo-archaism as a fashion statement. To me, magic is nothing if it isn’t useful and whatever gets the job done is as sacred as anything else – if one even wants to apply the term “sacred” to something like the tools of magic in the first place. I absolutely believe in the sacred, in forces and experiences and moments that are larger than ourselves and in the presence of which the greatest respect and dignity come from a quiet appreciation, but I don’t think I expand my own understanding of those moments by putting the vehicles that get me there on some metaphorical pedestal. If one can’t draw a circle with a laser pointer then there’s no way one can do it with a stick; if one can step into sacred space with a stick, one can do it with anything else at hand. Pretending that everything has to be handmade from fairy wings and unicorn toes would be, for my purposes, a failure to take off the training wheels. That isn’t to say I condemn someone whose ritual practices do celebrate the imagery and roleplay of historical fantasy or crafted arts or anything else! I’m saying that my preferred frame of reference is modern and technological; that the most effective tool is just that; and, maybe in my heart of hearts, that a given technology might be worth considering a little sacred for being the most effective or useful.

At any rate, my point: I’m nothing like alone in these views and I live in one of the white-hot centers of technology and cultural experimentation so why is it impossible to find other technopagans around? There are at least three neopagan groups in possession of or on the verge of purchasing permanent physical spaces in the Triangle but no amount of Googling has turned up anything like a technopagan group. Sheesh.

The Boyf thinks this means I need to start one, but good grief, I have enough to do.

Two weeks ago my cousin died while on vacation overseas.

He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a biological brother and when I was in high school and he was a college dropout we did more than our share of running around getting up to no good. He bought me my first illicit alcohol. We and a friend of ours once got near-busted in a fallow field near our preacher’s house, the truck full of cheap toilet paper and plastic forks meant for the preacher’s yard, when a sheriff’s deputy happened by the moment we got out of the truck. To get us out of it I ginned up, on the spot, a complicated story about waiting to meet one of our other cousins. The deputy mulled it over and decided to let us go and as the deputy drove away my cousin turned to me and said, “Why’d you mention Other Cousin X? That guy must be new; if he’d been a deputy for any time at all he’d know how much trouble Other Cousin is always in! You might as well have claimed we were waiting for Al Capone!”
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Thought #1:

I bought an iPhone yesterday. My much-loved RAZR v3xx up and died on me. I mean died. They told me it was going to take a warranty return to get a new one and that Motorola would mail me a new phone and I said to hell with it and got this. It is pretty ridiculously awesome.

Thought #2:

I am enjoying the Harry Dresden novels, which I’m currently reading, but Harry isn’t exactly the sharpest tack in the box. Still, it has the best description of magic that I’ve seen in pretty much any book. I dig.

Thought #3:

It occurs to me to wonder whether the relationship our society has with geeks, with people who really understand technology and are frequently called upon to correct or repair it, could be compared to the relationships of tribal societies to their shamans. I don’t know enough about traditional shamanism in various cultures to know if that’s a valid thought, though. I’ve read plenty of “modern shaman” books of theory but done nearly zero real scholarship of shamanism in the world. Still that angle of the geek being the outcast to be held in slight, continual suspicion as almost dangerously Other while being a vital healer and visionary and working to intercede to heal the rifts between the population at large and the world of almost-spirit which technology inhabits might be a useful angle to consider. If it’s true that society treats geeks in the way shamanistic societies have treated those healers then what does it say about our own culture’s latent animism and the human tendency to turn things into entities?

Thought #4:

I would really like to see a true-to-text film adaptation of The Long Goodbye with Vince Vaughn playing Marlowe.

So, I started my new job a week ago Monday. My first day I had to be in at 8am. I did not like this. I now work 9-6 rather than 8-5, and this is much, much better.

I haven’t really tested the waters yet on the whole web-browsing thing, so I’m browsing almost exclusively via lynx these days. You have no idea how fast the web is until you go text-only. Yeah, so I miss the pretty pictures. I can look up the pretty pictures when I get home if I want to. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying having the interwebs transformed for me like this. I remember when lynx was practically all we had, when Mosaic was out and lynx was out and we had more dumb VTY terminals on campus than machines with a GUI and so I knew lynx better than I did Mosaic (and at the time I thought the web was fancy but, you know, gopher had a lot going for it). Now, well, of course now the web is a different beast entirely but, on the other hand, so is lynx. Both are capable of much more. Now I look at it with 1994’s eyes and I think, wow… cool for the first time in a long time.

My new job, I have to say, is pretty rad. I am given to understand that right now it’s unusually slow but they could ramp things up by 50%, maybe 100%, and it would beat eight kinds of hell out of my last job. There, everyone ran around with their head on fire all the time. I didn’t, because I’m just not like that, but it was grating to be fairly sedate and surrounded on all sides by screaming chaos. Here everyone is much more relaxed. The downsides are that I’m working in a building where I worked once before, sitting one row forward of where I used to sit, for a different tiny-but-promising company. The last time I worked in this room the company went down in flames. (LastJob was, in all honesty, the first place I’d ever worked that didn’t completely collapse within a couple of years of hiring me, though they did get bought out.) I have higher hopes for this place than the last company to occupy these storied halls; or, at least, I’ve got my fingers crossed harder this time.

Oh well. We’ll see how it goes. Here it is, the day before Yule, a night I’m going to spend celebrating the rebirth of the god of the hunt and the harvest and I’m sitting here thinking about years past, times when one employer or another felt the weight of the axe on the back of their collective neck, thinking what next year will hold, what ties have I severed and which ones I managed to retain. LastJob seems to be offering me a payout on my pension plan. I have paperwork to do on my new benefits for my new company. I need to roll over my 401(k). Endings are beginnings and other happy hippie shit. One job, like any person or thing, had to die to make way for another, and maybe the new one is fresh and fun and exciting and excited, and maybe it isn’t, but in the fullness of time it, too, will fall. I just hope that, as with so many falls before this one, I manage not to go with it.

In completely unrelated matters, I watched Brick with The Boyf on Monday night and loved it. Watch it, if you haven’t. It’s a noir detective story set in a modern-day suburban high school. Last night I watched the RiffTrax version of The Matrix. Hilarious, just utterly hilarious. It is so good to see MST3K alumni doing their thing and having fun doing it.

I’ve had this conversation (translation: rambled lengthily at them) with so many friends recently that I guess I should blog it. I’m still working on 2012, and here’s the deal: for all that I am a neopagan with what most might consider pretty fruity-tooty religious beliefs, I’m having trouble buying a word of it. (“It,” in this instance, is the possibility that in six years some massive event of global consciousness-shifting is going to take place and create a do-or-die moment for humanity.)

It’s not that I think Pinchbeck is dishonest, or a scam artist – I am utterly prepared to believe that he believes what he’s saying – it’s that so much of what he has experienced or believes he has experienced is so subjective as to be almost useless when communicated to another person. For all that I have seen and experienced things that defy normal explanation (such as the story of the ghost of Wilson Library, for those who know me) and in which I believe just as surely as I believe in the chair in which I sit as I write this, I also know that those experiences are so subjective, so interpreted and reinterpreted by my own psyche and so mediated by my own ability to perceive and then process and retell those perceptions, that it would actually be sort of silly for me to expect anyone else to really believe me when I tell them.

At SwingOut this year, Bascha asked me to tell the gentleman friend of one of our fraternity sisters the story of one of these events. I do love to hear myself talk about myself – I have a blog, this is self-evident – and so I agreed, but when I was done, and he said, “See, this bothers me, because you seem like a credible person but I’m very skeptical about these sorts of events,” I clapped him on the arm and said, “Do be skeptical. I don’t expect you to believe a word of it, and if it were someone else standing here telling that story, I wouldn’t believe a word of it, either, because I am simply not the sort of person who believes in the imperceptible arcana of the world based on someone else’s word. Do not believe this story just because I’ve told you. I don’t gain or lose anything by your belief or disbelief, so by all means, cling to your skepticism, because it is far more valuable.”

I mean, that’s the only sane perspective I can come up with. Yeah, I’ve seen crazy shit. So do crazy people. I don’t think anyone necessarily gains from knowing that I’ve seen crazy shit – or, rather, from knowing that I believe I’ve seen crazy shit. If we went around taking everyone at their word on things no one else can or does see, it would take two seconds for us to be neck-deep in the worst possible hybrid of Moonie Scientologist Baptists. Seriously, it would be extremely bad. Individual people can believe whatever they want based on their individual experiences, imaginings and interpretations, and that is good and healthy because it indicates that they are at least midlly curious about the world around them, but in groups – and especially as a society – I think it is vital that we base our decisions and actions solely on the evidence available to us. Doing otherwise is what gets us James Watt saying environmental restrictions don’t really matter since Jesus is due back any day now, or Bush saying that God told him to invade Iraq. We don’t need the complex business of trying to hold together any society of two or more people muddled by things not all of them see or believe. So, skepticism: it’s a good thing.

Of course, much of 2012 is about the alienation many people feel from the world around them and the other people in it – in the context of advocating a breakdown of that alienation – and such skepticism may simply be another tool of maintaining that alienation. I don’t really have an answer to that, but I also don’t really feel that I need one. See, the nature of personal revelation – and I don’t doubt that many people have them, as these are the stuff of every religion and philosophy, even the ones without gods – is just that: it is personal. The idea of the koan – the Buddhist parables that challenge the seeker to discover the wisdom within them – may be the most applicable demonstration of this. Koans are meant to be tough nuts to crack, as it were. They are meant to be immune to a simple, rational explanation of them. The wisdom within them can only be received as a sudden revelation after contemplation and study. Even though the koan is passed from teacher to student in a form that can be rationally and objectively agreed upon, the lesson of the koan comes to each student in a moment of intensely personal insight. There is no explaining them. There is no Cliff’s Notes version of enlightenment. Revelations, and the signs and synchronicities that lead someone to look at the world in a unique way that shows them something they hadn’t seen before, are as much what the observer brings to the experience as they are the experience itself, perhaps even more observer than experience.

So, I sit and read 2012 and I think, “Well, that’s great, but give me something I can measure, something I can see and touch and poke and prod and photograph and bring out into the light of shared experience.” But I don’t get that, and I’m too skeptical to just take anyone’s word on pretty much anything, and at the same time that attitude is precisely opposite that which the author seems to recommend.

I will note that Pinchbeck is just as ready to call someone on it when he thinks they’re BSing or otherwise espousing some philosophy with something less than full honesty or full faculties. There are times when he comes out and says that he dismissed entirely someone’s claim or someone’s way of thinking. Much of what he shares of his own experience is told in a way that makes plain his knowledge that this was his experience and no one else’s. He’s an entertaining writer and a great storyteller. He seems earnest. It’s just… I’m skeptical. I don’t buy into the idea of huge life-changing events. It all smacks, frankly, of millenialism. Perhaps I’m simply too soiled by the skepticism and materialism of the world to open my mind to his way of thinking, but on the other hand, I’m not denying that there may be aspects of the world which we do not currently understand or comprehend – I can think of times in my life when I felt I had brushed against the Unseen & Unknown, myself. However, I haven’t brushed against his version of the Unseen & Unknown, and so while I find it an interesting story, and an intriguing idea, I don’t really plan to live my life in expectation that anything he says may happen in the future.

I guess, bottom line, what I hope comes to people who read his book is that they set it aside at the end with the feeling that it was interesting to hear his take on things. If hearing his take on things makes them more open to the Unseen & Unknown in their own lives, when it appears, then great. Maybe that’s his entire purpose with the book, I simply don’t know. On the other hand, the Unseen & Unknown do not appear to all people. Plenty of – perhaps most? – folks go through their lives without feeling they’ve ever encountered anything more than plain ol’ consensual reality, and that’s just the way it is. Maybe that demonstrates that people need thinkers out on the fringe of experience, such as Pinchbeck, to blow the dust off their ability to experience the Unseen & Unknown.

Or maybe that just means the rest of us are crazy.

m4s0n501

I read a really interesting reader response (if you follow the link, scroll up, not down from where it takes you) to the Cosmic Log blog on MSNBC.com from a scientist who is a Christian and is bothered by the whole “Intelligent Design” fiasco. It came from a reader in Austin, TX, and it started thusly:

I’m both Christian by decision and a physicist and computer scientist by training. Science is nothing more than the attempt to discover how things work. Period. Religion is the attempt to understand why things work.

There you have it. There will never be a better, more succinct way of putting it, for my money. And that, ultimately, is the big problem I have with religionists trying to force their way into the science classroom to make science teachers preach on their behalf. Mr. Capps goes on to say this:

As a scientist, using the methods I have been trained in, I cannot tell whether there is a God or not. Nor does the question come up in that setting, as I am pursuing how, not why. As a Christian, I believe because I believe, I have faith because I have faith. I feel that I am correct. As Christian scientist, I am not arrogant enough to tell God how he did things. I will look and try to build honest models that tell me how. Right now evolution is the best model going, so I accept it. Since the majority of the evidence says this model works, to do otherwise would be to raise myself above God and tell God that He could not have used evolution to do His work.

I deeply admire the attitude he’s taken – a self-aware acknowledgement of the absolute and distinct difference between religion and science. Whenever I think about the ID yahoos – and that’s what they are, so for all my presupposed rational thought and diplomatic ways, that’s what I’m calling them – I am reminded of people’s frequent confusion over morals and ethics. Morals are why we do things, ethics are how we do things. They may be related for some people, but they don’t have to be. I am honest when I do my taxes in part because that’s the proper way to prepare them (ethics) and in part because I think it’s wrong to do so (morals). Some people don’t commit murder for profit because they think it’s wrong (morals), but some don’t commit murder for profit only because they’re afraid of being caught – and that, I would argue is ethics, and that this divide is fundamental to our society.

If we stop and think about it, our entire legal system – the skeleton from which hang the tissues of our secular society – is based on ethics, not morals. Sure, there are laws against things that are largely considered wrong (murder remains a fine example), but the laws do not enforce morality per se. The law does not require that we be trained from birth to regard life as valuable. Rather, the law enforces how and when it is not acceptable – or, in instances of self-defense or war, acceptable – to commit murder. The why of murder is not addressed. The how is addressed. I realize it’s possible to point back into this paragraph and say, Oh, but you just said the law addresses when it’s acceptable, such as self-defense, and isn’t that a why? Not really. Were someone to break into my house and threaten my life, and in the hair’s breadth of time I had to consider it I decided that the only way to preserve my life was to take theirs, the questions the police would ask would all have to do with circumstances: Did they threaten you? Were you in immediate danger? Were they in your house, or near it? Were they armed? Where was the gun pointed? Never once would a badged officer ask me how I felt about it, whether I had enjoyed it or felt guilty afterwards – at least, not as a legal matter. Even in our language we don’t speak of why the law is applied, we speak of how.

Morals are, after all, purely internal. They are the little voice in our head that tells us why a thing is or is not acceptable and they can never be fully explained. They are tied up with experience, philosophy and emotion so tightly that nothing purely objective can be drawn out of them. Ethics, on the other hand, are observable and testable and demonstrable, can be proven to have been followed or not followed (sometimes). They are external and definable and subject to the senses we use to measure the material world.

And you know what? I am A-OK with that. Our laws are not meant to enforce our morals. They are meant to enforce our ethics. The vast majority of the infrastructure of our society works on the same principle. Regulating agencies tell us how things are done. That there are very good why’s are secondary, and that there are often moral reasons for the how‘s our society enforces are largely, I think, happy accidents.

In the same way, science and its study and teaching are not meant to tell us why. They are meant to tell us how. The question of why will be irrelevant until someone finds a signature in one corner of the universe.

The problem, I think, is that many people in our society look to religion and spirituality as a way to find answers to big questions, questions of why and questions of how, and that is entirely their right. However, when they confuse the two, lose track of the line between why and how in their spiritual path, they start to blue that line everywhere else in their world. Over time, the questions of why does God do this and how can God do this become the same. I don’t think it’s intentional, I think it’s just the way we are, the way we talk, the things that happen in a living language.

That said, I think there are many people who use this confusion of why and how to their advantage, people who know that their followers – the folks who vote for a school board that wants to inject creationism into the science classroom and don’t understand that why the universe was made is in fact an entirely different question from how it has come to be and how its laws work and how we can observe and test its limitations – can be tricked into incorrect thinking about the questions by playing with the meanings of words and redirecting their thoughts to questions Science wasn’t meant to answer. I think these people know that they are confusing the issues, choose to confuse the issues because it advances their personal agendas.

The sad thing is that it is all too easy for their followers to be thusly confused. Leaving aside how they phrase their questions, those who pursue religion in our society often do so as a way to find explicit answers to questions rather than as a way to find the right questions in the first place. Rather than look to spiritual tools as a way to test and understand spiritual ideas and ideals, they look to the spirit to explain away all the nagging questions of both spirit and flesh. This is simply lazy of them, in my opinion. It’s easier than thinking, though, so many choose it as their preferred method.

Do I believe that the universe was designed by an intelligent force? Sort of. It’s hard for me to decide whether I believe that the gods created all of this or were created with all of this – or maybe even created because of all of this. I believe absolutely in a higher intelligence that is as aware of our plight as it is alien to our existence. I believe absolutely that some things – but not all, and not even very many – happen “for a reason,” that there are purposes greater than one individual’s or group’s subjective goals which are served by the course of events from time to time. I also believe that many things – perhaps most – just happen, and that there’s no more Divinity at work in these things than in where a leaf lands on the back deck in the fall. I have had opportunity in my life to wish I could grab the gods themselves and shake them back and forth and ask why the fuck something happened the way it did, as well, and sometimes I have felt that I found an answer and sometimes I have simply been left to question. I have sometimes – but not always – come to decide that the questioning itself was more valuable than any answer I might have received.

That’s OK with me, though, because those are my questions to answer and no one else’s. Questions of why are purely internal, purely meant for me, no one else. Questions of how are ones we can all ask and find one answer that satisfies all – that car ran the red light because its brakes went out, that avalanche happened because it snowed too much, that stock trade is illegal because someone gave the buyer or the seller information to which they should not have had access. Questions of why are almost always impossible to fully comprehend, much less agree on as a society – God hated that driver? God hated that skier? That buyer or seller is inherently evil because they chose to profit rather than risk their family’s future? No one is ever going to agree on those why’s. To ask them as though they are testable, as though they have objective answers that will fully satisfy, is simply a fallacy. In fact, I would argue that in many cases where we get full disclosures of why, such as in the case of a serial killer who confesses his crimes in full, we are often left less satisfied than before, whereas in your average murder mystery the revelation of how it was done – Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick – is a moment of satisfaction rather than frustration. This is exactly the problem with trying to apply a religious explanation to a question of science. How was the universe created is not answered in a testable, satisfying way for all (or most or even many) of us by Because God felt like it anymore than How did Colonel Mustard kill Mr. Body is answered by Because he was being blackmailed. That’s simply not a legitimate way to respond.

And thus, I am not going to invite Mrs. Atkins, my 9th grade science teacher, to come to ritual anytime soon and expect her to do a lesson on how the God and Goddess relate to one another as reaper and sower of life, or why Katrina happened, or why I’ve lost people whom I loved because that is not her job. If I want answers to those questions – and I consider it entirely valid not to ask those questions, or to think those questions are silly or unnecessary, as well – I have to find the answers myself. I have to struggle with them, try to expand my own cosmology to encompass these events, try to reframe the gods as beings who can allow this to happen, or are powerless to stop it, or have a Big Reason to allow such things, and I have to do it entirely on my own time. The answers I get are going to be mine alone, after all, and looking elsewhere for those answers is just confusing the issue, perhaps even running from the questions themselves, more than anything else.

My 11th grade biology teacher was the wife of a conservative, charismatic Baptist minister. When she started the unit on evolution, she said a few words about evolution beforehand. Unlike Dover, PA, though, this is what she said. I do not remember it word for word except for a few specific phrases, so I will paraphrase. Suffice to say, she was eloquent and intelligent and commanding, and I will fail to capture that moment when she said (roughly) the following: “I am going to teach evolution in this class, and I am not going to argue with anyone about it. If you have a problem with evolution because of your religious beliefs, I suggest you take it up with your preacher. However, I am a preacher’s wife, with my own beliefs, and no one is going to tell me not to teach this. As my husband has always said of the curriculum I teach, I do not want to tell your school what to do, because when that happens I open the door to the school telling me how to run my church and there is no way in Hell I am going to let that happen. So if you don’t like this, I suggest you study it, take your test, get your grade and then talk about it in Sunday School because we are not going to talk about it here.”

Now, why is that so hard for people?

Does it get any witchier than this?  Bruce got bored watching me do a Tarot reading and, when I was done, hopped up in the middle of everything and settled in (UPDATE: fixed the link – sorry, and thanks to KJ for pointing it out!).  One of the many, many reasons why I love The Boyf is that he thinks to say things like, “You know, this might call for a picture.”
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Goddamn, that is one cute cat. (more…)

Katastrophes took (and highly praised) owlmother‘s Tarot class last year.  Thus, the second I found an opening, I signed up.  The Boyf and I are taking it along with Suki
and a couple of other folks, and after only one session I can already
tell this rocks.  I learned a lot last night in terms of new ways
to think about the cards, their history, and within one short hour was
broken of the idea of only doing the one spread I really know and
mostly remember. 

I said when introducing myself that, like another student in the class,
I’d been reading for years but only considered myself so-so at
it.  I haven’t used a book in years, tending to go on my own
impression from the meaning of the suit and the art on the card. 
That’s cool, but sometimes I just don’t feel it.  The class is
going to give me something else to use, a new way of looking at the
cards and a new independence from one and only one way of doing a
spread.  Awesome
I plan to spend this week doing sample readings for Charles, using the
new ways of thinking about a spread we got just last night.  Double awesome.  Divinatory magic and random-plotline-generation here I come.

I cannot wait for next week. (more…)

So, I’ve been re-reading the Disinformation collection Book of
Lies.  The parts I read today over a Subway sandwich, prior to
work, were the essays on the lives of Brion Gyson and William S. Burroughs
and their experiments with flicker-induced trance states and some
serious technopagan experimentation – cut-ups of sound and text and
imagery and performance designed to be both art and modern
sorcery.  These dudes were into some weird shit, but it is
fascinating.  There’s a part of me that’s really intensely curious
and another part of me that recognizes the highway sign over that
spiritual exit as reading FREAKY WEIRDODOM with a big, chaotically
curved mandala-like arrow that points eight different ways at
once. 

That said, I’m finding their art and their philosophy fascinating at
the moment.  I think the person who decided their attitudes or
philosophies were entirely desirable and sought to model themselves
after these two, and the school of art and thought they inspired, would
(a) be making what’s possibly a very big mistake – at the very least,
not everyone is meant for their path – and (b) probably be missing the
whole point, but I think of Ernesto from my NaNo last month and I
realize, Oh, that’s what Ernesto believes. (more…)