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In the very, very long time since I last blogged, I’ve been thinking (I probably should have written it all down somewhere, but let’s roll with it), and I’ve reached an unavoidable conclusion. I’m not the person I was when I started this blog. Obviously. Superficial stuff aside, I feel like I’ve changed on a fundamental level, and I like to think that it’s for the better*.

I’m not really sure where – or when – it started, but as I read more and accumulated information, I realised that books I had trusted were wrong. That things I believed in (to a greater or lesser degree) we at odds with the way I knew the world worked, and other things that I was interested in felt an awful lot like obligation and not genuine interest. I found myself in a self-re-enforcing thought process based on assumption, guesswork and what other people told me was true and it was really only a matter of time before the entire thing collapsed.
Fortunately, I noticed what was going on and was able to dismantle it before that happened.

I read up on science. I watched videos of religious apologists having their arguments dismantled with greater or lesser degrees of civility and empathy by atheists. I watched Penn and Teller’s Bullshit. I started browsing r/atheism. I stopped browsing r/atheism and started browsing r/science. I stopped reading some blogs and started reading others. I started watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I read up on Pagan Humanism, scientific Humanism, Pagan atheism. Over a matter of months, I recognised the flaws in my beliefs and realised that they were irreconcilable with the fundamental laws of the universe, so I put them aside them one by one, starting with the most implausible, and after that, it got easier.

I’d expected it to leave me with a “god-shaped hole”, but it never arrived. I reasoned that I was grieving; I’d just abandoned a huge part of my identity. I know how my grief works, so I waited.
Nothing happened, or at least, nothing much. Once discarded, the things I’d lost my belief in – an afterlife, ghosts, gods, magic, psychics and psychic powers, ‘energy’, vibrations, crystals, aromatherapy, a purpose to the universe, and meaning to suffering – evaporated with barely a trace, and in their place stood the solid foundations of what I knew.

And they are WONDERFUL.

I get what Neil deGrasse Tyson means when he says “I want to grab people in the street and ask: have you heard this?”. The existence of our universe is so wildly improbably yet almost inevitable (given the potential for infinite universes). My ancestors are not only human, but every creature in our evolutionary history, and – atomically, at least – stretch back to the formation of the universe. We are tiny things in a huge universe, affected by such enormous forces that are sublimely powerful and enormously indifferent to anything on a human scale. Planets, suns, black holes, asteroids, gravity, radiation – if they were capable of empathy, none of them would care one whit about the will or wishes or physical effort of even the entire human race.

Although I flirted with atheism, it didn’t stick. I understand that the existence of spirits and souls can’t be proven by science. I know that the ecstatic experiences I’ve had are almost certainly complex hallucinations; chartable on a EEG or in an fMRI scanner. Yet at the end of it all, I am definitely still interested in ecstatic visionary experiences.
Just because runes and tarot cards depend entirely of my human need to see patterns, just because a pendulum’s movement is based entirely on involuntary muscle twitches, just because the visions I have are imaginary doesn’t diminish their effect. The sense of well-being I got after I hallucinated ‘reintegrating a fragment of my soul’ may well have come from 10-15 minutes of regular breathing and good posture, but that doesn’t mean that experience itself is wasn’t profound and life-changing. If I know what causes the twitching of a pendulum, I can use it to overcome the very real problems I still have without falling prey to threats or fears of ‘possession’ or ‘demons’, and I can use a pop-culture phenomenon that I know is bogus (a “Mayan apocalypse”, for example) to draw a line under my old thought processes, and begin anew.

With that in mind, I think I’ll be closing this blog down.
The name hasn’t fitted for some time now, and I don’t think I can pick a new one. If my readers (the three of you who subscribed, and the one of you who would still be interested) want to follow my experiments in fusing science and art and spirituality into some manageable thought process, I’ll post up a link to the new blog when I think of a good title that hasn’t been taken. Until then, have a good apocalypse, a merry Yule and a happy new year.

[ADDENDUM: What I feel like I need to stress to anyone who reads this is that what I wrote is about me and me alone.
It’s like shoes: these are my boots and they fit my feet. Maybe your feet are bigger, or smaller, or narrower. It’s not a value judgement on you if my boots don’t fit your feet, or if you don’t like the style, or have no need of steel toecaps ,or prefer trainers or something a bit fancier.]

* Which isn’t to say that I was a bad person, or that religion/faith made me less of a person than I am now, but it’s part of a package of changes that includes willingness to use my autonomy, greater self-confidence, more generous, less gullible, more focused, and happier overall.

———————————-

Some of the blog posts and articles that provoked my mental shift:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2012/08/guest-post-humanist-paganism-on-the-rise.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/seeing-god-in-the-third-millenium/266134/

http://humanisticpaganism.com/

therioshamanism.com

http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com/

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Rabbits and rooks

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a huge tree who played host to a colony of rooks in its branches, and a warren of rabbits under its roots. The rooks and rabbits worked – more or less – in harmony and, where they didn’t work together, neither group minded very much what the other did because they never competed for food or living space.

One day, a rabbit was eating grass under the trees, when he saw that the ground near the tree was covered in droppings from the rooks. He became angry that the rooks had fouled the grass he wanted to eat and he returned to the warren and said so.

“My son,” said one of the elder rabbits, “the rooks’ soil makes the ground fertile. Yes, some grass gets spoiled, but it is a small price to pay for the  greenest and most pleasant grass in the field. Besides, without the rooks keeping watch, we wouldn’t know when the hawk is on the prowl. Rabbits below and rooks above benefits everyone.”

But the rabbit would not let the matter lie, and he complained to his friends, who complained to their friends. Before long, a small but noisy group of rabbits were complaining to the elders, who pointed out the benefits of living under a rookery. Unfortunately, the rabbits would not listen, but instead took to shouting at the rooks, and taunting them as they rested in their nests.

“Listen to the rabbits shout,” said one rook to another “such a noise! All the rabbits in the warren must be jealous of us, because we are such fine fliers, and they are stuck on the ground. If they don’t like it, they should leave.”

“That wouldn’t be right,” said his companion, “we get a lot from having the rabbits beneath our tree. They always dig up the tastiest grubs and worms from the dirt, and they warn us when the man comes with his dogs. Rooks above and rabbits below benefits everyone.”

The angry rabbits were largely ignored by their warren-mates, who didn’t want to get involved in the conflict, and grew more isolated. They talked to each other of how unfair the rooks’ behaviour was, and what they should do about it. Eventually, the original gripe was forgotten, and the rooks’ presence was enough to make the angry rabbits angrier. They resolved to burn down the tree and force the rooks to leave. All the rabbits would be safe, they reasoned, deep in the warren.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The rooks did not often look at the base of the tree; it was not their business what the rabbits did. Because of this, they did not notice the rabbits plotting – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did not notice the kindling being laid – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did not see the fire being lit – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did see the the smoke curling through the leaves and hear the fire crackling along the bark.

The rooks took wing. Some flew out, away from the tree and tried to find new homes. Others flew down to the rabbits and demanded to know why they were doing this, but what the rabbits said made no sense. Angry at being attacked, the rooks used their wings to blow the smoke into the rabbits’ home, trying to choke the cowardly rabbits hiding in the ground.

Many of the rabbits fled the smoke-filled warren. Others, angry at being attacked, joined the rabbits outside in fighting the crows. The tree groaned and lurched above them, but the fighting rooks and fighting rabbits couldn’t hear it. As the flames weakened the tree, it began to lean further, and further until the earth couldn’t hold it any more and it collapsed, crushing the fighting rabbits and rooks.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Some time later, after the tree had burned out and the ashes had stopped smouldering, a dog and a bitch walking past the ruined tree stopped and pawed through the ashes.

“What are these bones crushed under the tree?” asked the dog.

“Either a rabbit or a rook,” replied the bitch, “I cannot tell which, and I do not care.”

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Getting political

This Saturday just gone, I had the pleasure of attending a counter-protest to oppose the English Defence League march through Cambridge.

The EDL were marching against the construction of a Mosque in one of the most culturally diverse streets in the city. About 350 people were on the EDL march; according to reports, they mostly arrived by coach and train from other cities, and our city was one of a handful scheduled as part of an organised demonstration.

A thousand people turned out to oppose them, from the city and surrounding towns and villages. Local Muslims, Trade Union representatives, the Cambridge Socialists, Cambridge and Cambridge University Labour Parties and the Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the East of England marched all around the city, in some cases to the applause of onlookers.

As we marched down the final street – the site of the new Mosque – people came came out and gave us bottles of water and samosas, drummers lined the march route and our numbers swelled to about 1500 for the final leg and the Love Music, Hate Racism after-party.

More than 650 officers and staff from six forces policed the event, and did a sterling job, with no violence along our march route and five arrests after the two marches dispersed.

.

I could never support the things the EDL claims to be against (they were founded in response to flag burning and hate campaigns against British soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan), but their language and actions are loathsome. At the heart of the EDL is a far-right anti-Muslim group, founded by a British National Party member and initially comprised of ‘firms’ of organised football hooligans.

I am proud to live in a city that so resoundingly rejects racism and bigotry, especially when it comes dressed up as patriotism. I love my country and the things that make it great, but the EDL isn’t one of them.

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The first thing I learned about the occult was that words have power – they shape people’s perceptions and thereby shape reality.

Recently, an article posted by WitchVox’s FaceBook channel has caused some rather lively debate, and got me thinking about the way that the Pagan community describes and defines itself and its practice.

In short, a man in the USA has, during the course of some genealogical research, uncovered a death in the 16th century that was attributed to witchcraft. He laments the trivialisation of witchcraft on contemporary pop-culture and ends the article with an expression of his Christian faith. The comments got a bit rowdy – “we’re being slandered AGAIN!”, “further evidence of women’s oppression throughout history” and so on.

Having just finished Wilby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, I was left wondering something else entirely: ‘Why ‘witches’?’

Why have Pagan magical practitioners chosen the word ‘witch’ to describe themselves? It is a loaded word, heavy with history and with negative connotations. We could describe ourselves as ‘good witches’, white witches’ (for those that don’t get squicked by the inherent racist connotations) or ‘healing witches’, but it all seems like qualifying or mitigating a word that – in my opinion – didn’t need to be used in the first place. There are lots of words to describe magical practitioners – magician, pellar, wizard, cunning wo/man, druid, sage, mystic, occultist (actually, that’s not much better in terms of negative connotations), mage or magus, medicine man, priest/ess, duivelbanner, toverdokter, Hexenmeister, kloge folk, klok gumma/gubbe, curandero, saludador, benandanti, dyn hysbys, seiðr, shaman, táltos, houngan, devins-guérisseurs, leveurs de sorts… – some of them are inappropriate for the intended purpose and others shouldn’t be used outside of a specific tradition, admittedly, but the point is that we aren’t limited to words in current use, or English words, or even words that are real words. At some point, for some reason, we’ve chosen ‘witch’ as our go-to word to describe (almost) any Pagan magical practitioner.

It could be reasoned that ‘witch’ is any magical practitioner, and certainly that fits with the etymology of the word, but in CF&FS, Wilby shows that a distinction was made between cunning folk, who use their spirit familiars largely for beneficial purposes, and witches, who use their spirit familiars largely for malevolent purposes. That’s a distinction drawn by the witches’ peers, not the academics and authorities, and even that definition was based on the way the familiar relationship was utilised most of the time. Some witches healed and some cunning folk cursed, but in terms of encountering or acquiring these spirits, in the descriptions, behaviour, demeanour and demands of the familiars there are profound similarities.

‘Witch’ has been used to describe bad people for a long time, and the archetype is entrenched in our mythological and cultural history. While it isn’t be impossible to reclaim or redefine a word, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort to do it with a word still in common parlance.

Which is which I find it curious that strident voices are being raised every time the word ‘witch’ is mentioned in a negative context. It’s a negative word. If Pagans don’t want to be confused with people who curse their neighbours over a perceived slight and worshipped devils (as the authorities saw it), they shouldn’t call themselves the same thing! The men and women who were killed during the witch trials era were not Pagans (they certainly weren’t Wiccans), they were Christians with lingering pre-Christian beliefs, and they were tried and punished for (in most cases) doing nasty things to other people using magic.

I’m not the boss of anyone’s pants but my own; I’m not trying to make anyone change what they define themselves as, but I’ve given it some thought, and I am not comfortable with calling myself a witch. I won’t do it, I won’t let other people do it and I won’t support them if they get a bee in their bonnet about people calling witches evil. If a person wants to get snippy about how they and their religious practices get represented in the media, perhaps they should try giving some considered thought to the words they use when describing them to others.

They shape their own reality with those words. If they don’t like it, change it. In the end, that’s what magic is for.

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Back in October, when the Pope was in the UK, he was upset about the aggressive secularisation of society. One of the most convincing arguments for the perils of secularisation I heard at that time was that the clergy (Christian in the given case, but of all denominations really) are the last, best hope for the downtrodden, drug addicted, unemployed, debt-ridden, impoverished or criminal elements of society and that secularisation would make it difficult or impossible for these groups to get support for their work. Unfortunately, this may well be true, but I would argue that this  is something that the state should do. Charities are a lifeline to dozens of people of faith, without a doubt, and if your faith (or personality or tax-evasion scheme) moves you to help the less fortunate, that’s something that should be celebrated, but the insidious proselytising of some of the faith-based charities turns my stomach.

My mother-in-law (to be) often receives mailings for Christian charities, so they are the only ones I can comment on, but I’m sure there are equally dubious ones of all denominations (not to mention the secular clothing bags that keep getting pushed through my door, but at least that’s ‘only’ a financial swindle). The pamphlet that caught my eye and prompted me to write this blog post was for a group called Christians Against Poverty and featured the tearful tale of a young family with a disabled son who were in terribly dire straights; no bank would touch them, they had unplugged their phone to stop  collection agencies calling them, they broke away from their family and friends for shame of their situation and they couldn’t afford the fees to declare bankruptcy. Along comes CAP, who dealt with their creditors, set up a bank account for them and generally sorted all their problems out. The charity even takes their clients on an all-expenses paid holiday every year. What lovely people!

I’m not being sarcastic here, I would heartily support any organisation of any faith or none that works to give people with no where else to turn a bit of hope and a chance to start again, and takes them all on holiday so the kids don’t feel isolated among their peers.

All they asked in return was for the family to come to church to see what Jesus is all about.

That’s where it get awkward for me. CAP boasts that six clients a week convert to Christianity, directly through their intervention. I don’t think for a minute that I’d support even a Pagan initiative that did the same thing. Why is it necessary to tie up religion and good deeds? I understand that some religions encourage followers to ‘spread the word’, but it is a person’s decision how they pursue that mission, and the conversion part of CAP’s SOP seems like preying on people at their most vulnerable.

It is partly because of how annoyed this tactic made me that I’ve finally decided to stop putting off supporting a charity (I’ve wanted to do it for ages, and come February I won’t really have any reasonable excuses). I’m going to spend this next month (December) looking at charities and figuring out who I want to help and how. I’m not sure how we’ll be doing on the finances once we finally complete the move, so any firm decisions will be necessarily put off until we’re settled and have a better idea of monthly out-goings, but I should have evenings and the odd Saturday to give (hoping to get anywhere in sensible time on the Sunday buses is optimistic at best). I don’t know who I’ll end up supporting, but I know it won’t be Christians Against Poverty.

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Pope velico UK

Yesterday the Pope finished his four-day tour of the UK by beatifying a 19th Century theologian which is, by my reckoning, the least controversial thing he’s done this week.

The Pope’s lacklustre attitude to the child abuse scandals have been covered in great detail elsewhere and I won’t go into it here – suffice it to say that before becoming Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith – the Catholic body responsible for managing issues of morality and matters of faith – for 24 years, and updated the 1962 Crimen Sollicitationis (Crime of Solicitation) to form “an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy and to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by the churchmen” (Father Tom Doyle, a Vatican lawyer who was sacked for criticising the church’s handling of child abuse claims via This is London), so his attitude to this issue is neither new, nor out-of-character for the Vatican.

No, my (other) main issue with the Pope’s visit is the keynote speech he made in Westminster on Friday, wherein he claimed that the UK was becoming aggressively secular and that the voice of religion – Christianity in particular – is being marginalised – and the BBC says that, ‘in his speech at Westminster Hall, the Pope called on those in attendance to seek ways to promote faith “at every level of national life”‘.

I believe that he is wrong.

It is my opinion that the increasing secularisation of society could be a good thing – if handled properly. By lending greater weight to any one attitude to deity (and I include atheism in that collective attitude), the government cannot hope to create their sought-after happy and multi-cultural Big Society. A secular sandpit in which we can all commune with our own deities in our own way without fear of oppression, provided we obey the laws of the land, is – in my opinion – the only way to do this. No exemptions on religious ground for drug use, child abuse or bigotry. A flexible faith will find ways to grow past these issues and be stronger for it, and part of a healthier society.

There have been issues with this in the past – it is the right of a service provider to deny service to anyone on reasonable grounds, but is a religious aversion to homosexuality reasonable grounds for denial? No. Should a Sikh child be allowed to take a kirpan (or a Wiccan child an athame) to school, in defiance of the school’s ‘no knives’ policy? No. Should public sector workers be permitted to wear religious jewellery (in accordance with the workplace’s health and safety protocols)? Yes.

That’s not to say that I think that the public celebration of Christian holidays should be abolished – while the monarch remains both the head of State and head of the Church of England, this is a Christian country, and to deny that is to deny both my ancestors and my heritage. My argument is that society should strive for tolerance – if not acceptance – of all faiths and that the state and public bodies can use institutionalised secularism to better serve people of any or no faith.

It’s not rocket surgery – one law for everyone, the end. It makes us all equal in the here-and-now, no matter which invisible sky wizard says your people are the ones chosen to inherit a magical teapot in the ever-after.

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A deceptively simple game for one or more players (depending on how many friends you want to lose today).

Rules:

  • Alternate questions and answers.
  • Every question must be answered.
  • ‘I don’t know’ is never an acceptable answer, unless followed by ‘I’ll go look it up’ or similar.
  • ‘I need to think about that’ is only OK, if you do think about it and come back.
  • The only question permitted is ‘why?’.
  • The game NEVER ends.

Apparently kids are great at this game, but I propose using for some serious introspection.

Answers like ‘I like making people happy’ aren’t the end of the game, but the beginning. By prompting you to look hard at yourself and not only the motivations behind your actions but the motivations behind the motivations, you can begin to know yourself. Maybe you like making people happy because you want them to acknowledge you, or because you want them to do what you ask them, rather than because it makes you feel like a good person. If do you find a truly altruistic answer, then good for you; have a biscuit and try a different line of enquiry.

It isn’t an easy game, nor a short one, but it can bring huge rewards – once you de-construct yourself by constant, directed questioning*, you have to face and accept all the parts of yourself you don’t like or don’t understand before you can start to put yourself back together again. Once you’ve faced yourself, you can begin to change and grow.

That is your prize for playing.

*Undirected questioning – ‘why did I do that?’ or ‘what would have happened if I said…?’ – leads to self-doubt and guilt, which is the opposite of the Why? game’s intended outcome.

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