Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thinking about Deism

Some months ago I read a book I found intriguing. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher who happens to be an atheist.  He spoke from a mainstream position in the sense that the religions he considered, the ones he's most familiar with, are the Yahwist ones.  I viewed his comments in that light and was able to find much food for thought.

There are now a few other books addressing the topic of excessive piety (primarily of the Abrahamic persuasion). Among them are:

The most recent is Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I've read Hitchens' work in Vanity Fair for some years.  He's as irreverent a fellow as you'll find anywhere.   However, he does have an ethical sense of goodwill towards humankind.

Last night when he was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on AC/360º about the death of evangelist Jerry Falwell, his responses were utterly scathing.  He made no allowance for any possibility that Falwell might actually be sincere in his beliefs.

A few days before I read a review of God Is Not Great in the SF Chronicle, wherein this quote from the book appeared:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racialism 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.

Besides my claim that no one can accuse Pagan religions of being organized, this quote got me to thinking of which of these claims was accurate in my perception and which might not be, as well as which characteristics I regard as being not beneficial.

In my experience of the best of our Pagan religions, we do not propagate violence, irrationalism, intolerance, hostility to free inquiry, contemptuousness of women and coerciveness toward children.   On the contrary, my particular brand of Paganism espouses just the opposite: "We foster the questioning attitude." (Reclaiming Principles of Unity)  In those ways, I think we're more evolved, if you will, than some of the more conventional religious paths.   I think those attitudes come from many influences, not the least that we've been an outré religion, out of the mainstream, occult, if you will (shadowed, hidden).  We arose from the counter-culture in the '60s and '70s.  My stating this is not to discount our roots and earlier walkers along the paths we consider Pagan, merely to put things in some kind of useful perspective.  We have been misunderstood and demonized, so we learned early on to keep to the shadows, to maintain discretion, if not complete secrecy.

All that has changed in the past 20 years. The change accelerated about 15 years ago, went into warp speed with the advent of the World Wide Web about 10 years running, and in the last five years has exploded, shedding glitter and glamour and cultural influence throughout the common culture.   I attribute much of this acceptance to the work done by various public information officers in the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG).  Although CoG is the oldest and largest organization of interdenominational Witches, this PR work has benefitted all Pagans, as well as others who choose unconventional religious pursuits.

The legacy of this hiddenness, however, has been our rather highly developed sense of tolerance for those who do not reflect the overculture, those who march to a different drummer.  I think tolerance is one our Pagan gifts to the area of interfaith colloquy.

Within the wider Pagan population, some confirmation of Hitchens' accusation of alliance with racialism and bigotry can be found, unfortunately.  They are the minority.  I believe their attitudes stem from feelings of marginalization and disrespect and what I call a "yearning for authenticity."

We live in a pluralistic world.  Everywhere humans have ventured upon this planet there has been cross-fertilization and blends of genes.   There ain't no "pure" anything.  The race is the human race, homo sapiens, hominid erectus, the naked ape.  (My opinions leading to this statement come from readings of, among others:

Alas, I digress.

The term that really stopped me in this Hitchens quote is "tribalism."  He asserts that religions/theologies promote tribalism.  Well, what exactly is tribalism and what is a tribe?  I know that the feeling we (using the term loosely for Pagans like me) get when dancing ecstatically round the bonfire is one of belonging to a tribe.  The feeling I get when I gather with other Pagans is one I could only describe as tribal.  Tribe being "a distinctive, close-knit social or political group."  Tribal being "a tendency to form groups or strong group loyalty."  Tribalism: "the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one's own tribe or social group."  These last three definitions are listed in the unnamed dictionary on my iBook dashboard as being "derogatory." ???

I like them, and I don't feel derogated by having them used to describe me and mine.

In the complex and fragmented society in which we live, I think we all seek a feeling of belonging.   Better yet that sense of belonging resonates in our skin, our bones, our heretic hearts.   When I talk with other Pagans, when we discuss things at rituals, gatherings, festivals, social functions, online, I feel we are a tribe defining ourself.  And that feels very comforting.

It's not that I feel especially alienated. I  have a family who love me. I have kin of both blood and choice.  So it's not that, exactly.  Although I must admit that the majority of my chosen kin happen to be of one or another Pagan persuasion.   But also of many sexual, political, professional, and intellectual persuasions.

Our tribal identity is fostered by many symbols, songs, books, rituals, words and terminology, and other cultural manifestations we hold in common.  Most obvious is the witchen (for those who do not, strictly speaking, identify with the Pagan path of Traditional British Wicca) symbol of the encircled five-pointed star, the pentacle.   Today pentacles are inscribed on the tombstones of Pagan military casualties.  This is a huge step in recognizing our tribalism in a public way.

Again, I digress. I had thought to consider tribalism in light of monotheism or polytheism.  As a polytheist, I feel I can name, worship, honor, praise, and identify with any deity or deities at any time I'm called to do so.  Every 19 days I light a candle to tend the flame of Brigit in Kildare.  (See my "Bridey in Cyberspace" in Irish Spirit: Pagan, Celtic, Christian, Global, Patricia Monaghan, editor.)

I attend Kali pujas on the New Moon near my home.  Kali Ma has been my matron all my life. She has come upon me, acted through me, and loved me for all of my magical life.

To me, these deities are as real as anything.  They stir my soul, they can make the hairs on my arms stand up, send a shudder up my spine, fill me with love and joy.  And sometimes they don't.


Hecate said...

However, he does have an ethical sense of goodwill towards humankind.

Well, as long as those humans aren't Moslem. Hitch is none the better for his love affair w/ Lady Alcohol. He's been a huge proponent of the Bush junta's war against brown people. But he was one of the few voices w/ a national audience willing to say that it's a good thing that Falwell's no longer here to hurt America.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Hecate, I base that comment on the moral outrage Hitchens expressed in his reports about deplorable situations in various African nations. Mostly he seems to be a snotty smart-ass.

As for Jerry Falwell, I’m no fan, but even Al Sharpton, and others who knew him personally say he was a nice fellow.

Some people can be personable yet filled with dreadful ideas about how society should conduct itself, while others have great political ideas but less-than-pleasant personalities.

Ronald Reagan is an example of the former. Even former Mother Jones editor Deirdre English found him charming in spite of herself. Jerry Brown exemplifies the latter: generally good politics but a humorless and somewhat pissy personality.

We humans are complex critters.