Monday, December 12, 2011

AAR Annual Meeting, Part V

Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University presided over the Contemporary Pagan Studies session on Pagan Analysis and Critique of "Religion on Monday afternoon. 

Suzanne Owen's paper described "Definitions, Decisions, and Druids: Presenting Druidry as a Religion."  In England, where they do not have separation between church and state, residents are asked to state their religions on census forms.  For religious groups other than those of the state religion to thrive, they must be sanctioned or approved or in some way officially recognized by the government.  In recent years Druids have sought, and eventually received, such recognition.  Dr. Owens' paper detailed their efforts.  During Q&A, Patrick McCollum noted that this case in England has been useful in efforts here in the U.S. for inmates who are Druids (and other Pagan inmates) to assemble as a group in prison chapels for worship and ceremony.

Dr. Christine Kraemer, Cherry Hill Seminary, delivered an excellent paper on "Perceptions of Scholarship in Contemporary Paganism."  Of course, since Christine is Chair of CHS' Department of Theology and Religious History, I'm confident that she's knowledgeable and current on such matters.  She offers several examples of Pagan critiques of Pagan scholars and their responses -- Ronald Hutton, Ben Whitmore, Aidan Kelly, Don Frew, et al.  While confirming the value of these critiques, she also cites Richard Hofstader's contentions, propounded in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , that this attitude is "historically rooted in deeply held American values such as egalitarianism and democracy." He claims that nineteenth-century evangelical religions have influenced American thought so that it expresses "more heart-centered than head-centered values," and that this attitude is found among modern amateur Pagans as well.

Helen Berger, Brandeis University, delivered a paper called "Fifteen Years of Continuity and Change within the American Pagan Community" that follows up on her earlier studies.  She noted that religions either die or change.1  Among the changes she found in her follow-up studies are: 
  1. The population of American Witches and Pagans2 who are female has increased from 65% to 71%.
  2. Pagans are geographically more evenly spread, pointing towards "normalization."
  3. Pagans are more educated than most Americans; 98% have high school diplomas compared to 87% for the rest of the population.
  4. There are fewer "older" Pagans.  I don't recall that Helen specified what age would be considered "older," but it appears that more of her respondents were "younger."  This fact, coupled with the fact that religions either change or die, reinforces the need for us to explore the notion of eldership, as I've been doing.3
  5. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed claim to be solitary; 86% of "younger" people consider themselves to be solitaries.
These data provoked lots of questions.  For me, I wonder if the fact that so many claim to be solitaries reflects perhaps: A dearth of teachers and/or training covens? An unrealistic expectation of what covens are? An indication of poor social skills and difficulty getting along with others or building trust with others?  A move away from a more private practice and towards a preference for larger-group or community rituals?

Caroline Tully, University of Melbourne, delivered the final paper, "Researching the Past as a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions."  Caroline is someone many of us have known for some years online, but on this, her first trip to the U.S., we had the good fortune to meet her and hang out.  Her paper reminded me once again of a phenomenon in Paganism that I call a "yearning for authenticity."  Many people, not just Pagans -- Christians are a fine example -- seem to require evidence of antiquity or of a long unbroken (or broken and reclaimed, revived, reconstructed) tradition to cite as a claim of authenticity, to claim credibility.  I am not among them.  On the contrary, I see much syncreticism in almost every religion of which I have some knowledge.  I don't think a religion is more or less authentic because of its alleged antiquity.  I think it's authentic if it speaks to its practitioners' spiritual needs, if the practice of its forms offers meaning and comfort,

Later I attended the Comparative Studies in Religion Section session on Noncanonical/Nationalist Reinventions of Religions' Narratives of Origin, Christopher Patrick Parr, Webster University, presiding.  Chris, who teaches religious studies and I had encountered one another at other sessions and we had a friendly chat before the meeting began.  The subject intrigued me.  Pagans have many stories of their origins. All religions and ethnicities and groups of people seeking to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, or seeking to define themselves, and seeking a sense of group solidarity and cohesion, have narratives of origin.  We Pagans have a few ourselves.

I apologize ahead of time for confusion about which speaker was speaking about what, since the program only listed their names and not the titles of their papers.

The first speaker said that there were numerous neopagan nationalist groups in Russia who posit an advanced Russian civilization before St. Cyril, and that they claim a conspiracy of silence on the part of monks and others to suppress knowledge of this earlier time.  These groups are more bookish than outdoorsy and do not perform outdoor rituals.  They claim a mysterious Russian or Cyrillic or "planetary" alphabets comprised of 147 characters, and that the monks' theft of this alphabet paved the way for aliens and alien culture to proliferate in Russia.  Slavs had an autochthonous alphabet and writing before Cyril.

To me, the most interesting paper was about Buddha Shakyamuni and Mother Earth, or Mae Thoranee.  Mae Thoranee is a Thai and Laotian Earth mother figure found beneath the Buddha in statues and paintings.  The fingers of the Buddha's right hand touches the earth.  A tiny image of Mae Thoranee appears underneath the larger image of the Buddha.  This Mae Thoranee foundation upon which the Buddha rests reminds me of the appellation of Mary as Mother of God found in Catholic prayer.

Mae Thoranee, protrectress of the land and its fertility, exists in localized versions.  She is both animist and Buddhist; the soil is her spirit and the trees are her children.  Merit is stored in the water in her hair.  She is shown wringing water from her hair, pouring the waters of merit to redistribute it among any wandering spirits.  One of the slides showed a statue of Mae Thoranee in the act of wringing water from her air on the grounds in front of a civic building.

Another paper was about Takeuchi Kiyomaro (1874-1965), a priest of the Shinto sect known as "Takeuchi-bunsho," dating from the 3rd-4th centuries CE.  The speaker told of how this sect, and others, asserted the superiority of the Japanese people.

* * * * *

Tuesday morning, the last half-day, and which session to savor? I was interested in:
  • Ethics Section, Economic Ethics and Political Reform, in particular, "Whole Foods or Whole People?: The Madness of Neoliberalism and the Paradoxical Political Economy of Hunger" and "Reforming Economic Excess: Towards a Solidarity Economy."  I don't know how much effect a bunch of academics talking about these topics might have to influence economic change or to fill empty stomachs.
  • North American Religions Section, Industrial Effervescence: Manufacturing Economic Selves and Producing Religious Collectivity in American History, in particular, "Gilded Age Railroad Brotherhoods as Industrial Religion" and "Parts of a Whole: Ecological Consumerism in a Global Age." I find the whole culture of railroads fascinating, and know little about it.  I'm also intrigued by brotherhoods, lodges, and other "in-group" organizations.  I suspect we could learn more about creating group cohesion, group identity, group solidarity from studying these phenomena.
  • Women and Religion SectionPerforming Gender and Identify through Song in South Asia, "Dancing with the Goddess, Singing for Ourselves."
However, I attended the session on North American Hinduism Consultation, California Dreaming: South Asian Religions Encounter the Counterculture.

"Utopian Settlements, Californian Vedanta, Huxley, Isherwood, and Friends," presented by Smitri Srinivas of UC-Davis, described places and people I've heard of or encountered in my years in California.  It was interesting to hear these times spoken of from a historical and analytical perspective when one has some awareness of how they have influenced one's life.  I say that as a person who lived in the heart of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s.

"The  Reception of Kundalini Yoga in California and Its Relation to Sikh Dharma/3HO," was presented by Michael Stoeber, himself a practitioner of kundalini yoga.

"California Hinduism: The Shiva Lingam of Golden Gate Park, 1989-1994," by Eliza Kent, Colgate University, related to a new audience a story I like to cite when the topic of sacred images and sites comes up.  I remember when this occurred; it's a wonderful tale.

Jeffrey J. Kripal of Rice University and Shana Sippy, Carleton College offered thoughtful responses.  I'm familiar with Dr. Kripal from my readings about my matron, Kali Ma.  He wrote Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna as well as other writings on Kali.

I enjoyed comments from people of a certain age, myself included, during the Q&A session at the end of the session.

As I was leaving the room, I was pleased to encounter Samir Kaira, a friend from the Hindu American Foundation.  I had expected to run into others from that organization over the course of the Annual Meeting, but other than seeing Dr. Mihir Meghani at the Pagan studies reception on Saturday night, I saw no one.  No doubt this is because there were so many intriguing sessions and they probably focused on the Hindu related ones while I focused on the Pagan ones.


1.  Interestingly, it is our survival, and the changes necessary to ensure it, that motivate my work.

2.  She did not, to my knowledge, make a distinction between the terms Paganism and Witchcraft.

3.  Please see my survey on Survey Monkey  Note that this survey has been extended to January 15, 2012, so if you haven't already participated, I invite you to do so now.

1 comment:

Caroline Tully said...

Hi Macha,

It was great meeting you - finally! Although we did hang out, I would have liked to have spent much more time with you, listening to everything you had to say, and maybe some time in the future we can. ~Caroline.