Regarding Organized
Paganism And Wicca
Susan Baskin

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Baskin"
Subject: Re: Paganism
Date: Sunday, July 01, 2001 10:40 AM

As polytheism, these religions lack the exclusivism and sense of superiority (not to mention the control-issue) that taints the monotheistic religions.

I'm not sure what would happen if Paganism and Wicca gained supremacy in our culture, but am hopeful that these movements would be too diverse to actually gain dominance in the same way that Roman Catholicism dominated in Europe, Islam dominated in the Middle East, and Puritanism dominated in certain of the American Colonies.

I would not be as fearful of the rise of Wicca and Paganism as I would be of a rise in, say, Islam, which displays the problems with Monotheism in all their glory. My criticism of Monotheism lives in the "What Is Theism?" section of my piece, Introduction To Activistic Atheism. ("What Is Theism?" is slated for revision, though my criticism of Monotheism is sure to remain intact.)
 

Becoming aware that the Earth is in trouble and believing that she can be saved are prerequisites to our even surviving for much longer. We are, in my opinion, in that much trouble already: we must have both if we are to survive. However, I am not convinced that the solution lies either in a grass-roots movement or in anything resembling reverence for Earth. I do consider overpopulation to be the main problem, and ignorance of science to be the main obstacle to solving the problem.

Government policies and corporate agreements can accomplish anything that a grass-roots movement can accomplish (it's possible; thus, I cannot rule it out however unlikely it may seem in light of what's happening today). Also, the grass-roots movement "can have a big democracy cake-walk right through the middle of Tienamen Square, and it won't do 'em a lick of good," as the song goes. Most of the world will still be under the thumbs of both the governments and the corporations, so we might do well to work this from a different approach -- where it counts. The governments want to keep the peace, and the most effective way today is through the economic viability of its citizens. The corporations want to stay alive, so it's not in their best interests to work toward the eventual extinction of their customer base. So, with or without a grass-roots movement, the governments and the corporations can be made aware that there's trouble a-brewin' and that we need to act in order to prevent disaster. Unrest and economic collapse are not healthy for governments, corporations, and other powerful entities, and the natural course of events will surely do this at least as effectively as any organized grass-roots effort.

Likewise, a simple realization that we need to act in certain ways if we are to survive as a species can accomplish the same thing as reverence for the earth. You can have all the idealism you want, but if people start going hungry, they will listen to their stomachs. True, some forms of Hinduism and a few other religious expressions have prompted people to starve rather than breach a taboo, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Most people are not as devout or fundamentalistic as this, and will listen to their "soul" only so long as their stomachs are not growling too loudly. Humankind has the advantage of being able to project the likely consequences of various courses of action. The memory of just one phase of my life where my weight dropped below 160lb was enough to permanently change me so that food is now my number one priority, and long-term economic stability is the key to not being without food. So, for almost two decades, almost everything I have done has had at least something to do with my ultimate goal of personal economic stability.

Michael Shermer, in his latest book, The Boarderlands of Science, does a fine job at handling what he calls the Beautiful People myth, showing that even Neanderthal and other advanced primates have littered the environment. Using case after case, he shows how indigenous peoples used up their resources to the point of rendering their food sources extinct, if not rendering themselves extinct in the process. The solution, Shermer suggests, is to recognize that using resources is a very human trait, that we would be beating a dead horse to try to change this situation. Then, he says, our best hope is to use science to figure out how to live, using resources (as we have always done as a set of species), and doing this without killing off our resources -- and ultimately ourselves.

I agree with Shermer that science is the investment most likely to succeed in this quest, and I suspect that striving for unanimity in some vague notion such as "reverence for the Earth" is not a very good bet. I'll put my trust in science to solve this problem, and if a grass-roots movement promoting respect for Earth as in intrinsically respectable entity can help, I won't oppose it. But that's not where I would focus my limited energies were I in a position of much influence and power and wanted to work toward saving the species. Science will work if we work it, but you never know which way the wind blows when it comes to a fickle public at the grass-roots level.

I would call overpopulation and ignorance of science (the study of our environment -- what it is and what it is not) to be the two major foes of Mother Earth. I don't see how thinking the earth is something that it is not (as advocated by some but not all of the "reverence for Earth" movements) can help us. It's interesting to note just who are the fiercest and most effective opponents of both accurate science education and population control (the most humane being, of course, birth control: contraceptives; the abortion pill; abortion itself -- in that descending order; the least humane being, of course, wars over diminishing resources and rendering entire people groups extinct through the depletion of their resources).

If push comes to shove, and humankind does not wake up and figure out how to exist without killing off our resources, we will go extinct and that will be the end of that problem.
 

I read it when I was a teenager, and read parts of it again about fifteen years ago when I was reading Hyam Maccoby's book, Revolution In Judaea. The "Passover Plot" scenario could tie in with Maccoby's idea, but I don't think we need to carry it that far, because the Jesus tales -- all of them -- can be explained as entirely mythical. In other words, it is next to impossible to establish the existence of a historical Jesus, so no element of "his" biography really needs to be explained in such detail. Stories such as this do provide a vehicle for exploring evidence that is usually ignored by the more orthodox explanations. In the case of The Passover Plot, the problems with the crucifixion and resurrection stories come to full light.

In Maccoby's book, the problems that come to light are the discrepancies between the way the Jews, particularly the Pharisees, are described in the Gospels, verses what we know about them from other sources. Ditto for the way the New Testament completely ignores the fact of the Roman occupation of Palestine, portraying all Roman characters in an almost pleasing light, while portraying Jews and Pharisees in a very poor light (in all but a few key incidents, which Maccoby exploits to the hilt). Maccoby presents Jesus as a devout Pharisee who thought he was the Messiah predicted in Zachariah, who would lead the Romans armies up to the top of the Mount of Olives where God would wipe them out in a big earthquake, ushering in a new era of Jewish self-rule -- but only if the people got their hearts right before God. (This explains why it was so important in Gethsemane that the disciples "watch and pray": If they did not, God would not save their country.)
 

My error for not reading this book all the way through. I have it on my to-buy list (which means I'm looking for a first edition with DJ) and will find time to read it before I go. I do know the basic gist of the book because during my first stint with Christianity, at about age 15 or so, I was seeing a Jewish psychiatrist. I distinctly remember, after he had been working on my religion problem for several weeks, dropping a mild dose of LSD (specifically as a gesture to say "Goodbye!" to religion), and that happened to be the day of my appointment to go see him. It was during this session that he showed me this book that consisted entirely of detailed medical drawings and cut-away views of birth defects -- not for those with queasy stomachs, and definitely not something you want to see while on acid! One drawing was of a child who had grown an extra skull-polyp growing atop its skull (whatever you'd call it), and a cross-section of how the brain grew into this skull-polyp -- which was about a quarter the size of the child's brain. It was clear, even at the time, that he was vividly challenging the notion of a benevolent Creator.

Then, during the same session, after I revealed to him that I was on acid, he pulled out his copy of the then-new "The Sacred Mushroom And The Cross and explained to me how the stories of the Gospel grew over the years, and how the magic mushroom was a key feature in a lot of the art at of the times. He was so facetious about it that it almost seemed as if he were trying to help me justify my use of psychedelics -- if the early Christians did them, they must not be all that bad! I now see that his point was that religion is no better for you than doing drugs. But at the time, I was thinking these were my two choices.

I have examined this book on a few occasions, but it is not the easiest read, as you probably know. Some books are written so that a sharp person can grasp them without necessarily being educated in a certain field. Other books require an advanced education even to read. Allegro's book came off this way, but then it's been a long time since I've seen it.

Continuing the theme I started above, this book showcases the problems with the transmission and development of the early Jesus myths into the cohesive New Testament presentation that we have today.

Another book I found fascinating, which (unwittingly) alerted me to this whole theme, is a rare Australian book called The Jesus Scroll. Staged as non-fiction with sort of spy-thriller undertones, archaeologist discover a scroll at Masada signed by the last of the Hasmonaean kings, Jesus son of Joseph (of Arimathaea) and husband of Mary (Magdalene). The author then covers each stage of the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels and culls out key passages, giving them a whole new interpretation that is possible though not necessarily common.

For example, if Jesus was next in line to be the Hasmonaean heir, then what would happen if his long-lost older cousin should suddenly appear after years of self-exile in the compound of an ascetic cult? Oops! So, what eventually happens to John? and why was Jesus portrayed as being almost cold toward him during his imprisonment? While not spelled out in the Gospels, with the background of the Hasmonaean king model, the notion that Jesus "took care" of his rival to the throne becomes very exciting reading. At the same time, troubling passages such as the way Jesus treats John while in prison are showcased as problems plaguing the traditional interpretation.

"The Jesus Scroll" is good because it covers many different trouble spots throughout the traditional Jesus story -- most thoroughly covered, of course, is the possibility that it was Jesus himself who was married at Cana. I am reminded of it because it likewise covers the "Jesus didn't really die, but was drugged" angle which makes the centerpiece of The Passover Plot.

Today, the only realistic model I know of is Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price. In it, the author shows that any "historical Jesus" model that any scholar concludes will inevitably a "Gospel"of that scholar's preconceptions -- the one notable exception to this trend bein Albert Schweitzer, who returned from his quest for the historical Jesus entirely disappointed in what he found. (But, of course! If Jesus already means enough to you to try to find out who he was, naturally you're going to find something special during your search.) Price shows how the historicity of almost any Jesus can be defended on paper: all one needs to do is accentuate certain evidence and suppress other evidence -- or flat-out lie, if need be. I currently agree with Price that we cannot know who (or even if) Jesus was, based on what we currently have at our disposal. Nevertheless, I find the study of the different Jesus theories very fascinating, and have at least exposed myself to most of the major presentations, if I haven't read the entire book or studied them in detail.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Baskin"
Subject: Re: Paganism
Date: Tuesday, July 03, 2001 2:23 AM

I find a similar trend in atheism, particularly that of the organized variety. Perhaps organized atheism fosters this point of view ("Join our group") or perhaps the vestigial group-think of organized religion is carried into a person's atheism, making atheist groups seem attractive to those who are already accustomed to the group scene.

Here are a few random, less-than-connected thoughts regarding how this situation pans out within atheism, as I cannot do any more than speculate when it comes to how this plays within Wicca. Remember, both atheism and Wicca are extremely diverse, and there is no such thing as generalizing about either, much less trying to find commonalities between the two. But perhaps there are a few similarities, at least in this situation, and you may wish to comment on one or more of my observations.

We grow up learning a certain style of thinking and then reject the subject of those thoughts (faith in God) while retaining the style of thinking (faith) which is derived from that subject (the notion that One True God exists and demands our loyalty, obedience, adoration, etc.). We reject theism (the notion of gods and the supernatural) but retain the loyalistic, authoritarian, dogmatic style and apply it to atheism. Thus, we still have people who think that others must come over to their point of view, but now that point of view is the idea that gods do not exist, rather than that One True God exists.

I encourage atheists to make the effort to abandon the fundamentalistic style of thinking, and I do this by suggesting that the god question is one of the stupidest topics over which we can get into a fight. We all have much more in common (theist and atheist alike) than we have differences, and only a dogmatic fundamentalist authoritarian monotheist really has "grounds" for wanting to see others come over to his point of view (although these "grounds" are really groundless).

It's really none of the atheist's business whether Johnny believes in Jesus or Abdul believes in Allah or Shri Krishnamurthi believes in the Hindu godhead -- except when any or all try to force the atheist to support or practice their religion or hold the atheist accountable to their religious laws. Then and only then does it become the atheist's business what goes on within the minds of the theist. In lieu of that, there is a lifetime of opportunity that has absolutely nothing to do with the god question, and there is a whole world of hurt that cries out for us to join forces (regardless of our private beliefs) and try to address.
 

Fundamentalism holds something true on the basis of authority, and the "truth" held by the fundamentalist is above scrutiny -- unassailable -- written in stone by the very finger of God, and who are we to question it?

Liberal scientific method says that no claim to truth is above scrutiny, that all claims to knowledge are only "truth as we currently know it," and that anybody at all is qualified to challenge any claim to truth. My favorite example is to point out that a lowly patent clerk is qualified to overturn the entire science of physics, provided that he comes up with new information that changes what we know. (Einstein was working as a patent clerk when he published the Theory of Relativity!)
 

I have the advantage of having been raised an atheist, steeped in liberal scientific method from a very young age, and never had to unlearn the fundamentalistic style of thinking. But this does not make me any better than anybody else, neither does it make my opinion more credible; it just spares me from the grueling experience of having to reprogram faith-based style of thinking that otherwise would have been indoctrinated into me from childhood. It also enables me to identify fundamentalistic thinking more easily because fundamentalism is so entirely foreign to my perspective that it stands out like a sore thumb -- especially if that style of thinking is used to defend atheism!

Hopefully, I can use this perspective in my writings and written dialogues in a way that will help others make the adjustment from a faith-based outlook to a reason-based process for making decisions and distinguishing between truth, falsehood, the indeterminate, the unknown, and the nonsensical -- always realizing in the background that anything we think we know is only our current position based upon our present level of education.

I think I have one additional twist in my experience that further helps me do this: As a young adult, I took a detour and spent almost three years as a Fundamentalist Christian. Thus I know what a painful and tedious experience coming down from fundamentalism can be! Even identifying the unhealthy styles of thinking which make up the religious outlook can be difficult, especially if it was a nearly insurmountable prospect just to reject the god-idea itself. But even after somebody identifies the patterns of thinking that justify faith, the process of unlearning those patterns can be quite tedious.

I do not envy the one who faces the task of reorienting their entire way of seeing things. After I came out of fundamentalism, I at least knew where I had been, but relearning the rationalistic thinking habits still took me years -- longer, I'd say, than I spent in fundamentalism in the first place! So, I am not quick to jump all over an atheist who is still caught up in the faith-based style of thinking.
 

I can see how a style of thinking borne of fundamentalistic monotheism could affect the Wiccan expression of polytheism, essentially destroying the intrinsic advantages that polytheism has over monotheism. Monotheistic concepts of deity teach that there exists exactly one god. If this were true, then teaching that there are other gods would be falsehood; thus, monotheism by nature requires loyalism to the creed. And this is precisely how the major monotheistic religions have acted: The god of the ancient Jews commanded the people to eliminate all competitors, saying, "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth." Jesus the Merciful allegedly said, "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (the "proof-text" used for centuries to justify burning the Wiccan's and the atheist's forebears over a slow flame to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd). Islam's motto: "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them."

Polytheism, on the other hand, tends not to foster in its adherents the malignant intolerance that we witness in many adherents of monotheism. The worst case that polytheism itself can encourage is the tribal competition we witness in the early parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, before monotheism began to mean that the other guy's gods don't exist: "My god can beat up your god" grew up and started saying, "My god exists and yours does not." But for the most part, the various gods and goddesses (and their consorts) each had jurisdictions (one god for each tribe) or the various gods had different functions (the rain god; the catfish goddess -- these later became the "saints" of Roman Catholicism). Even within Christianity, there were various courses for appeal (the Blessed Virgin Mary appeasing the wrath of her Son; Jesus propitiating the wrath of his Father via his work on the Cross; the Holy Ghost as "Comforter"). The more monotheistic a religion is, the higher the incidence of exclusivism ("We're right and you're wrong"), even if the appeal is spread out amongst a myriad of saints, virgins, and saviors. But polytheism, recognizing various gods and goddesses who are not necessarily superior but simply having different jobs and jurisdictions, tends not to breed exclusivism at all, because all the gods are real, I just don't have to pay attention to any but those over me. So I really have no ground to tell you that you're wrong.

Once, I even received a stern letter of denunciation from a Wiccan, who was angry because I asked her to place a copyright notice upon some work of mine that she had chosen to post on the Internet (it was posted with her copyright notice, and all I asked was that mine be placed immediately following my work so that I could retain the right to my work! Disgruntled, she said some things about atheism that I would only expect from a fundamentalist monotheist -- almost prompting me to revise my statements about the intrinsic advantages of polytheism.

However, I quickly realized that I was dealing with a monotheistic (exclusivistic) thinker who happened to advocate polytheism monotheistically (just as the atheist mentioned above advocated atheism dogmatically). Specifically, she had expressed the currently popular form of exclusivism practiced by both the Boy Scouts and the Twelve Step movement: any old god is okay as long as you believe in a god -- but if you don't believe in some kind of god, you ain't shit.

If a Wiccan is acting exclusivistically, perhaps she simply has not thought through the concept of exclusivism and seen that it is really the domain of monotheism, not polytheism. If a Wiccan simply has a superiority complex, this could be something else.
 

By the time I ended up in organized atheism, I had made the rounds and had realized that there is no such thing as an enlightened class, but now realize that we are all pretty much the same. While I will challenge the claim that religion has some inside line on morality, atheism does not make a claim for morality whatsoever -- it simply rejects the notion of gods and goddesses and the supernatural and the "spiritual" (whatever that is!).

True, many fine ethical systems have been developed and popularized which do not require gods and the supernatural, but most of them work just fine within the framework of theism. In fact, many modern expressions of theism have simply grabbed the somewhat successful atheistic systems and assimilated them into the theistic framework. The more dishonest ones will assert that these ethical systems were theistic to begin with.

The philosophy of Positive Atheism, as we advocate it, is derived, in part, from the Satyagraha of Mohandas K. Gandhi, and is admittedly a secularization of it: Gora challenged his friend Gandhiji, saying that there is nothing in Satyagraha that is intrinsically theistic -- and Gandhi agreed! But Gora never admitted that there is nothing intrinsically secular about Satyagraha either. Positive Atheism is an atheistic adaptation of some very powerful, tried-and-true ethical concepts, and many aspects of it shun certain forms of theism, but there are other forms of theism which could easily adapt our basic ethical system to their outlook.

So I try to go ahead and leave people be about their religion, and only speak out when their religious expression intrudes upon the lives of the rest of us. Monotheism has within its philosophical structure a strong tendency toward exclusivism, and it is very difficult to practice and advocate monotheism without becoming exclusivistic -- but it is not only possible, it happens all the time. Likewise, polytheism contains many protections against exclusivism, but some who practice and teach polytheism do so with all the exclusivism one would expect from a monotheist. Similarly, we have atheists who are very theistic in their atheistic expression, and theists who are very rational, atheistic, or scientific in their theistic expression. In other words, their theism resembles the very absence of the faith they preach! (This concept is tough to translate into word, and I can only hope that I got my ideas across!)

What I think happens is that very few people actually think through their religious and philosophical outlooks: they simply learn to repeat certain creeds from a very young age, and then learn to assert to others that "this is what I believe." But they don't really believe it because they don't even understand what they are saying! They have never thought it through, but are merely parroting a creed. In the more sophisticated expressions, they know better than to parrot a creed, but still robotically "parrot" a style of thinking -- even if that style does not coincide with the tenets of their belief system.

The difference with a philosopher is that the philosopher has thought through the options, reexamining all the propositions that have been discussed throughout the history of philosophy. The philosopher, then, can explain to you not only what she thinks, but can also chart the process whereby she came to her current understanding of reality, and can even tell you what kinds of arguments would cause her to change her views on even her most tightly held beliefs.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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