Thursday, May 28, 2009

Your Prayers, Our Magic--Do They Always Help?

It's a common argument among Pagans--Witches in particular--when conversing with monotheists to say something like, "What you call prayer, we call spells," or words to that effect.

No doubt we think ours are better. No one is testing them, but there have been a number of studies attempting to quantify the effects of "intercessory prayer," usually meaning prayer for people facing health crises.

Some seemed to show that such prayer helped, results that were seized upon by Christians.

But the results of one are not so simplistic, reports Christianity Today magazine. (I urge you to read the whole thing.)

The study received some attention at the time [three years ago], but seemed to have escaped the notice of many Christians, probably because of its surprising—and for Christians, disturbing—conclusions.
. . . .

The result: The group [of surgical patients] whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

Where does that leave people who say that you should get permission before "working" for anyone?

The authors then turn theological:

Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations [!]. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God's blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers.

And then they have to jump through more theological hoops to answer the obvious question, "Then why pray at all?"

Obviously, that is not our theology. Pagans do not expect the gods to conform to our standards of either/or logic.

But try reading the article and substituting our language for its authors'. How would you respond?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Happened to Ecopsychology?

Lupa posts on bioregionalism, animism, and ecopsychology.

When M. was in grad school in psychology in the 1990s, she hoped that ecopsychology would be the Next Big Thing. Articles on the psychological affects of interacting (or not) with the non-human world were popping up in places like McCall's magazine. Addressing "nature-deficit syndrome" would be a component of it--even the Girl Scouts are onto that.

But as an overarching concept--even without acknowledging "spirits of place"--ecopsychology does not seem to have caught fire except in a low-level therapeutic way: "Gardening makes you feel better."

Possibly related is the way in which a certain kind of self-righteous environmentalism may be ripe for mocking. Are we still too leery of assigning spiritual value to non-human nature? Doing so has been a component of American spirituality since around 1800, as Catherine Albanese wrote in Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. But it has always been a minority position, although a well-established one.

I used to start my nature-writing students with the "Where You At?" quiz. It offers a quick immersion in bioregional thinking and blends both non-human and human cultural material.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pagan Travel Blogger

The Examiner blog network, which signed Murph Pizza to cover Paganistan, now has a Pagan travel writer, Paula Jean West.

Are we a niche market, or what?


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The New York Times Wants You to Stay Helpless

Don't turn your soft, computer-tapping hands away from the keyboard and pick up a hammer. That seemed to be the message in Sunday's New York Times. Self-reliance is dangerous.

This woman made a mistake when replacing a toilet. So, therefore, she should not learn from her mistake and do it right the next time. She could call a plumber instead.

When in doubt, do nothing. Call the authorities.

Then there is this story about a peril for urban gardeners -- lead in the soil from the days of leaded gasoline and older paints. The hazard could be real -- and the article presents some fixes -- but I cannot help thinking that the underlying message is "Don't even try growing your own food."

Remember, boys and girls, the government and the official state-approved priests always know what is best for you.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Hymn to Extrication and Destruction

In my role as a volunteer fireman in this little hamlet, I went to a "vehicle extrication" class today in a nearby town. That meant learning to use the "Jaws of Life" (firemen just say "splitter") and other hydraulic tools for ripping apart vehicles in order to remove injured occupants.

In that larger department's classroom, the instructor had written on the board:
Welcome to Vehicle Extrication
Cut It. Split it. Ram it.
And all I could think of was Aleister Crowley's "Hymn to Pan." (YouTube version here.)
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
I'll bet Uncle Aleister would have liked to see us ripping the roofs and doors off of motorcars.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gallimaufry with Gray Matter

Ten myths about the brain.

• Paganistan gets a designated blogger in the Examiner network, Murph Pizza.

• A "prehistoric pin-up"? Archaeological video from the journal Nature.

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Patheos' Pagan Gateway

I have had the privilege of helping to create the "Pagan gateway" on, a new interfaith religious portal site designed to help people find " credible, comprehensive, easily accessible information on religion and spirituality."

Founders Leo and Cathie Brunnick are trying to create a site that is comprehensive, academically sound, but accessible to everyone, with all the usual bells and whistles -- discussion forums, blogs, etc.

Time's article on the overall Patheos site produced some picky responses on the GetReligion blog.

Of course Patheos will be compared to -- from the Pagan perspective, I think it is a lot better. I wrote earlier about my bad experience as a blogger with Beliefnet.

The "Arts & Entertainment" link is not yet working, but will have information on musicians, movies, and so on.

Go visit, see what you think, and stake out a spot on the discussion board. The Pagan Gateway team is supposed to seed them with provocative questions.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Concentration and Its Enemies -- II

I blogged recently on concentrating on one's work in an online world ... wait, I have to check some blogs ... OK, I'm back.

At John Tierney's blog the discussion continues. All sorts of perspectives:

Fortunately, I am able to focus, but one of the reasons is because I have schizophrenia, although now it is in remission

What are the dogs barking at?

Another commenter says,

I sometimes find that low-volume, rhythmic, bass background sounds (e.g., the thrumming of an airplane’s engine, some examples of techno music) help me to concentrate, or, at least, to concentrate on material that doesn’t require my full attention.

I concur. (movie reference--got to look it up.) An iPod loaded with "trance" or some techno music can indeed put me in a bubble where I can get some kinds of work done.

Hey, look, a kitty!


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gallimaufry with Confusion

• The latest weird search query to bring a visitor to this blog: "Is New Mexico a polytheistic, monotheistic, or animistic religion?" Hello? New Mexico is a state. No wonder that for years New Mexico Magazine has had a standing column on geographical confusion called "One of Our 50 is Missing."

• A
TheoFantastique [Morehead] : Cinema has also changed in its depiction of the witch. Are fairytale depictions as in Harry Potter, as well as those which depict the empowerment of the feminine perhaps the most common modes of expression in contemporary film?

Carrol Fry: Yes, the empowerment of the feminine is the most popular adaptation, whether the film is supportive of critical. I’m sure this has to do with attracting an audience for the film. But Pagans might well feel that Hollywood slights their spiritual paths by concentrating nearly exclusively on feminist Wicca, and then just on the most sensational elements. By the way, there’s a strong subtext of feminist Wicca in
that no one much notices, most obviously in Sophie’s (named for Sophia from the Gnostic tradition) blunders into a Wiccan ceremony in which her grandfather is “drawing down the moon” as a coven ceremony. There are a few other witch films that are not part of the culture wars, romantic films such as I Married a Witch
and Bell, Book and Candle that are neither the silly version of witches (that have nothing to do with Neo-Paganism[sic]) such as the Harry Potter novels and films nor adaptations of Wicca.

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Fame and Pagans

An essay by Cat Chapin-Bishop on seeking fame as a Pagan has gotten some attention. Her Quaker side is conflicted by the idea of being a "Big-Name Pagan," thanks to the Quaker ideal of not seeking worldly glory.

I do not see anything wrong with seeking fame if we define it as "excellence." After all, if you strive for years to do X and have some skill at it, you will eventually be recognized by the community of "People Who Do X."

Put Pagan authors, etc., in that group: we are not known that much outside of Pagandom.

There is of course an unhealthy form of fame-seeking. We all know the people who think that they deserve the front of the line based on their celebrity.

Here is one difference, perhaps: Teaching.

My favorite philosopher, Gary Snyder, once wrote that while artists and writers in a sense occupy the top of the cultural food chain, they are in turn eaten -- scavenged -- by their students.

So maybe teaching X after you are famous for it is one protection against fame's unhealthy self-delusion. Give it all away.

Paganism does not require us to creep around in grey clothing saying, "Oh, I am no one special."

On the other hand, all fame is fleeting -- unless you are offered a deal like Achilles: short life and fame or a long life.

He chose the former and now, something like 3,200 years later, Brad Pitt plays him in a movie.

But for most humans, fame is just the foam on the cappuccino. You may enjoy it, but you should not mistake it for the real drink.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Back from the Florida Pagan Gathering

I have not tried to sleep over all-night drumming since I was a little kid, when my district-ranger father would let the Indians from the Pine Ridge Reservation put up a temporary dance arbor each year on Forest Service land by our house, across from the Indian Health Service hospital in Rapid City.

That was Plains-style drumming--Boom Boom Boom--mixed with the jingle of ankle bells, and this was polyrhythmic drumming, but the principle was the same: treat it as white noise and go to sleep.

A few margaritas from the pirates' camp helped the process along. Pirates in Florida are iconic.

I am back from the Florida Pagan Gathering, whose organizers inexplicably decided that my research pre-occupations (What is "nature religion"? Why did people claim that witches used flying ointments?) were worth flying me halfway across the country at Beltane so that I could talk about them to the dozen or so people (out of 700) who wanted to hear about them. Thanks, everyone!

FPG is a big, well-organized event held at a 4H camp owned by the University of Florida. It has room to grow there, and the organizers want to grow it.

A comment that Margot Adler made in one of her talks has stuck with me. At one time (pre-1980) covens and other Pagan groups were mostly separate. Then came the era of national festivals--I remember one of our coveners coming back from one of the first Pan-Pagan festivals in 1980 or '81, walking two inches off the ground and full of new chants and songs to teach the rest of us.

That era established a sort of common ritual and musical culture, she noted, whereas now we are into the era of semi-professional and professional entertainment, and the brief common culture is diminishing. On the other hand, hearing Spiral Rhythm do the calypso version of "Eko Eko Azarak" was sort of a kick.

I have been working alone in my little house in the woods all winter, and FPG was "bright lights, big city" to this guy. It has been ages since I attended a big festival and got that "temporary autonomous zone" rush.

UPDATE: Coincidentally (there are no coincidences) Cat Chapin-Bishop is blogging on the phenomenon of Pagan celebrity. Two of us who were at FPG have already chimed in in the comments.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Concentration and Its Enemies

When I compare working at home now to the last time I did it (1990-1992), I can see the difference in three letters: DSL.

When email meant dial-up and Compuserve charging me by the minute, I monitored my online time carefully.

Now concentration comes harder. Sometimes I work in the guest cabin, because it has no telephone -- not even a cell-phone signal -- and of course no Web access.

Furthermore, says Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, "multitasking is a myth."

“You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”


Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Cheesecake is Divine

God Cafe, Eustis, Florida. Photo copyright 2009 Chas S. Clifton

The God Cafe in Eustis, Florida. Closed on Sundays. Here is some background.