26 July 2014

Community Is Important: A Post-PLC Comment

During the radio discussion about the Polytheist Leadership Conference, atheism came up. I didn’t actually say anything during that part of the discussion, but there are some thoughts I would like to communicate based on others’ words.

First off, I am a polytheist. I am not an atheist. There is no dancing around this fact, and due to this difference, I intrinsically believe that the atheistic position is wrong. Ideological relativism and multiple points of view break down when deeply-held thoughts regarding the ultimate nature of reality and gods come head to head.

My belief that the position is wrong does not mean that I respect a person who is an atheist any less, or that my opinion of their wrongness means that we cannot have meaningful and deep interpersonal interactions. (I also believe that Abrahamic monotheism is an untenable position, and I actually have more problems with it than I do with people who are religiously apathetic or nonreligious.) Does this mean that I think atheists should abandon their ideas and become polytheists? No, because I don’t proselytize, and one of the fundamental components of respect is not harping on others’ behavior unless the behavior becomes annoying. Not everyone needs to hear recitations of Sallust’s On the Gods and the World, section XVIII, because it’s just not appropriate.

Which brings me to my next point.

I think that everyone who went to the Polytheist Leadership Conference loved being in an environment where everyone else, despite our radically different beliefs in some cases, identified with the term polytheist enough to go to Fishkill, NY, to have fruitful and engaging discussions. Human beings have an intrinsic desire to feel like they belong and to feel validated by the group because we are social animals (although, admittedly, everyone experiences this in a different way due to personality). We had the chance to experience this, and it was fantastic.

Atheists are also human beings, and I can definitely understand the desire to engage with people who have similar viewpoints about the nature of reality. Atheists have every right to build their own nonreligious communities, and I don’t think that their atheism makes them any less capable of discussing human nature, our place in the world, and other intensely deep philosophical topics. It’s just going to be a very different discussion from the ones that we have in polytheistic circles due to the different assumptions about initial conditions. A community they establish does not have less value.

The problem is, of course, proselytizers. One example: A subset of evangelical atheists trolls the Internet making horrible comments about people with religious beliefs, such as that we should all be sterilized, or that raising children in a religion is a form of child abuse that should be prosecuted. And I’m not lying. I have seen multiple instances of this on the Internet. Instead of focusing on positive philosophical commonalities, these individuals have created the negative god that someone mentioned during the radio broadcast. This doesn’t mean that they worship anything. It means that the atheist community they have chosen to build focuses on conversion and tearing down outsiders. Creating a sense of belonging through identifying a common enemy is a pretty widespread and intrinsically human thing to do, but communities that don’t move beyond this will fall apart. In the case of proselytism in atheism, the antagonistic position really threatens to redirect attention from that antagonist’s own philosophical development. I think that effort would be better spent exploring big questions from within the system of atheism. To put this into context, the reason why I rarely talk about my discomfort with Christianity on this blog is that I think energy spent on such activities takes energy away from contributing to my own religious community, and so of course I will recommend that others manage their time and energy in the same way.

I think it is possible (and, in fact, demonstrably factual) that there can exist an atheism that does not proselytize. There are models for this in other types of communities, and it’s not like one needs to proselytize to recruit. Most paganisms and polytheisms grow by word-of-mouth and interest. Even the things that have historically proselytized, such as the Orphic and Bacchic mystery cults, do not necessarily do so in their modern incarnations. People make information available. They organize events and let interested parties make their own way into the communities.

This is easy with the Internet. Ideas spread like arrows flying swiftly to their targets, and people will always find the community they need if they are hungry enough for engagement, regardless of their core ism.

And, to add: It’s far more important to me that people explore life philosophically and live with integrity and authenticity than it is for them to agree with me about gods.

17 July 2014

Polytheist Leadership Conference (A Summary)

“No one has told the pagan blogosphere that we're here, right? Because all of us are in the same room. If they knocked us all out right now, we'd be done.
– Someone at PLC
On Friday morning, I awoke at 6:00 AM and extracted myself from bed to pack so I could catch the 8:50 AM Metro North train, get off at the Harlem-125th Station, and take the Hudson line up to Fishkill, NY. The “All You Can Eat” issue of Lucky Peach and Robert Mirabal’s In the Blood (of which “Medicine Man” and “Pottery Shard Man” have become fast favorites) almost made me forget that I am a chronic pacer.

I made all of my trains, thank Hermês, and found myself at the venue for the Polytheist Leadership Conference shortly after noon.

The first thing that happened was me saying to Sannion, “Hey! I know you on the Internet.” I said that a lot during PLC because it was true, and I am painfully bad at introductions. Shortly thereafter, Ruadhán reminded a group of people that when T.J. Alexander’s writings refer to the insidious feminist infiltrator hell-bent on destroying Hellenism from the inside out, he is actually referring to me. I was instant friends with everyone present during that conversation, so it looks like the taxi pulled into the correct conference. Also, the infiltration scheme is working.

The opening remarks from Galina were fantastic, and that was followed by a prayer to the collective dead. I wanted to mention something about World War I from the beginning, but waited until it sounded like others were mentioning the dead beyond ones whom someone honored religiously or who had been active in polytheisms, paganisms, &c. World War I has been on my mind as of late, namely because the podcast Hardcore History is doing a series on World War I right now in honor of the centennial.

During the opening keynote, Reverend Tamara Siuda said something that I thought worth writing down: “Priesthood should mean more to us than an anti-Christian political move.” These words spoke to a lot of my experiences growing up pagan in the rural Midwest and encountering other young pagans in college, where I actually ran the Association of Smith Pagans for a year and a half (junior and senior year, barring the semester that I was studying in the Greater London Area). I know a woman from Smith who was pagan more out of hatred at her Roman Catholic high school experience than out of genuine belief. She’s now a happy atheist, which probably suits her better.

Rev. Tamara also recommended three books. While targeted at Christians, she said that the concepts behind the arguments were helpful for any religious group: Antagonists in the Church, Well-Intentioned Dragons, and The Wounded Minister.

The next presentation I attended was given by Kenaz Filan, and it was called “The Language of Deity.” Language is one of my favorite things. The discussion about how we use monotheistic conceptions of deity and practice and how hard it is to renegotiate cultural conditioning to bring ourselves into a more polytheistic frame of mind was an important one. I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons for Apollôn figuring heavily into many conversions is because he is the god who oversees colonies, and breaking worldview conditioning is sort of like colonizing the self with a different memetic framework.

Filan brought up the concept of the Roman paterfamilias and its relationship to the Latin word pietas, which is very different from the modern (and heavily Christianized) idea of piety. He also referred to himself and other devotional polytheists as the “polytheistic shock troops” who frighten basically everyone new. I brought up that it’s then the responsibility of people like me to come in with smiles and say, “Hey, household worship! And this is how to do less intense, yet important stuff ...”

Another comment here brought up the strong current of honoring the ancestors that was present throughout the entire conference. Approaching the ancestors and the spirits of places is something that modern polytheists often overlook, although it’s an important thing to consider.

That evening, Rhyd Wildermuth presented “Radical Relationality and Polytheism.” He’s an Anarcho-Marxist, and the talk relied heavily on those ideas. Rhyd brought up the idea of divine trauma, or the first time one experiences the horrifying beauty of divine reality. Many of his points circled around the abolishment of the Commons and how that impacted the way people could live. Private property, while it provides a sense of ownership of something, takes common ownership away from individuals who have nothing else, and it destroys their ability to be self-sufficient. Controlling land is related to controlling the way people practice their religions. One of the takeaways of this is that we should boycott Dr. Bronner’s Soap on principle.

Edward Butler’s presentation on Saturday morning was excellent. I’m not going to recap it. Read the paper while listening to Florence + the Machine or whatever else grooves you into a “hell yes” frame of mind, not that you’ll need it. He needs to make audios of his papers available on his web site.

The presentation on the Ephesia Grammata was really different and quite awesome. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus gave a thorough overview. I took three pages of notes. There is apparently a book at a very reasonable price. E explained the history and context of the words, in addition to a (probably) modern divination practice that seems to work out well.

So! Contemporary polytheism! Julian Betkowski gave a talk on this. First, “individual cultus misses the relational quality” of place. A lot cultus relies on a social contract that we have made with the gods. They have given us specific things that we need to do, and we had better do them. Second, Many paganisms have a strong tendency to collapse down the mystery traditions, household religion, and public religion into one giant thing. Under this system, everyone is declared a priest, when in fact many people (like me) just do the normal and natural household cultus. Third, when the Catholic Church started, the first thing they tried to get rid of was the household cultus. It’s where polytheisms are strongest, and it’s the core of the practice. Reductionism has to stop.

And then Anomalous Thracian gave a talk. I took down a quotation that was funny. It was also filled with profanity. That entire session was awesome.

The last presentation I went to was the panel on sexual ethics. It was very good. Most of the people on the panel discussed sexual ethics in relationship to their religious practices, although Rev. Tamara had one very interesting point: Sexual ethics and sexual misconduct are conflated, but the two are actually quite different. She illustrated this point by asking for a show of hands as to how many of us thought that this panel would be about rape &c. The panel was quite good, but I had to duck out just as the moderators were about to call on me because I needed to call a taxi to the train station. If you want to know what I had planned to say, read the “Did we really think that we were any different from mainstream America?” section of this post I wrote a while ago. You’ll have the gist of it.

Overall, the experience was really awesome. The people were awesome. We are all just completely awesome.

Also, radio. A lot of us were being awesome on it on July 16th. You should listen (it starts on the near side of halfway through). This link might change at some point.

13 July 2014

A Libation

Front notes: I realize that the PLC is still technically going on, but I left last night to attend a picnic today. The polytheistic blogosphere has been eerily quiet since Friday, but I am betting that it will explode with posts tomorrow. For my part, because I dislike writing posts longer than 1,000 words, I am compartmentalizing experiences into themes and tangents, so it will take me a few weeks to get through all of this. 

On Friday night at the Polytheist Leadership Conference, I was wired-tired, which foiled my 9:30 attempt at winding down to sleep. Neither Rifftrax's Sharknado nor my girlfriend’s stay at my apartment on Thursday night when I had to wake up at 6 AM to get ready for the New Haven and Hudson Metro North trains was conducive to a full night’s rest.

So, in short, at about 11:30 PM* on Friday night, I was kicking myself for not attending the Dionysian thing in Room 1, but it was probably for the best, as I was basically drunk from fatigue.

One of the giddiest things about the Polytheist Leadership Conference was meeting people face-to-face for the first time, which affords a certain ability to put vocal inflection and faces to previously faceless and voiceless Internet communications. Social contracts solidified in person become tangible intangible webs, and there is nothing that can serve as a proxy for the subconscious shift that this creates. (Well, arguably Google Hangouts. We should do these and experiment!) I’m also an excitable extrovert. I was superbly excited to be around other hard polytheists, so it took me a short while to think through ways to express my gratitude. The excitability might explain why I was so wired-tired on Friday night.

I decided to do a sponde to several deities: All of the deities to whom I am in any way a devotee in addition to all of the Athanatoi, just in case a god whom I don't know was responsible for making things work out as well as they did. I made libations to Apollôn, Athênê, Hermês, the Erinyes, and to ... all of the Athanatoi, as previously mentioned. Some lush words were spoken.

I don't remember exactly what I said. All I know is that I was happy, I was making offerings to my gods, and I was finally tired enough to consider sleeping.

* In other words, at 8 AM on Friday, I looked at my bottle of melatonin and said, “I'm not crossing time zones. I don't need that.” I put it back on my supplement shelf and headed out. Whoops.