Guttershaman, “…of Jedi and jail”

2 May, 2010

So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre

Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.

So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.

A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.

This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.

For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.

The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.

The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.

And it’s a game-changer.

What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?

So far, the established religions have a hard enough time admitting any other faith deserves the same recognition or rights they they have. The case of Patrick McCollum in the US offers a sad example of the situation as it stands. McCollum is a Pagan priest who wants to be a prison chaplain. So far, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is refusing him permission to do so. The reason they offer – which is supported by a Xtian protest org perfectly named The Wallbuilders – is that there are two tiers of religious belief under the US Constitution. The First Tier consists of the so-called Big Five faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American – who have all the rights and privileges. The second tier – everyone else – simply don’t.

Needless to say there’s a lot of pressure from pagan groups, and people who seem to have actually read the Constitution, against this opinion. The case is, to date, unresolved.

But now we have this precedent, that Jedi-boy has all the rights and privileges of any other believer.

I use that word ‘privilege’ carefully. Its original meaning, ‘private law’, seems more than a little significant under the circumstances. One rule for the First Tier… and there’s nothing so galling to the privileged as being made to share with the rest of the group.

There is of course one New Religious Movement that’s managed to secure itself all manner of rights and privileges – the Church of Scientology. Suffice it to say that recognition of your faith’s status is fairly easily enhanced by having access to lots of expensive lawyers. (Though it doesn’t seem to have helped them any in their home state of California, as noted above. Maybe there are some things money can’t just buy?)

(Interesting to compare this to the UK situation. As I understand it, members of any faith, including pagan, can be prison chaplains in Britain. I don’t know if anyone’s tried to be a Jedi chaplain yet, but I do know that all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland have the equivalent of their own Scientology chaplains and spiritual services… and there are precisely three Scientologist prisoners in the whole system.)

So – how does society decide which beliefs should be respected? Who decides? On what basis? Who gets to choose what is called real?

Obviously, the belief systems which hold the current monopoly of privileged status aren’t going to give up their exclusive specialness without a fight – which, judging from previous displays of their intentions towards anyone disagreeing with their beliefs, will involve everything from whiny protests to inciting murder. So there’s that to look forward to.

Meanwhile, my position is this:

I honestly believe all religions and beliefs are, at best, stories. Possibly stories with some level of truth to them, but no less mythological for all that. We can debate the degree of ‘truth’ at the core of each ’till the cows come home – but it seems to me a politeness for all beliefs to meet on an equal playing field. Certainly, the hard core believers will insist that their faith deserves privilege above the others because theirs is the Real True Truth… but after the first fifty or so different flavours of believer stating that with a straight face, it gets real old, real fast. Either raise all beliefs up to the level of the most-favoured… or bring them all down to the lowest. No special pleading, no tax breaks, no exemptions from civil law on grounds of belief. Everyone gets the same treatment. From the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to the Na’vi one. From Sunni and Shia to followers of Sol Invictus and Satan and Scooby-Doo.

Then, finally, perhaps we can all compare notes about what we believe, and how we see the world, like civilised people.

Yeah. Sure.

(Next time on Guttershaman – looking deeper at the ‘Hyper-Real’ religions via the work of Adam Passamai, who coined the term.)

Advertisements

Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

8 April, 2010

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

———————————

It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

———————-

Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…