Putting the mockers on

4 April, 2009

I have to smile when The Economist agrees with me… in an opinion piece about the awful UN resolution regarding ‘defamation of religion’, they say:

 The resolution says “defamation of religions” is a “serious affront to human dignity” which can “restrict the freedom” of those who are defamed, and may also lead to the incitement of violence. But there is an insidious blurring of categories here, which becomes plain when you compare this resolution with the more rigorous language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in a spirit of revulsion over the evils of fascism. This asserts the right of human beings in ways that are now entrenched in the theory and (most of the time) the practice of liberal democracy. It upholds the right of people to live in freedom from persecution and arbitrary arrest; to hold any faith or none; to change religion; and to enjoy freedom of expression, which by any fair definition includes freedom to agree or disagree with the tenets of any religion.

In other words, it protects individuals—not religions, or any other set of beliefs. And this is a vital distinction. For it is not possible systematically to protect religions or their followers from offence without infringing the right of individuals.

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Mocking the king, not the subjects

4 April, 2009

I’ve made it clear before that though I think that mockery and satire are a good and necessary thing, but only when applied upwards – by the relatively powerless to the powerful. Mockery by the strong of the weak is merely cruelty. Fred Clark gets this, completely. In this weeks installment of his deconstruction of the Dominionist Xtian apocalyptic wankfest Left Behind series, he posts on the Slacktivist blog, he sinks his teeth into a scene where the born-again protagonist wields his not-so-scathing wit at a woman who is not his boss. The mysogyny and stink of entitlement in the scene are palpable. Fred says:

Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That’s never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That’s never funny either.

Buck Williams isn’t the court jester, he’s the sycophantic court prophet. The court prophet isn’t funny. (Nor is he really a prophet.)

The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It’s what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

..That’s what makes it funny. That’s what makes us laugh.

Everything that Buck does in the Chicago bureau of Global Weekly is intended to tear down the lowly and lift the powerful onto their thrones, to fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty.

That’s not funny. That’s the opposite of funny.

Cullenism – every generation gets the religion it deserves?

3 April, 2009

Now I’m hardly one to complain about people drawing on fiction as a basis for their spirituality. But…

A cult of devotees has sprung up based on the teen-vampire-porn-without-the-sex Twilight books.

Blogger (and fan of the series) Amanda Bell writes:

These Cullenists believe “[j]ust like any other religion,” that there is some spirituality to be had in the Twilight series, forming rules and principles upon which to base their tenets. Their creed, say the Cullenists, includes a base set of beliefs that “Edward and the rest of the Twilight characters are real,” that “[t]he Twilight series should be worshipped,” and that “[i]f you are good in life, you will be bless[ed] with eternity with the Cullens.” Other than that, say the Cullenists, there “is not a limit to what you can believe in when it comes to the Cullenism religion . . . we will accept any other Cullenism beliefs you may have.” Cullenists are also expected to read some of the books on a daily basis, “like the Bible” and make a pilgrimage to Forks.

She also gently observes:

While religion and spirituality are a first-hand and very personal experience, and others who formulate their own principles and guidance to help them maneuver through and stay afloat in this challenging, frustrating, and sometimes depressing thing we call life are often praised for their individualism and bravery, the Cullenists might be stretching it a little.

I think the key thing here is not that these people work with fiction in search of meaning – it’s that they insist their mythos is real. That whole it’s-just-a-metaphor thing eludes them. Just like any religion, of course.

And for Valen’s sake, couldn’t they at least draw on a less shite mythos?

(The original post which the above quotes draw on is here, with an update after their fandom went into inevitable meltdown here. The latter would indicate the characters are possibly being used more as Loa than full-blown deities, which could work… but without looking harder on the now-closed forum, it’s hard to tell. I suspect this one could run and run…)


American Fascism and the Divine Feminine

19 August, 2008

Two pieces of note:

Gary Lachman appears to have suddenly discovered Dominionist Xtianity… actually, it’s a good and thoughtful piece, not only about the influence of mysticism on politics but also how he tries to synthesize past and future in modern times. Worth sticking through the comments thread for GL and Daniel Pinchbeck arguing about the importance/value of the 2012 meme and much else.

Speaking of dualistic propositions… this piece by Elizabeth Debold is on the false oppositional dualism of male and female, and considers how to address this in creating a modern female sense of divinity. Food for thought – especially in her consideration how steeped in Victorian ideas of the gender divide Carl Jung was, and how this colours his archetypal models.


Guttershaman – Meanings and Patterns, part 1

5 August, 2008

“The trouble with humans is, we’re all too symbol-minded.” Jolane Abrams.

What do I mean when I say that I’m a magician? What is magic, anyway? And what kind of person goes around believing in it these modern days?

Definitions of magic are many and wide – even if I stick to using those of practitioners rather than anthropologists and such. (A very interesting recent consideration of this by Taylor Ellwood appears here. )

Rather than rehash that debate, I’ll offer my very rough working definition – magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.

For me, magic has always been about seeing and making patterns – connections between events, people, symbols, myths. What would be mere coincidence for someone who is not a magician can be a rich signal from Fate to one who is – or, depending on the timing and the mindset of the mage, just an amusing synchronicity. Pattern-making is the core of the oldest magical theories – from the Law of Similarity onward.

There’s a technical term in psychology for faulty pattern recognition – apophenia. It’s the sort of word used to dismiss conspiracy theorists and ‘schizophrenic’ points of view. The problem with that of course is, what exactly is ‘faulty’… especially if that pattern can give rise to a magical action which results in actual change in the world. (And of course, who gets to define faulty.)

Pretty much all human thought, by definition, is about manipulation of symbols. Language is made of patterns of symbols interacting – and if the language lacks a symbol for a concept, it can’t express that idea. Most people, most of the time, do not question the symbols they use, or the patterns made by them. They only rarely question whether the symbol-set they inherited is a faulty pattern or not. To do so isn’t just frowned upon, it’s immensely difficult to do – because the person doing so is trapped by their own language. (I’ll be talking a lot more about this in later posts.)

Large and sucessful patterns of symbols (Richard Dawkins’ memeplexes) have great power, even over those who do not actually consider themselves a part of them. Religions, scientific models, the amorphous thing we call culture… these things shape us, define most of what and how we think.

One way to look at the difference in perspectives could be:

Religion insists on a single pattern for the world, declared by their prophets. To be a member of a faith, you have to stick to that single pattern. If you contradict the pattern, you’re out – or become the prophet to a new religion.

Science claims to define the underlying pattern of the world, and tries to test that pattern. Some parts of the pattern get changed, slowly, when a new variant on the pattern which fits their observations comes along (and enough scientists actually agree that the new pattern is better).

Culture is the mix of old patterns from religion and science, home and abroad, myth and fiction and fashionthe sea in which our ideas swim. This changes constantly, influences all within its range to varying degrees.                                  

Magic uses patterns of all the others and makes up ones of its’ own, mucks around with them and uses the result for its’ own ends.

(I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification. Among other things, there’s a lot of crossover between religion and magic – and the black sheep of both called mysticism. There’ll be more on this as Guttershaman continues.)

Of course, some patterns work better than others, in some circumstances, for some people.

Which patterns work best for magic? Usually, ones that have an emotional resonance for the mage. This wash of emotion is the fuel – or perhaps better, the catalyst – for the magical act. Emotional patterns are rarely logical or organised… and can come from a relatively pure interpretation of a belief system/culture/memeplex, or a hodge-podge of seemingly (to the outside observer) unrelated influences, or anything inbetween.

And it doesn’t seem to matter where those patterns come from, or even if those patterns are (for want of a better word) real – sometimes, they just work.

(I think it’s this emotional subjectivity that particularly offends Rationalists on the one hand and religious types on the other. Both insist that their dogma is an objective truth and that to oppose it or treat it as less than The Complete Truth is just a form of stubborn rebellion, sin, or mental illness. They of course miss that their own beliefs are just as subjective and emotional as the mages – and usually a lot less flexible.)

(This, no doubt, would be the point that a rationalist would point to modern technology and say something like, “this is the proof that our theories are the right ones! Our machines work and we understand why!”
To which I would say… religions made all sorts of nice kit too – churches, books, powerful mind-altering songs and chants – and they were certain they knew why theirs worked, too.
Basically, I think the modern dogmatic rationalism comes from a massive dose of insecurity on the part of its adherents. They know on some level just how recently magic and science were part of the same world-view and hate to be reminded of it. The rest is an understandable fear that the achievements of the ‘Enlightenment’ will be lost as fundamentalist religion tries to regain its stranglehold on the world – and there I have some sympathy.)

Aside from all that of course comes the question of how magic works. What those ‘means’ I mentioned earlier are.

My own view is I have no bloody idea how it works.

I have some theories – tested in practice – on how it can work… But underlying that is a distinct feeling that however we attempt to describe the working of magic, it relies heavily, perhaps completely, on metaphor and simile, on patterns of symbols – and that those metaphors change depending on the ideas and myths available at the time.

I think that’s one of the more interesting aspects of being a magician in these heavily interconnected days. Rather than our range of myths-and-metaphors being limited to the local religious practice (or crude rebellious inversions of same, i.e. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer Backwards) or our immediate cultural influences, a modern mage can find the whole range of human thought to work with, to create patterns from. Or at least the bits that got put in books or online… (Of course this has always been true to a degree – culture absorbs foreign ideas constantly, and magicians are creatures of their culture. But modern communications makes that mixing faster and more complex.)

For example, it’s fairly common for mages these days – as I did above –  to use meme theory as a basis for magical models (and oh, how I’d love to be a fly on the wall when the arch-rationalist prophet Dawkins hears about that!). It’s a handy tool, to be sure – and the point that meme theory is in itself a meme has a nice recursive aspect, always a plus in magical theory. But it’s just another pattern, another metaphor.

The question then is… a metaphor for what? What do these symbols actually symbolize?

I’m kind of old-fashioned about this. I think the thing which a magicians patterns and metaphors try to describe/work with/approximate is the Numinous, The Ineffable, the thing which is beyond/before words or symbols.

It has no name, so I call it Tao.

(Coming up on Guttershaman: More on the word Shaman. Where religion, science, mysticism and magic meet – and usually have a row. Words and symbols, and what may lie beyond them.)

(And something about movies and comic books. Just because.)


Choose your superstition wisely…

29 July, 2008

Been on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but this is too good to ignore…

Birmingham (UK) city council has blocked its staff from looking at some religious websites, but not others:

Lawyers at the National Secular Society said the move by Birmingham City Council was “discriminatory” and they would consider legal action.

The rules also ban sites that promote witchcraft, the paranormal, sexual deviancy and criminal activity.

The city council declined to comment on the possible legal action, but said the new system helped make it easier for managers to monitor staff web access.

The authority’s Bluecoat Software computer system allows staff to look at websites relating to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions but blocks sites to do with “witchcraft or Satanism” and “occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism”.

Nice that they class atheism as a form of mysticism… but otherwise really dumb.


The death of UK monotheism in a century?

23 June, 2008

Found via Disinfo.com:

Laura Clout writes in the Telegraph:

“Research by the Orthodox Jewish organisation Aish found that just over a third of people thought religions like Christianity and Judaism would still be practiced in Britain in 100 years’ time.

Although four in 10 people said they would choose to be a member of the Christian religion, almost the same number said they would rather practice no religion at all.

Buddhism however, proved more attractive than both Islam and Judaism, and was chosen by nine per cent of those questioned”

At last! A good reason to pursue longevity!