Friday, October 31, 2008

Pantheist Quaker Pagan

Maybe I'm a pantheist Quaker Pagan. My theology is pantheist. My values and culture are Quaker. And my inspiration is Pagan. I haven't decided yet about the Paganism. I like some things about Paganism and I don't like others. Paganism is diverse, so it's not like all Pagans have to believe all the same things. The question is whether I believe enough of it to apply the label to myself. Or maybe the question is whether there's a branch of neopaganism that fits me. There is a community of Quaker Pagans. Perhaps the Quaker Pagans are the branch of neopaganism that fits me, but I don't know yet.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Paganism book

The book was Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions by Joyce and River Higginbotham. The authors seemed to be well-read, and looked at the histories of religion, science, and philosophy. They presented things in a very simple manner so it would be easy to read and understand.

They addressed something I've noticed in real life: the way many people in my culture have a fear of paganism and equate it with devil worship. They looked at how through history, groups have demonized other groups. Over many years, I've seen many people equate neo-paganism with devil worship, and it always seemed incomprehensibly odd that people could be so dumb. It's like the people who are afraid that Obama is secretly a Muslim.

Neo-pagans are mostly Wiccan, but there are also many other kinds of pagans. Wiccans often refer to themselves as pagans (similar to how many members of specific Christian denominations refer to themselves as Christian). The book talked about the various kinds of pagans, but focused mostly on the modern American neo-pagans, especially on Wiccans.

Like those in many other religions, Wiccans use things like candles, incense, ritual words, ritual cleansing, and silent meditation to access the divine. The difference is that Wiccans focus more on our interconnectedness with nature rather than on a male religious founder and a male image of God.

I found some things that I liked. The main thing that I disagreed with was people who take things farther than I would, or take things more literally than I would. I had the same reaction that I do with Christians, "Do you mean people actually believe that this is literally true?" But you don't have to believe that certain things are literally true in order to consider yourself a pagan. I do find that a Wiccan or pagan outlook does contribute something to my spirituality.

Here are some things that I liked in the book:

Page 59:
I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. This book follows the development of philosophy over many years and offers excerpts from key philosophers. Some ideas in the book support each other, but many are contradictory. As I read through the book, however, I began to get a sense of wholeness, a sense that all of the philosophers were talking about the same truths and that all of them were "right" even though they contradicted each other....It was as though I saw below the surface arguments and surface contradictions and caught a glimpse of a river that flowed through them all.
Page 76:
When it comes to God, religions often get into trouble by stating that a particular idea about God actually is God. ...Those who describe and experience Deity in one way become suspect to those who experience Deity differently....When people make their ideas about God into God, they give Deity a permanent address. If the belief structure declares that God lives at 1 Almighty Drive, for example, then they will no likely look for God living even just next door at 2 Almighty Drive, and certainly not as far away as 7 Chakra Lane or on the Tao Freeway. From this perspective, if such a person encounters Deity on the Tao Freeway, then he or she must have the wrong Deity!
Since pagans are often called Satanists, there was an entire chapter about Satan. One thing that I found interesting in that chapter (p. 105) was:
It may come as a some surprise to you, that by the end of the second century C.E. and the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), most Roman philosophers were monotheists. Although Deity was addressed by many names, the hymns and anthems began to identify the Deities with one divine being. By the time of Marcus Aurelius, many Romans took for granted the unity of all gods, and demons, in one divine source. Part of what upset the Romans about the Christians was not their monotheism, which both groups shared, but their concept of Satan. As Platonic philosopher Celsus wrote in 180 C.E., he believed that Christians showed their ignorance in "making up a being opposed to God and calling him 'devil,' or in the Hebrew language, 'Satan.' It is blasphemy to say that the greatest God has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good."
Meanwhile, the things I'm reading about the scientific method in the textbook for the class I'm taking are remarkably compatible with the things I've been reading about paganism. The textbook is talking about how we don't live in a mechanistic world of simple cause and effect, but how many different things interact with each other.


Lazy is what they call people like me. Because they think we aren't really sick. It's not like a broken bone that you can find on an x-ray, or chicken pox that gives you spots.

On the bright side

  • From sitting on the floor, you can reach the microwave and all three shelves of the refrigerator.
  • If you don't get dressed all day, that saves the energy of putting on pajamas at night.
  • If you don't put in contact lenses all day, that saves the energy of taking them out at night.
  • If you don't eat much because it's too much work to prepare, that saves the trouble of washing the dishes.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Health was just a passing phase

I was healthy for 9 days. I was like, "What is wrong with me? I never feel this good."

But now it's the 5th day of being out of that phase.

Yesterday I took a vacation day. I meant to get stuff done -- homework, laundry, groceries. No such luck. Did not get out of my pajamas. Did not put in my contact lenses. Did not take a shower. Did not pick up the mail.

I read Arrow's Flight by Mercedes Lackey. In it the main character, Talia, was losing her grip, having a hard time doing the things she was supposed to do. But there was no one she trusted, so she just kept it to herself and tried to pass for normal. Reading that on a day when I was not healthy, I identified with that. I've found that talking to people usually just makes things worse, so I just go through the motions of being a normal person.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The day after

The day after Saturday is Sunday.

The day after a good day is a tired day.

The seasons of life

The seasons can be viewed as a metaphor for life. The time from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox represents gestation. You can't run around outside, but under the snow, you are warm inside and growing, so you'll be ready to burst forth to the spring. The vernal equinox represents birth. The time from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice represents youth. You are bursting forth, blooming, learning, growing. Summer solstice to autumnal equinox represents adulthood. You are sailing along, doing your thing. Autumnal equinox to winter solstice represents aging. Things are starting to change color and fall off. And winter solstice represents death, the end of the year.

The seasons also represent life on a shorter scale, the ups and downs we go through on our journey through life. For the past two and a half years, I have been in winter. A time to stay in, a time of solitude and introspection. At first, I tried to find my way into summer. Every time I thought I saw a way, I'd leaping into it, running around outside in my shorts, and getting frostbite. Now I've learned to stay inside and enjoy what the winter has to offer. It's a time of productive introspection, a time of peace and serenity.

Visualization exercise

There was a visualization exercise in the paganism book I was reading. First you imagine that you put on glasses that cause you to think that everyone doesn't like you. Then you imagine that you put on glasses that cause you to think that everyone likes you. I learned two interesting things from it:

1) In my regular life, I operate as if I expect no one to like me.

2) When I imagined expecting everyone to like me, the biggest thing I noticed was that feeling not sick/not tired was a key ingredient of it.

The fatigue that has been on me since mono is sometimes like walking around carrying a refrigerator on my shoulders. I can pass for normal, i.e. I go to work and get my groceries, there's just this invisible fridge constantly weighing me down.

Except I've been getting better, and right now there is no fridge. Right now, I'm a bird soaring in the sky. With a fridge on my shoulders, it takes all my effort just to put one foot in front of the other. But now that that weight is lifted, I can fly. I can transform into that person who expects people to like her. I can engage in healthy activities, like learning, thinking, creating, and rollerblading.

A good day

Mark this day down in history. Today I was healthy. Not only that, I had a sense of happiness and well-being.

I have actually been healthy for a little over a week now, since I went to the naturopath the Thursday before last.

The sense of happiness and well-being is something that I usually get when I'm on vacation. I get it visiting my mother or visiting my father. I got it at the Clearwater festival. I got it visiting Daisy in Venezuela. I got it going to Maine by myself. And that's most of the vacations I've been on in the past four years. I also got it a week ago. That day I went to the garden, rollerbladed and talked to Daisy on the phone.

The happiness and well-being can come without health. Well, maybe not when I'm feeling regular sick, but if it's just a matter of the post-mono lack of energy, that's okay, because I can be happy spending a cozy day reading indoors.

Today my sense of happiness and well-being emerged when I finished rollerblading. It was further nurtured when I went to the radio station afterwards. I enjoyed listening to music, being around people, and talking to Harry and Rich.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What is my religion?

My recent posts on the elements of religion and not taking religion too literally lay the groundwork for the more difficult question of what is my religion. I'll frame this discussion using the elements identified in my earlier post.

Culture: I live in a Christian culture. Although my Christian culture views pagans as evil and has spent centuries trying to eradicate paganism, elements of paganism are actually still entrenched in my culture. We see them in Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and May Day traditions, and in the names of our months and days of the week. We also see paganism in our culture's fantasy novels. As someone who reads fantasy novels, I am accustomed to finding paganism in most of the fiction I read.

I grew up Quaker, not all my life, but from mid-childhood through college. There's also a less obvious, but more powerful way that Quakerism influenced me. My values were influenced by how my mother raised me. My mother's values were influenced by the way her mother raised her. My mother's mother was brought up in a Quaker family. Even though my mother was not raised Quaker, she was raised with Quaker values, because she was raised with her mother's values, and she passed those values on to me. Transmission of values through my family is what made me feel instinctively that certain things are right or wrong. The education provided by Quakerism is what gave me a conceptual framework to understand the meaning of these values.

Theology: I am a universalist. I believe that there is some indescribable something that is too abstract for us to understand directly. Religions are different ways humans have of making something concrete which helps us glimpse that which is abstract. Religions are human constructions and susceptible to corruption. As I've written in two recent posts, the way they often go wrong is that people believe the religion is the end itself, and they become devoted to the religion rather than using the religion as a telescope to see what is beyond. To me, this is idolatry.

Some people would call me a nontheistic. I don't believe in the reality of an anthropomorphized God or gods. I do believe that these anthropomorphized gods can be a part of what I described as "making something concrete which helps us glimpse that which is abstract." But the idea that there really are actually beings who control what happens, appear to us in visions, or send us signs, is just not true in my belief system.

However, I don't think of myself as a nontheistic. Talk of God makes sense to me, it's just that my conception of God is different. What I believe in is a sort of magic (but not really magic) sense of connection between everything. It makes sense to me when Christians say, "God is love." What I believe in is described in Joe Crookston's "Sylvan Song." Here is just a part of the lyrics:

It's in the blooming of an orchid
It's in a baby when she smiles
It's in the sugar of a maple
And in the silence of a hawk
It's in your mother and your father

It's also expressed in the concept of "ambient magic" in Tamora Pierce's Circle books. In these books, magic can be found in everyday objects and chores, and can be accessed through meditation, as well as through connecting with other people.

I don't literally believe in magic, any more than I literally believe in a God who talks to people and controls things. When people say, "It was God's will," or "Leave it in God's hands," it makes sense to me because I understand it metaphorically rather than literally. I don't think there is an actual dude doing things. What it means is that there are times when we have to accept that there are forces at work in the universe beyond our control. These forces are not gods deciding how things out to be. These forces are things like the free will of a billion individuals, and the laws of physics.

The sense of magic, or sense of connectedness, is a state of mind, it's something that exists in our neurons. We evolved to have a sense of spirituality because having it helps us work cooperatively with our fellow humans and helps us use the earth in a sustainable way. Because we evolved to have a sense of spirituality, we feel healthier and make better choices when we nurture that sense of spirituality. However, there is diversity among humans. If someone does not have a sense of spirituality, then there may be no benefit for that person to be religious.

There are people who see everything in black and white and who think everything must be logical and rational. To these people, religion does not make sense. These people would say that I am a fuzzy thinker because I say I believe in a magical spirit pervading the world, yet I also say it's all just an illusion in our neurons. Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice was an important work because it made the case that those viewed as fuzzy thinkers by dichotomous thinkers are not necessarily less intelligent. In my opinion, reality is complex and no one can fully understand it, but those who come closest are those whose brains are big enough to hold ideas which seem inconsistent with each other. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn says that scientists work assuming that a certain model is true. A scientific revolution occurs when a better model is found. The fact that these models keep changing shows that our current understanding may not be a perfect representation of reality. However, Kuhn has found that research done under one model results in findings that are still useful under a new model. Moreover, science is able to make more progress working under a model than working without a model, even if the model is eventually proven to be flawed. I think that's why seemingly contradictory ideas can both be valuable. The two ideas come from two different models. Neither model is a perfect representation of all of reality, but both models are useful in helping us get closer to understanding reality.

What religion am I? I've found three religions that have some commonality with my theology and culture: Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, and neo-paganism. All of them fit my culture in some way, but let's take a closer look at the extent to which each fits my theology, values, and rituals.


The fundamental belief in Quakerism is that there is that of God in everyone. That fits with my theology. However, Quakerism overall tends to be more Christian-oriented than I am. There are Quaker universalists and Quaker pagans, so perhaps I'd find my niche with them.

Quakerism is the strongest fit with me for values. Sometimes with Unitarian Universalism and neo-paganism, I note that some value that I hold strongly is absent. People in these traditions may agree that it's a good value to have, but they just don't hold it strongly as a core of their religion the way the Quakers do.

Quakers fail to inspire me when it comes to rituals.

Unitarian Universalism

My theology is consistent with the UU seven principles and six sources. However, I feel they don't represent my values as strongly as Quakerism does. I think they do better with rituals than Quakers, but there is still something lacking when it comes to rituals.


I have firsthand experience with Quakers and UUs, but I mostly know about paganism only through reading. Whether dealing with Christians or pagans, I want a religious community that doesn't take things too literally. Some pagans believe in weird stuff, just like some Christians believe that we got into this mess because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat an apple. But there is room in paganism for many different beliefs, and some beliefs are more consistent with mine. My concept of God as being a spirit of magic and connectedness seems to fit with paganism. I like the way pagans are close to nature. I like that their holidays are based in the passing of the seasons. Their rituals do appeal to me in a way that Quaker and UU rituals don't. I like their values, but still feel that Quakers are the strongest match for my values. I think I need to get some more experience with pagans to find out how compatible they are with me in terms of theology, values, and rituals.


I need to get more experience with paganism before I can really come to a conclusion. I currently think that many things about paganism will fit me, but Quakerism seems to be the strongest fit for my values. There is such a thing as Quaker pagans, so maybe the answer to the question "what is my religion?" is Quaker pagan.

Perhaps many people find it hard to find a religion that matches them in theology, culture, values, and ritual. I get the impression that many people attend church to get the ritual, but don't agree with the theology of the church offering the ritual. It seems that our mainstream religions haven't kept pace with science. According to Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, it's time for a new reformation.

A full cast of gods or heroes

Christians worked so hard for centuries to eradicate all that evil polytheism, but meanwhile they invented a full cast of saints, angels, and Biblical characters.

The modern, not particularly religious people have their characters too -- superheroes, game characters, actors, athletes.

It seems to be a part of human nature to create a cast of legendary characters. I think it's okay if religion does this. This goes back to my recent post on not taking things too literally. Religion addresses that which cannot be contained by our finite, concrete world. We have to make the ideas concrete so we can relate to them, and one way of making them concrete is to make up a cast of characters. It's good as long as we remember they are just pointers to what is beyond. If we start thinking that the characters are the gods themselves, then we have become corrupted into idolatry.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Elements of a religion

In pondering the question of what is my religion, I came to the conclusion that there are really several different elements:
  • Theology: Religions are based on certain beliefs related to the existence of one God, of many gods, or of no gods.
  • Values: Religious beliefs may cause people to give food to the hungry, refuse to participate in war, or kill doctors.
  • Culture: Religion is a cultural expression. A religion that shares my values and theology but comes from a different culture will not fit me.
  • Ritual: Religion provides us with activities that help us get closer to a state of mind in which we are inclined to act in accordance with our values, and away from a state of mind in which we act out of self-indulgence.
We can think of our own theology and values, but it is not easy to be in an environment where everyone around us has theology and values that are very different from ours. Through religion, we can find others who share our theology and values.

We can do rituals on our own, but often rituals that take place within a religious community are more inspiring than solitary rituals.

I've heard it said that Unitarian Universalists are ridiculous because they go to church and do Christian rituals but they don't actually believe in Christianity. People think it is silly of them to be going through the motions of something they don't believe in. But I don't see it that way at all. Their theology is different from that of traditional Christians, but they come from the same culture, so it makes sense that their rituals are similar.

Similar rituals can serve people of different theologies. Meditation, prayer, chanting, singing, dance, yoga, and lighting candles can all be spiritual expressions. They all get people to that spiritual place, it's just that different people find different theologies and values when they get there.


Yet another example of how I'm culturally out of step with the people around me. I just don't see having a flyover by military aircraft as an exciting way to mark a big, celebratory occasion. To me it's just a reminder of how humans voluntarily bring death and destruction upon each other, not just as a few individual psychopaths, but on a mass scale, organized by respected governments. And they take my money to pay for it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sarah Palin

Apparently some people favor political candidates they can relate to, i.e. people who are as ignorant as they are.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Religion should not be taken so literally

Religions attempt to describe that which is indescribable. Their descriptions can only be an approximation of the thing they are trying to describe. That's okay, because these descriptions are guideposts that help people find the way to the thing that can't be described. Different religions provide different sets of guideposts to the same thing. We choose the religion whose guideposts help us find the way. Because we have different cultures and different personalities, different people find different sets of guideposts helpful.

The problem comes when people take the guideposts to be the destination. We need finite representations to help us find the way, but we should not treat the finite representations as the end goal. To do so would be idolatry.

A religious message is a finite expression of an infinite idea. Religious messages need to be understood as metaphors for that which can't be made concrete. They should not be taken literally. When they get taken literally is when the damage ensues. Religion gives us some guidelines for how to live in order to get in touch with the infinite. Different religions have different guidelines. Even though the roads are different, they all have the potential to get to the same place. But when people take the guidelines too literally, they end up losing the core message that the guidelines are supposed to lead to. The core message of religions is to treat other people with love. When people start taking the guidelines as an end in themselves, they end up condemning people who don't follow the same guidelines, and sometimes doing violence to those people as a way to save the world from the evil infidels. When they do this, they are acting against the core message that the guidelines were supposed to get them to. That's why idolatry is wrong, because if you make the guidelines into the end goal, you end up violating the thing that should have been the end goal.

It's also bad when anti-religious people take religious messages too literally. If they think the religious messages are supposed to be literally true, then when they see that they can't be literally true, they say that religion is just all ridiculous and wrong. In the movie Religulous, Bill Maher says to a Senator who admits he believes in the story of the Garden of Eden, "It worries me that people are running my country, who think, who believe in a talking snake. " I guess there are actually people who do believe in taking the Bible so literally. But I don't think it should be taken that way. I think it should be taken metaphorically. A story doesn't have to be literally true in order to convey a valuable message. When people think that religion can only be understood literally, and then reject it as ridiculous on those grounds, to me it's like they haven't even seen what religion is supposed to be. Speaking of metaphors, here's an example: Imagine you have a recipe for muffins that says bake for 20 minutes. You bake for 3 minutes. Then you taste the muffin and you find it rather wet. Based on this, you decide that all muffins are terrible, and anyone who eats muffins is a fool. But you haven't even seen what muffins are supposed to be. That's what it's like with some people who reject religion -- they look at the way people have incorrectly interpreted religion, and when they don't like what they see, they reject all religion on that grounds.