30 Days of Practice: The Concept, the Result

It’s the month of Ramadan. At the truly wonderful New Unity church (of which I am a new and enthusiastic member!), we’re learning from this with a ’30 days of a practice’ time. The service on Sunday was led by a Muslim member of the church, who talked about his experiences with Ramadan, how for him as a child, the fast was important but the feasting and family and celebration of life was more important. He, and other speakers, talked about the effect of practice on our faith and values. If you want to be more just, act justly. If you want to be more loving, act loving. “Act great,” as the Sufi Hafiz says, and you will be great.

We wrote intentions for practice on cards, shared them with the community, pinned them to a board and dedicated the next month to them. (So very Pagan!) I have dedicated these 30 days to my goddess – who, if you’re new to my blog, is Bui, the Hag of Beara (often syncretised with ‘the Cailleach’ archetype, although I know her as an individual tied to her land, a summer and harvest deity, a goddess of justice and chaos, Lady of the Mountain, of the liminal places and people). The specifics of what I’m doing for the 30 days isn’t the point – though, if you’re interested, I’m listening to fewer podcasts and doing more meditation and devotionals. It’s been three days so far, and my life is getting intense. But in a good (if very challenging) way.

I spend too much time talking, and not enough time doing. I have big ideas, but don’t do the little things needed to bring them into reality. I want to contribute to the wheel of justice that turns through the ages, to the great tree of Xartus with its flow from chaos towards creation – but I don’t actually do enough. Practice makes progress. Only doing makes change.

She is the owl in the night, unseen and ready to strike. Start from darkness and nothingness, she says. Strip back everything that is unnecessary. Out of dark chaos comes bright creation. Today I take down all my altars and start again from a single candle and the deep silence of beginnings. Then I start doing that in my life. What is my harvest?

Practice makes progress.

One day the Sikhs asked the Guru whether those who read the Gurus’ hymns without understanding them derived any spiritual advantage from it. The Guru gave no reply at the time, and next morning went hunting. En route, the Guru came across a broken pot which had held butter. The rays of the sun were melting the butter on the broken pot fragments. The Guru took one of these fragments in his hand and said, “Look my Sikhs, broken pot shards – when they are heated, the butter that adhered to them readily melts. As the grease adheres to the potshards, so to do the Gurus’ hymns to the hearts of his Sikhs. At the hour of death the Gurus’ instruction shall assuredly bear fruit. Whether understood or not, it has within it the seed of salvation. Perfume still clings to a broken vase.” The meaning of the parable is that whoseoever daily reads the Gurus shabads shall assuredly obtain peace. And even though he may not fully understand them, God will undoubtedly assist him.

Guru Har Rai and the pot; from SikhiWiki. From the Sikh tradition.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

– Micah 6:3. From the Jewish tradition.

Honour in Speech: Speaking about Other Religions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year for ‘zombie Jesus’ jokes, entirely inaccurate memes about Ishtar, and dismissive comments about Christian cultural dominance. Even the relatively inoffensive Facebook posts that speak about Christianity and other Abrahamic religions in ‘we’re better than them’ terms, always seem to turn up annually during this season.

This year, it is an atheist who is teaching me most about honourable speech about other religions. SJ, my long-suffering, spiritually-curious atheist spouse, is shifting religious festivals so quickly that they’re practically becoming a chaos magician. And every single word out of their mouth about every one of these religions, including ones they’re not observing this year (like my own), is deeply honourable. I hear a lot of complaints about how atheists talk about our religious traditions – but I’ve not heard nearly so much respectful, honourable speech towards other religions from Pagans. I haven’t heard it from myself.

I understand why some Pagans react negatively to Christianity, and need to blow off steam. Gods know, I know what it’s like to grow up in an environment where your religion condemns you, constrains you, and even directs spiritual and emotional abuse at you. Yet, none of that gives me the right to condemn a whole religion. The only people responsible for that were the specific people in the specific churches I grew up in.

It helps that I also had wonderful, deeply spiritual experiences in Christian contexts, later on in my spiritual journey – to the extent that I haven’t *entirely* moved on from Christianity, and will probably always have some associations with it. (You could call that karma, if you like. I call it holding myself to my confirmation promises.) I’m aware that not everyone has had those experiences, and not everyone will be understand why I continue to find Christianity such a foundational, beautiful spiritual path, despite all its potential and actual issues. That’s OK… as long as others respect that I have a different perspective from them.

But whether we have good or bad experiences of religions, and whether we have any experiences of them at all, I personally feel that honour in speaking of them is important. I’m not convinced by the argument that they treated us badly first. If a few outliers did, they don’t speak for the whole religion. And even if every member of a religion you’ve ever encountered has treated us badly, does it mean we should retaliate with the same?

But I mostly think how tragic it is when we fail to learn from the great spiritual wealth that other religions have to offer us. SJ and I had a big argument recently about whether the major religions of the world have more in common, or more differences. But in the end, that debate doesn’t matter. What we can learn from each other, through both our similarities and differences – that’s what excites me. That’s why I still go to Christian events (under certain circumstances), even when my Pagan friends make cracks about how I’m going to be seen as a Christian again. It’s why I do interfaith work, even when my fellow interfaith activists and I confuse each other. And it’s why I stand up and demand that others respect Paganism – including colleagues and friends who clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from – and who don’t have to, but who I do expect to respect my position anyway. (I wear a pentacle at university sometimes – even though that is not my own symbol – in order to stand in solidarity with other Pagans.)

We all deserve to have our sacred truths spoken of respectfully. Every single one of us. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Mormons, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, those who follow New Age traditions, Pagans, reconstructionist polytheists… All of us.

That doesn’t mean that those traditions are beyond criticism. I have no problem with satire, and I don’t personally believe we have any need for blasphemy laws. (Though I have Opinions on the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to protect people’s rights to manifest their religions. A secular society doesn’t need be a repressive society. Though that’s a bigger debate for another time.)

But it does mean, to me, that I am personally responsible for being mindful of what I say about other religions, how I say it, and what effect I can have on others in the process. I want to be known for honourable speech about the faiths of others. I’d like it if Paganism could be known for that… but I’m only responsible for myself. And I can only do my best.

SJ’s latest post, on Pesach/Passover, talks a bit about the magic behind some of its rituals. You might like it.

Pagans, Quantum Physics and Rationality

In my experience, Pagans are amazing at skepticism, logic and rational argument – when it comes to other people’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Most Pagans that I know could tell you a lot about how Jesus is not the only dying-and-rising god that ancient societies ever thought of, or how Christmas was influenced by pre-Christian pagan traditions.

But many of these Pagans are not so good at deconstructing their own beliefs on certain things. People with fantastic minds, who I love talking to, and who I’ve heard demolish other people’s ideas, somehow often fall short of that intelligence and philosophical sharpness when it comes to common Pagan beliefs. Their own beliefs.

And one of the worst ways this happens is when the topic of quantum physics comes up.

Quantum Physics: Proof of Magic?

This week, Fire Lyte linked to this post on his Facebook wall.  The response was… interesting. Lots of people trying to prove that the writer of the article didn’t know anything about quantum physics. Not looking at their own beliefs.

There are repeating comments that I hear on this subject a lot. Comments that are loaded with logical fallacies. I’ve heard statements from Pagans on quantum physics that demonstrate the following fallacies:

Argument from complexity (similar to an argument from ignorance): “Science is proving so many weird and complex things! So quantum physics could prove that my candle magic caused my pay rise!” Yes, it could, though the probability isn’t high, given what we know about quantum physics so far. Now come back to me when it does prove that and when we have evidence of this. Yes, science is proving some complex and weird things these days. We cannot use that to assume that it will prove what we want it to prove.

Argument from silence: the idea that, since something cannot (yet) be disproved, it is proven. “The universe is a weird place. There are things in the universe that we will never be able to explain. We just can’t know everything!” We cannot argue that, because science shows that there is much about the universe we don’t understand, it proves that anything is possible. It specifically doesn’t do that.

Ad hominem attack: an attack on the person who is writing/arguing, rather than on their arguments. “That person doesn’t know anything about quantum physics!” Doesn’t prove that you do. This argument should at least be followed up with “And here’s a link to some evidence that I’m going to use to argue my point. It is reliable because it is published in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is backed up by these six other articles from six different reliable journals, and this conference paper, and this statement from the scientific community.” If not, you haven’t proven anything by attacking one individual, rather than focusing on their argument.

Shifting the burden of proof: “Can you prove to me that quantum physics doesn’t cause magic to work?” No, I can’t. But the burden of proof is on you, not me. As Carl Sagan said, “Extrodinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

– Correlation proves causation: thinking that, because two things coincide, then one must be caused by the other. “Every time I get acupuncture I feel better. This must prove that quantum mechanics causes it to work.” That’s great. There may be all manner of reasons why that treatment is helping you. I have enormous faith in the badly-named ‘placebo effect’, which would be better called ‘the human body’s self-healing effect’. When I go for reflexology and acupuncture, I’m working on my body’s self-healing mechanisms. Also, quantum physics exists. There’s absolutely no reason why one should have anything to do with the other.

(Note: This is stretching the bounds of the correlation fallacy, a bit. I think it’s relevant. Tell me if you disagree!)

Mind projection fallacy: i.e. because this belief matters to me, it’s relevant to everyone – and my opinion is worth more than your facts. “I believe quantum theory proves magic, and my opinion is just as valid as any scientist’s”. No, no, it’s not. Come back when you’ve studied quantum theory to doctorate level. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the experts.

False equivalence: “Homeopathy causes a quantum leap in a person’s physiology” (a direct quote from someone I know) – using the term in a way that scientists don’t use it, and confusing two different meanings of the word in the process. Here, the informal term ‘quantum leap’ has nothing to do with the physics term ‘quantum’. The statement is basically nonsense. (Sorry.)

I suspect there are many more logical fallicies in these arguments that I haven’t spotted yet. Have you seen any others? Let me know!

Your Mind Turned To Mush

You have an amazing mind. We all do. We’ve all won the lottery when it comes to consciousness, to quote Simon Clare. Evolution, one of the most exciting processes on the planet, has gifted us with thinking minds. Unfortunately, human beings get very attached to our irrational beliefs, again for reasons of evolution and our past survival. In the distant past, being able to see the pattern of a tiger moving between the trees was probably vital for our survival. Now, though, we hang on to that pattern-finding faculty even when it’s not necessary. We see patterns and call them magic. And we have all the right in the world to believe in magic. (I do!) What we can’t do, because we’ll never succeed, is argue that there is objective proof of that magic in science.

Why does it matter? Because we look like total idiots when we do it. Ultimately, if you want to make logical fallacies all over the place and demonstrate that your mind has turned to mush, you go right ahead. It doesn’t bother me. But you’re wrong. And if you want to be right – as your constant arguing suggests you do – then you may want to go away and educate yourself about science. Use that fabulous mind of yours – especially about your own beliefs. If you don’t, someone else will.

You won’t lose anything. You stand to gain a lot, though.

On another level, I guess I want to be a member of a religious/spiritual group that doesn’t talk rubbish. I was a member of evangelical Christian churches for a long time. My bullshit meter eventually exploded. I happen to think that the Pagan community can do better. Our community should be full of thoughtful, intelligent, well-read people who test our claims against reason, reality and science. I’ve met us. We’re clever people!

Faith Can’t Be Proven

Ultimately, some things will always be about faith, and unprovable. I believe in fairies, for fuck’s sake. What I don’t do is try and prove fairies with science. (Though now I want to draw a picture of gleeful fairies preventing me from proving them through science by messing up all my experiments.)

You have the right to your beliefs. Your right to impose those beliefs on others is much more limited. “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

And if you’re trying to persuade people of something using science, you’d better have a damn good grounding in what that science means. I don’t – I have GCSE science grade B (i.e. I know that plants contain chlorophyll and some basic formulae about mass and force). What I do have is a Master’s in Sociology and I’m a couple of years away from a doctorate in Religions. I stick with what I know, which is learning everything I can about why we believe what we believe. And what effect that has on the rest of society. That matters to me. I believe it should matter to all of us.

Now there’s a belief that’s probably full of logical fallacies…!

If you like podcasts, a great one on rational thinking, logic, philosophy and religion is the Reasonable Doubts podcast. And they have a wonderful Polyatheism section where they go over the highly unlikely pagan myths of the past. They’ve just started a three-week series on Cuchullain. Enjoy!

I’ll leave you with a link to a relevant article. Problem-Solving ‘Magic’ of Quantum Physics

Cross-posted to Accidental Auguries.

Becoming a druid*

“If you were to find a book containing your Druidry – what would it say?”
– question asked by Cat Treadwell

Me: I have to write a post on Druidry.
SJ: And this is different from the rest of your writing how?
– Conversation between me and The Spouse this morning

In a garden at the centre of the world, we were becoming something. It was something we already were, maybe something we had been all along – but still, we became. Some of us had called ourselves by the name already. Some of us, feeling and fearing the heavy burden of the word, chose to shy away from it. Perhaps we felt inadequate when measured against a term with such history and baggage and gravitas behind it. It is a path I have been following for three years, but I didn’t want to use the name. I was afraid of it. I didn’t realise how much I already live that name. Continue reading