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When they bring in the idols

Wed 1 May 2019 by mskala Tags used:

I once saw the leaders of a student group insert a paragraph at the start of a pagan ritual, pointedly giving it top billing over the other introductory material, to pledge allegiance to one side of a then-current highly controversial issue in international politics. "We believe..." was the statement they read out in circle, speaking without permission on behalf of me and the rest of the group, ahead of something I certainly did not believe, something that was not closely connected to the personal experience of anybody present, that had nothing to do with the subject of the main ritual, and indeed was worded in such a way as to invoke a pantheon completely alien from the one I'd come to practice that day; incidentally breaking the rules of our own practice regarding what and who gets invoked first. It was not "We believe that China should end its occupation of Tibet" supported by some quotes from Buddhist scripture and inserted at the start of a Wiccan rite, but that's the kind of thing you should imagine.

The feeling I got from that announcement was that it was like playing the national anthem at the start of the hockey game, or maybe like reciting the Lord's Prayer at the start of the city council meeting - primarily done as a ritual of group cohesion to remind us of our shared cultural context through our assumedly shared allegiance to something bigger outside the circle. It wasn't really about the issue literally described in the words. Standing for the national anthem at the hockey game does not really and necessarily mean you are actively signing on to one specific view of what the words of the anthem represent in political affairs, and arguably the prayer at the council meeting doesn't mean anybody there has to be Christian either.

Maybe I shouldn't take it too seriously because the parties who wrote it into the ritual sure didn't; to them it was just some boilerplate words they had gotten from somewhere (I would be very interested to know where - my guess would be the student council) as something that good people ought to read out at the start of events, and all the student clubs were doing it, religious and non-religious alike. Much as Havel's famous greengrocer displays the proper slogans in his window, the student pagan group recites the proper slogans at the start of its events. Everyone does it. These things must be done if one is to get along in life.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. - Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless

But in fact the city council does not have the Lord's Prayer at the start of its meetings after all, and even in the terribly repressive context of university student politics we were not practicing paganism in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia under the eye of the secret police. Nobody was going to inform on us to the student government if we happened not to read out that announcement at the start of the event. We were doing it by choice - not my choice, but at least the choice of one or two of our own people who had planned the ritual. I don't know exactly what they were thinking.

City councils do not start their meetings with the Lord's Prayer anymore because those words are well open to the interpretation that they might be something to do with Christianity. The words have meanings even when most people treat them as meaningless, and enacting that particular ritual is anything but welcoming to the many participants who are not Christian. Democracies do not impose pledges of allegiance on citizens. Should paganism?

Granted the democratic ideal that government does not involve itself in religion is not so universally agreed-upon as some of us might like; but it bears weight even in places where freedom is somewhat compromised. Shouldn't there be a similar ideal for pagan religion, of not signing the entire circle onto bullshit pledges from outside? Is the circle not to be a space sacred from such things?

Furthermore we ought to have plenty of rituals of our own. Asking everyone at the pagan religious event to first please stand for an unrelated political ritual at the start just as a gesture of group cohesion ought to be unnecessary, ought to seem as silly and pointless to everybody as it did to me, and ought not to be done even if it seems harmless. When we're having a whole big ritual that is really our own, that is the thing we do for group cohesion already; and if our own main ritual doesn't adequately serve this purpose, then something is seriously wrong that should be fixed in a way other than by bringing in somebody else's highly charged political agenda just so that we can have one proper ritual. And the people we pledged allegiance to on that particular occasion would never have done the same for us, I know - they had no use for paganism.


There was a large retailer in the USA that tried to market some kind of a "how to be a witch kit" for teenage girls. I never saw this product myself but from what I heard it was pretty ridiculous, and it had clearly been designed by someone who had basically no knowledge of witchcraft whatsoever, just by imitating other similar products that themselves had been designed by uninformed marketers. A decade or two ago it would have been the fundamentalist Christians who would have raised the hue and cry over such a product, but this time it was the pagans and Wiccans, ourselves, who objected. It was appropriation! It was disrespectful! And letters were written and speeches were made and I don't know maybe there was a fucking change.org petition or something, and the retailer took the product off the shelves, apologized, and slunk away with its tail between its legs.

As with so many such things I only heard about it after most of the fuss was over and the hot takes were coming out on the Net. One that made it into my social media was a Web log posting from someone who said that the anger against this product had been misplaced. Forcing the retailer to retract it was no victory for witches; it was a squandered opportunity. We could, and should, have educated them to make it better and to properly represent what we're about instead. The product could have brought the message of witchcraft to many girls who could have benefited from it.

And I certainly agreed up to that point.

But then she went on to describe just what the values and the message were that the "how to be a witch kit" should have promoted; how the opportunity to accurately represent what we are all about should have been used to best effect.

It could have been a chance to promote environmentalism. It could have been a chance to promote racial affirmative action. It could have been a chance to promote abortion. It could have been a chance to "speak out" against "cultural appropriation." The product could have been supportive of marriage equality, somehow. It could have helped promote, I don't know, Universal Basic Income - maybe she didn't go quite that far but you get the idea. Some of these things I or you may approve of; some we may not; the point is that it's a lousy way to define witchcraft. "Witchcraft" and the values of "witchcraft" according to this Web logger were just exactly a bland and generic list of social justice talking points you might hear from any Californian; or "leftish secular morality," to borrow David Chapman's vivid phrase. He was writing about Buddhism, not witchcraft, in that article, but it doesn't even matter because that's kind of the point: anything that could distinguish Buddhism from witchcraft has been filed off now that both are turned to the service of one of the major American political tribes.

This Web logger's list of the things "we are all about" could have been exactly the same if she had been writing about witchcraft or Buddhism, or the more liberal kind of Christianity, or Occupy or Black Lives Matter or the Edmonton Gay Pride Parade. Strike off all the social justice talking points from the list and there was nothing left to be witchcraft itself. Anything that would have made witchcraft different from other things just wasn't part of her definition of what witchcraft was, or of what had been lost by the community's rejection of the "how to be a witch" kit. The god and goddess were not part of her witchcraft the way she described it, and magic was not part of her witchcraft the way she described it.

Well, divine beings are part of my witchcraft and so is magic, and I don't want to let anybody take those things away; especially not if it'll only be for the purpose of replacing them with a poisonous political agenda. That's no fair trade.

We should be constantly watchful against the efforts of the political tribes to co-opt and water down pagan religion until eventually it really may be nothing more than generic secular morality. Other religions bigger than ours have already been consumed. The egregores of the political tribes constantly thirst to do it because it is in their nature and they can do nothing else. Every knee must bend. Every smaller group with an agenda of its own must put that aside in service of the tribe. And despite our best gatekeeping, from within there is the threat we could be tempted to help in the misguided effort to make our unique thing more accessible, friendlier to the general public, and further subordinate to social justice.

It could be an opportunity, right? Why not embrace social justice? That's what the kids care about, many of us privately agree with the principles of generic leftish secular morality independent of our religious faith, and it will bring the kids into the fold where they can learn about the other important stuff we are really about, right? The danger is that we could - no, we assuredly will - by doing that forget what we're really about ourselves and what makes us us. That is what always happens to small groups with important identity of their own when they fall under the egregores of the political tribes.

I am reminded of something I once read but unfortunately haven't been able to find again to quote here, from a woman who, in her teens at a Christian church in the States a few decades ago, started to notice that the issues her church treated as important just happened to be indistinguishable from the Republican Party's priority list of secular talking points. Why was Jesus claimed to have an opinion on congressional term limits? Where was that in the Bible? How did that subject even come up in a church at all?

I find myself asking the same thing about political paganism. All too often the things I am told I as a good pagan ought to take a stand on, are just exactly the political talking points of a tribe unconnected with paganism which - because it's already huge and mainstream - hardly needs pagans' help anyway, and has done and will do nothing for pagans in return. If we want to talk about "alliance" it ought to be a two-way street, but even then we had better be mindful of what we're embracing.

Not every issue that is important and valuable belongs in circle. We have witch business to do here already.


Pagan rituals often include segments in which people are encouraged to speak to the group about their own thoughts and feelings, or make their own prepared or extemporaneous offerings of song, poetry, or prayer. Such a segment can be volatile because it's rare for the leaders to vet the contributions beforehand and basically unknown for all members to know in advance what's coming. The free-contribution segment may be an opportunity for speakers to drag in content not at all appropriate to the occasion, content that is a real problem for other participants or for the values of the group as a whole.

I was present at an open-to-the-public ritual where there was such a segment, and somebody from the public audience was moved to offer what turned out to be a vitriolic rant against the establishments of another religion. He had apparently become pagan just to express his spite toward this other religion and the people associated with it. It was heartfelt, it was about his personal faith, it could be argued to be on-topic for those reasons; but it was also offensive and inflammatory, it did not reflect the values of the group I was part of who had organized the event, and it was all about the other religion and not really about paganism at all. After letting him speak for a minute or two we hustled him off the stage on the (perfectly true) pretext that we wanted to have time for everybody, and moved on to the next contribution, making a note to just keep an eye on that guy if he showed up again in the future. That kind of thing happens when rituals are open to the public and although it's unpleasant it's not really hard to deal with provided that the organizers are united in purpose and everybody understands that random people do show up and such things do happen in public rituals.

But there are circles and rituals that are not public events full of random "audience" members. In a closed circle everybody has important status and commitments to the circle, to each other, to the gods, and to the broader pagan community on an ongoing basis beyond one night's ritual, and when it's a situation like that and somebody who is a real member or even a leader wants to bring in an outside agenda, we can't just hustle them off the stage. In such a case it's likely that all insiders are not united in purpose and in agreement about the appropriateness of the subject matter. It's even possible that there's only one member who objects. What does it mean to be that one member?

I was present at a closed ritual where someone wanted the group to join in a prayer for the spirit of a person who had been killed in then-recent political violence. Let's say it was for Guram Sharadze, the Georgian nationalist politician who was killed in a shootout with the police, presumably over his politics, in Tbilisi in 2007. That captures the most important features of the actual case. This was somebody who, like any other human being, did a lot of things in life, some of which I approved of and some of which I didn't.

I believe that all life is valuable. I categorically oppose political violence. It doesn't matter what I believe about Georgian nationalism in particular, or whether I have an opinion on that at all. I also believe that it is wrong to divide the world into "us" and "them" or into "good" people and "bad" people and even to the extent that it could ever be said that there are such things as bad people we should pray for the bad people, too. We should pray for everybody. With that in mind I would support a prayer for Guram Sharadze or anybody else, as a human being and not as a political figure.

My friend whom I love began the prayer and maybe this was inevitable but after the first few lines it was clear that it was no longer about the spirit of a human being and had become a prayer for the cause he was known for supporting in life, which I'm calling Georgian nationalism. Why should that, or any other local political issue of a foreign country, be brought up in circle in Canada at all? Even if there had been a personal connection to people present in the circle, which did not seem to be the case, it felt inappropriate. And then the focus shifted to something I liked even less: the prayer became a denunciation of the political goals of the opponents of Sharadze, and a curse on anyone aligned with the side opposite from his. That was nothing like the magic I had come to the circle to do that night.

I stood silent through the prayer like everybody else until it reached its conclusion, and then I did not say "So mote it be" when others did. Probably, nobody noticed that at all, let alone thought about why. I have not talked about this incident before writing about it here. The matter of this particular prayer was not mentioned again in my hearing by others who had been there, and no similar incidents occurred in subsequent rituals of the same circle.

This wasn't a case like the public ritual where we should expect random people from the public to show up with their own agendas. It was a group of friends. I think almost everybody will understand how near to impossible it would have been for me, on my own initiative alone, to actively interrupt my friend's prayer in the context of a closed circle like that and say "This is wrong, it's not what we are about, it should not be done here." Maybe if I were a High Priest or something in a tradition that had such, then putting the kibosh on contributions not in line with my understanding of the group's values could be considered a traditionally recognized part of my job, but just assuming such an authority simply on the basis that I am a human being and a circle member and I have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, that kind of action is a great deal to expect of me.

I also couldn't possibly have done it without bringing in, myself, even more of exactly the political content I thought should have been left outside the circle. On balance if I tried to do that my actions might well become rather more of the problem than any kind of solution. And it would hurt my important relationships with many of the people present, and those relationships might be more important than this incident which only happened the one time. And if it should be the case that I was the only one with a real objection, and even if the consensus of the group had only been formed by nobody else saying "no" when the proposal was suddenly sprung on us without any discussion, did I have a right as just one person to override the group consensus with my own wishes and say that this prayer should not be made in this way?

On the other hand, maybe just the authority of being a circle member, a pagan, and a human being with a sense of right and wrong, is or should be enough. I don't know that I was the only person who had a problem with the political radicalization of our circle that night but I can believe that of those who were present, I was the one with the most strength to speak up about it because such action is in my nature and isn't in everybody's. If not me, then nobody else. And I am under an obligation to do the things that ought to be done when nobody else can or will do them. Was raising some kind of an objection to the politically radical prayer, in circle at the time or even just later in private, such a thing? Well, it is the case that I did not do it. I remained silent afterward as well as in circle.

But after that ritual I was talking about other things with a member of the same circle and frequent attendee who had just happened not to have been in attendance on the night when the Sharadze prayer had been offered. And she mentioned her strong feelings on the subject matter of Georgian nationalism - in particular, her vehement opposition to the position that had been taken by Guram Sharadze, and support for not the actions, but the political ideals of the group thought to have assassinated him.

What if she'd been there that night? She and the other member would have been on a collision course. How would she have felt being asked to entertain that prayer and that curse against her own beliefs? Most likely, she would have just done as I did and remained silent to avoid a confrontation, despite apparently feeling rather more strongly about the matter than I had. Or, maybe not. Would I have seen these two friends of mine who love each other get into a big fight in the sacred space over this stupidly irrelevant matter of foreign politics? Having to witness that might be even more painful than being a party to it myself.


You may notice that I am explicitly and implicitly changing details in some of these stories, and the reason is obvious. For that same reason, I have waited a long time to write about certain events, and thoughts that I have had for many years. Even so, it is terribly difficult to write and post these comments and I don't know whether doing so will end up causing some kind of grief for me or for others.

I belong and over the course of decades I have belonged to many different circles, and I have lived in different places, and none of the members of any of my circles know about my membership in all of the others, so anybody who thinks they see themselves here should remember it's also quite likely I am talking about someone else they have never met. On the other hand, even though one wasn't present for the specific incidents I am describing, eventually the trolls will come to every circle and we all will have to face them. These concerns are applicable to everybody.

My fellow circle members are basically my family and they don't stop being that just because they do something of which I disapprove. But that can't be a free pass for unacceptable behaviour either. I don't know where the lines are for what I should tolerate from my friends and loved ones or how to respond to unacceptable behaviour when I see it. As I've already said I see important value in separating behaviour from people themselves, and we should be able to reject bad behaviour without getting into questions of who is a "good person" or a "bad person."


The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a prohibition on "idolatry." I don't know and maybe it's not for me to guess what they mean by it. The literal dictionary definition has to do with worship of physical objects as if those were gods, but nobody ever really does that. Seriously, every single example except unverifiable descriptions of the enemy groups being censured in the Abrahamic scriptures themselves, turns out on closer examination to be a misunderstanding over worship of intangible divine powers depicted by, metaphorically associated with, or inhabiting physical objects - practices which are common even in Abrahamic traditions. Not worship of the objects as such.

The Abrahamics have had schisms over accusing each other of "idolatry" in such cases, but as an outsider all that makes sense to me is to believe each worshipper's own claims about what they are really worshipping, and nobody claims to worship physical objects. It's very strange that they would make such a big deal of prohibiting something that nobody does anyway, and that in nearly all religious systems would not make any sense for anyone to want to do. So maybe the prohibition on idolatry really means something else that makes more sense than just a prohibition on direct worship of physical objects.

One interpretation of the prohibition on idolatry - which I got from Jewish writings but I think it's also often used by the other two as well - is that you commit idolatry when you worship and prioritize anything, not just physical objects, that is not divine. A political position could be an idol if it's set up to be more important than the gods. Membership in your tribe or in-group could be an idol if you make it the focus of what you call your spirituality. Putting a pledge of tribal allegiance first in the ritual sounds like it just might be that kind of idolatry. So does defining "witchcraft" as being only a list of social justice talking points with no mention of the goddess. A prayer for the dead that turns into a call for nationalist revolution in a far-off place may at least mention the gods, but if our gods are the ones who care about human beings, and the human element in the prayer is subordinate to the political agenda, maybe that's kind of like idolatry, too.

Maybe prohibiting idolatry was a wise move by the Abrahamic religions.

It's not only pagans who face this issue, of course. It's not even just religious believers of any stripe: many ordinary families struggle with political disagreements among their members. The question of how to deal with someone you love who has taken up an unacceptable political position is widely asked and important regardless of whatever religious affiliations family members may share or not. I think it's a little different for religious groups, though, because of the special relationship of religion to questions of what is right and wrong, what people should believe, and what is appropriate conduct. We cannot separate group membership from the worship of political idols so easily as families can (bearing in mind that it's not even easy for families).

Every organized religion in this day and age faces the threat that its members will become radicalized and start worshipping political idols before the religion's own god or gods, and not only the rank and file but even those in leadership positions are liable to do this, and to teach it. What is the proper course of action for those of us who see it happening in our own groups and see our mission as bigger than, different from, and incompatible with the idols of tribalism and radicalization?

I can write about it and that's what I am doing now, but my writings are usually ignored, and if my obligation is to do something that will really have an effect, then maybe I can't say I have done all I must do just because I wrote some Web log articles which I can reasonably expect will be ignored.

Maybe if it ever becomes clear that the group consensus of some circle I am part of, not only one or two members, is headed down a path I cannot take because it is the path of political idolatry, then there can come a time when it is appropriate for me to say "Thank you. I love you. And I will not be attending the ritual next week, nor any others." To do that is already hard, but is it even hard enough? Am I, by my own imperative to do whatsoever things somebody ought to do and nobody but me really will, obligated to have the full-strength confrontation with the members of such a circle over why I am leaving? I don't know. I have never been in the position where I had to make that particular decision. But there is no reason it couldn't happen to me, and it seems that it must happen to somebody, somewhere in the pagan world, pretty often.


An Hawai'ian tour guide once told me, "You don't hedge your bets when you're dealing with a goddess!" I think this line was very important to her because she repeated it several times. You don't hedge your bets when you're dealing with a goddess! And it was ironic for multiple reasons, one of them being that the goddess she was talking about in particular was the volcano goddess, Pele of the green earth, and I myself had ceased to be a devotee of Pele just a few months before. A further irony is that I'm sure she did not really know what the phrase "to hedge your bets" means, because the rest of her speech entirely contradicted that repeated line.

The context was the supposed curse on people removing lava rock from Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park; the claim was you shouldn't do it even if you don't believe in Pele because you don't hedge your bets etc. I have a different view of that "curse" and the spiritual significance of possessing lava but it's beyond the scope; what's relevant here is that the tour guide evidently meant you don't take foolish chances, or you don't mess around, when you're dealing with a goddess. That is to say, you do hedge your bets! - because to hedge your bets means placing multiple bets in such a way as to reduce overall risk. Even if you don't believe in Pele, because maybe most of your spiritual money is bet on Buddha or on Jesus, you obey the supposed taboo just in case, betting a little bit on Pele by not doing the thing that somebody told you displeases her, to reduce your overall risk, because goddesses are no joke and you'd better hedge your bets when dealing with one.

But as a religious principle, what the tour guide actually said was something powerful, much more valuable than what she apparently intended to say. You don't hedge your bets when you're dealing with a goddess. You go all in. That's how faith works.

And so here's a scary thought. I have written about political agendas as idols that humans of poor faith drag into the pagan circle, inappropriately as what might be called a form of misconduct, and it is clear that nearly all of the time that's exactly what political agendas in circle really are. But what happens when the gods themselves take a hand in such affairs? We have no right and no reasonable expectation to say that they never will do so. The gods are full of surprises and it is not for us to say what they can and can't do.

Plenty of pagan groups claim that their radical political bullshit is authorized by their gods, whether it's trans-exclusionary feminism for the Dianics or white ethnic nationalism for certain of the Norse. Of course they're wrong, and you and I can and absolutely should be horrified by the suggestion that such things have a place in our paganism. We can say that the paganism that dabbles in that stuff is not true paganism, and we absolutely should accept none of it in our own circles. But it's hard to convincingly explain why no such claim could ever be true, when the gods are supreme.

Are you a devotee of a personified deity or a pantheon? What happens when your god or gods call you in a direction that is against what you think are your own values in these matters? Would you give up your feminism for your faith? Would you give up your nationalism for your faith? Even worse, would you embrace feminism or nationalism - or whichever other such ideology is most repugnant to you - if you knew beyond question (and religious people should know what I'm talking about here) that doing this was the mandate of your deity? If the answer is "no" to the most difficult of these questions than who or what do you really worship? Maybe it ain't the gods after all!

Paganism is a lot of things but it is not the easy path. Witches do the hard things, because somebody has to. If you think your gods will never challenge you so hard as I am describing, you're wrong, or else what you're dealing with are not gods worthy of the name. Very likely both. You should expect to be challenged eventually in, as I have said, whatever way is hardest for you personally. That is what the gods do with us on this path.

And when it happens, what then? I don't have a good answer. Maybe you can come to an understanding of your gods' plan and your place within it that allows you to remain their devotee. I myself couldn't. Either way you'll surely learn something about what it is that you really value and worship.

This and the next paragraph may not make much sense to anybody except me but in my own experience I learned in a way that was painful and could not be ignored that something really important for myself as part of my personal faith is the weight of obligation that the strong have toward the weak, especially when there are solemn promises involved and more especially when there is no possibility of enforcement of the promises. We have to do the right thing when nobody is able to force us to; that's when it matters most; and it goes all the more strongly for anyone bigger and more powerful than a human being. I have mentioned already my conviction that when there is something somebody must do and I can do it and if not me then nobody, it can become my obligation. I am not the only power to which such obligation applies.

My faith in obligations turned out to be more important than my faith in Pele when her conduct could not be reconciled with it. It is why I can no longer regard myself as a devotee of Pele. Does that make me an idolator or something? I don't know. I cannot say that I am "okay with" this state of affairs but I can say I have learned that it is true, and the truth remains true whether I think it's okay or not. Learning about it may be of some value even if it doesn't feel like something I am happy to know. I feel I would be happier if I could just blindly follow my goddess, right or wrong, even off the cliff into the volcano, but that is not how pagan faith works; I am not on the easy path and I can't ignore what does happen to be true.

What are the hard truths of spirituality may be different for every person but we will all be called to face our own. It could be a truth that sometimes the gods themselves really do have a political agenda and it really does belong in circle. What's to be done when that happens?

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Owen Ferguson
I took a hard left from small-a anarchist chaos magic into hard-A atheist rationalist humanism in the past 10 years and have never felt better. Both faith and belief are bad for the human creature, and it doesn't matter if your delusion is of the vernacular organized religious type, or the more ego-driven "pagan" type the retardation of the capacity to differentiate between the real and the vividly hallucinated is the same as that you've already documented as manifesting in other ways. The history of the 2 words faith and belief are fascinating, and something that Bex and I discuss at length, because she remains convinced that they both offer great benefits to humans, offsetting their intrinsic social costs, while I have grown weary of pandering to the notion that adding fiction to our collective science serves anyone's purpose.
Owen Ferguson - 2019-05-01 23:33
It seems like rationalist atheist groups could be just as vulnerable to co-option by political tribes; open source software development certainly is. This piece is written from the point of view of pagan religion but the problem is even more general.
Matt - 2019-05-02 03:07
Owen Ferguson
Yeah, I can see that.
Owen Ferguson - 2019-05-02 21:34
The problem is indeed pretty general. I remember being a steward in a union local, whose provincial union had taken a position of alliance with one side of a particularly divisive issue in politics on another continent. Of course this line of division wasn't particularly aligned with the division between labour and ownership/capital/management. Since the union is a democratic entity, I took it upon myself to empower some members under my stewardship to present their concerns and contest the local's conformity with this position.

Needless to say, the issue was sufficiently divisive and contentious that a few months later, there was a membership meeting called for the purpose of determining whether a tentative collective agreement was worth considering for ratification -- a decision that was essential to the union's core function of collective bargaining -- this same matter of politics on another continent and what position the local should take on it, also ended up on the agenda for this meeting. Not only that, but it was discussed before the collective agreement, and the debate on it carried on for literally hours before someone decided that the room the meeting was being held in wasn't actually booked long enough to have any discussion on the tentative deal (never mind substantial discussion on the topic) if the contentious, ostensibly-allied political position cotinued to be discussed any longer (I can't remember if it was the chair, or it was someone calling the question and mentioning this point -- because that union local used rules of order that subjected calling of the question to a vote).
kiwano - 2019-05-03 16:50
On the point of the adoption of rationalism, I find the use of the language "differentiate between the real and the vividly hallucinated" touches in an interesting way on an event in which I unambiguously decided to let go of rationalist materialism. I'd recently been visited by an ex-lover of mine who was in the midst of a psychotic episode, and was escorting her on a permitted outing (said permission being contingent on my escorting her) from the psychiatric hospital to which she was committed at the time. She'd recounted an interaction we'd had on that visit in a way that was wildly inconsistent with the rationalist materialist consensus that our society generally accepts as true, and in so doing presented me with a choice: I could either cling to my rationalist materialism, and be yet another one of the myriad voices telling her that she was crazy, hallucinating, wrong, etc., or I could change my Weltanschauung to one that merely privileges rationalist materialism strongly instead of absolutely, and let her be right for a change (and I mean really right, and not just me being willing to lie for her sake). Compassion dictated that the second approach was the correct one, and simplicity was the only virtue recommending the first, so compassion won.
kiwano - 2019-05-03 17:38
I'm reminded of the Million Man March Pledge. Which has parts of "That seems reasonable given the context." To "That's weird." To "That really doesn't apply to me." To "Wait... what??" It was an extremely strange... ritual? Doubly so because it was a word by word pledge which the crowd didn't know what they were pledging to. It was strange enough that "transcripts" of the event cannot be trusted as parts are removed for... reasons.
Steve - 2019-05-03 19:36
My own personal experiences of 'balking against the ritual of the group' have been 1)Catholic weddings and 2)saying grace before a meal. I find Catholic weddings odd. The audience to the wedding is supposed to pray too? I simply stay quiet. I do find it strange though. Other Christian weddings I've attended focus on the bride and groom. Catholic weddings... don't.

The more interesting one (to me) is saying grace. I always stay quiet if someone says grace. I view it as like anyone else having a conversation with someone who is not me. It would be rude to interrupt. If I'm in someone else's home then I follow their lead and stay motionless and do not eat. Same as if my hosts put a secular exception of not smoking or something. However if it is my own home or public place like a restaurant then I simply start eating quietly as they pray. I feel a little bit awkward doing it but at the same time I feel like I can't do anything else. I haven't had any confrontations about it. However I believe it offended a friend the only time she had dinner at my place. Only because she stopped associating with me after that point. It could have been something else. I had known her for years and I don't believe I ever talked to her again.

For me there is a fine line to be crossed of participation. I'm perfectly happy to not interrupt. At the point *I have to be* silent and do nothing then I am defacto participating in a ritual I do not believe in. Which means by placing an expectation of participation on me, they aren't respecting my beliefs rather than I not respecting theirs.

It sounds like you never privately had a chat with the persons(s) speaking for the group after the politicized rituals you participated in. Why was that? I'm pretty sure I would have privately expressed my aversion of being co-opted into an unrelated political agenda.
Steve - 2019-05-03 20:15
Thanks for the pointer on that pledge; I hadn't looked at it before and, yes, it's quite a thing.

Coming into someone's home and expecting to say grace there according to one's own tradition seems to me to be crossing a line, and maybe it's the same line crossed by expecting a secular, political, or religious-from-a-different-tradition pledge at the start of a ritual in a pagan circle. It's not something I'd be happy about having someone do in my home. But I think it'd also depend a lot on the individuals involved.

As to why I didn't raise an objection in the specific case I described? I'm not entirely sure. One reason was certainly that I didn't feel I could without getting into an argument about the political issue itself. My experience in other cases has been that it's nearly impossible to say "We should not take a position on this" without the listener hearing it as "We should take the opposite position on this from yours." People who enact these tribal signifiers often adopt an "If you're not with us, you're against us" view. Other reasons would have been the power dynamic in the group - as a regular member I don't have authority to overrule someone with a formally recognized leadership position - and the likelihood that it had been instituted in response to some kind of directive from outside (such as from the student council). The involvement of other organizational levels in a student-club situation often makes such things difficult to deal with.
Matt - 2019-05-04 06:28
kiwano, on privileging "rationalist materialism strongly instead of absolutely": yes, that's really important. There's a whole community of post-rational thought worth exploring; David Chapman, who I cited above for something else, is one connection to it, as is Sarah Perry: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/11/05/ritual-epistemology/
Matt - 2019-05-04 06:34
The grace thing is uncommon but it is not unique. I've had about six different people say grace when eating at my home. One friend who I ate with many dozens of times both at home and at restaurants was completely innocuous about it. He'd simply silently pray while everyone did their own thing (talking, eating w/e). I don't have the slightest issue with something like that. He's doing him. I'm doing me. My other guests are doing themselves. Everyone is acting according to their own beliefs. It is all good for everyone.

It was just that one person (I think, I'll never know for certain) who had an issue when I ignored their prayer. Another guest that night participated. The interesting thing is that if I am incorrect and they didn't care what I did, then I don't care either. No lines crossed. But if they did care and condemned me for moving/eating during their ritual, then I certainly care about that. Placing an expectation on my behavior is the line for me. It is funny that I only care about the social implication of the ritual on me, rather than the actual act itself.

BTW I do believe it is the same line crossed, just in the opposite direction. A religious ritual being invaded by secular politics VS a secular activity being invaded by religious ritual. Both feel wrong due to the "otherness" of it. The invasion being the issue rather than the substance of the invasion.
Steve - 2019-05-05 19:15

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