26 April 2009

Religion in the Workplace

This is a revised and expanded version of an essay I wrote back in July 2008.

This is, in part, a response to Daven's essay Religion in the Workplace, and in part derived from my experiences here and in other places.

In the essay, Daven poses the question "How much religion should be taken to the workplace?" This is an interesting and important question, but unfortunately he seems to get caught up in the trappings of religion instead of the actual practice of religion. His examples talk about unburned scented candles, images of the goddess, shrines, signature lines, and the like.

I hold Daven in the highest regard (being a former student of his high magic class). But this article, to me, is asking the wrong question and looking at the wrong things. The trappings of religion are not as important as our faith and our devotional practices to the gods.

If you want an article about the trappings of religion in the workplace, he makes some excellent points.

While some may disagree with me on this, I do not see the point of building a shrine at work, unless maybe it is to a local landwight in which case you can probably get away with a few flowers on your desk or with putting something unobtrusive outside. Posting the Charge of the Goddess might be acceptable practice (or the Christian down the hall might be doing it with the Lord's Prayer), but that does not mean that it is appropriate to do so. As Daven points out:

Understand that while you talking about Paganism in the lunch room or over the water cooler may be tolerated, the business is about making money.

...and that's just it. Posting a copy of the Nine Noble Virtue as a reminder to myself might be a worthwhile exercise, but the truth of the matter is that if I want to post them at work I should be evaluating my motives very carefully. They should be part of who I am, and why would I need to post them publicly when I could just as easily stick them on a piece of paper in my desk?

I'll go out on a limb here and say that posting them publicly is an exercise in broadcasting one's beliefs to others and not reflective--one way or the other--on the internal state of the person in question.

I wear a pentacle ring that is specifically charged. In situations where I am concerned about the reaction I flip it around so that the pentacle is on the inside. If I thought it would be a problem for a long period of time, I would consider moving the ring to my necklace (which lives inside of my shirt) and/or wearing another ring charged with similar properties.

I am not closeted--even slightly--I am quite open with my beliefs. I am also sensitive to the fact that my faith is--first and foremost--between me and the gods. If I am more effective in a workplace by not walking around with a large pentacle on my t-shirt, then I will dress accordingly. My goals are workplace effectiveness and honor of the spirits, not showing off. If the gods demanded that I walk around with a t-shirt with a large pentacle on it, I would try to negotiate and, barring that, find a job where I can get away with it with a minimum of hassle (though I generally find if a Christian could wear a big cross on their t-shirt the company won't mind the pentacle for standard equal opportunity reasons, YMMV).

I am far more concerned about behaviors than I am with these trappings. The first question here is "what are your needs." I pray several times a day and try to go through my prayer beads on a semi-regular basis. This, to me, needs to be acceptable behavior, but there is no reason they even should see it under most circumstances. Some flexibility around my holy days (e.g., I've made it a point that I must be in town at the end of October) and such is another major sticking point for me, but most places I've worked have been accommodating (though I do get to use PTO for it). These requirements are no different than that I need to be able to take holidays off since that's my only time with my out-of-state family--its just one of the priorities we need to think about when choosing a job and a workplace environment--I could not work in retail without very carefully negotiating what days I did and did not get off, simply because those are the times of the year I get to spend time with my family traditionally. For a classical shaman of the northern tradition there would be more stringent requirements, for an agnostic there would be fewer, but in the end these requirements are no different from any others.

It is important to me that I pray. It is not especially important to me that I keep incense at my desk all day.

So what about the Christian with a copy of the Lord's Prayer up who tries to save you? The evangelical Christian is required to proselytize as part of her faith, the faith of the coven that trained me years ago specifically forbade it. I am semi-tolerant of such behavior in moderation (they shouldn't push the point when I say no, but being asked along is fine), but its important to note that this isn't about what "they" can do: its about our relationship with the deities.

Recently I was asked along with some of the people I work with when they went to pray to a Buddhist equivalent to a land-wight. It was a beautiful experience that was quite obviously a matter of behavior. If I had said no, they would have gone on their way without me. I do not feel compelled to join, they don't treat me differently for not joining, and it takes place out of sight on an already established shrine. Praying in this manner is elegant and respectful, and it doesn't intrude on anyone who doesn't want to see.

It also doesn't require keeping a shrine on my desk.

22 April 2009

Brief Update

Been a bit since I updated. I just started a new job a week ago, and am getting into the swing of things there. I have a book review and another essay I'm working on that should be up soon though ^_^

14 April 2009

Amazon: Guys, Put the Torches Down

Recently there was a massive brouhaha over the deranking of certain books with gay, lesbian, and sex themes on Amazon. Amazon's initial response was that it was a deliberate "adult filter" that they had set up, which sounds like the classic PR response. Amazon later announced that the software had a "glitch" in it, which is why the books got deranked, and that it would correct the glitch.

The trick now is that a lot of people don't believe them.

I write software for a living. This sort of thing happens all of the time, and generally has less to do with malice and more to do with a mistake in programming. It's easy to tweak a variable--especially in any software that involves pattern recognition--or implement a filter that "seems like a good idea at the time" and find that it has echoing consequences that you didn't predict. It is not hard for me to see how the following sequence of events might have happened:

  1. Amazon decides to implement/tweak an adult filter for some reason. I can think of (quite a few) business reasons they might decide to do this.
  2. They implement/tweak the filter, run it against a test set of data, see that it looks good. It doesn't get rid of "The Last Unicorn" or Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," but it gets rid of some random "Big Book of Erotic Stories." Great, it works! Let's deploy it!
  3. Unintended consequence: A bunch of gay, lesbian, etc books get deranked. People call in protest, twitter ends up with #amazonfail, within a day the thing has spread to near-epic proportions and people are calling in protest.
  4. Amazon's PR people do what PR people do: they reach for the nearest ready explanation for the first few people who call and recite the form response. "We are implementing something to protect teh children." This--predictably--only inflames things further since there is a real bug lurking in the code.
  5. Someone actually looks at the number of calls and the books being deranked (e.g., Brokeback Mountain, I mean, really, how can anyone think that was deliberate?) They realize there is a bug. It gets put on their bug tracker and they give a press release saying they'll fix it.

This is a wholly predictable response. I've seen this happen with software designed for customers before: someone made a change; client calls back and says its broken; immediate response goes back that it isn't broken, it's a feature; client provides copious documentation on how it is broken; software company says "well, whoops, damn... we'll get right on that." Fairly normal, I've seen it multiple times in companies of all sizes, it doesn't surprise me that it happens at Amazon as well.

So why are people convinced this is being done deliberately? One person on LJ commented "Interesting how as soon as they're caught red-handed it becomes a 'computer glitch.'" A lot of others came out with similar statements (e.g., #glitchmyass), but really, as I mentioned before: if this weren't a glitch, would Brokeback Mountain really have been on the hatchet list? Really? I have trouble believing that--especially when a movie has been made which to the best of my knowledge was not deranked.

As Robert J. Hanlon put it: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

The Wild Hunt blog listed some of the deranked books that still remained deranked. As of this moment, Brokeback Mountain, Gay Witchcraft, Rites of Pleasure, Sexy Witch, The Double Goddess, and Lesbian Rites are all, at the time of this writing, ranked again.

So two possibilities remain: Either it is not a glitch, but they learned their lesson and are unlikely to repeat it or (much more likely) it was a glitch, and they have modified their test-cases to try and keep it from happening again.

Either way it is being fixed as we speak, so can we please stop trying to burn them in effigy?

Further Reading

12 April 2009


People love to futz about with the words we use to describe ourselves. Partly this is an offshoot of labeling theory and our tendency as groups to create what sociologists call an "In Language" to facilitate communication. It gives us something distinctive by which to identify both ourselves and others, and people can get extremely defensive about their particular use of labels.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that people tend to go to extremes in inclusion, they seem to either:

  • Think that everything under the sun can be classified under the label, e.g., "Sure summoning Cthulhu is Wiccan!"

  • Think that nothing outside of a very narrow range of already defined practices, e.g., "What do you mean you offered chocolate to Odin?!?! There's no lore to support that! You can't be Ásatrú!"

On the flip side, this also means that some people won't accept perfectly good labels because of some nebulous association they've made and believe it to be "too restrictive," when in truth it would serve just fine. My particular example of this is the rejection of the word "Heathen" by a lot of Northern Tradition Pagans: they claim that "Heathen" only applies to reconstructionists, when in truth there is no reason in either etymology or modern usage to think that it means anything other than "Germanic Pagan" in our context.

In other cases they apply whatever label they think is vaguely interesting, even if it doesn't really apply. Someone cannot be a "Christian Wiccan": They are separate religions entirely. They can be a "Christian Witch," but as religions the practices and beliefs are functionally incompatible. Yet it is remarkable how many people go around claiming to be such.

Language is a means of communication. We need to be capable of creating informative distinctions by our use of language, and recognize that words have scope. If a word is appropriate we should be willing to fight for our inclusion under it. If a word does not describe us, we should clearly distinguish ourselves from it.

For example: As indicated above, I see nothing about the word "Heathen" that should even vaguely imply "Reconstructionist" while excluding "Reconstructionist-derived" or "Reconstructionist-inspired" paths. So yes, I define myself as Heathen and will fight for its use in this context.

I also dislike most of the alternatives I've seen proposed. "Northern Tradition Pagan" doesn't precisely roll off of the tongue and the distinction between "Reconstructionist" and "Reconstructionist-derived" is--as far as most people are concerned--very subtle. If we need that level of distinction, it is probably better encompassed by using terms such "Mesopagan vs. Neopagan" instead of "Pagan vs. Heathen." This is especially true when one considers the degree of confusion that can be caused by unqualified use of the word "Pagan," as pointed out by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance:

We recognize that many Wiccans, Neopagans, and others regularly use the terms "Pagan" and "Paganism" to describe themselves. Everyone should be free to continue whatever definitions that they wish. However, the possibility of major confusion exists -- particularly if one is talking to a general audience. When addressing non-Wiccans or non-Neopagans, it is important that the term:

  • Be carefully defined in advance, or that
  • Its meaning is clearly understandable from the text's context.

Otherwise, the speaker or writer will be referring to one group of people, while the listeners or readers will assume that other groups are being referred to.

This gets down to the very core of the issue: using the best terms to describe ourselves under the circumstances and given the audience.

On the other hand, Ásatrú means "Æsir's faith." It also refers to a fairly well-defined reconstructionist religion. Since my faith and practice extend beyond the Æsir--in ways that are fairly major departures, rather than minor ones--and my path is not reconstructionist, I will make it immediately and abundantly clear that I am not Ásatrú. I have no problem with Ásatrú, it is a good path for many and I have a great deal of respect for it, but it is simply not my path.

So, depending on company, I believe all of the following terms aptly describe me:

  • Pagan (particularly Neopagan)
  • Heathen
  • Northern Tradition Pagan/Heathen (I don't like this one, and I have some deep philosophical differences with a lot of NTPs, but at the same time the term applies to everything from Ásatrú to Theodism to any other vaguely Northern European Neopagan branch).
  • Spirit Worker
  • Occultist

Terms that do not describe me:

  • Shaman (Core or Classical)
  • Wiccan
  • Wiccatru
  • Ásatrú
  • "Kalderan" (more on this one later)
  • Reconstructionist

There are also some terms I am ambivalent on, for example:

  • Witch
  • Shamanic Practitioner
  • Odinist

These terms may or may not be descriptive, but have either some qualifiers or associations that I am uncertain or or actively dislike, so I am of two-minds about them. Odinist is probably the most widely cited example of this: The historic associations on this one irk me and the frequent racist associations are disgusting, but it is accurately descriptive at the basic level as a follower primarily of Odin.

In all of this, I accept an individual's right to self-determination within certain limits. This is all how I choose to define the terms, to help clarify so that when people read this blog or talk to me they know what I mean when I say "I am a Heathen," and I am open to discussion on any of these points. What I encourage is for people to carefully consider what words and phrases they think describe them, and why they want to use them.

As with many things, the end-determination isn't as important as the process of considering it.

Further Reading

08 April 2009

Crude Superstition

Previously, when talking about associations I mentioned a quote by Dion Fortune, where she says that "It is this lack of training which makes popular occultism so very apt to degenerate into the crudest superstition." Unfortunately, for many modern Neopagans and Mesopagans, this seems to encompass their entire approach to spirituality.

Deities are treated as mere abstractions or bowdlerized and simplified to the point of meaninglessness even--or perhaps especially--by those who claim to follow that path.

Spirituality is far more than standing around in a circle and chanting bad poetry together. Spirituality is more than something you do on the weekends with a couple of friends, or on Sundays in a Church. It is more than trying to cast spells or dance to raise power.

Spirituality is, in essence, an attempt to touch Mystery. To get in touch with the Divine presence. The word "Spirituality" comes from the word "Spirit," which derives from the latin spiritus -- "breath, spirit" -- which came from the word spirare -- "to breathe." In the Torah/Pentateuch YHVH Elohim "formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Genesis 2:7; see the parallel that, in the Northern Tradition, Odin gives man Önd, or "breath.")

So we see in spirituality--no matter what our culture--something vital, something that connects us with the very essence of being, the breath of life. It is something intrinsic to our being.

Similarly, theology--when properly done--is more than the literal interpretation of source texts, and more than the rote recital of pithy aphorisms without understanding or context. It is more than citing The Lore™ or any historical document and saying they believed it then, we should believe it now.

Theology is the philosophical side of what we do, it is the philosophical study of the nature of the Divine and of Religion. It comes from the Greek word theologos (one discoursing on the gods). It encompasses the discussion of ethics, the nature of the divine, and the nature of being.

Years ago I attended a seminar by some monks from the Society of St. John the Evangelist (wiki). In the course of this seminar, they asked us to consider "What is Baptism." One of the answers that we discussed is that "it is an attempt to connect with a Mystery." One of many in Christianity, actually, but one of the most significant sacraments. Like the symbolism of washing away impurities from one's hands before entering a Shinto shrine, the water symbolically washes away the individual's sin and welcomes them to the Church. It is a fundamental rite of initiation, whereby the individual leaves a Christian.

Yet many modern Neopagans and Mesopagans want their religion to be a weekend culture, not a spirituality. They want what spirituality they do find to be tame, predictable, or easily controlled with the right color of candle. They want their theology to be either as rigid and fundamentalist as protestantism, or so loose as to make statements like the Chaos Magician's "nothing is true, everything is permitted" almost look restrictive and resent any discussion of ethics or boundaries in a religious context...

Some resent authority and experience in any form, others will follow anyone who claims to be an authority, and we see an increase in people who believe the solution to all the world's problems comes from burning little slips of paper. To quote Zak Kramer in his essay on the Adolescence of the Pagan Community:

[T]he various Pagan communities are going through an ugly adolescence, and the decisions that current Pagans make about what our religion means to us, how it relates to the rest of the (non-Pagan) world, and how we transmit those convictions to neophytes will have a profound effect on Pagan religions in the future. I think it is a foregone conclusion that most won't survive in their present forms; the question is, what forms do we want them to take?

We see people declaring themselves to be a Goði or Gyðja, when as Svartesol puts it, they have not earned it. We see some Wiccan groups handing out 3rd degree initiations to people after 6 months if they can pay enough, and others who believe a handful of online-only classes with no supplementary reading and multiple-choice tests are sufficient for an initiation. We see people treating everything under the sun as real, no matter how much foolishness is involved, or worse, as real but toothless (it isn't really a chitinous vampiric insect, it's a fairy that is just misunderstood!)

We see the gods become nothing more than a table of abstract associations and a means to an end that works strictly in our service.

At the core of many Pagan religions is a rich, deep theology and an amazingly potent spiritual system. In stories of gods, giants, and demons we see a ancient people's attempts at defining--as put by H. R. Ellis-Davidson--the mysteries of inner reality. In the story of Coyote stealing the Water Monster's children we see an amazing story on ethics, conservation, teamwork, and an explanation on why we must die.

In stories of turning to stone we get lessons about navigation and about not staying up too late.

In the story of Óðinn sacrificing his eye, we see a story of sacrifice, the importance of wisdom and knowledge, and the cost of magic. We get an idea of the character of the god, and we see in him someone who will pay almost any price--and suffer any trial--in exchange for knowledge.

In late-period pieces that put Þórr in a dress, we see the importance of swallowing one's pride and of using the mind to overcome hurdles, as opposed to merely using brute force.

This is the most superficial analysis of these stories--they are all much deeper in nature--and we see a rich, deep symbolic and poetic language being used to relay these allegories. We have a true and rich mythology, and yet many people treat those myths as nothing more than shallow reflections, making one of two opposite errors: Either treating them as literal, or treating them as purely figurative.

Either way is bad theology.

We should be questioning, examining, and reflecting on them and seeing how what they say applies--and doesn't apply--to a modern world. Whether the god Þórr ever actually got into a dress and some spirit worker is relaying the actual story from what they saw, or if it is relayed by a god at some later date, or if it was made up by humans for entertainment and teaching purposes is irrelevant. Our stories are filled with potential and reflections on human existence, and we should be willing to threat them as philosophy and understand them both in the context of our own experiences and the context of human existence.

We can discuss these things, and we are starting to do so (see the Further Reading section at the end for some examples), but the adolescence of the Pagan communities is far far from over.

To end with a quote from Zak Kramer:

Will Pagans continue to primarily focus on superstition, seeking to impose their wills on the universe for their own, often self-gratifying, ends? Or, will we seek to be part of, and act with, the unfolding, evolving Cosmos, which is the manifestion of the Divine? Do the Gods serve us, or do we serve the Gods?

Further Reading


Evidently the Army has been pressuring doctors not to diagnose soldiers as having PTSD.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real, serious condition that affects a lot of people who have been in traumatic circumstances, including but not limited to war, childhood sexual abuse, and natural disasters. It arises in situations where "the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror."

It is extremely difficult to treat, and the people who have been through it need proper treatment. If this story is true--and it seems to be--then it is utterly disgusting to me that we would short shift people who have volunteered to serve our country in such a capacity. To quote Theodore Roosevelt:

A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled, and less than that no man shall have.

Something to contact your congresscritters about.

05 April 2009


This is a revised and expanded version of an essay from December 2008.

One of the things that we as a society seem to have is a poor grasp of emotional boundaries.

Through the course of our lives all of us build within ourselves an intricate set of boundaries and definitions. "This is who I am" and "this is who you are." For some people these boundaries are extremely well defined, for others they barely exist.

Read more over on Weaving Wyrd.

01 April 2009


Sorry about the delay, I've been dealing with some issues on my end that have made keeping posts up difficult over the last week. More essays coming soon!

On a side note, Visions of Vanaheim by Svartesol is finished and up on Lulu. Check it out!