Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amazon Review Section: Breeding Ground for Trolls and Bullies?

Here's the latest on my continued battle with Amazon over its review guidelines, which are, unfortunately, biased toward allowing uninformed, negative reviews - and against positive reviews.

Amazon's guidelines contain an extensive, five-point section that defines the kind of "promotional content" that's not allowed, but it includes nothing to prevent trolls from bullying authors with caustic, negative reviews. There's nothing to prevent people who haven't read your book from going off ad nauseam on how bad it is without backing up their statements with actual examples of what they find offensive.

These are not reviews. They're attacks, and they shouldn't be allowed.

Yet Amazon allows them.

It's pretty clear that this is one of those cases of "you can't fight city hall" - city hall, in this case, being Amazon. But as someone who believes it's important to combat bullying, I can't simply sit by and allow authors to be bullied by trolls who may not even have read their books. That may be fine with Amazon, but it's not fine with me.

After two positive reviews were removed from my books and two negative reviews were allowed to remain, despite their clear mean-spirited nature, I sent an e-mail to Amazon quoting its own guidelines about not allowing "spiteful remarks" in an attempt to restore some sense of equity and civility to the process. I was, predictably, rebuffed. Below is my initial inquiry, followed by Amazon's response:

I am contacting you because I am concerned about that a reviewer appears to be violating your policy against spiteful language in reviewing my books. Sissy McMillan has reviewed only two books in the past four years, and both have been mine. She has given scathing reviews to both, which leads me to believe I am being targeted. Here is her review of my book "The Gospel of the Phoenix":
"I can't believe I was sucked in by this - and I can't get my money back because I did try to read it. Save your time and your money and avoid this boring trash like the Plague!"
There is nothing specific about the content of the book, which leads me to believe she hasn't even read it. In a comment on a review of another book, "Undefeated," she states, "I have seen the stupid and boring writing of this 'author'," once again without any indication she has read the book. She claims to have borrowed the book, but it's not available for borrowing on Amazon and isn't in wide circulation, so this (her claim) seems unlikely, especially considering her lack of specifics.
I understand the value of negative reviews, but negative reviews that merely characterize a work in general, spiteful terms without any specifics as to why the book falls flat seem inappropriate. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Amazon's response:
I've read the reviews submitted by "Sissy McMillan" for the books titled "Undefeated: Overcoming Prejudice with Grace and Courage" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix: Another Revelation of Jesus." I understand your concerns, but these reviews do not violate our posted guidelines, so I'm unable to remove them in their current format.
However, as the author of these titles, you can provide feedback about the reviews by voting or commenting on them. To vote, click the "Yes" or "No" buttons next to "Was this review helpful to you?" To comment, click the Comments link at the bottom of each review.
We try to encourage our customers to give their honest opinions on our products while staying within our guidelines. As a retailer we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinion on our products. Part of that is allowing our customers to air their honest thoughts on items they have received.  

Apparently, it's OK with Amazon if those "honest thoughts" are unsubstantiated attacks, but it's not OK if they're positive comments. Amazon, it seems, has signaled its intent to be a breeding ground for trolls and mean-spirited attacks (as opposed to constructive, healthy criticism). Defending attacks on the pretext that they are "honest thoughts" is merely a means of condoning bullying. If you agree with me, here's what you can do to make your voices heard.

  1. Whenever you run across a mean-spirited review, mark it as unhelpful and report it as a violation of Amazon's guidelines. Forcing Amazon to spend staff time responding to your requests costs them money. Even if they refuse to act, you will be forcing them to pay a penalty, however small, for perpetuating this unfair policy.
  2. Mark positive reviews as helpful when they are, in fact, helpful.
  3. Mark comments that are rude, personal attacks or unsubstantiated as "unhelpful."
  4. Offer positive reviews to any books you have read and liked.
Do this whenever you're on Amazon and run across these reviews. Authors put a lot of time and care into crafting their books, and the fact that online bullies are permitted to trash someone else's work without providing anything to support their opinions is a gross injustice. In a couple of minutes, they are dismissing months of work. The least they should do is provide a "why" - something Amazon suggests in its review "tips" but does not require - and remain civil.

I take some solace in the fact that I'm not alone. According to a Salon article, amateur "reviewers" have trashed such classics as The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984. Some people seem to enjoy making cutting remarks toward others and their work. Maybe it makes them feel superior. But regardless of their motives, the results promote animosity rather than constructive dialogue and criticism. 

Civility appears to be going out the window in our society - and is being given a huge shove by Amazon's current review policy. I encourage everyone to share this blog and others like it that highlight this problem (no, I don't profit from this blog) and e-mail Amazon to protest the policy. The more people protest, the better the chance is that "city hall" will listen. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

'Les Miserables' Lands Somewhere Between Soaring and Miserable

Les Miserables is a long movie. There's nothing wrong with that in itself; the problem is that it feels like a long movie.

I had high hopes for this film based on the previews, but I must admit to being underwhelmed. The sets are grand, the direction is sweeping and the acting isn't bad - some of it is quite good. But the story itself is so melodramatic, at points verging on maudlin, that I couldn't help wonder about the wisdom of making this film as a musical.

Musicals, unless they're titled The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins, often don't translate well to film. Watching a musical performed on stage can be pure joy (George Takei's Allegiance being a great example), but it often loses something when it's projected onto the big screen - much in the same way baseball is best enjoyed at the stadium, rather than on TV.

Part of the difficulty with Les Miserables is that the story itself is somewhat melodramatic, at times verging on the maudlin. The death scenes seem designed to tug at the heartstrings, which has the opposite effect - robbing them of their poignancy. Adding music to the equation only enhances this effect, and it seems at times (particularly in the end) that the story has gone pretty far over the top.

The performances are generally solid. Anne Hathaway almost redeems the movie by herself, because she's a great singer in addition to a believable actress in the role of Fantine. She's the most realistic, sympathetic character in the film by a long way. But she's only in the first third of the picture. Many of the other characters to be represent some aspect of human existence, rather than being full-fledged human beings in their own right. Javert is "the law," Jean Valjean is "the virtuous martyr," Cosette and Marius are that well-worn staple of "star-crossed love at first sight." 

Among the other actors, Russell Crowe is believable as Javert, and Hugh Jackman shows his chops as an actor (if not so much as a singer) as Jean Valjean. When he asks, "Who am I?" once or twice in the film, however, I couldn't help seeing him as Wolverine uttering a similar line in the X-Men series. Sacha Baron Cohen is delightful in a comic relief role, where he and Helena Bonham-Carter play well off each other as a sort of 19th-century cross between Bonnie and Clyde and Fred and Ethel. 

Still, I far prefer the 1998 (non-musical) version with Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush. That film is just as long as the current incarnation, but it doesn't seem as long. It's not a musical, so while it retains the story's inherent sense of unbridled angst and recrimination, it isn't amplified by the inherent emotionalism of a musical discourse. 

To be sure, some of the music in the current release is powerful and moving. Fantine's musical soliloquy early in the movie is a great example. But the fact that virtually all the dialogue is sung blunts some of the impact that might have been achieved by setting moments like this more clearly apart from spoken conversation.

Many will enjoy Les Miserables, and there's much to enjoy (it is, after all, a very long movie). It just didn't turn out to be my particular cup of tea.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amazon's Arbitrary Review Policy Only Adds to the Problem of Bias

Amazon is biased against some forms of bias.

But not others.

And that's biased in and of itself.

Confused? Well, a lot of people are - especially authors like me. I'm an indie author, one among the rising hoard of self-published writers who are sharing their stories with readers in a whole new way. We've gotten tired wading through stacks of rejection letters and waiting months (or years) for our books to see the light of day by submitting our manuscripts to traditional publishers.

Old-line publishing is to the author what the IRS is to the taxpayer: a tangle of red tape and a barrage of bureaucracy. Sure, you can get a book published. If you have an agent. If you have an established name. If you have the patience of Job, the determination of Sisyphus and the spare time of H.G. Welles' Time Traveller.

Indie authors seldom have any of the above. We're like third-party political candidates. We've got a lot of good ideas, but we don't have the financial backing to hire armies of editors, publicists and lawyers. We have to do it ourselves. We work regular jobs to make ends meet and hope we have enough energy and creativity at the end of the day to tell a tale people will want to devour.

Now, with the advent of do-it-yourself publishing services like CreateSpace, Lulu and Smashwords, pretty much anyone can publish a book for free - which is a good thing because it circumvents all those scowling editors who barely look at most of the manuscripts they receive before tossing them into the trash heap. Or who don't open them at all unless they're from "agented" writers.

But it's also a bad thing, because without these gatekeepers, anyone can publish a book - including all those authors whose manuscripts deserved to be thrown in the trash. So we're left with two choices: 1) a bad system that misses a lot of good talent or 2) a free-for-all in which it seems virtually impossible to distinguish between talented authors and unschooled wannabes.

Virtually, but not entirely. That's where reviews are supposed to come in. In theory, they give readers a way of distinguishing the worthless from the worthy. But they don't work the way they're supposed to because they're often the product of biases, feuds and hidden agendas.

The problem, Amazon seems to think, started when some authors started paying people for positive reviews, while others asked family members to give leave glowing praise. Amazon got worried that this would skew the reviews, so it has put a stop to the practice. The New York Times reports that writers say "thousands of reviews have been deleted" in recent months without any public explanation.

This would be all well and good, except it does nothing to curb other sorts of bias. If you've written about a controversial subject, for example, people who haven't even read your book are free to slam it - and Amazon won't lift a finger to stop it. Reviews also can contain patently false statements. To my way of thinking, these are far worse than simple bias. They're lies.

For instance, when a reviewer, without any evidence, refers to other reviews on the page as "fake positive reviews," one might expect Amazon to take action.

Nope. The review is left in place. But reviews of fans, meanwhile, are taken down without any apparent justification. Amazon seems to have installed itself as judge, jury and executioner for authors, who are denied any form of due process and are considered guilty without any chance to prove their innocence.

Granted, Amazon owns the site. It can do as it sees fit. But one has to wonder why it wants to encourage negative reviews. That's basically what it's doing. In cracking down on one form of bias but ignoring others, it's giving the green light to trolls and haters to pretty much trash books with impunity ... and guess what? That's exactly what they're going to do. The site will become skewed toward negative reviewers who have grudges against authors, don't like what they're writing about or just enjoy creating havoc because it gives them a rush.

The upshot of all this, curiously, is that Amazon - which gets a cut of the profits when we indie authors sell a book - isn't going to make as much money.

So, it's self-defeating.

Here's a novel idea: Maybe Amazon should get rid of reviews altogether. It already offers potential buyers a "look inside" feature that allows them to read a good portion of the book for themselves. It's a far better way to judge a book than by looking at what various strangers have to say about it - strangers from unknown backgrounds with unclear agendas (and, in some cases, with very little writing talent of their own).

If you read the sample chapters on Amazon and don't like what you're reading, why on Earth should you buy the book? And if you fail to read the sample chapters, that's on you. Don't blame the author for writing something you didn't bother to read before buying it. No one who's that negligent has any business complaining that the purchase was a "waste of money."

This may be a drastic step, and I don't entirely like the idea myself (I get more good reviews than bad ones). But it's better than an unfair review process that's skewed toward bashers. A sensible alternative would be to eliminate all reviews that don't have something of substance to say about the content of the book - positive or negative. Acceptable reviews would say things like "the narrative was too heavy on description for my taste" would be fine; people who says things like "a load of crap" and "a waste of money" wouldn't be given an audience. Perhaps Amazon will adopt a policy such as this in the future; I sincerely hope so.

In its current misguided effort to address bias, however, Amazon has simply compounded the problem by skewing reviews toward a single type of bias while turning a blind eye toward everything else. That's a shame, because Amazon deserves plenty of credit for opening doors to self-published authors. In adopting an irresponsible and arbitrary policy toward reviews, however, it's threatening to slam the door in our collective faces.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Peculiar Children Lead the Reader on an Eerie but Wondrous Chase

I just finished reading "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs, a different sort of book to say the least. It's a period piece set largely in the mid-20th century that nonetheless manages to be fully contemporary.

I don't want to give too much away, but this is a time-travel novel that really gives the reader the feel of traveling through time. The author does so by interspersing the text with actual vintage photos that he uses as jumping-off points to tell a compelling story.

The plot focuses on a teenager named Jacob whose life is going nowhere. He's heir to a fortune, but preparing for his future responsibilities involves working in a job he hates while his father bemoans his lack of success in the shadow of his wife's wealth. The only person Jacob is close to in his family is his grandfather, who told him fantastic tales of "peculiar" children with special abilities during his childhood.

The children his grandfather said he grew up with seemed like refugees from a circus sideshow, and as he grew older, Jacob stopped believing them. But he never stopped feeling close to his grandfather, who remained his hero long after the tales lost their resonance.

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is utterly charming in the way it treats the concept of the sort of innocence we never really lose - even though we sometimes yearn to put such "silliness" behind us. It's a children's book for adults, and as such transcends typical genre labels such as YA, science fiction, horror and adventure - each of which might apply to this work.

Time travel is always tricky, and I haven't quite decided yet whether everything's fully consistent and believable. For the most part, the story seems plausible within the context of the odd world Riggs has created. In the end, though, it's the strong characters and the unique treatment of such universal themes as the discovery of young love, the tenacity of memories, the wistfulness of dreams and our tendency to cling to innocence that propels this book forward and makes it such an engaging read.

I Hate to Break it to You, Everyone, But Today Isn't Really 12/12/12

Did you know today's not really 12/12/12?

That's right. It's actually 12/12/16, or maybe 12/12/17. Or it would be if the Christians had gotten it right when they were figuring out what birth year to assign to Jesus of Nazareth.

There aren't many historically certain facts in the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth. Many of the details are likely based one earlier stories of miraculous births involving mythical characters such as Mithras and Tammuz/Dumuzi. But one thing we do know is a person named Herod the Great did exist. He's the man who supposedly ordered the "massacre of the innocents" after Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Matthew.

Herod served as Rome's client king in Palestine for about 36 years, with his reign ending at his death in 4 BCE. Unfortunately, he died four years before the traditional date of Jesus' birth, so he couldn't have possibly ordered any "massacre of the innocents" after Jesus was born.

Of course, it's entirely possible that the "massacre of the innocents" is a fictitious story based on a similar Old Testament account concerning Moses. Even if this is the case, though, it appears that very old tradition placed Jesus' birth during the time of Herod's reign, which means the 1/1/1 date or his nativity is at least four years too late.

There's a further complication to the story, too. The Gospel of Luke declares that Jesus was born during the time Quirinius was governor of Syria. But Quirinius didn't assume that post until 6 CE - a full decade after the death of Herod. So if the gospels are to be believed, Jesus had to have been born twice, 10 years apart. Maybe that's what he was talking about when he said, "You must be born again."

Read more about this and other interesting facts in the evolution of Western religion in my book "The Phoenix Principle: Pagan Birthright of the Christian God," available in paperback, on Kindle and on Nook.

My books now available on NOOK; sale on "Undefeated" through 12/22

This is just a quick note to inform you of two developments:

1) "Undefeated: Overcoming Prejudice with Grace and Courage" is ON SALE in its Kindle version through Dec. 22 for $2.99 - that's 32 percent off its regular $4.39 price. 

2) My books are now all available on NOOK! You can find them at by clicking here! (Samaire Provost's Mad World books, EPIDEMIC and SANCTUARY, will also be available soon. Watch for them!)

Did you know you can download the Kindle app to nearly any computer or tablet?

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Main Event: Leaky Jesus vs. Galileo and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Next time you have a problem with your sink backing up, maybe you ought to blame Jesus. But don't make him cry, or you might wind up drinking water from a rusted pipe.

That's about as close to sensible as the story of Sanal Edamaruku gets.

It seems Edamaruku had the temerity to question the source of the "tears" that were flowing from a statue of Jesus. People thought they were real tears. They even started drinking the "holy water," hoping for a miracle.

But Edamaruku spoiled it all by declaring that the "tears" were actually the product of a leaky pipe in the wall behind the statue. 

Now he's been charged with blasphemy - a criminal offense in India that can lead to three years in prison.

If this sounds absurd, it should. If it sounds scary, well, that too. As an author who has turned up his share of leaky pipes behind the  facades that elicit misplaced faith, this is disconcerting. (Shameless self-promotion: You can find examples galore in my books "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Phoenix Principle."

The thing is, these guys have real power. Edamaruku has been forced into exile because he doesn't want to condone a bunch of bullshit.

And let's not sugarcoat it. That's exactly what this is: bullshit.

Isn't it ironic that fundamentalists of various stripes argue so vehemently for "absolute truth" when they're so tenacious about clinging to their illusions? When the illusions are exposed, they blame the messenger and go whining to the keeper of those illusions. In this case, that would be the archbishop of the Catholic Church, who offered to let bygones be bygones if Edamaruku would publicly apologize for his remark.

The question is, to whom? The archbishop? Leaky Jesus? The plumber whose shoddy work produced the faulty pipe? Your guess is as good as mine.

The funny thing is, Edamaruku wasn't criticizing some fundamental tenet of the Bible or even Catholic dogma. He was saying a statue leaked. That's it. Imagine if he'd questioned some central article of faith. If exposing Leaky Jesus as a fraud gets you three years in prison, imagine what would have happened if he had questioned the feasibility of a virgin birth or bodily resurrection? Off with his head, they might have said! And you'd certainly better not question that Tim Tebow is the divine messenger of the touchdown god.

But should any of this really surprise us? The Catholic Church is the same institution that condemned Galileo for saying the sun was at the center of the solar system. (I'm guessing they didn't call it a solar system back them.) And now, five centuries later, our friends from Rome are still up to their old big brotherly tricks, clinging to their illusions at any cost.

Still, one has to wonder at the can of worms they've opened up. Can someone be accused of blasphemy for questioning the whether a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is weeping actual Ragu? Or is it Prego? And what if we were to use a wooden pole in celebrating Festivus rather than the traditional aluminum? Hell, the pope himself might be in trouble. After all, he recently declared that there weren't any angels or animals at the manger with Jesus, despite clear evidence to the contrary in every nativity scene on the shelves of Walmart, Target and Big Lots. 

I call blasphemy, Sir Pontiff! I hereby sentence you to fifty lashes with a wet noodle, courtesy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Not happy with that sentence? Well, I suppose you could always file an appeal with Leaky Jesus.

Then again, that probably won't do you any good. The story goes he was a carpenter, not a plumber.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

'Merry Christmas' to a Pagan: Like 'Happy Fourth of July' to a Russian

I, Marcus, was walking down the Appian Way one day just outside of Rome. The date? Just prior to midwinter. The year? Oh, about 1009 A.U.C. (For you barbarians out there, this stands for anno urbis conditae - we in the empire count our years from the founding of our great city.)

Like many of my countrymen, I was preparing to celebrate the Saturnalia, a weeklong feast in homage to Saturn, the father of our great god Jupiter. My children were particularly looking forward to the school holiday, and I had procured a few gifts for them, as is the tradition. Myself? I was more eager to gamble a bit, as the ban on such wagers is lifted during the holiday.

On my journey, I came upon a man I did not recognize. I greeted him with the customary, "Io, Saturnalia!" but he grew indignant with me and said he would not be sacrificing to Saturn this season. No, he would not be sacrificing at all, but rather he would be paying homage to the birth of his savior, whom he called Chrestus.

"So," I joked with him, "you have taken the Saturn out of Saturnalia?"

But he just scoffed at me and went on his way. I could not help but think to myself that it was his loss. This Chrestus of his seemed like something of a killjoy.


The Appian Way.

Fast forward to the year 2764 A.U.C. - today, that is. The annual debate over how to greet someone on the streets is in full swing once again, except now, the shoe is on the other foot (which makes foot-in-mouth syndrome a little more painful).

The followers of Chrestus are in the majority these days, and very few people celebrate the Saturnalia anymore. The only consolation for the poor, neglected Saturn is that his image - that of an aged man with a flowing white beard - lives on in the form of a jolly old "elf" by the name of Santa. Quite a comedown for the father of Jupiter, but I suppose it's better than nothing. At least he still has a day and a planet named after him.

Instead of joking about taking the Saturn out of Saturnalia, however, many Christians are grousing about others taking the Christ out of Christmas, as their holy day has come to be called. Some of them have even compiled a Naughty or Nice list of retailers who who don't (naughty) and do (nice) make liberal use of the term "Christmas" in their advertising and store displays. It's hard to overlook the irony that the very phrase "naughty or nice" is associated not with Christ but with Saturn ... er ... Santa.

It's also hard not to chuckle at the vehemence with which Protestants defend the term Christmas. If you do take the Christ out of Christmas, what's left? Mass, that's what. And Mass is a ritual that is exclusively Catholic. Its central feature is the Eucharist, which involves partaking of a wafer and wine that Catholics believe literally become the body and blood of Christ. Protestants generally don't believe this (they view the ceremony in symbolic, rather than literal terms). And the Catholic Church discourages other Christians from taking part in the rite.

U.S. bishops have issued the following guidelines for receiving the Eucharist: "Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Communion." 

So Christmas - at least by that name - isn't a Protestant holiday at all. It's a Catholic one. It seems just a bit peculiar that Protestants, who have fought wars with Catholics over other seemingly trivial issues, should so readily accept - and so eagerly defend - a Catholic holy day! Shouldn't they call it "Christbirth" or some such?

The fact is, whether the name "Christ" or the word "Mass" is included in the name of the holiday doesn't really matter. Christians in other parts of the world get by just fine without referring to either Christ or the Mass at this particular season. For those who converse in Spanish, the typical greeting is "feliz Navidad," and the French wish one another a "joyeux Noel." The name of Christ isn't mentioned in either saying. In fact, noel comes from the Latin root natalis, which meant simply "birthday." Navidad, meanwhile, is related to the word "nativity," meaning "birth" - and stems from a related Latin root.

Whose birth? In modern parlance, the word nativity has come to be intimately identified with the birth of Christ. In the third century, however, a typical Roman using the word natalis at this time of year might have assumed you were talking about the god Mithra, who was also said to have been born on Dec. 25. Or perhaps Sol Invictus, the "invincible sun," which was at its weakest during the winter solstice and from that point forward began to grow stronger - or be reborn.

Enter Old Man Winter, who was known to the Romans as our friend Saturn and to the Greeks before them as Cronos - or "Father Time." Cronos was the father of Zeus, and his name literally meant "time."* It's preserved at the root of our modern words chronology and chronicles. To us, he's Santa Claus. Each year he gives way to the Baby New Year, who bears a remarkable similarity to Christ. That's why Santa and Christ belong together. It would be unseemly to greet a new solar year without saying a proper goodbye to the old.

But just how should we do so?

Different people celebrate this season in different ways. It all depends on one's perspective. And that's exactly the point - yes, I'm finally getting to it - of this article. Those who insist that "Merry Christmas" is the only proper greeting for this holiday wouldn't have enjoyed being on the other end of the stick back when the Saturnalia was all the rage. I'd wager they wouldn't have been particularly comfortable with all the "Io, Saturnalia!" greetings going around. In the same way, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists and others might not care too much about being wished a merry Christmas.

This is especially true for Jews and many Pagans, both of whom celebrate their own sacred days - Hanukkah and Yule, respectively - at this time of year.

The idea behind more general salutations such as "happy holidays" and "season's greetings" is respect. It's an admission that, hey, I don't know what holiday you happen to celebrate, but whatever it is, I hope it's a good one! How can someone complain about that? If you know someone else is a Pagan, wishing that person a merry Christmas can be an insult - it's a refusal to honor and recognize that person's right to celebrate the season as he/she pleases. The same goes for a Jew who wishes a Christian a happy Hanukkah.

If you think about it, it's absurd. It's like an American wishing everyone in Beijing a happy Fourth of July. It's like telling someone who doesn't like football to "enjoy the Super Bowl!" Or buying a litter box for someone who doesn't own a cat. Such salutations are superfluous at best, insulting at worst. So why should we think wishing a Jew "Merry Christmas" is any different?

When it comes right down to it, shouldn't our wishes be determined by the other person's tradition? Should we go around saying "Io, Saturnalia!" to Christians or "Happy Hanukkah" to Buddhists? Or wouldn't it be better to honor the traditions of others, just as we'd like them to honor ours? When it comes down to it, that's pretty much what the Golden Rule is all about. And that's something at least Christians should be able to live with.

* Editor's note: Cronos is traditionally depicted as carrying a scythe or sickle, much like the grim reaper. In Greek mythology, this referred to the fact that he had castrated his father in order to claim the throne of the gods. This probably explains why Santa carries around a bag of toys rather than a sickle. The moral of the story: Children shouldn't play with sharp objects.

* Editor's note II: Originally published in 2011.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pagan Atheists: Yes, We Exist

Can atheists be Pagans?

To me, the answer to that question seems easy. Of course they can. But when I brought up the subject recently, I realized the answer wasn’t nearly so clear-cut for many people ... and that a few objected vehemently to the very suggestion that these two philosophies were compatible. 

One person even suggested that I was doing Paganism a grave disservice by even suggesting such a notion. This person had spent a good deal of effort convincing some folks who identified themselves as Christians that Pagans weren’t “godless.” To say that Pagans could be atheists, she said, was to prove these Christians right! (I found myself wondering why I, or anyone who holds a non-Christian belief, should care about how a Christian might judge that belief.)

Certainly, not all Pagans are godless, just as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The majority are, in fact, theists - and the majority of those are polytheists, believers in many gods. But there are some Pagan pantheists out there, too, along with some monotheists, some agnostics and yes, even some atheists.

In fact, a survey I conducted online last summer found that the vast majority of respondents identified the most important element in Paganism as “reverence for nature.” Given three possible responses, a whopping 87 percent chose this answer. In second place, with just 10 percent of the vote, was “worship of the gods.” (The third option, “practice of magic(k),” received a paltry 3 percent.

When asked whether worship of the gods was a fundamental component of Paganism, a majority - 53 percent - said it wasn’t. While the size of the sample for these questions was significant at more than 600 people, the sampling was not scientific. Nevertheless, it shows clearly that a significant number of people don’t think polytheism is essential to Paganism and - even among those who do - most don’t think it’s the defining element.

Reverence for nature fills that role.

Sagan’s example

Few people showed greater reverence for nature than the late Carl Sagan, an agnostic who made a career of exploring - and marveling at - the wonders of the universe. In fact, he was so astounded by the beauty and complexity of the universe itself, that he saw no need to go seeking gods or goddesses to explain it. His philosophy was that no concept of a creator or overseer could possibly match the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature itself.

This is the way the Pagan atheist views the world, and the universe at large. It’s not some dry, clinical and bitter philosophy. It’s a vibrant, dynamic view of life and the environment that births and sustains it. In fact, many Pagans view the universe as a sort of living organism - either metaphorically or in actual terms. The parallels are, indeed, fascinating. And, in fact, many Pagans believe that the distinction between natural and supernatural is a false one - that nature is the totality of all there is, and that it’s meaningless to speak of anything being somehow outside of nature.

How could we even conceive of such a something in any case? We’d have absolutely no frame of reference for either conceptualizing or experiencing it.

The role of deities

All of which raises the question of gods and goddesses. What, exactly, are they? Are they supernatural entities - beings outside or somehow above nature? This is certainly the Christian worldview - a view that places its deity outside of nature and, in doing so, casts nature itself in a subordinate role. Nature is but a creation, a tool at the disposal of a superior being who created it either for “his” own enjoyment or for the purpose of allowing other creations (humanity) to exploit it.

I know of very few Pagans who approve of exploiting nature for the sake of human greed and narcissism. Most, in my experience, view humans as part of nature, not separate from it - part of an intricate web of life, not somehow above or beyond it. Gods and goddesses, likewise, are most often viewed as part of the fabric of nature, rather than somehow disconnected from it. On the contrary, they are connected in the most intimate fashion possible. Poseidon is the sea personified. Deities such as Osiris, Aphrodite and Freya exemplify the very principle of fertility. Zeus’ lightning and Thor’s thunder are in the storm. 

The ancients didn’t fully comprehend how the forces of nature worked, so they viewed it in terms they did understand - anthropomorphic terms. They put a human face on nature, attributing violent storms to an angry god's tantrum or fertile fields to the benevolence of a goddess. 

Sacrificial offerings

One difficulty many atheists have with these conceptions is practical. If we believe that we are at the mercy of a deity’s emotions, it’s only human nature that we’re going to try like hell to influence those emotions. We’re going to try to put that deity in a good mood. This is how the concept of sacrifice developed, as an attempt to placate (or bribe) a deity by offering him/her something we ourselves might enjoy - often in the form of food. There were a couple of problems with this assumption.

First off, it was arrogant to think the forces behind the elements needed anything from us, and it was presumptuous to assume that - if they did - they’d enjoy the same sorts of things we did. Second, instead of placating the forces of nature, the assumption led us to actually destroy elements of nature itself. We sacrificed things that were never ours to sacrifice. We killed animals and burned them on altars. We even went so far as to kill humans. And if our sacrifices weren’t “accepted” (the rains didn’t come or the land remained barren), we blamed the priests who conducted the sacrifices and killed them, too.

While we don’t conduct human sacrifices today, we still ostracize people who don't believe the way we do on the grounds that they're an offensive to our patron deity or deities. The Christian concept of hell falls into this category, as does the shunning of family members still practiced in some faiths. Indeed, Christian dogma is built on a foundation of the need for sacrifice - both homicidal and deicidal, but it’s hardly alone. Those who practice a variety of other faiths still sacrifice animals in the hope of propitiating or manipulating the gods. 

Marvels and contradictions

These are the kinds of practices that the Pagan atheist finds saddening, because they do unnecessary damage to nature itself - something humanity has done far too often. Indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose god was originally a storm deity in a polytheistic tradition, often justifies brutalizing nature on the grounds that this god gave human beings the right to do so. It seems contradictory (perhaps even sadomasochistic) that a god of nature should have given humans the right to destroy his creation for their benefit. Or his. Or both. 

I wrote the book “Requiem for a Phantom God” to expose just such contradictions in the dominant form of monotheism practiced today in the West. Although I think polytheism has an ethical advantage on Abrahamic monotheism - as I explain in that work - I’d be less than fair or honest if I didn’t acknowledge similar contradictions where I see them within Paganism, as well. 

It is precisely because of a love for nature that a person can identify as a Pagan and an atheist with absolutely no contradiction whatsoever. The Pagan atheist views nature itself as the magnificent framework of which we all are a part - and has no need to put a human face on it. To do so is to look at it through a clouded lens, rather than taking it at its own marvelous face value. 

“I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point,” Sagan once remarked, “but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.”

Misconceptions and metaphors

Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Pagan atheists are just a bunch of bah-humbug types who revel in their own bitterness and adhere to a boring and rigid existence devoid of beauty and reverence. There is, of course, plenty of bitterness and negativity out there - but these attitudes can be found in people of all paths. No faith has a monopoly. In fact, Pagan atheists celebrate nature. Though we don't believe in anthropomorphic deities who stand as guardians to the forces of nature, we revere those forces on their own terms and, when others speak of Isis or Demeter, we respect their right to do so. We may even use such divine names ourselves, not in reference to unseen personalities, but as symbol and metaphor - a rich form of human expression - to characterize nature itself.

We don’t begrudge others the use of terms like “the goddess” or “the lord and the lady.” On the contrary, we see them as a poetic homage to the wonders nature and an acknowledgement of the masculine and feminine principles that are so prevalent across our natural world. We see no contradiction between such poetic reverence and the scientific assurance that thunderstorms aren’t the product of a storm god’s wrath, but rather the something that occurs when warm, moist air rises rapidly in the atmosphere.

When it comes right down to it, arguing that atheists don’t belong in the Pagan world is like arguing that Protestants aren’t real Christians or that Sufis aren’t true Muslims. It’s the opposite side of the coin that argues “all Pagans are Wiccan.” No, they’re not. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be Pagan, but neither do you have to be a theist. It’s not a prerequisite. There’s room enough in this vibrant community for a wide array of different expressive forms, including Pagan atheism.