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.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Best Leaders Take a Stand Before Bigotry Affects Them

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, center, with his family.

"Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all." - Harvey Milk 

Last week, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio changed his views on same-sex marriage. He did so because his son is gay. Not only is Portman a prominent senator, he was also among the reported finalists for a spot on the Republican party's ticket this past year.

But this isn't an article about parties. It's an article about people. And Portman's decision to change his stance on same-sex marriage says a lot about how people make their decisions. When it comes right down to it, honorable people back those they love. They may or may not agree with their loved ones' decisions, but they don't stop loving them and they do support them in the face of criticism.

On the flipside, it also demonstrates how easy it is to make judgments in the abstract. If something doesn't affect you or those you love, it's easy to be harsh, dismissive and even bigoted. It's noble to stick up for family members, but does your family really deserve any better treatment than another's? Is my family any more worthy of our attention, compassion and respect than people I've never met?

Harvey Milk

Yet Harvey Milk was right. This is exactly what happens, time after time. It happened to Dick Cheney, an opponent of same-sex marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian. And it happened to Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, who did a 180-degree turnabout on the issue because he could not bring himself to tell his daughter, a lesbian, that her relationship wasn't as important as an opposite-sex couple's.

Even President Barack Obama chalked up his "evolved" position on the issue based on his own daughters' views: "It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."

But here's the thing: It shouldn't have to come to that. We should be understanding enough to do the right thing before someone we love is directly affected - and even if no one we love ever is. We should be able to put ourselves in another's shoes, and we should already be "evolved" enough to understand abstract ideas such as human rights before we're hit over the head with a pretty big piece of concrete personal reality.

This is not to diminish the stands that Portman, Cheney, Sanders, Obama and others have taken. Each should be applauded for doing the right thing. For a contrast, see the statement made by House Speaker John Boehner on the subject in response to Portman's shift: "Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. All right. It's what I grew up with. It's what I believe. It's what my church teaches me. And I can't imagine that position would ever change." Of course, for Boehner, it's all still very much abstract. But closing one's self off to the possibility of change is to become irrelevant - because change is going to happen, without you or not. The question is whether you'll be an instrument of change, someone who passively accepts it or someone who opposes it at every turn.

The Boehners of the world aside, more and more people are accepting same-sex marriage. They're doing the right thing. But in the best of worlds, we do the right thing for the right reasons. Heroes aren't people who act because their personal world has changed, they're those who act because they want to change things for everyone - for the better. It's only when we take the lead that we can truly claim to have evolved.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A (Celtic) Knotty Question: Can Pagans Celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

I recently started looking into my genealogy and watering the ol' family tree a little. I'm not sure, but maybe this is something you just do when you hit middle age and realizing there's no turning back: You try to turn back in a historical sense.

I had long known that my grandfathers came from France and Denmark, but what I hadn't known is that my maternal grandmother's family was nearly full-blooded Irish. So I got pretty excited when I found out I actually had a reason to celebrate a holiday of my own: St. Patrick's Day.

That's where things got complicated. When I pointed out my heritage on my Facebook page, some were indignant or confused: "Why do you celebrate that day?" I was asked. Didn't I realize that St. Patrick had driven the Druids (i.e., snakes) out of Ireland and, in doing so, had waged a religious war against them?

Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that. My first reaction, honestly, was a bit defensive. There are times when it seems that whatever one posts on Facebook, it brings critics out of the woodwork eager to squelch a person's enthusiasm. And, dammit all, I was excited about my Irish heritage. I wanted to celebrate it. Certainly anyone who knows me realizes that I'm 1) not Catholic and, 2) vehemently opposed to religious warfare and oppression. To quote the title of an album by Gaelic Storm, "What's the rumpus?"

Well, when I started to look at it from the critics' perspective, I realized they had a point. Hadn't I railed against celebrating Columbus Day because Columbus had been responsible for killing and oppressing Native Americans in the Caribbean? How was this any different?

Then I got to thinking again: Why should I tell Italians they don't have a right to celebrate their heritage, if I want to celebrate my Irish heritage? St. Patrick probably never drank green beer or consorted with leprechauns. So how did March 17 really celebrate the repression of the Druid way in Ireland, or was it more simply a celebration of Irish heritage?

(As an aside, Patrick wasn't even the first Christian bishop of Ireland - that honor fell to a certain Palladius - and Patrick didn't succeed in expelling all the Druids from Ireland. Not by a long shot. Pagan rites continued to be practiced on the Island for nearly a millennium after his death. And they're being practiced again today.)

Both the Irish and the Italians came in large numbers to American shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both were just as much victims of bigotry and slander as the Druids had been. Can anyone really blame them for latching on to holidays to celebrate their heritage - one day out of the year away from the factories and sweatshops where they toiled to have a little fun? I certainly can't.

One certainly doesn't have to view the clover as a symbol of the Christian trinity, as Patrick himself is said to have done. One can see it as a symbol of the triple goddess or, heck, just as what it is: a clover!

Does St. Patrick's Day glorify a man who supported and spearheaded religious oppression of the Druids? Or is it a day to celebrate Irish heritage, have a few drinks and take a twirl across the dance floor with a bonnie lass?

The answer is yes.

But it can be something more, too. Each year, Jews around the world remember November 9-10 as Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass." This was the time, in 1938, that the Nazi regime implemented a pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria, smashing out the windows on the storefronts they owned and leaving glass strewn across the streets. By marking this day, they are vowing to never forget the atrocities committed against them.

So maybe, just maybe, days like Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day can serve as this sort of reminder, too. The indomitable spirit of the Irish shines through on St. Patrick's Day, and that's something to celebrate. The spirit of the Native Americans has not been crushed, despite the deeds of Columbus, and endures proud to this day. That's something to celebrate, too.

This St. Patrick's Day, I'll drink beer from a green can, listen to some traditional Irish music and remember my ancestors who had a rough go of it - both when Patrick and his like invaded their shores centuries ago and when they came to America looking for a better life just a few generations before me. I won't be celebrating Patrick any more than German Jews celebrate the broken glass on the streets of Berlin. But I'll be remembering. And I'll be celebrating the fact that, while the bigots lie moldering in their graves, the spirit of freedom lives on.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pagans and Atheists: Plenty of Room for Constructive Dialogue

The following is a response to Ian Corrigan, author of the blog titled “Into the Mound,” who posted his own response to my article “Pagan Atheists: Yes, We Exist.”

First, I’d like to thank the author for his thoughtful tone and encourage readers of this article who are interested to read it. For the purposes of brevity, I'm only quoting excerpts here and don't wish it to seem as though I'm taking anything out of context.  This is the kind of intelligent give-and-take that I appreciate; disagreements can be stated without bashing or belittling, and everyone can walk away enriched by the experienced.

I’d like to begin by reiterating my position that the original piece was not meant as a condemnation of polytheism. There are quite a few rather bitter atheists who seem as intent upon proselytizing as fundamentalist Christians , and I think that’s too bad because their sour attitude obscures the message they’re trying to get across. I’m not suggesting that everyone “convert” to atheism, merely making a case for the acceptance of atheism within a Pagan context.  There are Pagans who are dismissive of the idea that one can be both a Pagan and an atheist; I take issue with this. I simply believe the Pagan umbrella is big enough to offer acceptance to both views (along with others and many variants).

There are a few things Mr. Corrigan and I seem to agree on. When it comes to the nature of the universe, I am very much of a mind that the entire thing is a unified whole. Mr. Corrigan’s statement that the gods are “part and parcel of nature” seems to be in agreement with this principle. On the other hand, I believe that living beings are also unified wholes, in agreement with the pattern of the universe as a whole. This isn't materialism (a term Mr. Corrigan uses that doesn't represent my personal view). I view it, rather, as integration.

I’m not “discarding half the business,” to use Mr. Corrigan’s phrase, I’m arguing for a unified view.

The idea that the spiritual and physical are somehow separate hearkens back to dualistic ideas found in the teachings of Zoroaster, the Gnostics and others. Adherents of such ideas soon began to argue that one facet of nature was one how superior to the other, and people wound up condemning the material and exalting the spiritual.

I personally think this was a big mistake.

On the other hand, I'm not advocating the opposite approach (condemning the spiritual and exalting the material). Far from it. What I’m proposing is an integrated approach that breaks down such distinctions because all are equally a part of nature.

In suggesting that the spiritual is dependent upon the material, I'm not at all suggesting that the material is somehow superior. The fact is that, when it comes to that quality we call “life,” the material is equally dependent upon the material. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other is precisely the process that leads us to ignoring one or the other and missing out on the wonders of the whole.

An exception to the rule: There are times when one must, of necessity, focus on some specific component of a system. For instance, if a certain part of the body is ailing, we focus on restoring that part to health; it doesn't do us much good to take an aspirin when a bone needs to be set or pop a few Vitamin C's for a case of bronchitis. But in general, it’s most respectful to refer to a person rather than his component parts.

To say that I am both spiritual and physical misses the point. I am also a nose, a psyche, lungs, emotions and a whole assortment of other things. But I’m not any one of them to the exclusion of the others. I’m the whole. I’m me. Period. Just as the universe is the universe. The more we divide and subdivide our realities into various categories with convenient labels, the more, I think, we miss the grandeur of the unified whole and how it all works together. The parts are interrelated and interdependent, as in an ecosystem. When you focus on one to the exclusion of others, you run the risk of throwing everything out of whack.

Do spirits exist apart from the material? I have no experience of such, but neither am I arrogant enough to say that this isn’t possible. To be an atheist, as I use the term, is to be “without gods” - not to deny their existence, but to deny any experience of such existence. Any attempt to prove a negative is an exercise in futility. But I can say I have no personal knowledge of gods, and that all my experience points to the idea that systems - whether they be human communities, ecosystems or individual organisms - function as integrated wholes rather than in isolation from one another.

I am not, myself, aware of spirits functioning in isolation from bodies, but consider this: bodies do not long function in isolation from what people refer to as spirits, either. They decay and become something else entirely. Recognition of this process is part and parcel of many Pagans’ beliefs. Again, this does not mean that spirits can't function without bodies; it merely means that, in my experience, they don't.

Another point on which I differ with Mr. Corrigan - and an important reason I cannot, personally, adopt his approach - is the primacy he appears to place on worship. In his article, he defines a god as “a mighty spirit who answers worship with blessing.” I have a hard time with this. The gods, in this conception, strike me as either  1) self-indulgent types who thrive on flattery or 2) supernatural on-off switches: you worship, they bless. I don’t generally trust individuals who need their egos stroked, and attributing this sort of behavior to a god does not, to me, make it any more acceptable. On the other hand, if they merely respond to human actions - you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours - that seems to demean the whole idea of godhood.

If beings called gods and goddesses exist as a part of nature, beyond the world of archetype and symbol, does that make them in any sense superior to other elements of nature? I would argue that the answer is no. Part of humanity’s problem, in my view, is the arrogance that places man/woman above the rest of nature, demanding obeisance and arrogantly proclaiming that the rest of the universe exists to serve us. In essence, it’s an attitude that insists on the sort of dynamic Mr. Corrigan appears to invoke: nature must serve us, or or we’ll withhold our blessing.

We cut down forests and drill oil, in essence demanding that nature to our will. This has nothing to do with nature. Earth will compensate, and the universe will continue. To nature, a human's well being has no greater value than an ant's or a redwood's - all are a part of the whole. And if gods exist and are a part of nature, as Mr. Corrigan believes (and as I would believe, if I were to believe in gods), I doubt they're any more important to nature than an ant ... or a human.

I don’t think the earth, the animals, the plants, etc. exist for our convenience any more than we exist for the convenience of some other element in nature (gods or goddesses). The very essence of our egotism is that we demand things be done our way rather than nature’s way. If gods do the same thing, what makes them better than humans? Mere power? And if that's all it is, does might make right?

I find Mr. Corrigan’s description of European sacrificial rites a positive contribution to the dialogue: “The tradition of animal sacrifice, at least in Europe, was a community barbecue in which a food animal was killed, butchered and cooked, with the gods getting the bones and fat and the humans getting the parts we could use.”

Thid practice. as presented. does, in fact, seem to be a noble tradition: Do not waste what you can use, and leave what you can’t use for a different purpose. I can't argue with this reasoning. I would, however, ask why entirely spiritual beings - if they exist - would have need of any physical elements. If they were, in fact, integrated beings as we are, the question would be moot. But if, as the author states, a god is a “mighty spirit” and the spiritual is “distinct from the material,” what need does the god have of anything physical?

Mr. Corrigan expresses a belief that some spirits “enjoy putting on our likeness” - becoming corporeal. The belief that gods could take human form was, indeed, widespread among the ancients. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, this can occur. It is still insufficient to answer the question of why one should sacrifice a physical substance to a deity while that deity was in incorporeal form. One could be expected to offer a deity an invitation to dinner when he/she had taken on human form, because then (presumably), he/she would be able to enjoy it. But this is no less than the spirit of hospitality encourages us all to do for corporeal individuals who are “merely” human.

Then again, if deities can take human form, isn't that an argument - in itself - for integration rather than division? I think that's a question worth asking.

I’ll boil this all down to four points as follows:
  • I disagree with Mr. Corrigan’s emphasis on a dichotomy of nature that consists of natural/supernatural or spiritual/physical. I prefer to view the universe and the individuals within it as integrated wholes (which I think fits nicely into the “as above, so below” pattern Mr. Corrigan quotes in his article).
  • I disagree with the conception of gods as those who exchange blessings for worship. If such beings exist, I expect they’re infinitely more complex than this. (I honestly suspect Mr. Corrigan does, too, and I don't mean to represent this as his entire opinion on the matter.) And if they aren’t, I don’t have much respect for them.
  • I don’t personally find any evidence of deities in my own experience; others testify to such experience. That doesn’t make either of us any less worthy of respect or any less Pagan. It just makes us different, and we’re both equally entitled to express our thoughts on the matter.
  • I’m not seeking to denigrate polytheism or any other form of theism. In fact, I believe there is much commonality Pagans of all stripes can enjoy, whether they’re polytheists, pantheists, humanists, atheists or what have you. Rather than seeking to exclude any of these folks from the table, I think we should be welcoming one another as those who can contribute to a constructive dialogue for our mutual edification.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kiersten White's 'Supernaturally' a Strong Sequel to 'Paranormalcy'

Most books don't keep me up past bedtime. I'm one of those readers who can disengage from a story pretty easily when the old eyelids start to get heavy. But the last 100 pages of Supernaturally kept me awake into the wee hours.

The novel continues the adventures of Evie, a 16-year-old girl caught between two worlds - everyday existence as a high school student and her identity as a gifted "empty one" whose adventures in the paranormal realm are anything but ordinary.

If you enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, Paranormalcy, chances are you'll like this one, as well. Kiersten White's writing stands out for a couple of reasons. Her first-person approach is so effortless it requires virtually no exertion on the part of the reader. Evie's voice is conversational and believable, and it allows the reader to get comfortable inside her head. But not too comfortable. Another thing White has done well is create a character who's complex and not always lovable. You'll root for her throughout, but you won't always agree with her decisions. Sometimes, you'll probably even say to yourself, "What the bleep is she thinking?"

This series is packed with a cast of paranormal creatures that will seem familiar (vampires, faeries, werewolves, selkies, etc.), but the world White has populated them with is unique and creative. Her shapeshifting water-based boyfriend is particularly noteworthy, and a new addition to this book - the aptly named Jack - adds a new dimension that gives the book a fresh feel.

This book is part mystery, and it's solved with a nice twist I didn't see coming. The least interesting part of the book is the day-to-day teenage interactions, but they're necessary to set up the more extraordinary elements of the story and to illustrate the tension between the two worlds in which Evie lives. She's drawn to both of them for different reasons, and the conflict between the desire for peace and the lure of adventure is something most readers can relate to.

Perhaps the best recommendation I can offer is the fact that these books worked so well for a 49-year-old male such as myself thoroughly enjoyed a book centered on the life of a teenage girl. That's testimony to the author's ability to tell a good story. A strong story with well-drawn characters can work regardless of the setting or genre, and that's what this is.

Rating: 5 stars.

Announcing the Release of 'Artifice: An Identity Quest Story': Only 99¢

I'm pleased to announce the release of "Artifice: An Identity Quest Story" in paperback and e-book form. "Artifice" is a novella that pairs with the first installment in the series, "Identity Break," and can be read either before or after that book.

My challenge in writing "Artifice" was to create a story that complemented "Identity Break" without giving anything away. (There are some nice twists in the first installment that I didn't want to ruin.) The idea was to answer some of the questions I purposely left hanging in "Identity Break" and help lay the groundwork for some plot turns that lie ahead in the next installment of the planned trilogy.

"Artifice" has a little more romance to it than "Identity Break" did, but it's still very much an action/adventure novel, and I wanted to keep it fast-paced throughout. I'm confident that readers who enjoyed the first book will enjoy this one, as well. The best part is it's just 99 cents on Kindle. If you want a cheap way to figure out whether this series is for you, it's a great opportunity to give it a try, and if you already read and enjoyed "Identity Break," it's a little something to hold you over until the next full novel is released this summer - or sooner if I can manage it.

There's another bit of news worth mentioning: "Identity Break" will be going on a book blog tour with Chick Lit + from May 13-27. I'll be posting links to the reviews and interviews from that tour here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Extremism, Appeasement and the Third Option: Scientific Thought

Confirmation bias. These two words are among the biggest obstacles to rational thought we face.

We've all experienced it, and at some point in time, we've all engaged in it. Confirmation bias is a tendency to prefer information that confirms what we already believe. It's why conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; it's why progressives confine themselves to liberal-leaning websites. To use a well-worn phrase often quoted in Pagan circles, "like attracts like." While this may not always be true, it certainly is in this case.

It's natural. There's even a First Amendment protection for it: freedom of association. We have every right to hang out with the people we want to be around.

If allowed to run its course, however, confirmation bias leads to an even more toxic condition: absolutism. It works like this: the more we allow our beliefs to be reinforced by like-minded people, without allowing ourselves to be challenged by people who think differently, the more extreme we become. Eventually, we become so extreme we become absolutists. Our mantra becomes, "No one will ever, under any circumstances ... (fill in the blank).

I'm not going to actually fill in the blank with specific issues here, because we all know what they are. They've been argued on websites and media outlets ad nauseam. The point here isn't to get sidetracked into a debate over specific issues, it's to focus on the thought process behind those issues.

Our current media culture encourages confirmation bias. There are so many narrowly focused, specifically targeted blogs, cable networks, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that we can easily isolate ourselves and limit our exposure to those who think differently. We create a cocoon around ourselves and turn on a numbing sound loop of endlessly repetitious endorsements of what we already know. Or think we know.

This process has created a politically polarized country where very little is accomplished because the two sides are too far away from each other to see the middle, much less meet in it. But it has also created a backlash from a group so tired of chaos and confrontation that they throw up their hands and say "live and let live" about pretty much anything. Unfortunately, that mentality is just as foreign to rational thought (and in some senses, just as absolute) as the mindset at either extreme. Accepting everything as valid is just as harmful as accepting only what we already believe.

So here's the situation: We have cookie-cutter absolutists at both ends, with disengaged "let's just all get along, whatever it takes" folks in the middle.

There is, fortunately, a third alternative: having the courage to believe what you believe even if you don't fit the mold and - even more importantly - to modify your beliefs if they don't square with the facts. This is, of course, the scientific approach.

Unfortunately, it won't make you popular with any of the aforementioned groups. Absolutists on both sides will deride you as disloyal, heretical and worse because you don't follow the party line. The laissez-faire folks in the middle won't like you, either, because you're rocking the boat at both ends and they're getting seasick. They don't care who wins; they just want to avoid conflict at any cost by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping it all goes away on its own. Of course, it won't.

Scientific thinkers are the world's referees. We get pelted with tomatoes from both sidelines and accused of bias by partisans of every sort. Take me, for example. I'm an author who has written a book about Jesus called The Gospel of the Phoenix. It paints Jesus in a positive light, which doesn't sit too well with some atheists and Pagans who want nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus or may not believe he even existed; but that doesn't mean fundamentalist Christians will like it. Just the opposite: they're not likely to approve of a narrative that questions several tenets of their theology.

Another book of mine, Requiem for a Phantom God, draws even stronger protests. The book points out the logical inconsistencies of monotheistic beliefs (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). This is, of course, not popular with people who hold those beliefs. But those who don't tend to react in a couple of different ways:

  • "Thank you for writing this book! It reinforced everything I always thought about why all Christians are such idiots!"
  • "How dare you criticize another person's religious belief! We need to respect the beliefs of others and show tolerance. How would you like it if your beliefs were attacked that way?"
These quotes are paraphrased, but they fairly well convey the responses I've received to this work from Pagans who have read the book.

Both miss the point entirely. The book is not intended to reinforce beliefs (confirmation bias). Nor is it meant as an excuse to vilify "all" members of a particular group or dismiss every teaching of a particular religion. On the contrary, it's intended to raise significant questions about elements of Christian dogma and monotheism in general that, I think, are illogical and may promote or justify harmful actions such as slavery, misogyny, bigotry, oppression, murder and so forth.

I'm not condemning "everything" about Christianity or Judaism or Islam, each of which has many positive teachings to offer. "Love thy neighbor" (harm none?) and "reap what you so" (karma, anyone?) come to mind.

Appeasement: U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler, 1938.

On the other end, the hands-off position taken in the second quote misses the point just as badly. Religion has too often been used as an excuse to perpetrate atrocities. The terrorist jihads of Islam, along with the crusades and witch hunts of Christianity, are based on dogmatic beliefs and interpretations that must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, not excused on the basis of religion. We tried the whole "live and let live" approach with Nazi Germany during World War II. It was called appeasement, and it didn't work.

There's a proverb equates wisdom with harlotry, and I think there's something to that. Wisdom is not faithful to any dogma, but follows her own course and will share herself with anyone willing to pay the price: open-mindedness and sincerity. Like referees, harlots tend to be reviled. So do scientific thinkers, because neither side in any debate can count on them for support, and the price to have it may be steep - that price is a continual re-examination of one's self and the facts in evidence (both of which are always changing).

Is it possible to be both civil and open-minded on the one hand, yet unyielding in the face of abuse and tyranny? Absolutely. Don't ask me to condemn any broad group en masse as "a bunch of idiots." That doesn't fly with me. But neither will I stand idly by and allow religious doctrine to become an excuse for atrocity. Don't ask me to "tolerate" that based on some live-and-let-live mantra. It reminds me more of that old Paul McCartney song, Live and Let Die.

If all this leaves me as a referee in the game of life, I consider it a noble position - and not one to which I'm uniquely called. In fact, I believe it's a challenge to which we all can and should rise.

Yes, that's an absolute statement. You can go ahead and pelt me with tomatoes now.