Monday, March 19, 2012

I know that prior to my recent investigation, I had actually found my way to "", and was both unsurprised, and underwhelmed by its contents. It was not until a few days ago, however, that I found my way back and actually began going through a good chunk of the content provided by the site. As it turns out this site has managed to inspire me, because it is probably one of the more duplitious sites out there. It provides just enough actual information, that anyone not familair with either the historic/modern cultures discussed or with polytheism in general, would actually mistake it as a legitimate source of information. It isn't, of course, being what amounts to a thinly veiled, web based Christian tract. The "articles" are loaded with imbeded links to webpages produced by the same company, all under the auspices of "All About Philosophy", which in turn is owned and maintained by "", of "All About God Ministries".

There are many "tells" on the front page which betray its true nature, but a lot of folks wouldn't be aware of these and so the insidious nature of the site, and the misinformation it provides, is all the more troubling. So why bother talking about it at all? Two reasons:

1. The first is that I think pointing out just how dishonest the information is, merits some commentary, if for no other reason than to provide some content fellow polytheists may get a chukle out of, or shake their heads at.

2. The second, and probably more useful, is that the site is replete with just about every agument that has been made against polytheism, from archaic to obscufitating, to down right lying. I think that while the information is bogus and with a juvenile analysis, it does represent a given world view: that of a certain type of monotheist's understanding of polytheism, and if nothing else provides clear points of argument, to which rebuttals ought to be made.

The front page consists of a basic explanation of what polytheism is, drops some of the polytheisic cultures which everyone would be familiar with, mentions how primitive it is, how it is in stark contrast to the Abrahamic monotheisms and how most modern polytheists are either those "exotic" others from the "east" or new agers. My guess would be that pagans and reconstructionists would be lumped in with the new age in such an aproximation. As I mentioned the information is innocous enough, but it is towards the bottom of the page that the tone shifts from condescendingly curious to two central commentaries which show the lacking elements of polytheism (or to be fair, any non-absolutist, monotheistic worldview).
  • The lack in a supreme, all powerful deity, who is the embodiment of morality, necessarily makes these religions/cultures 'moral relativists'.
  • Ultimately, these people are unhappy because they, necessarily, lack the direction and purpose presented by the monothesitic god. 
The bottom of the last paragraph spells it out, "Monotheistic faiths such as Christianity teach that absolute truth is reality, mankind is on earth for a purpose, and eternal salvation is possible for those seeking a reconciled relationship with the one true God." This of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with monotheism at all, but consdiering the authors, is typical. So, lets "Explore More Now!!!"

This link, unfortunately for the purposes of this post, redirects to a page comparing the "meaning of life" between those who think "this life is all their is", and those who "know there is more". I'll not go into great detail here, but one of the "points" raised on this page reveals the highly immoral nature of the very world view they espouse as being "moral." The argument boils down to the need for an ultimate reward to provide meaning to any aspect of human culture or history, because without this reward, everything is meaningless. It really doesn't provide anymore detail than that, and is a perfect example of circular logic. The real life example they posit is that without an ultimate reward, there is no difference between living a life like "Billy Graham" or living a life like "Osama Bin Laden". I'll just play along with their simplistic good/evil bifurcation; they completely fail to see that living a life of morality for the sake of morality is a worthwhile endevour. Are they so morally callous to just ignore the suffering, however temporal, that an "evil" person inflicts, or the joy that a "good" person provides? For people who are making judgements from a position of "absolute" morality, they lack even the basic ability to distinguish "right" from "wrong".

Which brings me back to the first assertion about polytheism listed above; that polytheists are "moral relativists", and this ultimately means that here is no morality at all. Proving this assertion is again the work of another website (well two actually, one on "cultural-relavitism" and the other on "moral relavitism". Neither of which have anything at all do (directly) with polytheism. Ultimately, however, this is one of the most important arguments for the monotheistic outlook, especially when it comes to issuse of ethics and morality. It is also a canard. The entire argument hinges on the belief that monotheism provides a single source of morality, and that without this all other methods of determing "right" from "wrong" are incorrect, or impossible.It also relies on the assertion that the source for understanding morality, their holy book, is infalliable. Anyone who isn't blinded by their unwavering, unfalsifiable faith is such baseless assertions, can readily see the problem with relying on such a source as THE source of ethics. Considering that such individuals are unable to see the intrinsic value in living a good life vs. living a life of vice, you'll forgive my skepticism of their ability to make sound moral choices.

In normative ethics, the kind of ethical model espoused by these people, is a sort of bigoted deontological ethical system; something is moral because it has been established by some authority (in this case a very crude "divine command theory"), and so what is moral amounts to adhering to these rules. Funnily enough, the same site redirects to an article on deontological ethics and tries its best to show how flawed even their own approach is! What is so twisted with this particualr view, however, is the assertion that it is actually impossible to do so. Morality is actually impossible without the direct intervention of the "supreme law giver", which in turn establishes a need for such intervention made possible through the religion being promoted. This assertion is of course, non-sense, as not only do other ethical systems exist, but even a simple application of my personal preference, virtue ethics, shows both that moral agency is possible without divine intervention, and that the idea of "moral relavitism" being the only option outside of absolutist bifurcation, is simply wrong.

One of the foundationa principles of vitrue ethics is the idea of the "golden mean". The "golden mean" is what qualifies as a virtue, and exists between deficeny of the virtue, and excess of the virtue. For example, "bravery" is considered a virtue, where as deficeny of "bravery" is "cowardice" and excess is "foolhardiness". The deficency results in the inability to act at all, and the excess in reckless acts. Bravery, then, is held to be a virtue because it allows one to act in a given situation while preventing one from reacting in an unthinking manner. A tad simplistic, but serviciable to the point where it becomes fairly easy to establish an objective basis that is not based on "cultural relativity" or "moral relavitism". Of course, there is a considerable difference between an objective basis and an absolutist one; in the former, context is taken into account whereas in the latter it necessarily needs to be true in every context. In essence it can be shown that the virtue is a virtue objectively, and not simply based on culture/relativism, while understanding that the context of the situation can impact the applicability. In such a case then, it is simple to see why the life of the "good Billy Graham" is superior to the life of the "evil Osama Bin Laden", without the need to posit a scheme of reward/punishment to give it significance.

There is a side bar on the main page which has a number of links which redirect to related subject matter and so I will next turn my attention to them. The top link is titled "Gods and Goddesses" and redirects to a series of pages which discuss (in chronological order) Egyptian, Greek and Roman polyteism. Again terribly simplistic, but there is a recurring theme throughout all of the pages: the nature of the (ancient) gods and goddesses, and their worship, was arbitrary and ever changing. The assertion that the various gods of polytheism were "created by man", is present in every summary and so posits that none of these deities have actual existence external to the myths of the specific cultures. What the mileage of these myths do reflect, is a sincere desire of all human cultures to explore and understand their origins and purpose, but the instability of such belief systems ultimately leaves no certainty, and ultmately no real answers at all. When the author moves on to discussing Greek deities, who were also fictional, emotional (... such as jealousy or wrath?) and interfered in human afairs (... like destroying all but a handful of life?). The next culture was that of the Romans, split into earlier and later developments. A brief mention of the genius/luna and household deities, with the inclusion of how silly having a deity for an absurd amount of specificity is. The later development comments on the inclusion of broader mythology and the syncretic tendencies of Rome to adopt deities from other cultures, again playing on the transience of such worship.

The second page concludes with the same "Explore More Now" link which redirects to the same "meaning of life" page discussed above. Except where the eariler page then provides some related content to the link, these pages do not merit any further discussion. The argument is actually very tacit in these examples; a belief in polytheistic deities is from a bygone era, where people did not know any better, but reflect or anticipate the desire for the "absolute truth" presented by this particular monotheism. Such assertions, however tacit, ultimately betray a sincere lack of understanding of the development of their own mythology, and of course the bias inherent in rejecting out of hand all mythologies (and deities) except ones own, because they believe the assertios their holy book/religion provide. Special pleading at its finest, but again very typical. Relating back to the second overall theme of the web page, this discontent or aimlessness which is present in those who do not belong to this particular monotheism, is symptomatic of the void which must exist in those outside this particular world view. Those outside must be unhappy, because if they were happy, content and fulfilled, then this would mean that such things were not the exclusive purview of their religion and the deity they represent, and so their claims of exclusivity would fall flat. No mention is made, of course, of modern polytheists, because we are not even an afterthought.

All in all the page doesn't present any information which is not readily available, and in better quality, through even a quick goolgle search or glancing at a wikipedia article. The information which is provided is not done in an objective fashion, and instead is presented in a very condescending tone. What then is the purpose of this web site; well to steer those rare people who may be genuine "spiritual seekers", maybe who've heard of this so called polytheism and are curious, back to the "winning team". How? Through misinformation and deception, two tried and true methods in the arsenal of this particular monotheism. How much of an impact would this site have on individals looking for information? Well its the second site listed in a google search of "polytheism", being nudged out of the top spot by he wiki article on polytheism. So while anyone who is already cognizant of polytheism as a legitimate way of understanding deity wouldn't waste their time after the first paragraph, those who are not aware, but may be contemplating or exploring other theistic perspctives are vulnerable to such tactics.

There is still a lingerng question though, why go through all this trouble; why all the effort and deception to discredit an apparently "defunct" religious perspective? I would suggest that the very existence of this website and its associated content pages, proves not only that polytheism is being seen as a contemporary religious view by the authors, but that it is actually providing a competing perspective popular enough to merit such a response. So that while the website is indeed a testament to strawman polytheism, that it exists means that perhaps we do, infact, merit not only an afterthought, but serious contemplation.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Leprechaun Vomit... or why I hate St. Patty's.

I used to lament that the most irritating aspect of St. Patrick's day was the well meaning, but historically ignorant, neo-pagans who decided that the day should be one not of celebration, but of mourning. Why, they would ask, would any polytheist willingly celebrate the coming of Christianity and the eradication of the "old" religion? After all, isn't one of the most famous episodes of St. Patrick's hagiography the fact that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland; and of course, "we" all know those snakes were really the Druids. Yeah, so this was (and remains) a very irritating meme which seems to pop up every year around this time in March. Long story short: no, the episode was lifted from another Saints legend and was (among other things) used to explain why there are no snakes; but it was about actual snakes, not symbolic ones who were secretly referencing Druids. Two, the reason I celebrate the day, despite not being of Catholic stock, is because I recognize the historic and cultural significance the day represents; doubly so here in the diaspora. If you want to know a little more, and understand the origins and significance of the bevy of Parades which occur, just do a little research and you'll come to see why the day is far more about the Irish cultural identity, and less so about the Saint it was named after. The proviso to this being that this really only holds in the diaspora, and it is more of a religious observance (which btw is muted, seeing as it is Lent) in Ireland itself.

Alright, so clearly I actually celebrate the day, why then do I make a post insisting that I hate it. Well if you haven't figured it out yet, you will shortly. I mention above that the real significance of the day is about recognizing and celebrating Irish culture. This is not, however, what tends to actually happen. No, instead we basically throw a Mardi Gras party, except instead of everything being purple, yellow and gold, everything is shiny, vomit inducing green. St.. Patrick's day is a day when everyone, all over the world, can come together and get absolutely shit faced. This is what St. Patrick's day has become, this is the single thing that is worth celebrating about Irish culture; they drink. A LOT. Not that American's, Canadian's, the English or any other culture drink themselves stupid, no of course not. Not that people of all cultures and backgrounds simply use the day as an excuse to get snookered. No it's because they're being Irish for a day, and that means they need to be inebriated, JUST LIKE THE IRISH ARE EVERYDAY!

Just stop and think about this for a minute, because maybe you don't quite understand why this is so very upsetting. After all, the Irish DO like the drink; they self depricate all the time about it, and it's all in good fun, right? Yeah, remember where I mentioned above about a little research going a long way, providing some historic context and explaining the significance of certain outward expressions of ones identity? I do wish more people actually took the time to do so, because then you'd be aware of just how old this "Irish= Drunk" stereotype is, and how it has been used throughout history to legitimize any number of agressive domestic and foerign policies. The most famous of these cartoon images could be found in Victorian publications like Punch and Puck, with their ape like Irishman doing something loud, violent and inebriated, you know like asking for fair wages, or to not get the shit kicked out of them for the crime of being Irish. Honestly, the audacity some ethnicities had.

But that's all in the past now, right? It isn't as if the Irish, or the Diaspora are still portrayed as loud, violent drunks, right? Of course not.

Now, I think I should also make a couple of things perfectly clear so as to not detract from the actual source of my ire. I do not think that these idiotic shirts, hats, beads, and other leprechaun vomit products are proof of this nonsensical notion that "the only acceptable racism is that directed towards white Christians". I've come across this opinion in message boards, blog posts and commentary in response to these products, and the stereotypes they propogate. The Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, and other members of the Diaspora are not some persecuted minority, forced to endure systematic racism, resulting in a decreased quality of life. This may have been the case several centuries ago, but it isn't anymore. It certainly is not the same thing as groups which are actually systematically stigmatized and repressed, who are deneied the same oportunities as others because of their genetic or ethnic background. So the "it's okay to be racists to white people" meme ammounts to little more than the mewling of people who want to be unabashadely racist, but want to try and play the "...but I'm
persecuted too card". It is the same sort of hollow sympathy seeking from those Evangelical Christians who believe they are also a persecuted minority. So yeah, this isn't about trying to drum up this idea of the poor persecuted Irish.

Yes, these products and the sentiments they espouse are stupid, and do propogate the worst of stereotypes. It is precisely this, that irritates me so. Understanding the history of the Diaspora and how important St. Patrick's Day (and the parade associated with it) was as an outlet to express and celebrate ones culture (which did include their religion), in the face of oppression and that systematic stigma I mentioned eariler, is an important aspect of how the Diaspora did (and did not) hold onto their culture. That it was a day for celebrating Irishness, for keeping those connections to the "old country" alive while asserting their own right to exist in their new country. This is still, for the most part, the main purpose of the numerous Parades which do occur across North America. Almost all of them are organized by local Irish groups, who still maintain that they do so in celebration of their cultural identity.

So when a day is supposed to be about celebrating a culture, about celebrating an identity, and that identity is then popularly portrayed as being the worst stereotype of that culture, the meaning and significance is completely lost in a sea of four leaved shamrocks, leprechauns and an alcoholic haze. It isn't an appropriation of Irish culture, because you would need some actual Irish culture to be appropriting. No, its bizzarely just a sophmoric misrepresentation, which is then celebrated as being authentically Irish; cultural misappropriation, perhaps?

I know, already some of the other responses to such lamentations: "...but come on pal, the Irish have a sense of humour about these sorts of things", or (and my personal favourite) "I'm Irish (by which they mean of Irish descent), and I think its funny, what's the harm?" The harm, of course, is completely lost on such folks because their closest contact with actual Irish culture or tradition is the bowl of Lucky Charms they had for breakfast. It is an argument from ignorance because they do not understand the significance, and so are indifferent to the point of arguing that people who do get upset or irritated by such portryals, "just need to lighten up." So when taverns across the land offer "black and tans", to the point where Nike actually developed a shoe which is also named, as a way of "celebrating Irish culture" for St. Patrick's day; isn't a case of stupidity and lack of research, the fault lies with the PC police who can't take a joke.

Okay, here is a compromise then: I'll stop "getting my panties into a bunch" when they stop wearing this crap, treating the day like its some sort of bachanal, and actually crack open a book and learn something about Irish history or culture.


Things to do, to actually learn about or experience some actual elements of Irish culture, if but a few suggestions:

  • Go out to an Irish Pub. Yes, while I will certainly decry at every turn the image of the Irish as nothing more than violent, drunk buffoons, pubs are a decent enough place to actually experience some elements of Irish culture. Though do be a little critical, there are many an "Irish pub" which is about as Irish as the four leaved shamrocks they hang on the walls. There ought to be any number of menu items, which while pub fare, are still Irish dishes; I'm partial to boxty with masala myself, not traditional of course, but rather reflecting the diversity of modern Irish society. There are also actual ales, lagers and stouts which will be imports from Ireland, and will most certainly not be dyed green. Further most decent pubs or taverns will have live music, and on St. Patrick's Day this is almost a sure thing.
  • Cook. I really do enjoy cooking, even to the point of considering it a devotional activity. There are many traditional Irish dishes which are simple enough to make, and finding recipies as simple as typing the dish into a search engine; most recipie sites will actually have a "St. Patrick's Day" menu. Try some colcannon, champ, boxty or lamb stew, make some brambrac, or soda bread.
  • Expose yourself to Irish media, in Gaelic if you can. There are many decent films which have recently come out of Ireland. I've mentioned it on this blog before, but Mongol films "The Secret of Kells" is a wonderful film with gorgeous traditional animation, excellent voice acting and showcasing the unique blend of Irish myth between pre and post Christianization.
  • If you're not the pub going sort, and want to avoid the rowdy crowds, then try and find other locations where you may get a chance to see a live band play. Irish music is considerably diverse and so there are genres which should tickle anyone's fancy.
  • Meet with friends and read the tales outloud; they're meant to be. Sure, finding a Senachie is no easy feat, and probably nigh impossible on this side of the pond, but don't let that stop you from giving it a go yourself. Even if you don't feel comfortable reading out loud, or lack anyone but yourself who's interested, I think its still a good idea to hear them orated. So for those who can not do so on their own, why not check out online versions of the tales: the Celtic Myth Podshow has been providing oral versions of the tales for years now, and you could do a lot worse.
  • Read. I know it doesn't scream excitement, and is generally an individual pursuit but if you like to keep things on the more relaxing side, then find a good book on Irish history, brew yourself a cuppa, and unwind by exploring the past. Who knows, you might accidently learn something.
An addendum, for those who haven't already figured the little joke out yet. Have a gander here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Bad Habbits" or everyday virtue is for the birds.

One of the most common tasks I perform at work is standing at the main entrance, to greet and direct guests to the appropriate chapels, and to wish people who are leaving a good evening. One of the other, slightly less enjoyable tasks is refered to as "butts", which involves going outside and cleaning the various receptacles of their accumulated cigarette butts. What does this have to do with anything, you may ask, well quite a bit actually. You see, during the course of a visitation, any number of people will step outside for "a quick smoke", but it is the manner in which these smokers will refer to their own necessity for a ciggarette which piqued my interest and lead to this post.

It is beyond any reasonable doubt that smoking as a past time, particularly of ciggarettes, is unhealthy. In Canada, in fact, every single package of ciggarettes is sold with some warning label about the ill effects of smoking the packages contents, which is also accompanied by a "shocking" image (which is legislated to consist of at least 50% of the package).

So, alright, other than some interesting imagery and government regulations being considerably heavy handed, what's it all about? Well I am establishing the fact that the ill effects of smoking are established in the collective conciousness of society in general; smoking is bad. This is not, however, something which is only understood (or believed) by non-smokers and Health Canada officials; smokers are just as cognizant of these ill effects, they just don't care. I understand perfectly that there is also the issue of chemical dependence and thus addiction to combat, which is by no means an easy thing to overcome, but it can be done. The reason that I say smokers don't care, and so do nothing about it, is actually one example of a wider phenomenon.

I'm not writing this as a screed against smoking, or smokers themselves. Only that this particular group is the most common group I encounter in my going on, and exmeplify the problematic nature of rejecting what I will call "everyday virtue". I mentioned eariler that smokers are aware of how problematic smoking is, this I base primarily on annecdotal evidence; on simple logic too but for the sake of this post, annecdotes will suffice. The sarcastic/ironic/self deprecating euphamisms they themselves use range from "my bad habbit", to "cancer sticks", to "off to shave a few minutes off my life". They know it is not only percieved as bad, but that they also accept that it is bad factually. As I said before, somkers simply do not care; they want their ciggarette and by the gods, they're going to have them.

So then to move away from picking on smokers, to the actual point, what transpires is a rejection of "everyday virtue". I use this term, because (again based on my experience) I have come to understand that a significant number of people really only consider questions of morality or ethics when it comes to "big" decisions or problems. Pick any "hot-buton" topic out of a hat: murder, capital punishment, war, torture, abortion, etc., and people tend to have polarized, often absolutist posistions on the morality of any, if not all of such topics. Ask someone what they think of speeding and they'll probally stare blankly at you and mutter something about it not mattering, or "it being alright if you don't gett caught". Well that may not be the best example because I do not want to reduce ethics to the standpoint of deontology when I mean to be speaking about virtue ethics, nor do I want to reduce ethics to whether one does or does not adhere to any given law or statute; it simply isn't that simple. I use the example of speeding, only to illustrate that when it comes to the more mundane aspects of what people consider ethical or moral, ambivalence is the general attitude.

People, again speaking in very general terms, have certain concepts of what constitutes a moral decision or what qualifies as an ethical quandry, and for the most part rarely consider how it applies to their everyday behaviour. Individuals do not reflect long enough on their behaviour or action to even consider the sense in acknolwedging that something is wrong, but then persist in doing it none the less. The smoker who persists in smoking, who understands how bad it is, who jokes about this fact, is one of a thousand such hypocricies.

I had actually written about a related topic some time ago, because there is a similar mentality or attitude inherent in those who acknowledge they are doing something "bad", and those who say "you can't judge me". The common thread is a lack of virtue, or perhaps it would be better to say an ignorance of it. I believe this ignorance stems, in no insignificant part, from the attitude toward morality and ethics fostered by the Christian doctrine of sin. That sin is an inescapable facet of life; the essence of human nature in fact. No matter how good one is, they will never be "good enough", and so that actually trying to be good is at best impossble without divine intervention, or at worst an exercise in futility. This has bled even into the secular sphere, where the idea of "nobody's perfect" has become a catch-all for dismissing unethical behaviour, and a veritible blank cheque for vice. So ingrained is this attitude that phrases which are religious in nature, "self-righteous" and "holier than thou" are bandied about in secular parlance along side "get off your high horse" and "...your shit don't stink". The value of actually being virtuous, and daring to even mention oneself in such a light, is remarked upon as itself immoral; this being dread "pride". 

This is regretable, not only because using such terms detracts from their legitimate use (the first two anyway), but actually villifies those who have the moral fortitude to dare to flourish. Coupled with this then is the idea that morality doesn't really count, except for the "big things", and we get this ignorance, if not outrght disdain, of virtue.

Virtue can be concerned with those larger issues, but attitudes towards more complex ethical issues are derived from smaller ones. Virtue is not somthing that is visited upon only during times of trial, because it is supposed to permeate every thought, every action, and thus is better understood as something to be cultivated, not harvested. Virtue is not an end in and of itself, but the means to an end; human flourishing or "the good life". This does not mean that adopting virtues will make one "perfect". I find the very notion of perfection as an ideal ludicrous, because it is by definition unobtainable. The problem is that somewhere along the way this became the standard; the whole notion of morality was subsumed by the fact that no one could ever be "good" (on their own at least), and so all are equal in their failure. 

Fortunately, such retrograde thinking is not the only model available. Despite the protestations, it really is not that difficult to be ethical. One simple tip is to avoid bahaviours or actions which you understand do not contribute to human flourishing. If you recognize that something is immoral, then do not do it. If you understand that a habbit is "bad", then do all in your power to avoid or end it. Viture ethics are very much about finding balance, or the "golden mean", afterall virtue abides between deficency and excess. If more folks recognized that morality is a mundane, everyday thing, I think a lot more folks could be flourishing instead of wallowing in their "bad habbits".