How Faitheist is Restoring my Faith in Atheist Writers

Atheism is one of those mindsets that I have had a hard time reading, despite my intention of opening myself up to multiple viewpoints on spirituality and religion. Even more surprising, it’s in spite of my lack of investment in the belief of a deity. I have come to think of myself as largely agnostic, believing in some things because I want to, not because I think they are definitely right, so atheism never struck me as a perspective that would bother me.

Atheists as people are fine for me. I have enjoyed getting to know many and have rarely encountered any whose atheism seemed problematic. They all have, mostly, been along the lines of Chris Stedman. And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I choose to believe rather that there are more of him than not out there.

But atheist writers…damn if they don’t tend towards the same trends they claim to loathe. I’ve tried reading Richard Dawkins and stopped because I was just too revolted by his prejudice and too thrown off by the logical fallacies he commits in his quest to demonize all things religious.

I’ve made it through other books, like The Atheist’s Way, which were more tolerable and had some great moments, but I was still uncomfortable with how much the slippery slopes, broad generalizations, unbacked assumptions, and disdain for “other” resembled the fundamentalism which I left.

It’s actually kind of…funny, I guess, that the two camps would look at each other as the worst while being so damn similar, but I digress.

More recently, I decided to give it another go. I wanted to have at least one book by an atheist author that I didn’t want to burn along with my theology books from the IFB.

Enter Faitheist.

It’s more of a memoir than anything, and much of it covers the coming out journey of the author. (And full disclosure, I haven’t finished it yet. I have maybe a fourth left to read).

But it’s a beautiful book—perhaps not in spite of being a coming out memoir, but because of it.

Stedman values story-telling and didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, though there’s plenty of philosophy peppered throughout his story. He carefully details his own conversion and deconversion process and the struggles of realizing he’s gay while being part of a tradition that taught that gay is a hell-bent identity.

His loss of faith is poignant, something I can deeply relate to. His search for a reason to keep believing equally so. His subsequent disillusionment and anger towards Christianity is, well, pretty damn familiar.

But what makes this book stand out to me is that he doesn’t stay in that place. He realizes that his hatred of Christianity (and religion, in general) is reliant on stereotypes and caricatures of the worst sides of religion, missing the incredible complexity of belief and meaning-making that exists within any given path. He also recognizes the way that certain sections of the atheist community resemble the close-mindedness of religious zealots.

In other words, he is able to look at what he dislikes about the other and recognize its presence within himself.

His story of atheism is a personal one. He recognizes that it’s right for him right now but that it isn’t necessarily right for others. He recognizes that people who aren’t atheist are able to be good, even intelligent people and that they can have common goals towards which to work.

His goal isn’t to eradicate religion, as Dawkins and that ilk would want, but to work towards eradicating injustice and building bridges of commonality.

Some of the criticism of the book has expressed doubts about whether he’s a “true” atheist and suspicions that he will become religious or spiritual again. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what he believes down the road. There’s always a chance that each of us will change our minds/beliefs for any number of reasons. But throughout the book, I can see his atheism grow into the atheism of someone who doesn’t need to believe in a God and, thus, doesn’t need to debunk other’s beliefs, which makes me suspect that his atheism has a better chance of being lifelong and genuine if he’s not holding to it in opposition, anger, and fear of religion.

I would love for others to read this book. His journey is one that we can all learn from, regardless of what path we ultimately choose to walk.

 

The Mind and Heart Should Get Married (Not Divorced)

The Western world has an unfortunate habit of splitting things into opposing dichotomies: the mind/body, masculine/feminine, rational/emotional, etc.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the source of wisdom and a similarly ineffective dichotomy between whether people believe that external education or intuition reigns.

In general, I tend to find the favor towards external information residing in the rational camp. Atheists, scientists, and people who value masculine-ish traits often express a value for that which comes from outside oneself. Decisions are made from logical criteria. Knowledge consists of what is testable and provable.

On the other hand, the emotional camp tends to value intuition. This is where I tend to find the spiritual, some types of philosophical/psychological thinkers, and those who value feminine-ish traits expressing appreciation for knowledge coming from within. Decisions are made based on gut instincts. Knowledge consists of introspection and is often individual and ambiguous.

As a typical Gemini, I find myself gravitating to a certain extent to both sides but chafing at the idea of having to choose one. I have come to trust my intuition. I’ve made some of my most important life decisions based on intuitive knowledge. Yet, I see the importance of gathering information, weighing the pros and cons, and seeking evidence.

I don’t necessarily think being a Gemini makes me unique in using both my intuition and my intellect as a source of wisdom. I just think perhaps I’m more likely to recognize that I use both and value both.

In fact, they have to work together to be strongest.

Babette Rothschild was the first person who planted this seed in my head with her book The Body Remembers. At one point, she mentioned that there is evidence to suggest that people can’t think rationally without emotions. The thought struck a deep chord within me.

Fred Kofman writes a fairly simple explanation of how this works over here, explaining that without the emotional undertones, people have a hard time developing enough of a preference or emotional charge to actually make their choices. Looking at the pros and cons, even as a “rational” model of decision-making, is endless and worthless without emotional input.

On a similar level, I would suggest that if a person divorces their own emotions and intuition from the decision-making process, they have no internal compass. Part of the ways that I’ve come to understand how cults work—how they can convince people to do unhealthy, bizarre, or illegal things—comes from the way they divorce the individual from what Robert Lifton deems their “reality testing” abilities through methods such as confusion, emotional manipulation, loading the language, etc (check out his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism for more information about this).

On the emotional/intuitive end, a similar thing is true. As Kofman points out in the article linked above, strong emotions can overwhelm to the point of losing reason. We’re all probably familiar with a person who has made a horrible decision because of their emotions clouding out their ability to think.

But on a deeper level, it’s important to recognize that intuition is as much experience-based as it is biological or subconscious. Without input from the outside world, the inner world is devoid. An intuitive choice is heavily influenced by experience from the past, knowledge acquired previously, and current input that one may not be entirely conscious of at the moment.

In other words, intuition is only as strong as the experiences and knowledge that have built it up. I can trust my intuition about whether I would be happy and successful in a job (even though the pros/cons list might seem in favor of a different choice) because I’ve had enough previous experience to know what a bad fit feels like and have gathered enough conscious and subconscious information about the current option.

I’ve also taken the time to get to know my intuition and what my pitfalls might be. I know that I’m more likely to trust people I shouldn’t trust if I make a connection with them when I’m tipsy. I know that even well-intentioned people can set off my internal alarm if they touch my arm without permission.

But my intuition is still growing. It grows the more that I exercise it. It grows when I make a mistake and learn through failure. It grows when I gather new intellectual information and practice allowing it to work with my left brain.

I have come to believe that the true key to wisdom is recognizing that both emotions and logic have an important role to play—that gathering external information and testing hypotheses is just as important as listening to your own internal guidance and learning from introspection.

Too much rationality, and you get someone devoid of making a healthy decision because they either can’t gauge their own relationship with the choice or can’t understand the impact it might have on others. The loss of empathy is often also a loss of connection to one’s own emotions.

Too much emotionality, on the other hand, and you get a person buffeted about by whims and impulses of the moment, unable to think long-term, or overwhelmed beyond reason.

It is in the balance of the two that you find wisdom and true knowledge.

Manifestation Spell: An Alternative to Candles

One of the simplest, and therefore most popular, types of spells seems to be a candle spell. Candle spells work great for simple manifestation rituals, but they can be a pain in the ass.

Generally you’re instructed to carve your intention or desire into the candle. That becomes a problem if, like me, you suck at carving.

My attempts to write any type of description usually end up illegible, and I give up on the inclusion of important details because I don’t have the time or space to spend mutilating my candlestick.

And worse is the time investment. Candle magic requires a lot of attention. You can’t exactly start it and walk away. Most spells suggest letting the candle burn all the way down, which can take a long time even for a small candle.

As a busy little witch, I am interested in something that is a bit simpler–something I can do in fifteen minutes before I run out the door to an appointment or remember the laundry I forgot to switch to the dryer…which is why I am in love with my new “burning” magic that is quickly replacing my candles.

Flying wish paper is a fad that has hit my area in the last few years. The styles run anywhere from whimsical to cheesy, but some of them are quite elegant. I got one of the kits as a birthday chochke. They don’t market themselves as a magical tool, which is probably why it took me a bit of time to come up with the idea of using them in place of candle magic though I have used them as parts of rituals in other contexts.

More recently, as I’ve genuinely struggled to find chunks of time to spend on spiritual pursuits, it occurred to me that they might work for a manifestation spell…and they did!

The small wish papers provide enough room for me to scribble a fairly detailed intention. They’re formed into a cone which resembles a candle when I initially light it from the top.

It’s truly delightful to watch the paper burn. Just when I think that it’s going to burn all the way down to the base, the paper flies up into the air and turns to ash, which can be buried or washed down the drain.

I’ve used flying wish paper for several spells at this point, and they seem to work just as well or better than the candle spells at helping me to focus in on what I want and to seek it out in the universe.

The Resurrection of my Normal Sunday

Apparently tomorrow is Easter. I did not realize that until someone told me yesterday. I was actually kind of pleased that it has slipped my consciousness so thoroughly.

Unlike Christmas, Easter has never been a favorite holiday and not one that I’ve been desperate to reclaim after the cult. Underneath all the itchy frilly dresses, white gloves, and hats that my parents would dress me in as a toddler, it was a mildly terrifying holiday.

They said it was a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave…but really it was one more opportunity when visitors would be in the church and they could be scared with the idea that the whole point of Easter was because we were all going to hell if we didn’t repent.

It was a holiday of guilt, when those of us who believed were shamed for the fact that we were so evil that Jesus had to die a horribly painful death in order for us to have a shot at forgiveness.

We celebrated the resurrection while thoroughly blaming ourselves for making it necessary.

How dare we be sinful?

How dare we continue to sin even after salvation?

I was taught that every time I sinned, I was crucifying Jesus all over again—that he felt the pain of dying afresh with each new prideful thought or delay in obedience. And yet, I was also taught it was impossible to be sinless. The very assumption that I hadn’t sinned in a day was a sin itself.

There was no escaping that guilt.

The story of Jesus’ death no longer carries that same weight. I see it as one of several life/death/life stories of gods across different traditions. In fact, the concept of resurrection, on its own, is a beautiful one. It’s the seed of the phoenix symbolism, the hope that even after destruction new life can come.

I have come to appreciate resurrection stories.  In fact, they become my focus at Winter Solstice.

But while the story no longer seems threatening, the day of Easter always has been, up until this year. For the first time, I don’t feel that internal dread as Easter approaches. To me, finally, it’s just another Sunday.

 

Springing into the Future

I can feel the stirrings of spring. There’s that certain smell of the earth re-awakening, the energy of plants getting ready to burst forth into growth and bloom, even the mud seems to hold the promise of transitions.

I wonder if the earth feels as apprehensive and excited as I do on the cusp of my own transition of graduation.

In my last tarot reading, “The World” came up as my card moving into the future, and it feels so fitting—the end of a journey, the beginning of another, the promise of the fulfillment of having everything as it should be.

There are days when I can feel the promise of new things to come, and it fills me with joy. I want to jump into the unknown and discover what’s on the other side, certain that there is something wonderful to discover on this crazy-assed path I’ve chosen.

I wish I could just hang on to the good feelings: the hope, anticipation, joy, and confidence.

But with “The World” there also comes the fear of becoming the fool once again. I have completed a phase of my journey, and with that end comes a new beginning where I am no longer the “seasoned” student but the new professional.

I have to balance the doubt that is in that. With hope comes the possibility of failure, and I can’t entirely say I know what I’m doing. Can anyone starting on a new phase of life?

I have to balance the fear because I can’t get rid of it…but also because I shouldn’t. Those fears want to protect me. They’re meant to help me.

Yes, sometimes they also try to hold me back, convince me I’m not good enough to be a professional, I’m not experienced enough to graduate, and I’m a damn fool for thinking I can make it on my own.

I try to see the good even in those messages.

As I watch the seasons war it out, with winter dumping snow in defiance of spring, I realize I must allow the hope and fear to war within me. I must be willing to embrace each as they present, trusting that the fears are not working against the hope so much as against careless naiveté. I can trust my path even while questioning my steps.

The spring always wins in the end, and that is where its strength lies. No matter how many times a warmer week is followed by a weekend of whiteout snow and ice, the trees, the grass, the flowers—they know they will succeed.

Just as I know that somehow I will find my way to where I need to be.

 

 

That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

I Put a Spell on You…and Myself

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A witch casting spells over a steaming cauldron by H.S. Thomassin

Let’s talk about magic.

I’m currently working on developing a binding spell for Trump’s presidency to limit the damage he can do. I realize that it may not work, but it feels better than doing nothing.

Depending on where you look in the world of magic, you can get very different messages about binding spells, some warning that you should never ever do them and others suggesting that sometimes it’s appropriate but you’d better have a good reason.

In both instances, the fear is that a spell designed to interfere with the free will of another has the possibility of creating some…karmic payback.

Wiccans in particular cite the “Rule of Three”—the idea that what you put out into the world will return to you threefold.

I don’t personally believe in the rule of three in a literal sense, nor do I ascribe to a spirituality that is all positive rainbows and sunshine. Darkness, destruction, and shadow emotions have their place. I also don’t expect myself not to have emotions such as anger because binding spells are usually my response to boundary violations that have gotten out of hand. Anger is entirely appropriate.

But I never let myself cast the spell when I am actively feeling vindictive. I think it’s valuable to consider how I would feel about being the recipient of my own spell because it makes me consider my intentions. For me, a binding spell is about setting a boundary not about “getting even.”

I write them in a way that if I were to be on the receiving end, I could live with what I was doing. Thinking about myself being the recipient helps me keep the best interest of the person in mind. It reminds me that I don’t want to prevent them from being happy. I don’t want to prevent them from accomplishing good.

I do want to limit their capacity to harm others (including me)…and I am totally okay with that coming back to me threefold or twentyfold because I also want to limit my capacity to cause harm to others.

Generally, I don’t even write the spell to force their choices or actions to change. I write the spell to interfere with how effective they can be if they make those choices.

In other words, I don’t try to mess with their free will. I just try to stimulate failure for any action that might be abusive or harmful.

So far, I have done three binding spells—all of them scarily effective considering that those people pretty quickly chose to exit my life afterwards.

Trump is definitely different because I don’t know him personally so I don’t know what his good intentions or positive qualities might be. It’s a little more tempting to wish him ill.

I also realize that it’s not enough to just cast the spell and rest comfortably in the hope that he won’t harm me personally. I have to also keep a watch on how he is affecting others and stay involved to the extent that I am willing to stand up to injustice, even if it’s not knocking on my door specifically.

However, I recognize that wishing him general failure means wishing the nation failure as well because, like it or not, he will be leading us come January. I have to work even harder to ensure that my motivations are pure, fueled by righteous anger but not coming from a place of malice because I don’t doubt that malicious intent towards someone so influential will have ripple effects on the rest of us.

In this instance, I specifically want to bind him from causing or inciting violence. I want to open his ears to hear the people who are vulnerable right now. I want to tie his success to justice, and call up failure on anything he attempts to do that would violate the rights of others.

And as with the other spells, I design my spell with every intention of having to live under it myself. I am committing myself to the same values with which I want him to lead. More than that, I am binding myself to staying active in the cause.

If you are a spell-worker, will you commit your energy to the same?