Category Archives: Paganism

Animism and artificial intelligence

One of my core principles as an animist is to relate to everything as though it might be capable of intention, feeling and preference. This is not a position that requires either belief or evidence, it is first and foremost an ethical position about treating everything kindly and with respect. When it comes to natural things – including inanimate natural things and places, I do not find it difficult to assume the presence of spirit.

When it comes to objects made by humans, my scope for understanding things as having spirit is variable. I like the Japanese idea that given enough time, anything will develop spirit – older items made with love and used with care and respect over time certainly develop character. I’ve always experienced music instruments as being people in their own right.

I’ve seen people talking about AI art software in terms of this being a genuinely emergent intelligence. That’s not something I agree with – we aren’t all helping to train an artificial brain that will spontaneously create original and new art in the future. We’re teaching software to steal and recycle on command. But… if everything is potentially capable of intent and feeling, why am I so reluctant to attribute those qualities to the art-theft software currently being used to make products?

Having been round this a lot in recent days, I come to the conclusion that it is because the software being used to steal art is doing exactly what it was intended to do. At present, it seems to be doing what it was designed for, in brief bursts that depend on other people using it. I’m responding in much the same way as when I don’t attribute a great deal of presence or intent to crisp packets, even when I’m trying to remove them as part of litter picks.

There are bits of software I’ve related to in ways other than this. Many years ago, before social media, when Yahoo egroups were a thing, we used to joke about what kind of sacrifices you might have to make to win the favour of Yahoo and to stop it from randomly punishing you. I’m finding Facebook much the same – an erratic and jealous entity that does not reliably cooperate and that may lash out at you for no obvious reason. Things seem more capable of intent when they aren’t simply doing what we made them to do. 

It’s interesting to consider what seems like an entity in its own right, and what seems like an expression of human will and desire where that’s simply been expressed through something outside of a human form. Clearly there’s nowhere a hard line can be drawn, but I think there’s a lot to be said for asking about our own relationships and feelings. What defines something as an entity in its own right? 

Book News

My Pagan publisher has a sale on at the moment! Moon Books is quite a diverse house, with titles from many different paths, authors and perspectives so if you’re looking for Pagan material, there’s a very good chance of finding something that will suit you. And of course half price ebooks make it easier to take a gamble and try a new author.

Buying directly from publishers and authors is a great way to support people. By the time a book has been through one of those big, third party sites, what returns to the author is small. Self published authors actually do better in terms of percentages on Amazon than authors at big houses. Most famous authors will only see pennies from each book sold.

So, if you’re looking for ways to make your purchasing more effective, going straight to the publishing house in search of books by your favourite authors is often a good choice. I’m seeing increasing numbers of houses getting into direct sales, and this will help publishers and authors alike.

While I could say highly critical things about the big publishing houses, it is usually the case that small publishers are lovely people who genuinely care about books. There’s a lot to be said for buying directly from them when you can.

If you fancy picking up any of my Moon Books titles at half price, start here –

Seeking transformation

New experiences always offer the scope for change. What are we looking for in our spiritual lives, if not the opportunity to grow and develop? Any project or adventure we undertake holds the potential to change us, shift our thinking, open our hearts, educate us and teach us things about who we are.

I recall reading something a while ago about how most people look back at their previous selves and easily see how much they have changed over time. Those same people tend to believe they have stopped changing now, and won’t change much in the future. They are probably wrong about this, but it’s an interesting reflection on how we approach the idea of change, especially as we age. For some people, getting older seems to involve getting more fixed, but it doesn’t have to. The scope for adventure and discovery is always there.

There are questions to ask around how much novelty is a good idea. New things have more power to surprise and stimulate us, which is good. The eager mind is often hungry for new experiences. However, it’s all too easy to go chasing after novelty and thrill, without ever internalising those experiences. Novelty alone doesn’t change us because we also need time to absorb and reflect. Not everything has most to give at the first try and many things have more to give us if we stick with them for a while and invest deliberately.

Change isn’t reliably a good thing. Change can mean loss, and it can mean learning terrible coping strategies to try and get through impossible situations. Change can make you smaller, it can take things from you. When setting intentions, it’s not enough to seek transformation because that can mess you up. I don’t recommend just trusting the universe to take you where you need to go because in my experience it doesn’t work like that. Life will hurt you, and the less privilege you have to insulate you, the more hurt you are likely to suffer. Sometimes change means moving towards things that will allow you to feel safer and more comfortable. It doesn’t all have to be raw and exposed.

It is certainly true that we do our best growing on the edges of our comfort zones. However, for the person who has been living outside of their comfort zone, the greatest scope for growth comes through embracing more comfort and certainty.

Are you a free spirit?

It’s one of those terms that sounds really good if you don’t think about it. I have thought about it. I am not a free spirit.

My spirit is limited by my body. I’m a physical entity and biology, physics and other branches of natural science inform my experience on a daily basis. There’s a great deal I cannot do.

My body most assuredly isn’t free. I live with pain, stiffness and limited supplies of energy, all of which is often frustrating to me. I cannot reliably do all the things I want to do. I’m hardly unusual in this. Like all working people I’m also sorely limited by my position in the economic system I am obliged to inhabit. I cannot just go skipping off when I feel like it.

I was hurt by existentialism at a formative time in my life, and this has left me invested in the idea that we can only be free in so far as we are willing to be responsible. If you measure my freedom by my willingness to take responsibility, I am an incredibly free being. I’m actually a lot less responsible than I used to be because my child is an adult now. Many of my responsibilities are things I have chosen to carry.

I’ve encountered the kinds of free spirits who move on in a state of carefree joy, with no concern for the mess they leave in their wake. Freedom is always going to be tempered by your ability to care and your unwillingness to hurt, use, or abandon other people. I’m a profoundly relationship-orientated spirit and I’m in it for the long haul. I find my happiness in deep and long lasting connections with people. Doing that requires collaboration and compromise. I have no interest in being free to dance away as soon as I’m bored, or annoyed or things get difficult. I’ve had that done to me, and I do not like it.

When people describe themselves as free spirits, it can often be with complete unawareness of the privileges they have – especially health, money and leisure. It’s easy to be a free spirit when you can afford to do whatever you feel like. It’s hard to present yourself to the world as a free spirit when you’re working multiple jobs to try and keep your family alive. It’s worth being alert to feelings of superiority around ideas of not being a sheep, not being obliged to go along with the crowd. Most of us have limited options and cannot simply choose to be free.

There are other things I am bound by, as well. A sense of community and of other people being entitled to my care and support, especially. A sense of duty towards the living world that means I cannot go carelessly on my way. 

I have no doubt that the majority of people who consider themselves to be free spirits also consider that to be a good and virtuous way of being in the world. It can have everything to do with wanting to create, wander, love and exist lightly. Being a free spirit off grid is really hard work though. Being a self employed free spirit is no kind of easy option. It’s important to ask what we want to be free from, and what we want the freedom to do, and what the price tag is on all of that. If freedom means that someone else pays for it, then it isn’t really freedom at all, its privilege.

I prefer the idea that we can’t be free until all of us are free.

Love is an Ecosystem

For some years now I’ve made green hearts for the climate action #showthelove campaign.

This year’s heart is more conceptual than usual. It’s all about ecosystems. It’s both a celebration of the natural world and a pushback against some of the toxic norms around romantic relationships. We all need to be part of ecosystems, and this includes emotional ecosystems. The idea that two people should be everything for each other is a really damaging one.

In a wood, branches and roots are in communication. The dead feed the living. Fungi interact with trees, and every tree supports a profusion of other beings. A human community should be very much the same. For humans to flourish, we need to be part of our surrounding ecosystems, too.

Love is life rejoicing in life.

Access and Toilets

When it comes to running a gathering, toilets often make a key difference in whether an event is accessible or not. Without a usable toilet, attendance is unfeasible for many people. It’s not as simple as whether there’s an accessible toilet – I have a local venue with an accessible toilet, but the only way into the building involves steps!

How far do you have to travel through the building/venue to get to the toilets? Is this feasible for everyone? Is it going to feel safe for everyone?

If you aren’t somewhere with toilets, how far away is the nearest toilet? If you’re doing an outdoors ritual, this is a big consideration. Able bodied folks – chaps especially – might be comfortable peeing behind a tree. Anyone menstruating will need to be able to wash their hands. Further, for the person with an erratic digestive system, a tree really isn’t enough. IBS, Crohns, EDS and other conditions can make a person’s digestive system unpredictable. No one wants to have to explain this. Whether you can be in the field may depend a lot on how far you have to go to access a clean toilet – because sitting down is an issue.

Who do the regular toilets exclude? I’m a fairly average size, but there are cubicles I’m too big to easily get into. I’m passably mobile, but I’ve got one local loo where I can’t reliably contort myself enough to get through the door. It’s worth really looking at your toilets, because being able to get in yourself isn’t necessarily informative.

Are there changing facilities suitable for older children or adults? There probably aren’t, these are really scarce, so if you do have them, make a lot of noise about it! Lack of such provision denies people access to events, impacting on carers as well as disabled folk. Are the changing facilities in a non-gendered location?

Are there non-gendered toilets? Again, these aren’t common and if you’ve got them, it’s worth a serious shout out because of the inclusion implications. It’s not purely a trans and non-binary issue, either. Gender neutral toilets make it a lot easier for men to bring their small children to events.

I doubt this is an exhaustive list, but it’s a place to start. Everyone needs a clean, safe, comfortable place to pee and poo. Failure to take this into account leads to needless exclusion. If people have questions about the toilet facilities, they may well have issues that they really don’t want to have to talk about in detail. It’s important to respect people’s privacy and dignity, and not oblige them to explain to them why they need information or specific kinds of facilities.

Fictional Pagans

Over the years I’ve read all sorts of Pagan fiction – including material sent for consideration to publishers. One of the things I find curious is how popular the wheel of eight festivals often are in Pagan novels. In all kinds of different scenarios, historical, fantastical and futuristic, I’ve seen fictional people default to a kind of Paganism that has these eight festivals, and no others.

My understanding of Pagan history (patchy, I grant you) is that the eight festivals are a 20th century thing, and that there’s no real evidence of people anywhere celebrating all eight in the past. The eight are by no means all of the Pagan festivals available – every people, every pantheon has celebrations in addition to this. If you’re keen, you can celebrate a Pagan festival pretty much every day. There’s an incredible wealth of celebration out there to draw on.

Then there’s the local festivals for local people. Those aren’t always ritualistic exactly, but I can’t see cheese rolling without thinking of the sacrifice of human ankles… Local rituals mark significant local seasonal events, local history and provide celebration of your specific community. Not only are they a great way to add colour to the lives of your fictional Pagans, but they’re an excellent way of slipping in some elegant world building without having to give us a history lesson. For actual, living Pagans, local events and customs should be part of the wheel of the year because they ground you in your landscape and connect you to your ancestors of place.

One thing that can be said with confidence of Pagans historical and contemporary, is that we like to celebrate. We’re the people of the wine and the mead and the beer and the cider…. Feasting is part of our culture. We’re earthly, fleshy creatures and having a good time is intrinsic to who we are and what we do. This is not a spirituality based on the idea that life is full of temptations we have to resist. Paganism is joyful, life embracing and convivial. Think about how much we actually celebrate as the wheel of the year turns – cultural festivals, personal festivals, other people’s festivals… why would fictional Pagans be any different?

Inclusion and Commitment

Many people who suffer illness – including mental illness – and disability find that their lives are unpredictable. What we can do this week is not what we can do next week, but we don’t know the details right now. It makes commitment difficult.

One of the easiest ways to exclude ill and disabled people is to require high levels of commitment. This is often an issue around closed working groups, but it can be an issue in all sorts of organisations, even social gatherings. It can impact on who you chose as a speaker for your event, as well.

There’s also a question around how much humiliation a person may have to endure around this. How much personal information is a person going to have to hand over to be cut the slack they need to participate? How much detail are you going to demand about their health issues and the possible implications? Making someone justify why they need adjustments so they can participate can be a really humiliating process and not everyone is keen to go through that, oddly enough.

What’s the humiliation toll going to be if a person has to drop out at short notice? Will you treat them kindly? Or will you get angry with them? That happened to me earlier this year, when I was suddenly extremely ill and had to drop out of an online event. It’s as well I was too ill to be online, because I didn’t see the nasty messages until after an apology had also been sent. I’ve also had some experience of being publicly treated as useless and flakey because my health issues create limitations. Oddly, that was around work that I had done well and on demand. It takes a particularly toxic sort of person to want to publicly humiliate someone for the fact that they have some mental and physical illness to contend with.

Disabled people experience bullying and abuse in all sorts of contexts. Often this is underpinned by an actual belief that the person is lazy, faking it, getting something for nothing, making a fuss or seeking attention. Our media are greatly to blame for creating a culture where this happens, but we all have individual responsibility. I would rather indulge a few lazy people and thus protect the emotional wellbeing of disabled people. I would rather choose kindness where possible, and seek to accommodate, include and enable as many people as possible. Starting from the assumption that people may have genuine issues and no desire to tell you the details is a good first move in this regard.

When we create inclusive environments, we create kinder, gentler spaces for everyone. When we work in ways that support all kinds of participation, we don’t support a culture of martyrdom and burnout – that capitalist approach to life that has us buying, not living. Making a deliberate attempt not to humiliate people is a great way of being more inclusive. People have all kinds of limiting problems, and when we are able to treat that kindly, the world is simply a better place.

The outcomes may not always be ideal. But, given the choice, I’d rather sacrifice an event and save a person than destroy a person’s health for the sake of an event.

Spiritual unease

The pandemic seems to have pushed rather a lot of New Age folk into the arms of the far right. At first glance this all seems very strange – what are the peace, love and light brigade doing cosying up with white supremacists, and people who seem to be all about conflict, hatred and control? And yet there they are, shoulder to shoulder at anti-vax protests and sharing the pages of publications.

I honestly wish I was more surprised, but I’ve been aware for some years now of the many issues in peace-love-light culture. There’s the toxic positivity, which really crushes people who are struggling. There’s the mistaking privilege for having the magical power to manifest good fortune. There’s like-attracts-like thinking which is a brutal and unjust philosophy to apply to people who are poor, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged. The idea of pre-life contracts make it seem ok to ignore people in distress because hey, they chose these lessons. The New Age movement has always had a problem with appropriating from other cultures, treating the global majority with disrespect, feeling entitled to take anything from anyone… 

Perhaps the most problematic bit is the assumption that if you’re all about peace and love and light, the people around you are good. Feeling that you can afford to be uncritical of yourself and others, and that you can just assume that goodness is what’s around you. If you think like attracts like you’re hardly going to want to consider that you’ve become attracted to Nazis. 

To be genuinely spiritual, you have to be willing to keep an eye on yourself for smugness, self-importance and feelings of superiority. The spiritual life will only stop you turning into a total narcissist if you’re actually invested in the idea of not becoming a massive, self-serving ego. To be spiritual you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Learning and growth are pretty much impossible if you aren’t able to be uncomfortable sometimes. If you only seek out things that make you feel good about yourself, you can end up with more of an ego trip than a spiritual journey.

It does matter who you associate with. The people we spend time with have a huge impact on us. Do the people we encounter really help us become our best selves, or are they making us feel like we’re above criticism? What does the freedom we demand cost other people? Who is hurt by what we do? If we aren’t willing to ask awkward questions sometimes, our desire to have everything pleasant and easy can turn us into monsters.

Long live the revolution

This week, Pagan Dawn magazine came out and in it was my final Quiet Revolution column. I’d written it every quarter for years. When I started, it made sense to be talking about lifestyle changes like not picking up single use plastic carrier bags. We’ve all come a long way since then. Over the years, I’ve talked about the need for radical changes to our lifestyles, culture, ways of working. Sometimes I’ve put this in a context of spells, prayers and acts of religious devotion.

This summer I made the decision to let the column go. Partly this came from feeling that I would not have the time moving forward. I’ve spent this year reducing the number of things I do. I need a gentler, slower paced life, and I need to focus on the projects that are working for me and where I think I can do my best. My quiet revolution work will continue here on the blog, and no doubt new energy and ideas will fill what space I leave behind in Pagan Dawn.

I’m ok with the amount of upheaval this last year or so has brought. Letting go and doing less are principles that are important to the kind of change I think we need. We aren’t likely to help ourselves or save the planet by working ourselves to death. It is better to slow down, do less, consume less. It’s also good to share out the opportunities. 

I’ve cut right back on my volunteering. I’ve done a lot of service over the years, for various Pagan organisations. I feel good about not doing that anymore. I feel strongly that the most good I can do right now is going to come from what I do creatively, and that this is where I need to pour most of my energy.

There can be grief in letting go. It can be scary. Right now it feels good and necessary. My gut feeling is that I’m doing what I need to do – and I’m just going to trust that and see where the path takes me.