Twelve Healing Stars is a yearlong project in cooperation with the Temple of Witchcraft that explores social justice through the lessons of the 12 Zodiac Signs. This is part six.
Basic social psychology suggests that religion can be a very dangerous thing. Open any introductory textbook to the chapter on social psych, and you’ll be hit with a flurry of concepts that build upon each other to show us how tribal, exclusionary, and potentially violent religion – any religion – can become.
- The Out Group Homogeneity Effect tells of our tendency to see all people that are not part of our group as “all the same.”
- In Group Bias is our ability to tolerate differences within our own groups, even as we don’t see them in other groups.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to blame another person’s character for mistakes they make and any behavior they do while ignoring the situational variables that could have caused the mistake or behavior.
- Group Polarization is our tendency, once within a group, to gravitate toward extreme thinking. Our opinions may be moderate on a topic, but as we hang out with people with more extreme opinions, we move in that direction.
- Groupthink tells us that when we have a charismatic leader and a lack of dissenting opinions in a group, we make very poor choices.
Add these together, and any time a group gets together they risk extreme thinking and tribalism. We see that play out in everything from sports team rivalries to international politics. We tend to naturally separate ourselves from others. And one of the places we see it way too often in is religion.
Ethnobiologist E.O. Wilson is working on a trilogy to explore the human condition and its intersections with spiritual practice. He says that a major problem with religion is this tribal mentality. “Religion,” he says “features supernatural elements that other tribes – other faiths – cannot accept.” The problem with that is that, “Every tribe, no matter how generous, benign, loving, and charitable, nonetheless looks down on all other tribes.” Mix that with social psychology and you are creating a pretty toxic brew for humanity’s survival.
There is a way out of this. Another concept from social psychology, a deceptively simple one, can be our key. It’s called the Mere Exposure Effect. We’ve all experienced it. When a person begins with a negative attitude toward a person or group, spending time around that group – merely being exposed to it – can improve their attitude. It’s one of the reasons that coming out of our closets, be they broom closets or any other kind of closet, is so important. When we know good people who belong to a misunderstood group, our perceptions of that group improve. Instead of separation, we need to come together. We need the Piscean message of merging together, yet we can’t lose what makes us all unique.
This is a large part of the mission for Alix Wright, the Pisces Lead Minister for the Temple of Witchcraft. Paganism of any brand, but especially Witchcraft, runs a great risk of being misunderstood and maligned. Wright says that, “The air of mystery surrounding the various pagan faiths could feed the fear of those who don’t truly know what we do.” She adds that, “Anytime you keep things closed off and secretive, those not in ‘the know’ have the opportunity to put their own spin on things and can demonize what they only have minimal, or no, understanding of.”
Wright runs open, public sabbat rituals for the organization in an effort to wash away that dangerous secrecy. “Being open about our beliefs and practices, making rituals open to those who are curious,” she says, “allows us to disabuse those who would say that what we do is evil.”
Sam Carranza, a member of the Druid group Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF) from Tampa, FL, agrees. He calls public ritual the “Sine qua non” of ADF. Indeed, ADF’s website states that they are “committed to public ritual,” and that, “Every ADF grove has at least eight publicly-open High Day rites a year.” Carranza says that these are helpful to “contribute to the path of others, whatever that path might end up being.” Echoing Wright and Wilson, he says that secrecy, “lends itself to the worst instincts of humans…if something isn’t clear on first glance, then it’s mysterious, bad, and is something to be avoided.” Public practice can help change that view.
Religious conflict is an unfortunate truth all around the world. Terrorist groups that claim to be fueled by their faith publicly murder outsiders and those of us outside that part of the world rush to blame the entire religion. Crazy people like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church and other tribal-minded religious groups give their faiths a bad name. In one country or region, you may be persecuted for being a Christian, in another for being a Muslim, in another for being the wrong kind of either religion. “Witches,” most of whom have nothing to do with the neo-pagan movement, are still being burned in parts of Africa. The search for the divine has, according to Wilson, “been hijacked by the tribal religions.”
While it is better here in the United States, it isn’t perfect. The Temple of Witchcraft “holds public rituals in four states,” says Wright. “It would be five,” she says, “but one celebrant had to travel an hour away from home to find a place where she was safe.” Emphatically, Wright states that, “When you have a Christian church on every street corner in some towns, the idea that pagans can’t practice for fear of persecution or bodily harm in this day and age is repugnant.”
She’s right, but it’s also true of all other people of all other faiths. The tribal, “Us vs. Them” mentality is a weight dragging humanity down. All people of all faiths should have the right to practice their beliefs openly. We can’t go out and make this happen, but we can do some magickal work for it.
Wright suggests working with Ganesha to assist in removing obstacles for “all people to be able to celebrate their faiths.” I really love that cross-cultural imagery in this case. Ganesha is popular with neo-pagans, but those of us not of a Hindu background, it could be quite powerful to work with him to do this important tribalism-destroying work. Tribalism is the obstacle, cross-cultural work seems a good tactic to help remove it.
Wright also suggests working with Archangel Michael in protection work for people who are in danger when celebrating publicly. Again, I love the idea of working cross-culturally western archangel on one side and a Hindu deity on the other. Both entities are popular in the neo-pagan community and have their own way to help people in all parts of the world.
While his studies have led E.O. Wilson to conclude that religion is an obstacle for humanity, he does not advise atheism. “Yearning” to answer the great questions of life and existence is what he calls “one of the great things that unites humanity.” Let us work toward a world where religion unites us with rather than separates us from deity, the earth, the worlds, and or fellow human beings.