Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

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Newt Scamander, Politics, and the Value of Caring

In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling presents the familiar wizarding world she originated with Harry Potter, but turns it on its head.  Instead of Britain, the film takes place in the United States.  Different laws apply to the witches and wizards of America, a fact which becomes a source of both humor and tension.  Our main characters are not children, but adults.  Instead of spending multiple installments worldbuilding and introducing a magical system, the new series is able to jump us right into a fully fleshed out world where we all know the rules, allowing more focus on storytelling.

But more importantly, our new hero is very different.  Newt Scamander is nothing like the Boy Who Lived.  Where Harry knows from the day he enters Hogwarts that he is marked out as the savior of the wizarding world, Scamander is really nothing more than a dedicated animal lover who seeks only to rescue and preserve the world’s most misunderstood creatures.  He’s a conservationist, not a warrior.

This brilliant article explains it much better than I can.  While Harry was a swashbuckling Gryffindor, focused on courage and great deeds, Newt is a Hufflepuff – a member of the most underappreciated house at Hogwarts.  If the houses are elemental, Harry is a fire and Newt is an Earth.  Harry must focus on strength and justice and the will to fight.  Newt’s goal is to save the earth’s magical creatures, care for them, and educate others about their importance.  He’s much happier digging in the dirt to feed his beloved “beasts” than fighting wand-to-wand with dark wizards.  Hufflepuff’s key word is Loyalty, and Newt is unfailingly loyal to the animals that depend on him (and he’s happy to fight and dark wizards who might happen to threaten them).

Harry exemplifies the classic Hero’s Journey.  Newt’s largest concern is ensuring that his thunderbird gets fed.

Harry Potter. [Source:]

Harry Potter. [Source:]

Newt Scamander [Source: Warner Brothers]

Newt Scamander [Source: Warner Brothers]

The two heroes couldn’t be more different from each other, but in truth they complement each other.  They represent two different ethical ideas from psychological research: The ethic of justice and the ethic of caring.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was studied the moral development in children.  His method was to give children a problem, known as the Heinz Dilemma, and ask them their reasoning.  In short the Heinz Dilemma is as follows:

In Europe, a woman was near death from cancer.  One drug might save her, a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered.  The druggist was charging $2000, ten times what the drug had cost him to make.  The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could get together only about half of what it should cost.  He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or to let him pay later.  But the druggist said no.  The husband got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.  Should the husband have done that?  Why?

Kohlberg would collect the children’s answers and categorize their reasoning.  In his research, he identified a three-level system of moral development with two sub-stages per level.  The first level focuses on following rules and avoiding punishment.  The second is more about social approval and maintaining order.  The final stage is when a person guides their reasoning based on higher, philosophical ethical principles.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons


It all sounded fine until Carol Gilligan, one of Kohlberg’s students, noticed a trend.  Young girls and women tended to score on the lower levels of the scale more often than boys and men.  Males were more likely to be scored in the upper categories of moral reasoning.  

This did not sit well with Gilligan.  What she realized was that Kohlberg was bringing a masculine bias – a concept referred to in the linked article as “Toxic Masculinity” – to rate his respondents.  Gilligan theorized that men tend to reason through an ethic of justice, while women tend to utilize an ethic of caring.  She developed the Dilemma of the Porcupine and the Moles to test this theory:

It was growing cold, and a porcupine was looking for a home. He found a most desirable cave but saw it was occupied by a family of moles.

“Would you mind if I shared your home for the winter?” the porcupine asked the moles.

The generous moles consented and the porcupine moved in. But the cave was small and every time the moles moved around they were scratched by the porcupine’s sharp quills. The moles endured this discomfort for as long as they could. Then at last they gathered courage to approach their visitor.

“Pray leave,” they said, “and let us have our cave to ourselves once again.”

“Oh no!” said the porcupine. “This place suits me very well.  If you’re not happy, then you should leave!”

As with the Heinz Dilemma, what is important is not the answer, but the reasoning.  Gilligan developed a model of morality that placed self preservation at the bottom, self-sacrifice in the middle, and the principle of nonviolence at the top.  She found that female participants scored higher overall than they did in Kohlberg’s model.


I don’t believe that the two ethical approaches are as clear cut across binary gender lines as it may seem.  Indeed, two men – Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi – famously exemplified Gilligan’s highest principle of nonviolence.  However, I do see both ethical models as valid.  And, rather than pitting them against each other, I think we should see them as partners.

The world needs its Harry Potters: the young (or young-at-heart) people willing to risk life and limb for justice. Especially now, we need our activists on the front line protesting DAPL, taking to the streets to advocate for equal rights, and taking to social media to light the fire under under everyone else’s collective asses.

We also need our Newt Scamanders.  We need those who stay calm, assess the situation, and select their battles out of concern for those they care for.  We need our Hufflepuffs who are willing to help those in physical and emotional pain, see to the physical needs of our more vocal activists, and to tame the wild spirit of rage that can sometimes get diffused. We need those who process calmly but get the job done.  As Newt Scamander placidly states while he approaches a dangerous capture: “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”  

We are entering into a dark time, both in the Wheel of the Year and in American politics.  Dark times are painful, but they can lead to growth.  Dr. King intentionally led his followers into painful situations to stimulate change.  The discomfort of dark times can stimulate growth and manifest will, but it takes the Hufflepuffs caring for the wounded and as much as the Gryffindors on the front line.

It was Albus Dumbledore, the wisest Harry Potter character of all, who said that Love was the most powerful force in the world.  Love inspires frontline activism as much as nurturing of those who fight and those who fall.  In dark times, each person needs to choose where to focus their love.  Justice is vital, but so is Caring. When the future looked bleak, all of Hogwarts, even the Hufflepuffs, had to come together to defeat Voldemort’s fascist coup.



Compassion Includes Yourself

Most Pagans I know are pretty nice people. They will drop everything to help a friend in need. They respond to healing requests that are broadcast by acquaintances over social media and participate in activism in a quest to heal the earth and bring justice to the world. We value that watery ideal of compassion and seek to manifest it in the world.

However, there is one place where we often forget to have compassion. In many ways, it’s the most important place our compassion needs to be. Yet, whether it’s from a cultural socialization that tells us that this kind of compassion is selfish, a Maslovian/Eriksonian need to generate good things for others, or just a true desire to help our friends, we often forget one important recipient of our cup of compassion.

We forget ourselves.

I include myself in this. The last two weeks have been pretty nasty for me. I have had constant headaches for those two weeks. At first it was annoying, then it was exasperating, then it was downright depressing. In the thick of it I began to lose touch with who I am.

In my job it’s often easier to go to work than to miss when you’re sick, so I dragged myself to work every day and gritted it out. I had deadlines and timelines to worry about. I kept up my regular exercise schedule, because damn it I was going to meet my commitments (plus the headaches always went away when I was running).   It’s January, the month of “no excuses” when it comes to exercise.

Like many people, I refuse to be the person that doesn’t meet his/her responsibilities. People get headaches all the time, right? They still do their job; they still take care of their kids. They still chop wood and carry water.

Now I think I’m recovering. The answer was simple: Water.

I mean that both physically and esoterically. The headaches seem to have been caused by the combination of an injury and dehydration from exercise. My body needed extra water to heal the injured muscles in my head, and I was sweating all my water out while running.

At the same time, I needed to have more compassion for myself. All that concern with the pressures of work and living up to my self-expectations was only making it worse. I took Friday off and drank a ton of water. Today I woke up feeling exponentially better than I have in weeks.

I don’t think my experience is unique. Trooping through your own problems is a value that I believe is deeply held by our society. Compassion for ourselves is often a neglected virtue. As in my situation, ignoring that compassion really just makes our physical lives worse. When we take the time to drink of that cup ourselves, we create a person who is more able to effectively meet their responsibilities.

A healthy person is a better employee. A healthy person is a better lover. A healthy person is a better friend. Being compassionate to ourselves is not egotistical or selfish. It helps us better serve our jobs, our friends, and the world. In that way, it may be one of the most selfless acts you can perform.

Of course, there are limits to this. Compassion for self does not mean wallowing in your own misfortunes or taking too much from others. It doesn’t mean skipping out on work every time you feel a sniffle in your nose or a tinge of pain in your temple. It means being mindful of your body, its true needs, and your true will.

If you don’t find compassion within, you will never find it without. Our lives are long, but the path is not always straight. There are pit stops and watering holes along the way. There may be long, dry stretches, painful stretches. If you replenish yourself the watering holes, you’ll be better off as you cross the desert.

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Atheist Churches and the Pain and Promise of Wonder

Atheists and polytheists have a lot in common.  Both of us have sat down and really thought about what we believe.  Whether we were raised within the dominant Christian culture or not, the general view that there is one, male God who rules everything is the accepted method of belief in western society.  To deviate from that, whether toward zero gods or a ton of them, and to be open about it, is a brave deviation from the norm that both of these groups have embraced.

Both of us have a closet we have to emerge from as we become more and more open about our beliefs, and both of us risk alienating our loved ones by announcing our true thoughts.  Both roads can be lonely; it’s hard to be different.  Because of that, adherents to both paths often choose some kind of community.  Even the solitary Witch often seeks a sabbat group or convention where he or she can share ideas with like-minded people.  The same is true for atheists.  And last year, the most noteworthy example was the lightning-quick rise of the Sunday Assembly.

The Sunday Assembly is a “church” for atheists.  It started in London and has quickly spread across the western world.  It’s a place for nonbelievers to meet and share ideas under the banner of the Assembly’s lovely slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”


But like all quickly growing groups, there is already a problem.  CNN reported Saturday that the Sunday Assembly has already hit a schism.  It seems that the leaders of the New York congregation have a completely different idea of what an atheist is than its London founders do.  Where the Assembly wishes to attract all manner nonreligious types, the breakoff group, calling itself the “Godless Revival,” seems to be more like atheist fundamentalists.  Their message is less “Come all ye skeptics” and more “I believe in no God, no Father, no Almighty.”

This happens in the Pagan community too.  Disagreements happen; ideologies compete with each other.  To me, it’s the sign of healthy thinking.  If everyone thinks exactly the same, your group becomes stagnant.  If there’s no Trickster jumping in with shiny new ideas, then your group rots.  These disagreements happen any time a group of people get together, especially a group of freethinkers like atheists and Pagans.

Social psychology teaches us of the concept of “groupthink.”  Groupthink occurs when disagreements are stifled, unanimity is assumed, and leaders control discussion.  It leads to bad decisions and disastrous outcomes.  The classic example used by psychologists is JFK’s Bay of Pigs debacle.

If you encourage people to “wonder more,” you’re going to find arguments and ruffle some feathers.  But that’s OK.  That’s what happens when people think.  Constant agreement is a dead giveaway that no one is thinking. Just as two warring countries often learn each other’s culture better, the two sides of an argument will expand each other’s minds if both sides are truly committed to the “wonder.”  The community that questions itself stays healthy.