The Jackal, Stag, and Crescent

From the necropolis to the moonlit grove

Tag: morality

The Philosophical Crutch

The Crutch is pretty pervasive among modern Pagans and it comes in many different variations. Some of these variations masquerade as theology (“This is a lesson from a higher power”) or as eschatology (“You must’ve chosen to experience this before you were born”) but it all boils down to the same thing:

“everything happens for a reason.”

This pseudo-philosophical explanation is often paraded out when Pagans face adversities or tragedies, oftentimes as a sort of coping mechanism for those circumstances. It attempts a philosophical explanation for the events to which we find ourselves subject but it fails miserably. It’s not philosophy–there’s no rationale, no reason, and no critical reflection or introspection. In fact, it is the opposite of philosophy: dogma.

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The Philosophical Crutch, circa the advent of Christianity

Let’s be clear, though: everything does happen for a reason. That is, everything has a cause. Everything that happens to us, every circumstance in which we find ourselves, and every event we witness or in which we participate happened because of conditions set in motion by our own actions or the actions (and inactions) of others. Many of these things began moving long before we were born and many more were set before our grandparents were conceived. But having a reason is not the same as having purpose. That’s what people who espouse the dogma of the Crutch actually mean. They are saying that everything that happens to us has a purpose or meaning and that, if true, is quite problematic in at least three different ways.

It was all planned long ago.
If everything that happens must happen for a purpose, then it must necessarily have been planned and caused by an intelligence intervening in one’s life. If an event that occurred has a purpose for the person (or persons) to whom it happens, then it must have been intended for them for that purpose and the conditions and circumstances which led to the event must have been manipulated and set before the event itself occurred. There are, as one can imagine, thousands of circumstances one must manipulate in order to get just the right combination to lead another into a specific event. We many thousands of choices everyday–turn right or left, leave early or on time, take the bus or a cab, etc–and all of these variables must be accounted for if the right circumstance is to occur to lead one to any particular event. Indeed, not only our own actions and circumstances but every other action and circumstance of our universe–the many billions of threads that intersect with our own–must be accounted for and shaped. And if these variables, the very decisions we all make every day, are being manipulated then we have no free will. If everything that happens has a purpose, then our actions must be planned and our lives predestined.

It’s not your fault.
Following from the first problem: if our lives are predestined and our actions predetermined, then we have no agency in our own lives. No amount of reflection or introspection makes a bit of difference on our choices, ultimately, because our actions were predetermined long before we were born. Having no agency, we must not then have any responsibility for our actions. How can one be responsible for deeds one had no choice in making? How can we be held accountable? How can we hold each other accountable for misdeeds and violations? We can’t. It’s not possible. If all is predetermined, we have no free will, we have no agency, then we have neither responsibility nor accountability for our actions. Nothing is our choice and nothing is our fault.

Who designed this one? This shit is fucked.

Who designed this one? This shit is fucked.

An unethical and immoral Universe.
If everything that happens to us is not by our own making but by the power and decree of a greater power, then all of human suffering both great and small is by its design and will. This power would necessarily be responsible for personal misdeeds and personal tragedies like the time someone stole your identity and destroyed your credit or the death caused by a drunk driver to great injustices and atrocities like slavery and ethnic cleansing. And all for what purpose? A lesson, a motivation, an experience? There is no lesson to be had in the experience of being murdered. There is no value to being a newborn who dies at birth. If everything happens for a purpose, then we find ourselves in a Universe where those who suffer and die become merely fodder for the lessons and experiences of others.  They have been determined to be acceptable collateral damage by whatever power designed this Universe that purposefully causes everything that happens. And so, we must find moral lacking in the very design of such a Universe and thus with its Creator, which constitutes a whole other set of problems and quandaries.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Robert Jordan, North Carolina National Guard)

Watch me fuck this shit up

Therefore, if one does not believe that we are Will-less creatures predestined to act in accordance with some greater power’s plan, if one does believe that we are capable of willful choices and are responsible and accountable for those choices, and if one does not believe that the Universe was created by a morally-questionable and ethically-impaired power, then one must reason that while everything may have a cause, it does not have a purpose. But that isn’t to say we cannot find meaning in the tragic and terrible things that happen to us. We can certainly draw or make meaning out of anything. In fact, it’s one skill for which humans are singularly well-suited. Living in a Universe where events don’t have purpose is quite liberating in that way because it means the tragedy in your life does not have to define you, you have the ability to assign meaning and learn from it, and you have the agency and power to change your circumstances to navigate the future endless possibilities. As someone wiser than me often says: “Shit happens and fucks you up, so fuck shit up right back.”

How Witchcraft Liberates

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Don’t need these anymore. kthnxbai.

In discussions of Witchcraft, it’s common to hear or read about how peoples’ lives change for the better through its practice. One can easily find accounts of witches who improved their lot in life: better jobs, more romance, a greater sense of belonging, or protection from enemies. Also common are accounts of witches who find spiritual revelations: a greater connection to Nature, a personal relationship with god(s), or the discovery of one’s own divinity. But the most important power granted by the practice of Witchcraft I’ve discovered is one that is least often given the place of importance it’s due: personal transformation—specifically, the sort of personal transformation that liberates the witch from the deleterious shackles placed upon us by society—through the power of Witchcraft’s inherent subversive nature. And so, I discuss how Witchcraft can liberate through its ability to empower, its rejection of sexual repression, its opposition to body-shaming, and it’s utter antagonism towards the patriarchy.

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What’s this? Oh yeah, my power and agency all up in your ship, Rob. All sea, no shade.

Witchcraft certainly, as previously mentioned, does grant us an ability to create change in a real, manifest way through its practice. It can deliver us more options in careers and love, more material wealth and position, and even more control over people that we would otherwise lack without it. The practice of Witchcraft allows us to affect the physical world in very real ways but I found that the real value in that is not the effect itself but that I am empowered. That is, Witchcraft grants me the ability to exert influence and agency in my own life even when mundane, i.e., non-magical, means of doing so prevent it and the value of that is profoundly empowering for one’s psyche. As a young man, Witchcraft enabled me to put an end to an abuser’s power when mundane options proved impotent. While it was immensely satisfying to be able to put a stop to the abuse, it was even more critical to realize that I did and could affect my circumstance and that I was not and would never again be powerless. This first liberation of Witchcraft was the realization of my own power and agency.

Witchcraft also empowers and therefore liberates by requiring that the Witch think for himself by developing a personal ethical system as opposed to simply inheriting a morality from society. Witchcraft has no dogma. It offers neither any moral commandments nor prohibitions. In Witchcraft, developing one’s own set of ethical principles, founded on reason, becomes a necessity. In order to determine how best to use one’s aforementioned power and agency, the Witch must possess an understanding of ethical action. And instead of simply accepting the pervading morality of our culture, which is arguably antiquated and Abrahamic, I had to determine for myself what was ethical and what was unethical; I had to critically evaluate society’s moral judgments on topics such as sex and sexuality, the meaning of and qualification for life, violence, drugs, and personal autonomy. This exploration of fundamental human questions and the requisite formation of a personal philosophy as a means to live a good and meaningful life liberated me from many of the prejudices and assumptions with which I had grown up and helped me become a person whose ethical judgments are based on reasoned reflection. The second liberation of Witchcraft was the rejection of socialized moral systems without reason and the subsequent development of a rational personal philosophy.

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The Gay Pride After-Party, circa 450 BCE. Iolas, we’re all happy you can adopt now. But seriously, get a fucking babysitter.

Much of the Western world’s views on sex and sexuality are colored by the Judeo-Christian worldview, which historically has taboos or moral prohibitions against perfectly natural aspects of human sexuality like homosexuality and recreational sex. This prejudicial attitude towards natural expressions of sexuality are so ingrained in our society that it had been heavily legislated against in decades past and continues to be the source of legal battles throughout our culture. But, as already discussed above, Witchcraft has no dogma nor codified morality; it offers no judgment on human sexuality and sexual practice. Instead of establishing taboos or prohibitions, I found that Witchcraft celebrates sex and sexuality—all forms of it—as sacred: “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”, says the Goddess of Witches in Valiente’s seminal prose. What’s more the frequent celebration of sexuality, fertility, carnal passion, and life in Witchcraft through ritual, symbolism, and mythology revealed an inherent openness, acceptance, and reverence towards human sexuality that is not present within broader society, least of all the dominant religions of broader society. It was through Witchcraft that I found not only acceptance of my own homosexuality but a celebration of it. Witchcraft is the foundation from which I was able to demand my rights and needs as a non-heterosexual person; and it was Witchcraft that allowed me to fully own my sexuality—my desires, my needs, my expression, and the frequency with which I engaged in sex—without condemnation, judgment, or shame. The third liberation of Witchcraft was escape from sexual repression and oppression.

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Robes? To cover up all this deliciousness?

Undoubtedly due to its values regarding sex and sexuality, mainstream society also has a deeply flawed relationship with the human body. Beyond the social taboos society continues to reinforce on public nudity, nudity in art, and nudity in other media, society even legislates against it for entirely natural and necessary reasons such as breastfeeding. We are explicitly told that our bodies should be covered and hidden and then implicitly told that exceptions are made and encouraged for those who fit the ideal physical aesthetic through art, media, and social pressure. But Witchcraft instills no shame of the human body. On the contrary, if anything, Witchcraft celebrates the human body, the vessel without which, celebration of sex, sexuality, fertility, passion, and (human) life would not be possible. So much so that it’s traditional to practice Witchcraft entirely in the nude, contrary to what society would expect of a religion. It’s not uncommon for Witches to stand naked before one another as equals and this, seeing each other laid bare, engenders an acceptance, appreciation, and love for one another and onseself. So, it’s no wonder that it was through Witchcraft that I, previously plagued by a nearly debilitating sense of shame for my own body, came to truly see myself and find comfort in my own skin. And this gift—the gift of freedom from body-shame and total ownership of my body—was the fourth liberation of Witchcraft.

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He said, “Well, actually”. Crystal Ball, how many fucks do I give? … Well, actually, NONE.

And so we come to the most important ways that Witchcraft can liberate us from the one of the sickest of our social ills. Our society is founded upon a narrative of powerful men and it perpetuates that narrative like a virus. Our society is, for all intents and purposes, rooted in patriarchy. It sees women as secondary persons, if it sees them as persons at all; it devalues womanhood or portrays it as obscene; and, it teaches men that power is what defines them and separates them from women, among many other things. (Here I must admit that I am in no way the best voice for how Witchcraft can liberate us from patriarchy—to that end, the most profound voices on the topic would be women—but I can speak on how it began to liberate me from this social influence and how it continues to do so.) But Witchcraft, arguably, empowers women more so than any other religion. There exists in Witchcraft a recognition of the Divine Feminine, or a Goddess, as not only a figure worthy of worship but one on equal footing with the Divine Masculine. It requires no explanation to suggest that this isn’t so of the dominant religions of our culture. Women themselves, too, are often leaders in Witchcraft and can more easily be found leading groups and religious organizations than female members of mainstream religions. Womanhood, Women’s Mysteries, and the power of women are recognized as sacred and are not treated with derision, contempt, or made to seem obscene. And so, this natural tendency in Witchcraft to have powerful women as leaders, in turn, teaches men that power is neither integral nor unique to being male. It, too, teaches men that their manhood nor masculinity need neither be threatened nor lost by being a supporter instead of director, and an ally instead of a champion. And that is the fifth liberation of Witchcraft: it unfetters and loosens the grip of the patriarchy on both women and men.

So, that’s how Witchcraft has liberated me. Has it liberated you?

Bad Morality: The Flaw with the Threefold Law

`Ever mind the Rule of Three,
Thrice shall acts return to thee.`

Neopagans, particularly eclectic Witches and neo-Wiccans, across the world are familiar with the concept expressed by this rhyme and others like it. It’s often presented as a universal moral precept. It claims that whatever one does, especially magically, will return to the source of action, i.e. the caster, three times as beneficial or harmful. It is taught and often spoken of as a moral code by which all witches should abide because if a witch were to misbehave, her negativity will return to her three times as worse than she had sent out.

No information is given as to whom or what is dispensing the amplified justice. Perhaps the Gods, but then, the question is begged: why three? Why should anything one does return to him or her three times over? Is that even fair? Is it just to deliver a punishment three times worse than the crime? And, what of all those do-gooders who live in dire straits who have yet to reap this threefold reward? Not to mention all the questions about the mechanisms by which this threefold return occurs: is it a natural occurrence in the universe? If so, why is it not seen in the natural universe? Why does the universe (and many neopagan religions) tend towards balance and not threefold?

Nevermind all that. It’s really irrelevant because the real problem is that the Threefold Law doesn’t really teach morality or ethics. It doesn’t provide insight on how a witch might come to a moral course of action nor does it provide the witch with an authoritative framework upon which he can judge what is right and wrong or good and evil. According to the Cambridge Dictionary morality is “a personal or social set of standards for good or bad behaviour and character, or the quality of being right, honest or acceptable.” Many of us would agree with this definition or offer another that would closely approximate the meaning of the word. We might even all agree that morality is the concern for the propriety and justness of our actions as well as how those actions may affect our lives and the lives of others. Indeed, for many–if not all–pagans, a moral decision must necessarily consider the welfare of others–human, animal, or planet. And yet, there is no hint of what is right and wrong or good and evil within the warning of the “Law”.

In fact, the Threefold Law addresses only one concern: whether the action may benefit or harm the witch. It speaks only to the happiness and benefit of the witch without any concern to the effects his actions may have upon those around him. Furthermore, being that the Threefold Law offers no statements about the nature of good and evil or right and wrong, it, unintentionally but necessarily, implies that an action is only inadvisable because of the harm it will reap for the witch, himself.

The entire crux of the lesson the Threefold Law gives its believers is that one should behave, otherwise, one will be punished exponentially. It doesn’t even say that unjust or heinous actions are wrong on their own merits, but, simply, that you shouldn’t do them because some-one/thing will wrong you thrice as bad. It reveals nothing about the importance of a single person and his actions within a macro-cosmic dynamic; it speaks nothing about our responsibilities to each other and the universe, itself; and it teaches nothing about sympathetic relationships.

I could even argue without much stretch of the imagination that the Threefold Law is hedonisitc in nature, being concerned only with the happiness and well-being of the self. But, that’s an argument for another day, perhaps.

Personally, I prefer a tiny excerpt from the beautiful “Charge of the Goddess” by Doreen Valiente:

For mine is the ecstasy of the Spirit,
and Mine also is joy on Earth;
for My law is love unto all beings.