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Thoughts on Religion & Spirituality

Posted in Austin, Life, Occupy Wall Street, and SXSW

Today is the first day of Occupy Southby, the Occupy Austin occupation of the massive SXSW festival that takes over Austin every year. We’re offering free events, music & classes every day this week to counteract the commercial, expensive alternatives.

The atheism & agnosticism panel at Occupy Southby. From Left: Amanda Michele, Dallas Aycock, Kit O'Connell & Claire Hischkind. Photo by Kat Freedom

The theme for today’s events was faith & spirituality. One of the core values of Occupy Austin is that we are nonreligious. This does not mean we are anti-religion, but simply that we don’t endorse any particular faith, beliefs, or lack thereof. In order to balance out the religious & spiritual topics of the day I offered to lead a panel discussion on Agnosticism, Atheism and Occupation. It was very successful & thought-provoking. I shared the stage with Amanda Michele and Dallas Aycock and Claire Hischkind. We had a wonderful diversity of backgrounds, from Claire who was raised an atheist to Amanda’s devout upbringing.

For me, I began as a Catholic from a liberal New England tradition. As I grew older, the lack of equality in the Church felt wrong to me. I couldn’t imagine what made women “lesser” that they could not serve the same roles as men, and this was a large part of turning away from that faith. I also found ritual appealing, but the Catholic rituals are very one-sided — the congregation watches while the priest performs.

Around the time of my parents divorce, my mother began to explore Neo-Paganism and Wicca. I got interested then, but didn’t join any organized group until moving to Austin where I spent a lot of time working with Tejas Web. The nonhierarchical nature of the group appealed to me — there were no secrets or ranking; anyone could take part who chose to do so. I led rituals and became very involved for a time. Yet I realized that while the ritual form worked for me, appealed to me on some deep level, I found the spiritual framework less appealing.

And then, of course, I discovered Burning Flipside and the global Burning Man community. My first Burn became a deeply spiritual experience for me. I embraced a path of ethical hedonism — the belief that my role is to experience as much that I can in life, to touch as many lives as possible, and cultivate pleasure in others wherever possible. At the same time, I realized that I really did not  know what came after this life, if anything. And not knowing, I found it wasn’t important — what is important is living now, not later.

But the Burn instilled a deep, continued respect for ritual in me. As Claire pointed out on today’s panel, all cultures regardless of religious beliefs have found the value of ritual. It would seem that humanity is hard-wired to respond to ritual; it helps us feel connected to something larger than us, if only to the people & world that surround us. Whether the ritual of the Burn or the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, when people gather together for ritual it is a powerful experience.

As an agnostic occupier, I have deep respect for the work of those with faith. The people who walk the walk — are out doing good works & trying to change the world, inspired by their religions — deserve our help and support. Yet I also think there is an important place for the skeptical viewpoint to balance the credulity I sometimes encounter among occupiers.

How do you beliefs affect your choice to Occupy, or your political views?