One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
As some of you may have noticed from my Twitter feed, the Degu Witch has become rather involved in opposing religious intolerance recently. The underground online (and frankly rather ineffectual) hate group won't get any free publicity from me so I don't intend to name them here but what I would like to do is to highlight the nature of some of the recent debates so you can see what I mean when I say religious intolerance is a dangerous thing.
The fundamental vitriol of the hate group is directed primarily at the religion of Islam.They refer to this religion as a "cult" and pick out isolated instances of individual behaviour to make generalised and derogatory statements about participants in the faith. They make reference to "articles" which they claim back up their accusations against the religion but these articles invariably turn out to have been published on other hate sites. As yet, despite several challenges from myself and others, the hate group has yet to make reference to any independent legitimate source that backs up any of their claims.
Instead of backing up arguments with either hard fact or reasoned debate, the culture of hatred this group insists on promoting is concerned more with mud slinging and spouting ill thought out unfounded opinions. The best example I can offer is the individual who "doesn't like the taste of Halal meat..." It rather begs the question as to how you can claim to have an opinion when you quite obviously have no idea what you are talking about. But it is precisely
the ignorance that makes this hatred so dangerous. He spouts off and a hundred equally uneducated individuals believe what he says and start believing the same thing. Ignorance, unchecked, can spread faster than the flu...
Now I am obviously not part of the Islamic religion. Nor do I practise Christianity. The path of organised religion does not work for me as an individual. I intend to ask nobody to intercede in my relationship with deity, I go straight to the source. However, despite having no personal belief in either of these religions, I actually know a fair bit about them both. I have bothered to take the time to do the research and to understand what I am talking about. And the primary truth that my research has yielded is that both Islam and Christianity can make an honest and genuine claim to being peaceful religions.
Christianity of course is based on the teachings of Christ which are summarised as "Love God and Love thy Neighbour."
Matthew (26:36-40) Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself." 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The holy book of the Islamic faith - the Quran - speaks of not acting against those who have not shown enmity first
(4:90) "So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause against them."
and (41:34) The good deed and the evil deed cannot be equal. Repel (the evil) with one which is better, then verily! he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend.
Vengeance incidentally is documented in both religions with exactly the same moral standpoint of giving back only what has been given. Neither religion advocates starting conflict but both support the idea of justice and self defence.
- Leviticus (24:20) "Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury."
Quran (16:126) "And if you punish (your enemy, O you believers in the Oneness of Allah), then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted. But if you endure patiently, verily, it is better for As-Sabirin (the patient ones, etc.)
So a pretty similar fundamental basis for both religions and an emphasis on getting along with other people. Of course I have picked parts from both holy books that suit my purpose... Which perhaps tells you why I have chosen a personal faith that does not have a holy book. Words can easily be twisted and manipulated to change their meaning and there are certainly adherents to both religions who have done just this and given the words of their holy scriptures an aggression that I do not believe was intended in either book. So yes, there are both Christians and Muslims who do twist their faiths to suit their own agendas - there is good and bad in fact in both faiths. This only gives more credence to the argument that you cannot use religion to make generalised statements about its adherents. Ultimately people are individuals, not a by product of the culture of mass belief. The extreme end of both religions moves away from the intrinsically peaceful core tenats of each faith.
Incidentally as a side note, I own copies of both the Bible and the Quran and despite neither book being holy to me, I treat them with genuine respect. I do this out of respect for those who do deem these books to be holy. The hate groups who destroy these books in the name of pursuing religious freedom are missing the point. You do not have to become Christian or Muslim to live peacefully alongside people of these faiths. Religious freedom is not denigrating the faiths of others, it is respecting the right of individuals to believe differently to you. I would have thought that any faith - Christian, Muslim or otherwise - who needed to put others down to feel confident in their own hasn't got that great a faith to begin with. If you want tolerance from others, the starting point must be to offer it yourself.
I'm always confused as to why these two faiths in particular always seem to be at such odds with each other. Islam is the only faith except Christianity to acknowledge Jesus Christ (Muslims do not view Jesus as the son of God but as a prophet of the faith). As two of the three Abrahamic religions Islam and Christianity have a good deal more in common than say
Christianity and Hinduism or Islam and Buddhism. Both religions were founded in the Middle East, both are monotheistic, both believe sections of their holy books to be the direct word of God and both (as I have shown above) have similar views on morality. In my daily interactions with members of both faiths I have observed Christians and Muslims working together in friendly harmony with faith posing a problem to neither side. Evidence perhaps that the animosity is borne not so much from those genuinely practising their faith but the "militant - extreme" minority of both faiths who prefer to stir up trouble than to practise in peace.
My point of course being that this minority is exactly that - a minority - a tiny infinitesimal percentage of the largest and second largest religions in the world. Sadly it is these individuals who make the headlines. I can't help speculating that the world would be a better place with headlines such as "The 1.6 million Muslims in the Uk had a peaceful day today."
Or "The 51 million Christians in the UK didn't feel the urge to start a civil war today." These headlines represent the truth far more effectively but I doubt they'd sell newspapers...
Religion is often the cause of heated debate - and I'm casting a wider net than just Christianity and Islam here. I've seen it in Paganism too - the different paths fighting over who has ownership of the closest path to the truth. Even athiests are jumping onto their soap boxes to prove "the absence of God" (Though they're onto a losing battle trying to prove the absence of anything... You are a pratt sometimes Dawkins...) But the arguments are unnecessary. All religion is and ever can be is a shorthand interpretation of the eternal truths that are simply beyond human understanding. No religion - and I include my own in this - can make the claim in truth that they have it right. The simple fact is that we just don't know, we are not meant to know and we probably wouldn't understand the eternal truths even if we did know. We fumble our journeys on the paths defined by our different cultures toward an end we can never reach. This is the futility of religion. The fact that we start that journey in the first place? - That is the hope and the meaning behind religion.
I've been asked why, as a witch, I care so much about the hatred toward faiths I have no personal involvement with. The reason is that as a citizen of Great Britain (Great in my opinion for its melting pot culture and tolerance toward other nationalities and faiths) I feel it important to speak out against the growing counter culture of bigotry wherever I find it. The country isn't on the brink of revolution - the English Defence League couldn't organise the proverbial in a public house - but racial, religious and cultural tensions are a concern and in my opinion it is the duty of every individual unwilling to house hatred in their hearts to stand up and defy this counter culture before Multiculturalism does give way to Nationalism and we end up in a situation not dissimilar to Nazi Germany. It is possible you think I am scaremongering but when I see the mindless hatred spewed with such venom by the far right idiots and comments relating to "infestation" "rodents" and the imaginative but despicable phrase "Maggots of hell" I see the similarities with Hitler's intended dehumanisation of the Jews and I am reminded of the phrase "In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing." Regardless of my own personal faith I never intend anybody to ever say of me that I was that good man who did nothing.
There's a postscript to this blog. After writing this but before publishing it, I was asked by my sister if I would attend the baptism of her children into the Catholic faith. Infant baptism goes entirely against my beliefs and my instinct was to fight her right to do this. But I chose not to, I declined with grace and wished her and her family well in what they want to do. In order to win the battle of hearts and minds against the intolerance in our society we have to embrace those principles for ourselves. In light of everything I have said above I'd have been nothing but a hypocrite to oppose her right to follow her own faith, no matter how much I happen to disagree with it.
In the end it isn't enough to be able to talk about tolerance, you have to live it.
Image http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1103018 (cobrasoft)
I'm feeling a little jaded at the moment, a little disillusioned with the modern world. My ennui is the result of yet another training course and yet another whiteboard crammed with meaningless buzz words serving to remind me of nothing but the surprisingly limited vocabulary of most of my contemporaries. Every course I have attended in the last fifteen years has resulted in random delegates writing “motivation, consistency and positivity” on a flip chart and mistaking the tedium of these repeated efforts for innovation. On this particular course I was asked which word patterns I use with my customers. When I replied that I don't use (and have no intention of ever using) word patterns my comment was met with genuine surprise. Apparently making things up as you go along (you know – thinking...) is frowned upon these days. If it isn't written on a post it note, stuck to your computer and trotted out in every single interaction it isn't good service.
Deeply frustrating and as the course coincided with a diet, deeply irritating....However the course did sharpen in my mind my many frustrations not just with the individual training in which I had to participate but in the lack of empathy with the modern customer and the homogenisation of customer service which so many companies hold as their goal. The ultimate objective as far as I can make out is to remove every aspect of individuality from the person serving the customer. Only if everybody walks, talks and smiles the same can we be certain of achieving the much sought after consistency that appears on every one of those flip charts of boredom in training centres of (I suspect) pretty much every company in the country. Certainly of the five blue chip companies I have worked for the training has been pretty much identical.
Personally I despise the whole concept of consistency. I couldn't give a toss if I'm served in a different manner when I walk into a Costa Coffee in London or in Manchester. Really – let me emphasise that - I absolutely could not care less... However my own opinions are largely in discord with the CEOs of most major companies who seem entirely convinced that removing individuality and changing their staff from people to robots is the way forward. These days employees are trained to repeat stock phrases and to believe that the insincerity of the mindless rote is giving good customer service.
I'm obviously frustrated with the micro managed minutiae of the process I am trained to follow in my own job (and bear in mind I'm a professional, I'm not working on a till here – even at my level the homogenisation is creeping in...) but when I look at examples in the world beyond my own work place I become even more frustrated. I was actually asked in Sainsbury's the other day if I needed help packing my bottle of wine. No, I think I can manage to put a single article into a plastic bag – Just how incompetent at life do you think I am? And of course the most famous example of the stock phrase - “Have a nice day!” If I was naïve enough to believe the bored gum chewing cashier actually wanted me to enjoy my day I'd probably be better off being locked up for my own safety. She doesn't care and I know she doesn't care. How anybody interprets this as me, her customer, having a positive experience I really can't imagine.
The basis of all these troubles is that the service industry is very slowly being trained not to think. Companies are confusing the words their staff say with the genuine sentiments that ought to be behind the words. The effect is however entirely negative. Mindless lip service to polite phrasing does not create either a positive interaction or a genuine experience for the customer. It creates frustration across all parties. In some people, myself included, it goes so far as to create rage, sadness and despair. I look at the cashier mindlessly mouthing the words she has said to every customer since her shift started and I wonder why we have our heart set on a world where the very heart of customer service has been ripped out of the service industry. I wonder when we stopped caring about people as individuals and started thinking about them as profit generating machines. I blame mystery shopping actually. (I'll be writing about that another day) - To my mind any company who uses mystery shoppers is giving the clear message that they care less for the genuine experience of their customers than the security of a tick box metric. That poor cashier daren't deviate from her script in case I happen to be a mystery shopper with my pen poised to put a cross in the “friendly greeting” box. It's no wonder really that she looks as miserable as she does. She's on auto pilot with the stock phrases and living in fear of a mystery shopper lurking down every aisle. Customer service for her has become nothing more than the job safety of a tick box exercise.
The thing that really gets to me is how few companies are seeing it. Do they look at their bored, unengaged and disinterested staff and think - Great – these ideas are really working! This is who I want serving my customers! I was in a KFC restaurant the other day and through the door to the staff area I saw a poster demonstrating the type of smile they wanted to see on the faces of their colleagues. Their poor staff have to compare their smile to the chart before going on the sales floor. Somebody at KFC seriously thought that this poster might have a motivational effect on staff in their restaurants. In fact, for it to have been implemented, I would imagine quite a few people had to think it was a good idea. Sheer lunacy. I couldn't make it up and I'm a novelist!
Frankly I'm getting sick and tired of it all. I'm sick of being told to: “Smile before you dial” and to “Work smarter not harder” (Ever tried challenging someone on that? They don't have a bloody clue what they actually mean by it...) I'm tired of being accused of: “Blue sky thinking” or worse: “Not thinking outside the box.” I'm fatigued and hopelessly depressed when a colleague asks in apparently genuine ignorance if we're all: “Singing from the same hymn sheet” and I'm bowled over with despair when somebody asks me what word pattern I intend to use today. The stock phrases that rattle in my brain even when I've drunk enough home made absinthe to floor a hippopotamus corrode my soul a little further every day. “Service, service, service” they cry....without a genuine sentiment among them...
Now it goes without saying that I don't personally do any of this. I'd rather rifle through bins for food than reduce who I am to a set of meaningless phrases. I actually take great pleasure in interacting genuinely with other people and taking the time to get to know them as people. If I believe I am a name and not a number then I owe it to others to extend that same courtesy to them. Ironically as the person who bothers to question the value of word patterns and buzz words and who attempts to interact with genuine feeling I'm actually the one giving the good customer service.
So word patterns – I'll never use them - and trust me, you won't make me no matter how many courses you send me on...I can promise you that... Buzz words? Never! I'm a writer, I have the entire English language at my fingertips and no way in hell am I going to limit myself to the oft trotted out twenty terms on that interminable flip chart. However on a more cheerful note - if I ever do wish you a nice day you can be bloody certain that I really do want you to have a nice day.
So companies of the world – you've got it wrong. You've made a monumentally stupid mistake in believing that you can program your staff the way you do your computers and as a result of your ignorance genuine social interaction in the service industry is a dying art. You probably don't like me but I would imagine if you've read this far then you do have to concede that I have a point. So listen to what I'm saying and take my advice – ditch stock phrases and lip service sentiments. Stop telling people what to do and what to say and start letting them behave naturally. Throw away your metrics, your tick lists and your smile charts and drown your mystery shoppers. Make your places of work a happy place to be and encourage people both to behave as individuals and to treat others as individuals. If you do, I promise you, your customer service will improve, your staff will be happier and the world will slowly turn away from the soulless scripted structures that customer service in the modern world has become.
You may even find your profits go up but then you don't really care about that do you, it's all about service these days.... Isn't it??
Asatru (literally translated as "faith of the Gods") is a NeoPagan path based on Norse mythology. The difference between Asatru and most other NeoPagan paths, perhaps particularly Wicca is that it is a reconstructed religion which seeks to align as closely as possible with the traditions that have gone before. It is a reconstructed religion, a modern revival of ancient beliefs - Asatru is not a reworking or reimagining of an old path - modern adherents seek to follow the path as closely as possible of those who have gone before.
Asatru is sometimes referred to as Odinism (Odin being the father figure of the Norse Gods) although this term is not consistent with many followers of the faith as many believe it elevates Odin to a disproportionate importance and that all the Gods have a key role to play in the faith, not just Odin. Asatru is also often referred to a Norse or Germanic Heathenry. The description of Heathenry implies a non doctrine based relationship with deity, a definition that does fit Asatru but which is essentialy a more general term governing other strands of independent community relationships with deity as well.
Asatru is a polytheistic religion, evolved from Viking times, worshipping the Gods of the Norse pantheon though worship of deities from other pantheons, particularly the Celtic Gods, is not unheard of. Again, in a break with other NeoPagan paths, Asatru does not follow an interpretative understanding of the Gods, the Gods are seen very much as individuals with their own tangible history. Followers of Asatru believe that humanity is directly descended from the Gods and that the Gods Odin, Vili and Ve descended to Earth and created the first humans by breathing life into two trees. The belief is literal not allegorical.
There is a strong emphasis on communing with ancestors and honouring those who have gone before. This is an extremely important part of the faith due to the determination to walk the path of their ancestors. The ancestors are honoured for the giving of the spiritual gifts which allow followers of Asatru to practise their faith into the modern age.
Asatru is less of a magical path than it is a spiritual path. Unlike Wicca, Shamanism and Druidism there is much less emphasis on the use of magic. The magic that is practised is generally associated with runes and the runic alphabet. In Asatru the runes are used as much for magic as they are for divination. However the elaborate magic rituals of Wicca or the crossing to other worlds of Shamanism are not seen as a primary element of the faith. The Runic alphabet is believed to have its origins in the early Scandinavian worshippers and legend has it that the runes were the wisdom sought by Odin after hanging on the world tree Yggdrassil for nine nights. He brought the runes back to the rest of the Gods who in turn passed them onto humankind.
In the mid 1970s Iceland - one of the Scandinavian countries from which Asatru was established - declared it to be the formal religion of the country. This is an important milestone in the credibility of the religion and also in its claim to not simply be another of the Neopagan paths.
Sacrifice is an important element of the Asatru religion and the most common form of sacrifice is called the blot. This was traditionally the ritual slaying of an animal as an offering to the Gods but more takes the form of a feast in modern times. The Asatru priest, known as the Gothat leads the blot. He is also responsible for keeping the religion alive in the hearts and minds of the people and for his role in helping to reconstruct the paths of the ancestors.
Several of the commonly celebrate eight Sabbats are observed by followers of Asatru. The names differ (Charming of the Plow for Imbolc, Freyfaxi for Lammas...) but the essential idea of celebrating the changing of the seasons remains the same. The festivals of Midsummer and Winter Nights (Yule) marking the middle of the Summer and the middle of the Winter (the longest day and the longest night) are key festivals within the faith. Asatru also celebrates Einherjar on November 11th which honours those who have died in battle. This is close to the Witch observation of Samhain - the day of the dead - with a similar focus on those who have passed.
Image http://www.deviantart.com/art/Yggdrasil-The-World-Tree-59953621 (Duende14)
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