Ritual “Special Effects”

Sometimes in a ritual, a little special-effects magic can help to create that sense that “magic is happening”. Here are some effects I’ve collected from a conversation in the Atheopagan Facebook group.

Burning Isopropyl alcohol. Use the full 90%+ stuff, not the 40% methanol “rubbing alcohol”. This is highly flammable and can make for a marvelous ritual effect. I have a shallow basin on a dragon-shaped pedestal that works perfectly for this. When you light it, it flares up beautifully and burns for a few minutes; if you want for it to last longer, put epsom salts in the bottom of your burning basin, which will absorb the alcohol and release it more slowly, for a lower, longer flame.

Fire tornado. I’ve only done this once, but it was amazing. All you do is pour a bottle or two of wine in a cauldron, and set it on a fire to boil. When it does, the alcohol evaporates off first, and convection around the cauldron causes the resulting burn-off of the alcohol to form a tornado! The wine is ruined, of course, so use the cheapest stuff you can get.

Waters for asperging.  Asperging, or sprinkling participants with water, is a nice way (similar to smoke blessing with burning herbs) to help participants to feel that they are entering a “different state” and to promote the onset of the Ritual State of focus, presence and flow. I have had success with water with a bay leave suspended in it, or basil, or rosewater, or lilac water. Other essential oils can be used but only in VERY SMALL AMOUNTS. Make sure no one is allergic or sensitive to scents: rosewater is usually safe.

Fireball. Perhaps the most dramatic effect of all. A handful of non-dairy creamer powder tossed in a fire creates a huge fireball, just for an instant. CoffeeMate contains the anti-caking agent aluminosilicate, which is flammable (and the rest of it is largely made up of flammable fats). Being dust, the powder has enormous surface area relative to its mass, so it ignites very quickly.

The flash is so fast and low-temperature that it is quite safe, but be sure to take all the usual precautions when dealing with fire (such as not having dangling fabrics—especially cotton and artificial fabrics—anywhere near the flames, and having a fire extinguisher handy). You can mix in some copper sulfate powder and turn the flames blue-green!

Dry ice fog. Available at many grocery stores, frozen carbon dioxide is FAR colder than water ice and creates thick white fog from surrounding moisture as it sublimates back into a gas. Be very careful never to touch the ice to your skin; instant frostbite!

Fill a metal or plastic container half full of hot water and add a few pieces of dry ice every 5-10 minutes. As the water cools, you will need to add more hot water to maintain the fog effect.

Here’s a spectacular magical potion kind of thing:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIpoLiesBgg using fluorescein from highlighter markers.




Does Truth Matter?

Eppur si muove.
—Galileo Galilei


Recently. a friend posted to the Atheopaganism Facebook group, describing a conversation she was having elsewhere in which accusations of “classism” and “colonialism” were being leveled at those who express what is almost certainly the truth: that gods and magic do not exist, except as ideas.

And you know? That accusation may have a point…if that message is directed at indigenous practitioners of native spiritualities. For those people, cultural preservation is important—and threatened—no matter how out of step with objective reality their beliefs might be. They have reasons to steward and preserve their cultures which have nothing to do with how factually accurate their cosmologies and mythologies may be. And except for the most conservative, many indigenous people are happy to incorporate new knowledge, to integrate their traditions with modernity.

But for Pagans? Overwhelmingly white, middle class PAGANS? No, sorry, expressing the truth that, based on the available evidence, gods and magic do not appear to be real to today’s Neo-Pagans is not “colonialism”. Those folks aren’t preserving a tenuous and endangered cultural tradition of centuries; they’re in the process of inventing their own paths, individually. That means that they have the ability to embrace the truth if they want to. If they choose not to, that choice is fair game for challenge.

As for “classism”, let’s be clear: yes, education and scientific literacy are rarer among the poor and downtrodden. But the solution to that is not to celebrate ignorance as a “valid perspective”. It is to provide the means to be less ignorant to those who are, and particularly to fight for opportunities in STEM education and employment for the poor, women and people of color. It is a scandal and a shame that scientific literacy is an indicator of privilege in our society; the proper response is to fight for opportunities for those who are scientifically illiterate to become scientifically literate, not simply to rubber-stamp ignorance as “okay”.

It is not appropriate to shame those who are less educated, particularly if they are open to learning. THAT is classist. But doubling down on beliefs rooted in lack of education out of a sense of identity does not make their lack of education a virtue. And it certainly does not make advocacy for critical thinking a vice.

The alternative to these approaches is for spiritual beliefs to become the magical get-out-of-scrutiny-free card*. Say a person believes that you must sacrifice dachshunds to a magical pink puppy that confers wishes and glitter? Oh, no, we can’t ask any tough questions about that: it’s spiritual!

Now, I generally no longer engage in the your-gods-aren’t-real conversation out of etiquette. It’s rude to tell people that such dearly held beliefs don’t stand up to critical inquiry (even though it’s true). So unless someone tells me that something is true “because god/dess X told me so”, or that some unethical behavior is “a god’s will”, I avoid asking the hard questions that so offend the credulous, not because it is somehow “immoral” to ask them, but simply out of politeness.

There are those who go so far as to claim that science and critical analysis themselves are inherently colonialist, racist, sexist, name-your-ist. They point to times when racist, sexist and culturally chauvinistic “science” has been used to justify appalling actions by colonialist and patriarchal powers. And they argue that the very spirit of critical inquiry itself is a violation of “other ways of knowing”.

First of all, let’s be clear: the egregious scientific rationalizations of oppressive and colonizing behavior happened a long time ago. 50+ years, at least, and for the worst offenses you have to go back to the 19th century.

Today’s scientific consensus does not support racist theory. Nor sexist gender bias. Nor heteronormativity. And although those problems still exist within the scientific community, the process itself has weeded it out from what science tells us today, which is that we are all of equal potential and value. The solution to bad science is more and better science, not abandonment of reason for whatever we might make up.

As it just so happens, the Culture of Oppression—the Euro-derived Western patriarchy—codified the best way we have of determining what is factually true: the scientific method. But the one is not the other. And conflating the two is a rhetorical tactic, not an analysis. Indigenous cultures and non-Western cultures have been using experimentation and evidence to determine factual truth for practical uses for millennia; arguing that it is only “Western colonization” that has done so is simply erroneous and defamatory.

As for science as an inherently colonizing force, that only works as a theory if you equally value “knowledge” that is invented and knowledge that is factually true. And while I can respect the value of culture, I do not extend that respect so far as to think it should trump reality.

I think it matters what the nature of the Universe is. And in order to understand that, we have to differentiate between that and what the Universe is not. In order to treat a headache, you need to understand that trepanning to let out evil spirits is not the right way to do it.

The dismissal of science as an “oppressor” and a “colonialist” is in my opinion a rhetorical dodge, designed to put advocates of critical inquiry on the defensive and to divert the conversation from the fundamental question of truth and falsehood. The use of the very term “colonization” in this context is in itself unreasonable, conflating as it does literal slavery and genocide with criticism of a given culture’s ideas. Those things are not the same, to even the slightest extent.

Science is a gift to humanity. It is penicillin, and electric light, and world travel, and telecommunications. And the revelation of so many wonders.

Are there downsides to all of those things? Certainly. Science is also nuclear weapons.

But there are far greater downsides to ignorance (and let’s face it–people have been using whatever technical advances they made to devise weaponry since LONG before the advent of the scientific method). When we do have knowledge, it makes absolutely no sense to defend erroneous understanding as somehow valid, unless there are other considerations (such as cultural preservation).

Consider the alternatives to challenging cultural norms based in fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Cosmos: human sacrifice to bring the Sun up? Murder of albinos for “witch powder”? Slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses for erectile dysfunction “medicine”? Each of these practices is based in beliefs which are “true” for a culturally specific value of “true”.

Shall we celebrate climate change denial and flat-Earthism as valid and legitimate because the less educated are more likely to embrace them? The suggestion is ridiculous and dangerous. So why shall we not critique the even bigger lie of the credulous, the God Lie, which leads so many to disdain our planet in the hope of an imaginary afterlife?

I say the truth matters, and lack of education is a problem to be addressed, not a condition to be defended or celebrated. The Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Evolution is real. Anthropogenic climate change is real. Humans first evolved in Africa, and migrated elsewhere. The germ theory of infectious diseases is true.

And there isn’t any phenomenon in the Universe that is best explained by the existence of gods.

These things are true for every human, whether they know or believe them or not.

And that matters. It is no moral crime to dare to say it.

Not in Galileo’s time, and not in ours.



*Not coincidentally, I believe: I think that putting spiritual beliefs off-limits to critical analysis is exactly the goal of those who throw epithets like “classism” and “colonialism” at those who dare to ask the questions that make them uncomfortable.



Though weather varies widely across the planet, of course, the traditional meaning of May Day in Europe was “the beginning of Summer”. Thus, the summer solstice was termed “Midsummer”, et cetera. Here in the U.S. the unofficial beginning of summer is a little later, with the passage of Memorial Day at the end of May.

Here in the Mediterranean climate of coastal northern California, our hills are now turning from green to gold as the grasses go to seed and turn tawny. It is the signal that summer has truly arrived, and we have days to match: 70s and low 80s, not quite hot enough yet to provoke the fog cycle which will soon draw moist air in from over the ocean and blanket us with fog during the morning, burning off to sunshine in the afternoon.

Summer is a time with many meanings, most of them pedestrian: it is vacationing time and barbecuing time and the summer break in children’s schooling. In many places, it is the season of stifling heat and or swarming insects as cold-blooded invertebrates take advantage of the heat to complete their life cycles. We’re lucky here; we have some days in the 100s, but they cool off at night, and mostly it’s a pleasant, shirtsleeve-weather kind of time.

For those who grow our food, however, it is a time of hard work. Sowing is done, but stewarding the crops until they are ready for harvest is an ongoing effort, and those raising animals must keep them adequately cooled and watered. It is no surprise that people all over the world greet the season of harvest with feasts and parties: for all the hard work of bringing in the harvests, the wealth of delicious food that results is grounds for celebration.

It bears saying, of course, that south of the equator we are approaching the darkest and coldest time of the year, as well. There, the holy Sun is missed, longed for, and its return avidly awaited. There, it is nearly Yule.

While we in our Atheopagan practices celebrate the summer season with Midsummer, for many of us summer is already here. The Season of the Sacred Sun is upon us.

Whose warm love flows across the land each day

Stirring Life, the world’s magic, arms yearning up,

Turning each green leaf to follow. Whose generous balm

Upon the skin is love’s touch, ahhhhhh heated fingers soothing,

Whose roar boils water from ocean to sky

Drawing sweet from salt, becoming rain, snow, river, lake;

Whose fervid beat upon us may be deadly, and yet

Contemplating cold stars how we miss it, the Golden One, quotidian center

Of our days, steady companion, sower of treasures great and small:

Light-bringer, Life-quickener, dazzling, unbearably bright,

Hail, oh hail the magnificent Sun!