Veterans Day

One of five murals by artist Richard DeRosset in the Veterans Museum at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The museum holds an impressive collection of military artifacts and paintings and hosts period dances and other educational events.

November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.

France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.

Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.

Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.

Hand painted miniature of my Union Army ancestor with his regiment’s XVI Corps badge. Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Honors Classes

Teaching higher level classes involves a different set of parameters than what is required at the college preparatory level. Course structure, types of assignments, grading rubrics, the depth of academic content, and classroom discipline must all be designed with the performance of honors students in mind. These are kids who are university bound and determined to graduate from high school with test scores and a transcript commensurate with today’s demanding college admission standards.

This means challenging them to achieve college-level comprehension and analysis in subjects they will be required to take in lower division core courses when they enter the university environment. To this end, your behavior and performance expectations of them must necessarily be higher. An honors level course at the high school level roughly corresponds to a general education course for college freshmen. Your honors students must therefore demonstrate that they can behave and perform accordingly at this level.

An honors class is not the same as an Advanced Placement (AP) course. Teaching AP classes requires specific outside training and follows particular rubrics and structures. Honors level courses, on the other hand, allow for more flexibility and creativity in both design and execution. I taught honors history at the middle school level for five years, honors geography to high school freshmen for three, and honors economics to high school seniors for seven summer sessions. In all those cases I followed certain guidelines in both curriculum and discipline.

I decided to structure my high school honors classes along lines similar to the courses I had taught for six years at the community college level. Students were responsible for taking lecture notes but not required to turn them in for points. Unit tests and final examinations were weighted higher than in college preparatory classes. Disruptive behavior and academic dishonesty were swiftly dealt with, and low grades were addressed immediately. I instructed both students and parents that anything below a B- in an honors course was cause for concern. Tutoring was encouraged to prevent withdrawal from the course.

Honors students are generally more motivated than the average student and given more support at home. Their parents attend Back to School Night and other community outreach activities in greater numbers. Working with these parents is vital to your success as an honors or AP teacher. Be proactive in your parent contact, particularly when it comes to discipline and lackluster grades. Be clear with your course expectations and grading rubrics.

The assignments you give in these classes must be challenging and rigorous. Allow your honors students plenty of opportunities to engage the course material critically through essay writing, Socratic Seminars, analytical projects, and team discussions and debates. Your grading load will be larger, but so will the depth into which you can explore the course material. I always enjoyed the seminars, discussions, and project presentations in these classes, particularly when I taught Honors Economics in summer session. It is gratifying as a teacher to see what these students can do.

Go over unit test scores with your honors students to help them improve their performance next time. Keep them busy with the material and start each day with an opening activity that gets them engaged right away. For many years I designed a series of questions called the “Daily Q” that connected the day’s topic to current events. Give them challenging homework assignments that keep them on top of the subject. Keep up on your grading and return graded work right away.

Ask for help if a student asks you a question beyond your knowledge. I learned a lot from my honors students and grew in mastery of my subjects as a result of their questions and interests. Monitor their progress and be discerning about which students might be better suited to a college preparatory level class and vice versa. Many of these students are taking several other higher level courses as well as participating in athletics, performing arts, and time-consuming extracurricular activities outside of school. Support them in their efforts to achieve a healthy balance in their schedule.

Teaching honors classes can be extremely rewarding. It also comes with its own unique challenges. Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to take on and find the resources you need. Embrace the valuable learning opportunities that come your way.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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International Women’s Day

My mom and I on my first day of college at UC Santa Cruz, September 1979. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. Names like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothea Dix, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Alice Paul come to mind when I think of all the great women who have shaped the course of our history.

Today I also think of the first influential woman in my own life, my mother. She passed away recently at the age of 82 and will be greatly missed. She was an accomplished nurse who overcame much adversity to raise a large family and inspire friends and colleagues with her courage, humor, and dedication. I will always be grateful for the large part she played in my own academic success, artistic development, and personal growth.

As the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, let us all think of those women who have inspired us to thrive and succeed. Women are entering careers and public service in ever greater numbers and will continue to improve the quality of life here in America and across the world. May we all work together with them to stand up for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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World Religions Topic 15 Summary: Agnosticism and Atheism

The critical study of religious text and doctrine during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe would in time lead some to further question the very idea of God itself. Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) challenged the precepts of medieval scholasticism by arguing for free will, religious toleration, and critical thinking within the context of Catholic faith. This “humanistic” school of thought influenced the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who postulated that salvation by grace through faith could occur outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Church. Faith and salvation were not guaranteed by participation in the Sacraments. The individual must make a choice to believe in a personal Lord and Savior.

For some later Enlightenment thinkers, the choice was not to believe at all. These writers and philosophers concluded that the very concepts of church and salvation were themselves flawed and unnecessary. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) embraced deism, which accepted belief in a creator of the universe apart from participation in institutional religion. This approach was shared by prominent American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). For others, however, deism did not go far enough. More radical rejection of religious doctrine took the forms of agnosticism (from the Greek “without knowledge”) and atheism (“without God”).

These ideas were explored by French Enlightenment philosophers such as the aristocrat Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), and the art critic and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784), compiler of the world’s first encyclopedia in 1751. These and others argued that the human capabilities of reason and feeling were enough to produce both happiness and prosperity, and that the notion of God and the ecclesiastical and theological infrastructure needed to sustain it were therefore superfluous. Diderot was briefly imprisoned by the French government for expressing these views in his 1749 essay Letter on the Blind.

Many of these objections to theological constructs arose within the context of French Catholicism, where ecclesiastical wealth, corruption, and political influence in the Bourbon court at Versailles bred popular protest. The virulent hostility of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church bears witness to centuries of resentment and outrage. Later atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) carried this thinking further in describing organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” invented and utilized by the rich and powerful to control the working classes.

Marx was influenced by the German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who argued in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity that the idea of God is merely a projection of the best of human nature and not a separate Supreme Being that requires devotion and service through participation in organized religion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and others built upon Feuerbach’s ideas in the development of modern empiricism, existentialism, and nihilism. These schools of thought dismiss religious doctrines as distracting fictions that pull focus from human responsibility in the only world that truly exists, the material world available to the senses.

But not all atheism is an historical reaction to European institutional Christianity. The idea of a deity or deities that exist separately from human beings is foreign to many eastern religious traditions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of people today consider themselves atheists or agnostics even while they visit ancestral shrines and participate in cultural religious holidays and festivals. Millions more, especially in the western world, claim no connection whatsoever to any religious tradition, cultural or otherwise. Those who consider themselves actively religious today have become demographic minorities in many societies where religious membership was once required on pain of exile, imprisonment, or death.

The Communist revolutions of the 20th century were based in part on a political and philosophical materialism that rejected established religion as a tool of capitalist injustice. Participation in religious life was considered threatening to these regimes and often severely punished. Jews and Orthodox Christians were persecuted in the Soviet Union and Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Communist China. Only in this century have people of faith been permitted to practice their religion in Cuba, North Korea, and other traditionally Communist societies. Human rights groups still call attention to the repression of Buddhist Tibetan and Muslim Uyghur minorities in China today.

In the United States, the First Amendment allowed for freedom of religious expression and the disestablishment of a state church. This left room for the development of independent religious denominations as well as the growth of secular humanism. American atheists found a champion in activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who led a successful campaign to ban Bible readings in public schools that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp (1963). O’Hair founded American Atheists that same year and devoted herself to defending the separation of church and state. She appeared on national television and fought to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. dollar.

Atheists generally fall into the two categories of positive or hard atheism, which asserts definitively that there is no God, and negative atheism, which rejects a personal theism but does not deny the possibility of God altogether. Many negative atheists can be more accurately described as agnostics, as their approach to the question of divinity is either ambivalent or apathetic. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Americans still believe in a God of their understanding, while less than 10% are willing to commit to positive atheism. The larger figure includes millions of agnostics who are reluctant to take sides on the issue of faith.

Following the initial anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment period, agnosticism grew in popularity with the dissolution of traditional religious communities during the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization in 19th century Europe. Marxist materialism and the association of the church with discrimination based on race, sex, and class added to the alienation of many with institutional Christianity. Marginalized groups that did not have their own supportive religious infrastructure often chose to reject the relevance of religion altogether.

The advent of film, radio, television, and the internet increased the volume and diversity of public discourse on matters of faith and church membership. Many young people and leftist intellectuals in the 1960s antiwar movement and counterculture objected to some of the language of the political right that defended the unpopular Vietnam War as a “righteous crusade” against “Godless Communism.” Scientific inquiry clashed with religious fundamentalism throughout the 20th century. Civil rights struggles, financial crashes, and environmental crises eroded the effectiveness of religious answers in addressing the complicated problems of the new century.

Recent sociological studies have shown that more than half of the adult populations in the developed world today can be characterized as “unchurched,” particularly among the “Millennial” generation born in the closing decades of the 20th century. This number includes many who have left institutional religion as well as those who dismiss notions of faith and God as antiquated or irrelevant. All across the world, church membership among those under 40 years of age is falling dramatically. Some have left one religious tradition for another, but more have never attended church at all or have dropped religious affiliation altogether.

Some object to the very words “God” and “religion” and prefer language like “Higher Power” and “spirituality.” Many have been scandalized by criminal, avaricious, or hypocritical behavior among church leaders and religious politicians. Some argue that unearned suffering and senseless tragedy point to the absence of a benevolent deity. Others are horrified by terrorism and murder committed by fanatics in the name of religious faith. For still others, church attendance and prayer at home cannot compete with the appeal of a secularized popular culture endlessly streamed through cable television and social media.

Whether their beliefs are the result of outrage, disillusionment, disappointment, materialism, apathy, ignorance, or critical reflection, today’s atheists and agnostics constitute a significant portion of the world’s population today, especially among the young. Many believe in the same altruistic values of human rights, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that have characterized the best public efforts of organized religions. The contributions of “nonbelievers” to solving the most critical challenges facing the global community will be as necessary to the quality of life on earth as those who adhere to an historic religious faith.


  1. Can a person of faith also be an agnostic? What about an atheist? Explain your answer.
  2. What effects do you think the internet and smartphone technology have had on religion’s role in human society?
  3. What do atheists and theists have in common? How can they find common ground to transcend their differences and work together to create a better world?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

World Religions Topic 14 Summary: Neo-Paganism

The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to renewed interest in western matriarchal religious traditions that had long been suppressed by mainstream monotheism in northern Europe and the Mediterranean. During the medieval period and beyond, the ancient goddess-based religious traditions of Scandinavia, the Baltic region, the British Isles, central Europe, Egypt, and the Balkans were replaced by patriarchal Christian and Muslim authorities bent on the violent repression of cultural and religious minorities. Women who practiced the healing and earth-based rituals and arts of the “old religion” were persecuted as “witches.” Hundreds of thousands were ostracized, imprisoned, or murdered over several centuries in what became known as “the Burning Times.”

When Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century C.E., any Roman citizen who refused to convert was labeled paganus, a pejorative Latin term for an ignorant “rustic” rural outsider. Many of these people refused to abandon the ancient goddesses of their native Etruscan, Norse, Germanic, Iberian, Slavic, Celtic, or north African religious traditions and were therefore termed “pagans.” When interest in these indigenous faiths returned in the second half of the 20th century, their adherents were dubbed “neo-pagans” by mainstream critics. Much like the 16th century term “Lutheran,” what was once a term of scorn became one of pride.

Not all followers of this “new paganism” today choose to identify themselves by this term. In fact, the cultural and cosmological diversity of the movement defies uniform description and categorization. Renewed scholarly interest in the indigenous religious traditions of Africa, Australia, Asia, North and South America, and the South Pacific led to demands for the same respect afforded to the indigenous faiths of Europe. The seminal work of authors such as archaeologist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), publisher Raymond Buckland (1934-2017), and journalist Margot Adler (1946-2014) drew popular attention to revived pagan traditions.

The American environmental activist Starhawk (born Miriam Simos in 1951) has become one of the most recognized leaders of neo-paganism today. Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess was later revised and reprinted in 1989 and 1999 and has become a classic resource for practicing pagans. Her commitment to human rights, protecting the environment, sustainable agriculture, and nonviolence has set the pace for the modern pagan movement and garnered some level of recognition from other religious leaders and the mainstream media.

Starhawk and others identify the goddess-based faith of ancient Europe as Wicca, from an old Germanic verb meaning “bend” and from which the words “witch” and “witchcraft” were derived. The negative connotations and stereotypes associated with this terminology have been replaced by modern Wiccans with a celebration of their earth-based and holistic faith. Wicca emphasizes the divine power of fertility and regeneration that emanates from the Goddess and renews life on earth in the annual cycle of the seasons. Wiccan ritual provides the tools to access this regenerative force for the common good.

Wicca and other neo-pagan traditions share many theological and liturgical practices. Worship is held in a circle and often outdoors, rather than in the indoor, linear configurations of modern churches, synagogues, and mosques. While some pagan priests and priestesses have formal religious training and their credentials and congregations (or “covens”) are legally recognized, paganism does not require formal clergy or group membership. Home altars are common as they are in Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Shinto households. As in Shinto and Taoism, sacred locales in nature serve as places of worship. Celtic astrology, for example, is based on trees, and Norse divination drawn from runes.

In the British Isles, ancient circles of standing stones such as Stonehenge in England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland and neolithic tombs like Newgrange in Ireland have become focal points for pagan lore and liturgy. Neo-pagans mark the four seasons in their rituals and invoke the power of the four directions with the use of an athame, or sacred consecrated blade. In Celtic paganism, the four seasonal festivals of Imbolc (February 1), Beltaine (May 1), Lughnasa (August 1), and Samhain (November 1) are observed along with the Spring and Fall Equinoxes and the Summer and Winter Solstices. Full and new moons are also occasions for prayer and celebration.

Holistic medicine is also an integral part of many modern pagan movements. The use of essential oils, healing stones, meditation, and organic foods is encouraged, as well as noninvasive pain management techniques such as acupuncture, massage, stretching, and chiropractic. Oft-neglected elements of both eastern and western religions can be found in neo-pagan practice as well, particularly ancient Buddhist and Taoist mediation techniques and the mystical styles of prayer found in the Jewish Kabbalah and Muslim sufi traditions. Music, song, costume, and dance are lively aspects of pagan prayer.

Pagan symbols include the Pentacle (five-pointed star), the Tree of Life, the ankh symbol from ancient Egypt, and small figurines of the pregnant Goddess such as Ishtar from ancient Mesopotamia. The circle is considered the most sacred of shapes and forms the basis for all pagan worship. Many pagans choose to wear clothing made from organic materials in earth tone colors to honor the Goddess in their daily life. The four elements of fire, water, earth, and air are integrated into pagan homes and worship. Incense, boughs, flowers, candles, goblets, and jewelry representing sacred animals or mythological creatures are also used to reinforce pagan beliefs.

Much of the historic hostility toward pagan traditions is associated with the casting of “spells” or rituals that invoke the power of the Goddess to bring healing or good fortune to the coven or individual. Western missionaries considered these practices a direct threat to their own liturgies and doctrines and engaged in concerted efforts to stamp them out. Paganism became equated with the occult, destructive “black magic,” and blood sacrifice, all distortions designed to thwart the traditions of Goddess worship. The Wiccan Rede of “Do as you will, and harm none” was ignored in favor of a negative view of their traditions as “the instrument of Satan,” an aspersion rejected by Wiccans and their supporters today.

Modern pagans follow many of the same traditions as other indigenous religious traditions around the world, including the use of amulets, totems, astrology, divination, shamanic rituals, spirit animals, vision quests, and ancestral worship. The lack of continuity of these traditions in Europe and the Middle East because of historic persecution has made some of them difficult to reconstruct. Neo-pagans utilize extant manuscripts as well as oral traditions and archaeological artifacts to pull together a contemporary version of these ancient faiths. Pagan artists and sculptors have sought to recreate some of the sacred symbols that have been largely lost to history.

Neo-paganism has often been mistakenly identified with “New Age” spiritual practices such as channeling, astral projection, and other esoteric occult beliefs. While there is some overlap in the use of sacred gems, ritual, and prayer, pagans are quick to identify themselves with an authentic historical religious tradition. Modern pagans see their faith as benevolent and devoted to personal renewal and public service, not something that sets them apart through science fiction, commercial popularity, or self-destructive behavior. They do not take their beliefs lightly and are diligent in correcting mainstream presumptions to do so.

In 1972, the Icelandic farmer and poet Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson (1924-1993) formed the Germanic heathen organization Asatruarfelagio (the Asatru Fellowship), which was recognized as a formal religious body by the government of Iceland the following year and now boasts more than 4,000 members. In Britain, the Odinic Rite gained legal status in 1988 as a “registered religious charity.” Other animist and druidic organizations have grown in membership and are now recognized by many governments as legitimate religious groups. Up to two million people worldwide consider themselves practitioners of European neo-pagan traditions today, and popular interest in their movement is growing.

Several countries today still consider “witchcraft” a capital crime, and prejudice and discrimination against pagans remains widespread around the world. The terms “heathen” and “pagan” are still associated by many with savagery and barbarism. Modern pagans are committed to braving these obstacles and forging forward with their belief in the all-powerful Goddess who created and nurtures the natural world. They are among the forefront of contemporary people of faith who see their tradition as a relevant remedy to the social, economic, and environmental injustices that threaten the world today.


  1. Why are witches portrayed as evil or negative in popular media such as television, film, theater, and costuming?
  2. How did the Celtic new year celebration of Samhain’s Eve (October 31) morph into today’s commercial Halloween holiday?
  3. How can modern pagan movements gain the same social and legal status as the other major world religions?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Presidents Day Weekend

“President Lincoln reviewing Pennsylvania troops” by Torin Finney. Copyright (c) 2004. All rights reserved.

President Abraham Lincoln turns 210 years old today. The sketch above is one I drew in character as Harper’s Weekly Special Artist Correspondent James Allen Davis at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in July of 2004. I was invited to come out from California to represent the “period press” at the Museum’s annual Civil War Days event.

I spent part of my childhood in Lancaster and visited nearby Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other historic sites as a kid. It was a real treat to go back decades later in period costume and participate in a living history event at an authentic restored 19th century town near where I grew up. If you are ever in that part of the country, a visit to Lancaster and the Museum is well worth your time.

President George Washington’s birthday is coming up on February 22, so the national Presidents Day holiday will be observed this coming Monday, February 18th. Whether you have three or four days off this weekend, enjoy your time off and reflect on the legacy of your favorite President(s). Think about how you can best participate in public life. You can make a difference in your community.

Have a great holiday weekend!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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World Religions Topic 13 Summary: Indigenous Traditions

People have sought to understand the origins and nature of the world in which they live since the beginning of human culture and society. As the prehistoric cave drawings and carvings in wood and stone found everywhere from northern Europe and the Great Plains of America to the Australian outback and the jungles of Brazil, Borneo, and Cameroon attest, the need to give expression and meaning to the human experience has always been universal. Out of this need arose early religions. Once dismissed by Christian and other missionaries as “heathen” or “savage,” such ancient tribal cosmologies are now identified and studied by scientists and theologians as indigenous religious traditions.

Some 300 million people across the world today still practice some form of these ancient traditions. In the Arctic region, the Sami of northern Scandinavia and the Eskimo and Aleut peoples of Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada keep their traditional religious practices alive. Many Native American tribes throughout the western hemisphere do the same, as do the aboriginal cultures of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Maoris, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and other Polynesian cultures preserve traditional beliefs through song, dance, story, and ritual.

In sub-Saharan Africa, ancient religious rites of passage and dance rituals are performed by hundreds of historic cultures, from the Igbo and Ashanti in the west to the Masai in the east and the Zulu in the south. Many Asian peoples still retain traditional beliefs, particularly in rural areas of China, Korea, and Mongolia and in the Ainu communities of Japan. Multi-generational commitment to ancestral beliefs and rituals can be found among the Indonesian and Malaysian cultures in Borneo and Sumatra and remote communities in the Philippines. All across the globe, indigenous religious traditions continue and flourish.

All have several elements in common. The dichotomy between heaven and hell that motivates much of western theology is absent; rather, a multi-level cosmology informs much of indigenous belief. The spirit world is believed to co-exist with the material world and can be accessed through the intercession of a shaman, once called “medicine man” in earlier times. Shamanic practices vary according to locale and culture, but most involve prayers, chants, and trances designed to drive off evil spirits and invoke the aid of benevolent deities and ancestors.

Sometimes trances are induced with the use of natural hallucinogens or fermented potions, but more often than not the shaman connects with the other world through fasting, prayer, and prolonged isolation in nature. This is related to the tradition of the “vision quest” that is part of many indigenous cultures and is used not only for religious guidance but also as a rite of passage to adulthood. Another element of shamanic ritual is the use of totems, or physical objects created to act as talismans in gathering spiritual power. The majestic totem poles of the Haida and Salish tribes in the Pacific Northwest are prominent examples, but a simple stone, piece of wood, or animal artifact may suffice if gathered and prepared in the proper ritualistic manner.

The role of ancestral spirits is vital to most indigenous religions. Those who have gone before serve as inspirations and guides to the living. Their aid is invoked both in times of crisis and celebration. While the western belief in resurrection or eastern idea of reincarnation are not strictly followed, many tribal traditions believe that the spirit of the ancestors may be reborn in the lives of descendants who are faithful to culture and family. Ancestral totems and talismans are often worn by direct descendants and adopted children as well as by the shaman or chief.

Many tribal religious traditions are polytheistic, but others worship a single or all-powerful deity, such as Wakan Tanka in the Lakota culture, Ha-wen-ne-yu among the Iroquois, and Akongo in west Africa. Sometimes this supreme God is represented by an important animal or geographic landmark. The sun, moon, and stars are often associated with the power of the divine. Astrology and divination are frequently used tools to discern the will of the Creator manifest in the natural world. Much like kami in Shinto or ruach in the Hebrew Bible, indigenous traditions acknowledge a “Great Spirit” that infuses all living things.

Traditional music, dance, and visual art have been employed for centuries to invoke the assistance of spirits and ancestors to bless agricultural harvest, marriage and childbirth, and ease the passage of the departed. Exploration of faraway lands and inter-tribal conflict were accompanied by religious ritual. Oral history traditions kept cultural identities alive. Storytellers such as the griot in west Africa and the Kurdish dengbej are held in high regard. Traditional medicine based in herbs and essential oils is widely practiced to this day. Faith healers such as the curandera in northern Mexico are universally respected.

All indigenous traditions are sustained by an elaborate cosmology based in a central creation myth, and many across the globe are remarkably similar to one another. The alcheringa or “Dream Time” of the Aranda and other Aboriginal tribes of Australia has much in common with the creation stories of native peoples of North America and central Africa. Belief in the regenerative power of the creation is expressed in both art and ritual. The power of the shaman is believed to originate with the ancestral spirits who date back to the beginning of time and continue to create new life in the present.

The role of animals is very important, both as totems and as spirit guides. Ancient cultures survived on the meat, bones, and hides of the large herds and saw this bounty as evidence of a benevolent Creator who demanded devotion and sacrifice. This often involved the first fruits of the harvest in crops and livestock. Modern practitioners of indigenous religion still retain the belief in the power of spirit animals and draw on their power through prayer, ritual, wardrobe, and home decor. Sacred herbs and stones are equally revered and included in daily life.

Arriving with armed mariners and soldiers in the age of exploration, western missionaries worked assiduously to stamp out indigenous beliefs and replace them with their own doctrines and practices. In this they were only partially successful. The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Vodou in Haiti, and Santeria in Cuba all bear witness to western monotheism synthesized with indigenous beliefs, as do holy wells and stone circles in Ireland and Scotland and sacred forests and rock churches in west and east Africa. Many of the most enduring religious beliefs in nominally Christian or Muslim countries predate those faiths by thousands of years.

The children of indigenous tribes were systematically taken from their families and enrolled in western boarding schools in an effort to replace their cultures with modern western values and beliefs. The policy of American missionaries to “save the man, kill the Indian” when dealing with Native American children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a prominent tragic example. Patriarchal religious values were also superimposed on tribal cultures to obliterate the fertility based goddess worship that characterized many ancient cosmologies. The folk Madonnas of modern Catholic imagery in Latin America and Africa clearly speak to an earlier, more ancient understanding of the maternal nature of creation.

Contemporary generations of ancient tribal cultures have renewed their efforts to recover their religious traditions in an increasingly impersonal, secular, and technology-oriented society. Many others from outside those cultures have taken a keen interest in the power of their rituals and beliefs and incorporated traditional song, rhythm, instrumentation, and dance into modern world music. Political and economic reforms have sought to correct some of the injustices of the past. The election of public officials from tribal communities has called attention to many cultural issues that have long been sidelined.

Scholarly attention on indigenous religions has increased in both volume of work and the cultural sensitivity with which that work is pursued. While persecution and discrimination continue against indigenous peoples across the globe, many people of conscience from all faiths are taking a new look at the rich religious traditions of these ancient cultures. With alarming environmental crises plaguing the planet and many people searching for meaningful connections to the past and one another, the rich traditions of indigenous cultures may offer effective solutions to some of the 21st century’s most pressing problems.


  1. Do you feel a connection to any indigenous religious traditions in your own ancestry? If not, how and from whom could you learn about them?
  2. The word “religion” comes from the Latin verb religare, “to bind together.” Many anthropologists have identified remarkable commonalities among ancient indigenous religions, in contrast to the bitter divisions between some contemporary religious groups. Why has religion failed to bring people together in modern times?
  3. How can a person retain their traditional culture in today’s digital, commercial society?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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World Religions Topic 12 Summary: Taoism

Taoism is an historic Chinese philosophical religion based on the idea of Tao (sometimes spelled Dao), or “the way,” an approach to life that seeks to live in balance and harmony with oneself, human society, and the natural world. The formative texts of Taoism include the ancient classic Book of Changes or I Ching and the 6th century B.C.E. collection of teachings known as Tao Te Ching by the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tzu). The Taoist emphasis on qigong, the cultivation and management of life energy known as qi or ch’i, forms the basis of many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, including diet, medicine, exercise, agriculture and gardening, learning, and personal relationships.

The I Ching explores the relationship between yin and yang, the negative and positive energies that work together to sustain and enhance life within the dynamics of place and time. The circular taijitu symbol representing the intertwined yin and yang has therefore become the universally recognized symbol of Taoism (it also appears in the flag of South Korea, a nation influenced by Taoist cultural traditions). The I Ching was used for generations as a divination tool to provide guidance in dealing with difficult situations and decisions. The portions of I Ching known as Zhou yi were divided into hexagrams that could reveal hidden meanings when matched with numbers from oracle bones.

Out of the I Ching and other ancient texts arose the idea of wu wei, which is generally translated from Chinese as “without effort.” Wu wei describes the proper relationship between people and their environment. The 81 sayings of Tao Te Ching, comprised in the original text of some 5,000 Chinese characters, include enigmatic proverbs and poetic lines that promote contemplation on a life of balance and reflection. Many of the entries are paradoxical and lead to contradictory interpretation. The Zen Buddhist use of koan sayings to dismantle prejudice and attachment during meditation was a later development of Taoist philosophy.

There are many parallels and connections between Tao Te Ching and the early Chinese manuscript Zhuangzi, also considered a sacred text of Taoism and a pillar of historic Chinese culture. Unlike the paradoxical verses of Tao Te Ching, the stories in the Zhuangzi are often whimsical and entertaining. Government and other rigid human institutions are mocked or seen as irrelevant, and becoming one with trees, plants, animals, and seasons is a common theme. Anything in the natural world is possessed of ch’i, much like kami in the Japanese Shinto tradition. Those who “go with the flow” become one with the Tao.

Chinese astrology also developed from Taoism, as did the science of balancing human spaces with their natural surroundings known as feng shui (from the Chinese for “wind-water”). Incorporating one’s geographic context, including astronomy, natural energy sources and magnetic fields is key to feng shui‘s application of the Taoist principle of wu wei. Whether they be private homes, public buildings, or tombs, the spaces occupied by human beings in their natural world must be constructed and used in accordance with the ch’i of their environment to ensure balance and harmony.

Taoism was originally practiced in small, isolated rural communities and shared many characteristics with indigenous traditions elsewhere in the ancient world, including animism and shamanism. Women played an important role in these early shamanic rituals. During the medieval period, two distinct schools of Taoism emerged: Quanzhen and Zhengyi. These traditions organized Taoist practices and teachings and incorporated them into the Chinese imperial government. By then patriarchy was firmly established and Confucian ethics and bureaucracy had taken over the popular culture.

Yet Taoism managed to elude the doctrinal and liturgical restrictions of institutional religious structure and thrive in the day to day beliefs and activities of the Chinese people. Taoist sensibilities are behind the development of acupuncture, herbal medicine, tai chi and kung fu, calligraphy and other visual arts, music and dance, and even cuisine and floral arrangement. Harmonious channeling of ch’i is the goal of every aspect of daily tasks, work, and relationships. Taoist temples were built and schools organized, but the core tenet of Taoism remained oneness with the Tao way of life.

Taoist ethics emphasize the wu wei, manifested in detachment, inner peace, patience, harmony with nature, and a simple lifestyle that does not take excessively from others. The idea of ziran or “naturalness,” symbolized by the Chinese character p’u (an uncarved block of wood) is key to understanding the Tao. Accepting the essential nature of things and living one’s life accordingly leads to happiness and harmony. Nonviolence is thus an implied value of Taoism, much as it is in Jainism. Vegetarianism and organic farming are not required but often adopted by practicing Taoists.

Taoism is more pantheistic than theistic, emphasizing the power of spiritual renewal in living things here in the material world. Rebirth occurs in the cycles of the seasons and through the channeling of ch’i, not through reincarnation as in Hinduism and Buddhism or salvation from sin as in western religions. While Taoism acknowledges a “holy trinity” of sorts in the persons of the Three Pure Ones (often depicted in traditional Chinese art as three wise old men) of heavenly, human, and earth ch’i, these beings are not worshiped as creators or redeemers. Rather, they are presented as archetypes of the ideal life of Tao, by which a person can become xian, an enlightened being free from attachment and imbalance.

Taoism spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where many people still identify themselves as followers of the Tao. The attacks on traditional Chinese culture during the Communist Cultural Revolution drove Taoist adherents and artifacts underground for a decade, but by 1980 they had emerged from hiding and were formally recognized by the Chinese government. Taoism became popular in the West during the 1960s and 1970s as part of a general interest in eastern religious traditions. Today millions of people of all cultures and backgrounds across the world participate in activities inspired by Taoist traditions.


  1. Using the metaphor of p’u (the uncarved block), American author Benjamin Hoff argued in his books The Tao of Pooh (1982) and The Te of Piglet (1992) that A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories were Taoist allegories. What do you think of this thesis?
  2. Has the widespread popularity of historic Taoist disciplines like acupuncture, kung fu, and feng shui somehow diluted an authentic understanding of Taoism?
  3. How does the Taoist idea of ch’i compare to pneumatology (the theological study of the Holy Spirit) in western religions?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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