Most modern pagans and heathens are former Christians.
I am not.
I think that gives me an unusual perspective. Growing up, my mom would often talk about how religion is for ignorant people who don’t understand how evolution works, or people who fear death and therefore want to make up a fantasy about a happy afterlife. But she knew better. She knew there couldn’t possibly be a God with all the suffering in the world, especially her own. It was much easier for her to believe there was no God, than to believe there was a God who allowed such things to happen.
I think that’s completely understandable.
I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s. People would ask “What church do you go to?” as an ice-breaker in conversation, the same as you’d ask someone what they do for a living. It was always awkward to say, “I don’t go to church,” and wince in anticipation of how they would react to that.
When I was a little kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs and had lots of books and toys and posters of them. One of my posters was of the Geologic Time Scale showing the billions of years of the history of life on Earth. In one of my books it talked about how birds evolved from dinosaurs, with a picture of Archaeopteryx. It was kind of shocking when I found out many of my peers either didn’t believe in dinosaurs, or believed dinosaurs coexisted with humans and were created by God in the Garden of Eden with everything else. Some of my friends and classmates were Young Earth Creationists, and some were Old Earth Creationists, and sometimes they argued about that, but everyone knew it was impossible that one species could turn into another. The idea of a dinosaur turning into a blue jay was ridiculous.
People used “Christian” as a synonym for “nice person”. I remember when the made- for-TV adaptation of The Stand came out. I was in middle school at the time, and I didn’t watch it, but one of my best friends did. She enjoyed it and told me about it at school, describing how “the Christians” went to the black Southern lady, while “the bad people” went to Las Vegas.
“So where would that leave me?” I thought but didn’t ask.
To her credit, she considered me to be a Christian even though I told her I wasn’t. She didn’t believe me because I’m too nice. She seemed to come to the conclusion that I must be a Christian and somehow just didn’t know it. That might actually be better than assuming I must be a bad person because I’m not a Christian. More people did that.
One year for my birthday she bought me a cross necklace, and I started wearing it, even though I felt like I was faking it. I felt strangely guilty for that, as if Jesus was watching me and knew I was faking it. I knew that wearing that necklace didn’t make me a Christian.
In middle school I was badly bullied by the clique of popular girls. They bullied me for all kinds of things: because I didn’t wear the latest fashions, because I made straight A’s in school, because I was in a program for gifted students, because I didn’t like the New Kids on the Block.
And also because I didn’t go to church. They taunted me that I was going to Hell.
The peer pressure was strong enough that for a little while when I was 12 or 13 I started to worry that they might be right, and that God really was real, and therefore I really was going to Hell. I guess that shows you how strong peer pressure is at that age, because that went against everything I always believed, but I did go through a brief phase of wondering if that might be true.
The most horrifying thing about it was the realization that if you’re not a Christian, you go to Hell, no matter how nice you are. I did have that one friend who seemed to think being good automatically made you a Christian, whether you realized it or not, but that was obviously a minority opinion. Since I was the only non-Christian she knew, she obviously wasn’t sure how to classify me. I was sure she was mistaken, and if Christianity was true, then I really was going to Hell.
When I was thirteen my family moved further out into the suburbs, and I never ended up making any new friends at my new school. The bullying at my previous school was so bad, that I decided I was better off not talking to anyone at all. I didn’t want to give anyone at my new school reason to bully me too. And it did work; I had no enemies, but no friends either. I was completely socially isolated. Shortly after the move, the Beatles Anthology documentary came on TV, and I became obsessed with them. I started to think about how my new hero, John Lennon, is in Hell now. A combination of that and the fact that my peers had no influence over me at all anymore, made me finally snap out of it and realize for absolute sure that there couldn’t be any such thing as Hell. The universe wouldn’t be that unjust. This is the comfort that atheists feel. No Hell below us, above us only sky.
So besides maybe a couple of years in middle school of wearing that cross while under intense peer pressure, but knowing in my heart I was faking it, I’ve always been outside of Christianity. It wasn’t until I was 16 or so that I even learned the meaning of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. I always thought he was killed by the Romans for being a troublemaker, and it wasn’t until then that someone finally explained to me that God was planning all along for him to be a sacrifice for our sins. That’s pretty much the core of Christianity right there, right? Yes, I didn’t know about that until I was in high school.
I guess in a way that means I do have some “Christian baggage”, but it’s the trauma of growing up an outsider to the dominant paradigm, which I’m sure is much different from the trauma of ex-Christians who left the dominant paradigm after growing up inside it. Ironically, that means I’m also an outsider among pagans, because almost all pagans I know are ex-Christians, and I don’t really understand what that’s like.
In some ways, I think I can understand the feeling that you’re betraying your roots. After all, I grew up being taught that religion was for the ignorant, stupid masses, and I should be smarter than that. Believing in many gods is probably even more stupid than believing in only one God. At least some monotheists can rationalize God as being a watchmaker-type entity that set the laws of nature in motion. But in my religion the universe is populated with an infinite array of gods and spirits that directly interact with you. That’s religion for savages, and we should be so much more enlightened than that here in the 21st century.
So maybe ex-Christian pagans sometimes have thoughts like, “what would my old church’s minister think if he saw me now?” but instead I think, “What would Richard Dawkins think of me now?” I know I shouldn’t really care what Richard Dawkins would think of me, but for some reason sometimes I do. Maybe sometimes ex-Christian pagans have moments where they wonder if Christianity is actually right, and they’re making a huge mistake that will damn them to Hell. Sometimes I wonder if Richard Dawkins is right, and religion is a delusion, a sign of an irrational mind, maybe even bordering on mental illness, and if I get too deep into it, I’ll be just as bad as the kids who bullied me all those years ago.
I do think I have a different perspective than most other pagans. When you grow up in the dominant paradigm, even if you leave it later on, you still carry with you certain assumptions about the world that people who didn’t grow up with that never had. I notice that many ex-Christian pagans have two ways to view various things: they either completely reject something because they associate it with Christianity (even if it’s something that has nothing to do with Christianity), or they keep holding the Christian view without even realizing it (even though pre-Christian pagans probably saw things differently).
An example of the former would be the prevalence of polyamory in the pagan community. Now, it’s none of my business how you conduct your personal romantic and sexual relationships, but I happen to be completely monogamous and completely heterosexual. Most pagans I know accept that, but I do notice that it makes me a bit weird.
I notice that some people seem to equate being sexually liberal with being pagan. It seems like a lot of people leave Christianity for paganism, not because they worship the Old Gods, but because they are gay or bisexual or polyamorous, and those sexualities are not accepted by Christianity.
I am a little bitter about this because before I met my wonderful husband, I was in a relationship with a guy who tried to emotionally blackmail me into an open relationship when I didn’t want to do it. The whole, “if you really loved me you’d let me sleep with other people” routine. Fortunately I didn’t give in, so we had a nasty breakup instead, but I remember one time he said the only reason I wanted a monogamous relationship was because I’ve been “brainwashed by the dominant Christian worldview.”
This was told to me, a former atheist, by someone who was brought up a Baptist. But no, I was the one who was brainwashed by the Christian worldview, because I wanted a monogamous relationship.
I do have another friend who once told me I’m “the most devout pagan” she knows. So at least some people know you can be a devout pagan and not be polyamorous, but it is still annoying that the two are equated so often.
This is especially noticeable at festivals. It seems like a lot of people go to festivals, not because they want to be with fellow worshipers of the Old Gods, but because they want to get laid. There’s a lot more talk about sex than about the Old Gods. And now I’ve had my pagan Meetup going on for a while, and it seems that a lot of people who join are also members of the local polyamory groups. I just don’t want to give the impression that since my husband and I run the local pagan Meetup group, it means we’re swingers looking for someone to have sex with us.
I actually think it would be great if Christianity was accepting of any type of consensual sexual relationships between adults, and that sort of stuff had nothing to do with religion. Then paganism can be about worshiping the Old Gods and celebrating the sacred in Nature, and pagans wouldn’t feel like monogamy was “a Christian thing”.
There are other examples of things that I think pagans label as “Christian things” that aren’t. The controversy that keeps coming up from time to time about whether we should raise our children to be pagan, for example (which I think merits its own post). Or whether or not praying is OK. Or our complete inability to get together any sort of “organization” that doesn’t implode in a year or two! It’s frustrating sometimes. Not everything Christians do is bad.
On the other hand, the funny thing is sometimes I see pagans making assumptions that really are Christian assumptions, and they don’t even realize it. I can tell, because I was never a Christian to begin with, but other pagans act in Christian ways without even knowing it. This seems to be more prevalent in the Heathen community than with Wiccan-type pagans, but I’ve seen it with all types. The assumption the morality comes from religion, for example, which is very insulting to atheists. Then there are the Heathens that treat the Norse sagas as Holy Scripture, when they were written down by a Christian anyway. Then there’s the idea that science and spirituality are incompatible, which in pagans usually leads to some weird ideas about science.
I think the pagan community will be much better when we get to leave Christianity behind and be a religion on our own right, not a reaction against Christianity.
EDIT: I was just looking at the Wild Hunt, and just found another excellent example of pagans labeling things as “Christian” when they aren’t. Here’s a post about how apparently charity and caring about the poor is a just Christian thing. Of course this is absolute hogwash, but I can see where the author got this idea from. I have seen online heathens explaining Hospitality does not equal Charity, because Charity is a Christian thing, and let’s throw in some assumptions about how the poor are lazy and deserve what they get for good measure. This is a philosophy that comes more from Social Darwinism and Objectivism than either Christianity or any form of paganism.
There are plenty of stories of pagan gods who do care very much about the poor and oppressed and don’t like the rich abusing their power. (Including my own gods such as Thor and Odin.) The fact that modern pagans assume that charity is a Christian thing is just another example of pagans just accepting these Christian assumptions without question. Here’s a good Heathen response to this post with plenty of examples from the lore about how charity and caring for the poor can absolutely be a Heathen thing as well.