Freedom of Religion?
Author: Raven Song
As citizens of the United States of America we enjoy many luxuries and rights. One of these rights that we hold dear is the right to freedom of religion, a right that many people all over the world do not have. So you may be surprised to find out that I am writing about people right here in the US, people who are harassed, and discriminated against because of what they believe. I am talking about people of pagan faiths.
So what is paganism? A good definition is “paganism represents a wide variety of traditions that emphasize reverence for nature and a revival of ancient polytheistic and animistic religious practices” (McColman) . Some of the common traditions that pagan people follow are Wicca, Heathen, Pagan, Druid, and Kitchen or Hedge Witches. You may be wondering why I’ve used both pagan and Pagan, let me explain; Pagan usually refers to people who practice the ancient Celtic traditions, while pagan is a broad blanket term that refers to the above definition of paganism.
Now it is true that pagans are not the only ones who are discriminated against, many other minority religions are also harassed. What sets paganism apart is how widely it is misunderstood. This misunderstanding leads people to have all sorts of outlandish ideas about what pagans do; leading many people to believe that paganism is unclean and evil. The other common misconception that arises from lack of understanding is that pagan traditions are not real religions but made up ones that allow the believer to live in a fantasyland. As I will point out in the rest of the paper, these problems could be resolved through education and an attempt at understanding.
The Effects of Discrimination
The discrimination that pagan people face comes in a variety of forms that affect their day-to-day lives. They face discrimination at work, in the military, from their neighbors, from their family, and horrifyingly enough at school. There are countless cases were a student is harassed because of pagan beliefs either by a teacher of by fellow students without intervention from teachers.
A fairly recent example of this that got a lot of news coverage happened when 11 year-old Christopher Turner was harassed by his teacher back in October 2011. It all started when the boy missed school to spend Samhain, a holiday that worships ancestors and the fall harvest, with his family. The next day he was pulled out of class by his teacher who “proceeded to drill him about Paganism, ending the conversation with ‘Paganism is not a religion’ ” (“Children Have Rights Too!!!”) . When Christopher’s mother found out what happened she called the board of education and was transferred to the superintendent who apologized and “promised that a meeting would be set up between the teachers of all three of her children with the principal of the school present, but she was never given the opportunity to also be involved in these discussions” (“Children Have Rights Too!!!”) . Thinking the situation was over Christopher’s mother sent him back to school, where everything seemed to be going fine until November.
“ On November 29th Mrs. Ross informed her class that they would be doing an essay on ‘How Christmas started’. In the good ol’ fashion of history, she informed the class that they couldn’t have anything on their report pertaining to Paganism. Intrigued, a female student in Christopher’s classroom asked what paganism is. In response to the question, Mrs. Ross looked directly at Christopher, not the student asking the question, and replied ‘anything that is non-biblical is paganism.’” (“Children Have Rights Too”)
Eventually the situation was resolved when the Lady Liberty League, a group dedicated to helping those facing religious intolerance, stepped in. If Christopher’s teacher had known anything about the Pagan religion she would have realized that, that is where many Christmas traditions, and the traditions of other Christian holidays, got their start. Also she would have realized that while the Pagan religion is very different from mainstream religions, it is in fact an actual religion.
While doing research for this paper I decided to ask the members of the Forest of the White Stag, an online pagan community that I belong to, if they had any personal experience with discrimination. Many of them did and a man named Noah, who preferred to keep his last name anonymous, agreed to a full interview. Noah, who believes that everything contains a soul/spirit, that the soul is reincarnated, that everything is connected to each other, and that though we are predators we should only kill animals in order to survive, said he first encountered discrimination when he was young.
“My first dealings with discrimination was after my father remarried to a very devout Christian, and once learning that I was interested in paganism as well as other religions outside of the Abrahamic faith-groups, she forced me to attend Sunday school. I think I was about 13 at the time. She would berate me for not believing in her God or Jesus whenever we had our scheduled visits. This lasted for about 3 years.” (Noah) .
Later on Noah joined the military and was transferred to Korea where he faced discrimination from his platoon sergeant who “threaten[ed] to kick [him] out after he inspected [his] room and found [his] altar in a wall locker” (Noah) . After the sergeant found out that religious beliefs were not a cause for discharge he proceeded to make Noah’s life as miserable as possible. Noah said this was resolved when he was transferred elsewhere. When asked if he believed these issues could have been avoided and how he replied:
“Compared to things nowadays, I think the misinformation is being cleared up by a better understanding of who pagans really are, which makes issues like the one in Korea rarer. That is probably our best weapon against ignorance and prejudice.” (Noah)
Noah’s is also “excited for the upcoming years, as we are growing dramatically in terms of numbers and acceptance, hopefully this will bring about a change in society that hasn’t been seen in well over several hundred years” (Noah) . Hopefully Noah is right and as the pagan movement grows so too will the understanding and tolerance.
Noah wasn’t the only one from Forest of the White Stag to help; two other members also agreed to tell me their experiences in a sort of partial interview. The first one is Kristen Timofeev, whose story is a nice example of how an attempt to understand paganism can help in situations of harassment. Kristen has been practicing paganism since she was young and her mother had never reacted well to it. One day her mother agreed to sit down and talk about it with Kristen.
“We sat down and she asked me questions and then finally said that she wasn’t upset as she was before. She still wished I was Christian but now she understood it more and wanted me to be happy.” (Timofeev)
The other person whom we shall call Balthesaur, like Noah, experienced harassment in the military. Balthesaur who is Wiccan said that while in the military he kept ‘No Religious Preference’ on his dog tags because he was one of the only pagans in his unit and wanted to avoid harassment. One day during an in-ranks inspection his platoon sergeant, who was a known Catholic, gave him some trouble over his tags.
“He proceeded to me and looked at my tags. He asked what my religion was, to which I replied, ‘My tags say no preference.’ ‘I know, I know. But what religion are you?’ ‘Wiccan, ’ I replied. He stepped closer to me, and just barely audible for me to hear, asked, ‘Do you sacrifice goats to your Pagans Gods?’ I can take allot of stupidity, but this a**hole struck a nerve with me. The audacity of my ‘superior’ to ask such a ridiculous question prompted me to respond without thinking. ‘I’m looking for a human sacrifice. You want to be it?’” (Anonymous)
While this was probably not the best way to deal with the situation it did get his sergeant to leave him alone. Balthesaur “found out later that [the sergeant] began asking a Pagan from another unit civilized and inquisitive questions without a drop of distain” (Anonymous) showing that at least some good came from this incident.
These are just the stories of a few. There are countless others out there where people of pagan faiths have been discriminated against for their beliefs. Almost all of these can be chalked up to a lack of education and understanding. If people would just do a little research then maybe we wouldn’t have these misunderstandings.
A common misconception is that pagans are devil worshipers. This is completely false but it is understandable as to how people could be confused by this. First of all pagans, unless they practice a form of Christian-paganism, don’t even believe in the devil. However their deities have been demonized over the years by the largely popular Christian religion. An example of this is the entity known as Baphomet, a well-known Christian ‘demon’. While many pagans see this entity as dark or as a fictional being, some Witches worship him as a powerful spirit. You may think the idea of Baphomet is ancient and is perhaps mentioned in the Bible but he actually got his start during the trials of the Knights Templar.
The Templars were accused of abandoning their Christian faith and worshiping an idol called Baphomet. “Material that has survived from French troubadours active in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries suggests that the name Bafomet was originally a corruption of the name Muhammad which at the time was rendered Mahomet” (Belanger) . If this was the case with the Templar trials, then the order was actually being accused of being Muslim, the enemy faith at the time.
Another way the pagan deities have been demonized is by what the Christian devil supposedly looks like. Everyone knows that the Christian devil has goat horns, a goatee, cloven hooves, and a pitchfork, and probably many people believe that this description comes from the Bible but in fact the Bible does not offer a physical description of the devil. The Christian devil actually sounds a lot like the horned nature deity Pan with a little bit of the water deity Poseidon thrown in. Pan who is a satyr has the upper body and head of a man, usually depicted with a goatee, and the lower body and horns of a goat, while that pitchfork the devil is often depicted as carrying looks a lot like Poseidon’s trident. So if someone were to see an image of Pan or a trident on a pagan’s altar they might wrongly assume that they worship the devil.
Another thing that links pagans to the devil is the Wiccan symbol of the pentacle or pentagram. This symbol is actually quite ancient and predates Christianity because it is “rooted in ancient Greek and Roman paganism, with ties to goddesses such as Hygeia and Venus, the pentagram has been associated with occultism, [and] ceremonial magic” (McColman) . Today it is still occasionally associated with Goddesses but it more often associated with the five elements of spirit, earth, air, water, and fire. While this symbol is common among the pagan community it is not even used by everyone so while it is first of all not even a symbol of the devil, it is also wrong to damn all pagans because of it.
When many people think of pagans they think of sacrifices and sex rites, which many people view as morally wrong. Both sacrifices and sex rites were common in ancient times but have largely fallen out of practice in the modern world. Nowadays sacrifices are usually inanimate objects or food that is often burned or buried as offerings to deities and while animal sacrifices are rare when they do take place the animal is treated gently and killed quickly, the same can’t be said about most of the meat products we consume. Sex rites are even more rare than sacrifices and are now often done symbolically since it’s the symbolism behind the act that is more important that the act itself. Also yet again all pagans do not practice these so it is wrong to make the generalization that all pagans are evil because of two acts that many don’t do and many more do in a symbolic fashion.
The final main thing that ties paganism to devil worship is magic. When people think of magic they “recall scenes from movies, television shows, or fairy tales…in the popular imagination, magic is about getting things that you want through forbidden, dark, or dangerous forces” (Roderick) . In actuality magic, often spelt magick so as not to confuse it with the stage variety is a lot like what many religions consider prayer. Through magic pagans are asking there deities to aid them in some situation, not unlike how Christians pray to their God when they need help. The main difference between magic and prayer is there is a lot more ritual behind magic including but not limited to, dancing, singing/chanting, burning candles/incense, invoking deities, playing instruments, and meditating.
The other common misconception is that the pagan traditions aren’t real religions. This idea is often believed because pagan belief systems are so vastly different that pagans don’t agree on any one set of deities, holidays, codes of ethics, etc. They also don’t have any holy books, which is unusual among most religions. Just because pagans don’t have a holy book or an agreed upon code of ethics does not make them immoral because:
“magic and spirituality play an important role not only in the practice of many forms of Paganism, but also in the shaping of Pagan ethics. Magic is grounded in a recognition that self-interest and care for one’s own family and tribe are acceptable principles of action; in this sense, Pagan spirituality functions quite well within a democratic capitalist economy, where self-interest is a foundational social principle. However, some magical communities impose restraints on the morality of self-interest, whether in terms of the Rede’s “harm none, ” in terms of classical or mythological concepts of virtue, or in terms of balancing the competing interests of personal self-interest with the mandate for environmental responsibility and sustainable living.” (McColman)
The Rede in which McColman is referring to is the Wiccan Rede in which three of its main points state ‘obey the Wiccan Rede ye must, in perfect love and perfect trust’, ‘an it harm none do what ye will’, and ‘follow the three fold rule ye should, three times bad and three times good’, the three fold rule here referring to karma in which whatever you do comes back to you three times as great. You can tell from this that anyone following the Rede would have to try and lead a good life by loving and trusting others, not doing harm to anyone, and making sure they do good deeds so good will come back to them. The Wiccan Rede is not only followed by Wiccans by but other pagans as well. Another reason people believe paganism is a made up religion is because of the practice of magic, which was discussed earlier in this section.
If people would just do a bit of research they would find they above information repeated in a variety of places. As the pagan movement gains ground people are being forced to reconsider what they thought they know about paganism. These misconceptions are common but they don’t have to be.
What Can Be Done
I wrote this paper with the intent of showing others that through education religious discrimination of pagans, and other religions too, can become a thing of the past here in the US. Part of the problem, and possibly why discrimination in school is common, is the blocking of access to ‘occult’ site in school and public libraries. An example of this occurred in a Missouri public library:
“On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with u unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and ‘improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or criminal’.’ It’s alleged that Salem Public Library official refused to change their filtering policies when challenged and that library directory Glenda Wofford intimate that ‘she had an obligation’ to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked site. This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why and ‘occult’ category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal.” (Pitzl-Waters)
With access blocked to information in public and school libraries it is no wonder people are ignorant to the beliefs of pagans.
In order to truly be the land of the free we must allow the public access to educational materials so that they may learn about paganism and attempt to understand it. This goes for pagans too, who are often unwilling to discuss what they believe because of years of fear and harassment they have endured. If we all communicate and share knowledge with each other then freedom of religion no longer has to be a question in the United States of America.
Anonymous. Personal Interview. 26 Jan. 2012.
Belanger, Michelle. Dictionary of Demons. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2010. Print
“Children Have Rights Too!!!”. atlanta.indymedia.org. Atlanta Independent Media Center. Web. 19 Jan. 2012.
McColman, Carl. “Paganism”. pantheos.com/library. Pantheos. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.
Noah. Personal Interview. 25 Jan. 2012
Pitzl-Waters, Jason. “Filtering and Free Exercise: ACLU vs. Salem Public Library”. pantheos.com/blogs. The Wild Hunt. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.
Roderick, Timothy. Wicca: A Year and a Day. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005. Print.
Timofeev, Kristen. Personal Interview. 26 Jan. 2012.