Race and Religion in the Modern Pagan World

Race and Religion in the Modern Pagan World August 30, 2013
the Temple of Isis at Pompeii – an Egyptian goddess worshipped in Italy

I don’t think about race and religion much.

you don’t have to think about it – you’re white – it’s called “privilege”

So maybe it’s time to think about it.  In my last post on the strengths of polytheism, I pointed out:

Polytheism recognizes that different people have different languages, different customs, and different gods.

Most Pagans take that fact to mean we should respect our differences and honor each other’s gods, whoever those gods happen to be.  But a small minority argue those differences must be preserved with hard boundaries – that certain gods can only be worshipped by people with the “right” ancestry.

Morpheus Ravenna has an excellent rebuttal to this position.  I encourage you to read her whole essay, but here’s a key quote:

I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

A few commenters on her blog are getting hung up on her claim that every person alive 2000 years ago is an ancestor of everyone alive today.  That’s not exactly true – isolated populations don’t fit into the mathematical model she used.  But her underlying point is correct – go back far enough and we all have common ancestors.

What’s more important is the theological implication of those common ancestors:  nobody has exclusive rights to gods or traditions on the basis of their DNA.

I’ve also had people tell me I can’t worship the Celtic gods because I live in America – they think the gods are tied to the land.

People move.  We aren’t seasonally migratory like some birds, but over the past 40,000 years or so our ancestors moved from East Africa to populate most of this planet.  We’ve brought our languages and customs with us and we’ve blended them with the languages and customs of the people who were already there.  And our gods have moved with us.  They aren’t omnipresent like the monotheists claim for their god, but either they can be in multiple places at once or they can move so fast it doesn’t matter – there are too many people in too many places who have had too many strong experiences of “foreign” deities for me to think otherwise.

So if we have no grounds for excluding people from religious traditions on basis of ancestry or geography, does that work the other way around?  Are all religions and cultures open to everyone?  That’s a more complicated question, particularly for those of us in privileged cultural positions.

The gods call who they call, and there are plenty of examples of deities calling people unexpectedly.  If you feel the call of a deity, answer, even if that deity comes from an unfamiliar pantheon.  Even if a particular goddess doesn’t call you to her formal service, there’s nothing to stop you from making offerings to her, praying to her, and asking her for help.  Perhaps she’ll respond and perhaps she won’t, but honoring a goddess is always a good thing to do.

Although I am a priest of Cernunnos, it would be the height of arrogance for me to tell someone “He would never call you.”  On the other hand, if the way that person manifests Cernunnos’ presence is at odds with what is generally known about Him (from others as well as from me), I may question who he’s dealing with, or at the very least, his commitment to Him.  If, to give what I hope is an absurd example, he cites the lusty aspect of the Stag as an excuse to rape, I will argue (among many other things) he is not properly committed to Him.

The gods call who they call and we are free to respond to the calls we feel, but we are not entitled to respond in any way we like.

Our mainstream culture looks at religion as being about what you believe, and it thinks changing your religion to anything you like is a basic right.  This attitude is reinforced by many Protestant churches where becoming a member requires nothing more than giving an affirmative answer to a few simple questions of belief.

But in most of the world for most of history, religion has been less about what you believe and more about what you do, who you are and whose you are.  These questions of identity can’t be resolved by reading a book or watching a public ceremony.  They can only be resolved by living them.

And for too many religions and cultures, part of that living has included oppression by conquerors and colonizers.

If you haven’t shared in the suffering, you aren’t entitled to share in the glory.  More than that, if you haven’t shared in the suffering, you can’t understand the glory.  The issue of cultural appropriation isn’t just a question of ownership.  It’s also a question of authenticity.

I’ve met a couple white Voudon priests.  They were all adopted into the tradition by the Orishas and by their teachers.  They did years of work (hard physical and spiritual work – not reading a few books) and they earned their place.  Now they live their priesthood.

I’ve also met a few white folks who like to play at voodoo, based mainly on what they saw in movies.  I try not to stand too close to them, just in case the Orishas decide they’ve had enough.  In any case, the difference between the two is unmistakable.

There is a third issue involved here – the overwhelming whiteness of modern Paganism.

To a certain extent this is due to the English roots of much of modern Paganism.  Sadly, it’s also due to poor hospitality and general cluelessness on the part of too many Pagans.  This is a complicated issue that goes far beyond Paganism, and as a middle aged, middle class white guy, I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But I do know some basic manners would help.

Be a welcoming and generous host.  Be a polite and unpresumptive guest.  Be yourself and allow others room to be themselves.  Join together with others where you have common interests or common cause  and be respectful where you don’t.

The issues surrounding races and religion are complicated and they won’t be solved by these kindergarten level suggestions.

But it would be a good start.

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  • As I recounted in a previous post of yours, I’ve been called pretty strongly by the Orisha Yemaya. For what, exactly, I’m not entire certain, but I know I couldn’t ignore it, seeing as it woke me up in the middle of the night and I really wanted to go back to sleep some time soon.

    I’m a white woman in my 30s. What does Yemaya want with me? I’m really not sure yet, but I know there’s learning in it for me. I would really love to study Santeria, but since there are no botanicas or other groups in my area (or none that I can find), I will have to do my best with books and the Internet until I can find a person or people from whom I can learn. I do know that my learning will have to be focused on respect for the traditions and suffering that went into the creation of Santeria and other African diaspora religions, and I must keep in mind the fact that I can never understand it in the same visceral way.

    I also work with Ganesha. I’ve done my best to find what information I can on the Internet and with books, but I hope to soon visit the local Hindu temple and learn from the people there.

    When I worship, I want to do so with a proper understanding of and respect for the culture and traditions those deities come from.

  • whitecrane123

    As a follower of Asatru, I can relate all to well to this article. Perhaps of all the neopagan faiths, Asatru has one of the toughest rows to hoe in regard to racism. We must constantly be on guard against the racist attitudes that arise both within and toward the faith.

  • Kaitlyn Dickerson

    Thank you for your thoughtful response on this topic! If I saw one more post excusing cultural appropriation in the name of lovey-dovey oneness, I was going to throw something. You’ve restored some of my faith in the wider Pagan community, for which I am grateful.

  • I tend to agree with you, though I think there’s more to be said here if you’re approaching the situation from a tradition associated with a marginalized ethnicity. You’re getting at that a bit when you talk about “sharing in the suffering,” and I certainly think it’s possible to form a meaningful relationship with a community you’re not born into and earn your place in it. But at the same time, I’m sympathetic with communities being suspicious of the grandchildren of their murderers. If I’m in a vulnerable position, I don’t think I need to welcome everyone with open arms.

    I’m also sympathetic to the “the gods are tied to the land” idea. The gods change, just as we do, when we worship them in places that are different from the land of their origin, and that’s something that’s difficult to appreciate without living in that original land. My dear friend has been in Ireland for several years now, and I know it’s been a paradigm-shifting experience — one that I was able to at least get the edge of by visiting. Even just from visiting, with her facilitation, my impression of the gods of Ireland is completely different than before and doesn’t much resemble the impressions of most Americans who worship Irish gods. In the States, we immigrants have immigrant gods, and their connections to history and their ancestral land may become tenuous in the same way that ours does, over the generations. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — we need to connect with where we are, not with some imagined past — but I don’t think we should kid ourselves by thinking we are practicing the religion and worshiping the gods of the ancients. (For that matter, even the gods in their land of origin change over time — just perhaps not as radically as those whose context is different in both time and space.)

    All that being said, I agree that the gods call who we want to call, and that we need to respond to those calls with humility and respect for the living traditions that come from other cultural contexts. But I also think that when people claim you need the “right” ancestry, there’s a kernel of truth there that’s not necessarily about blood, but about family and land of origin, and that part deserves to be taken seriously. It’s extremely difficult to appreciate how different our contexts are based on where we were born and who raised us until we immerse ourselves for years in another community — and even then, we may still have a different status, being loved but late-adopted children.

    • Thanks for the long comments, Christine. You added some good depth to the main points I was trying to make.

      You’re right – there is a kernel of truth about origins. I’m a Druid in part because the Celtic gods and lore felt like mine. Not mine as in ownership, but as in relationship – this is a family of which I am a part. I don’t get that feeling of family with, say, the Norse traditions, or with Wicca or the other mystery traditions with roots in Jewish and Christian mysticism.

      Are your connections of family and land strong enough to claim a given tradition for your own? I can make the call of “this is mine and this isn’t” for myself, but I can’t make it for anyone else. I would again echo Morpheus Ravenna’s original post: my experience is that those who would act as gatekeepers are rarely motivated by concern for seekers who don’t look like them.

      Thus my exhortation to the Pagan community: when someone tells you they’re called to your path, take them at their word unless their actions give you good reason to think otherwise. And when you’re approaching another path, understand that becoming part of the family means a lot more than saying a few words.

      • Rory

        That is interesting, John, in that I affiliated with ADF druidry and then OBOD and CUUPS because I found them the *least* culturally-specific organizations available. Before that I was quite consciously “Neopagan” and *not* affiliated with anything more specific, because I found those affiliations arbitrary and potentially exclusive.

        Catholic, Norse and Hellenic imagery always resonated much more clearly to me than Celtic, and none of those three organizations (ADF, OBOD, CUUPS) excluded that, but had enough structure not to be entirely vacuous.

    • Amy Hale

      Actually the “Gods tied to the Land” idea raises huge alarm bells for me and are tied up in the same politics of authenticity that can be destructive. I do believe in spirit of place, but that is different. I tend to think deities are bigger than locality or tribe.

      • The biggest problem with the whole “the Gods are tied to the land” argument is that it is obviously baloney. Most modern Pagans are biologically descended from groups of people who were migrating all over the place up until recently (historically speaking). Even worse is the fact that these migrating groups often only settled town in one place while they were in the process of being “converted” to Christianity.

  • While I am not someone who identifies as any kind of folkish- in my mind, it’s not my job to tell anyone else who they can or cannot worship- I do think it’s problematic to automatically make the idea that gods are tied to specific people and that members of that people have more ‘right’ to them to be necessarily racial or involve racism. If, for example, I, as a person of Finnish descent, said that native Finnish religion was only for people with Finnish ancestry, that would still exclude most white people in the world. It could also include people of color who do have Finnish ancestry.
    This is not to suggest that this kind of thinking cannot become tinged with racism, looking at real-life examples you can see that it sometimes does.

  • Rylin Mariel

    I myself have been called by (variously) Herne/Cernunnos, twenty-some years ago, then the Green Tara, twenty years ago, Kali, twelve years ago, and lastly by Gaia, ten years ago, who actively asked me to devote myself to her. I feel them all at times as distinct beings in and of themselves, then at others like facets of a jewel. I see this as being cognate to the central conception of light in physics; it is both a particle and a wave.

    Somewhere I read that although Gaia has not been formally worshipped for millennia (not in the way that Diana, Athena, Aphrodite etc have been), she has become just in the past decade or so a very prominent goddess now precisely because of the plight of our planet. The same article spoke of how the Green Man of the cathedrals has become a god, where he was for centuries more of an archetype or embodiment, for precisely the same reason, because we need him now. But then perhaps a God is just that – an archetype whose time of importance has arrived!

    We know that the Green Man of course is in fact related to our own Cernunnos/Herne, and to Pan, but of course the Christian carvers did not intend that consciously. However, the Green Man face of this ever-changing God has arisen to great prominence again exactly because we need him now.

    I celebrate my Goddesses and God because they are the Deities I need in my life right now! It matters not to me that they’re mixed up with threads of so many different cultures – we are all mixed up with threads of many many cultures! (Well, to varying degrees). I am not perturbed if any person is chosen by a Deity from another culture – what’s in their DNA that might be calling like to like, after all? And reincarnation offers a powerful explanation as well for why this occurs.

  • huntermoon

    “A few commenters on her blog are getting hung up on her claim that every person alive 2000 years ago is an ancestor of everyone alive today. That’s not exactly true – isolated populations don’t fit into the mathematical model she used. But her underlying point is correct – go back far enough and we all have common ancestors.”

    Her statement isn’t true at all (exactly or inexactly) partly because she garbled the logic: her statement is that every person alive 1,000 years ago is the common ancestor of everyone alive today. As folks were quick and right to point out, this is a nonsensical overstatement. Even if we rephrased her point with the toned-down and correct statement: some people alive 1,000 years ago are the ancestors of all people alive today, that tells us very little about the relationship between any two individuals today.

    If we then move on to your even more limited statement–“go back far enough and we all have common ancestors”–how does that advance the discussion? After all, go back far enough and we have common ancestors with cows, and fish, and lettuce. But that doesn’t even stop most of us from eating them, much less cause us to want to share culture or religion with them. Go back far enough and every single living thing that has ever existed on this planet is related. But today, billions of years later, these related things use one another for food.

    I think the problem is that what we call today “racism” isn’t really about race as we understand that term in the modern world, but is something we could call “culture-ism” and it has probably always been with us. It’s how we identify “us” from “them”–our family or tribe or team from their family or tribe or team. It’s why Italians speak Italian, eat italian food, have Italian aesthetics, and use hand gestures they all understand; and why the rest of us can identify members of that group and their actions as “Italian” without ourselves being members of that group.

    In my opinion, it is no more acceptable to define group membership for pagan religions that I don’t practice than it would be for me to tell Jews who they must accept as Jews or American Indians who they must accept as American Indians.

    • Huntermoon, I won’t quibble with your first three paragraphs. You see the same facts I do, you just interpret them differently.

      While your fourth paragraph is true, I think it greatly understates the damage that has been caused by us/them thinking – and actions – throughout human history. The Italians you mentioned experienced real and unnecessary hardships when they began immigrating to this country in the early years of the last century because their culture was different from the dominant WASP culture. And that’s a minor example compared to the wars of race, religion and culture around the world, and this country’s still-unresolved legacy of slavery.

      I agree with your final paragraph, but not unreservedly so. Groups certainly have the right to set their own requirements for membership. And I have the right to refuse to associate with groups who use “diversity” as a cover to promote an unhelpful idea of racial and cultural purity.

  • Bianca Bradley

    Uhhh no.

    Reading on a private site, on someone who worked in the mens right movement, and how he felt about privileged, put some stuff in perspective. How if he got divorced he would be expected to provide for the child, but not necessarily see it. How he could be accused of rape, even if he didn’t do it, but still hold the shame and how he had to still work, pay taxes and suck it up, because dag nab it all he’s “privileged” put that word in perspective.

    I hate that word. It’s nothing more then a word used to shut up opposistion and say, but you are white or male and therefore haven’t had it as bad as me, which depending on that person’s life maybe incorrect.

    If it’s not ok for just anyone to worship the lwa or the Orisha’s, or be in Santero, or claim they are doing ancient sun dances of the Lakota, then it is perfectly ok for Asatru, to be equally concerned with just anyone, waltzing in and wanting to do that as well.

    Equality is equality and respect is respect. Are some of the arguments questionable, yes. Do some of the detractors have big issues, yes, but then again, who doesn’t?

    I for one, am not going to apologize for the paleness of my skin. Nor will I apologize for the stupidity of my ancestors. Nor am I going to sit there and bash white people for being interested in stuff that isn’t necessarily in their cultural roots.

    • I neither apologize for nor make excuses for my ancestors, whether their behavior was understandable for their time or not. I don’t apologize for the color of my skin. I don’t apologize for the privileges I enjoy, but I do try to be aware of them and use them wisely. And I don’t “bash white people for being interested in stuff that isn’t necessarily in their cultural roots”.

      I do ask them – and everyone else – to be aware that questions of religion and culture are frequently tied up in issues of identity, and the question of “who belongs?” is more complicated than someone from a white, Protestant, you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be culture may initially assume.

      Requiring high levels of commitment as the price of admission can be a good thing. Barring entry on the basis of bloodlines rarely is.

    • Rory

      “Privilege” seems to me a fairly innocuous word, and nearly as neutral a descriptor as saying that my height or body weight is greater or lesser than someone else’s. What about it disturbs you? Is it the word itself, the assertion that it maps to some social reality or the way it may be used or abused “against you” as a sort of “tone argument?”

      I’m with Eli Weisel in not wanting to promote or indulge “oppression contests,” because they are a distraction, but believe that the word “privilege” does cleanly and clearly describe something I see in my (Pagan, white, male, Cascadian-born, working-class) world.

      I also have a very well-considered and extensive take on the “men’s rights advocates,” and feel they are caught up in a still-developing “victim” place on the road toward more mature masculinity.

  • The Irish Atheist

    We who are actually of the cultures and lands that your gods originated in don’t care whom you worship. You can bow down to Lugh, Brigid, or a goat for all we care.

    We do care, however, that you have completely and unabashedly misrepresented our culture, our people, our history and our way of life. We care that you have taken our symbols and our history and twisted them to fashion something that they were never meant to be. Make no mistake, your Celtic gods, your banners with “Celtic knotwork” your mystical prayers and spells have nothing to do with what my people actually are or represented.

    I care that you have turned the historical culture of my people into a shoddy, commercialised, plastic facade. I care that you treat the history of my people as a playtoy, with no care for historical accuracy or accountability. I care that I have dedicated my entire life to the arts, history, and language of my people and have to watch you claim that you’re carrying on our traditions and ways of life without having the smallest clue what it means to be “Celtic.”

    It’s not your geographical location that disgusts us so. It’s your actions. Rest assured that the Americans have done more to destroy my homeland’s culture than the British ever were, precisely because people like you have bastardised it and then had the gall to claim that you somehow represent us. That you are carrying on our traditions and our way of life. You don’t and you aren’t. You are not a part of of my people, you have no connection to my homeland, and your Celtic religion has nothing to do with anything that academics, scholars, or the actual Celtic peoples would ever identify with.

    That is why we are angry and I know people all around the world feel similar. Cultural vandalism isn’t something we take lightly.

    • Amy Hale


    • Ayrshire Johnny

      “We”? You don’t speak for all of us, lad. I’m a Scot born and bred, lived in Scotland for the first 23 years of my life, America for the next 23, and have divided the last 10 between the two countries. I’m also a polytheist and a member of an American druid order. I don’t agree with one word of what you’ve said here, and I don’t appreciate you extending your blanket of hatred over me. You’re entitled to speak for yourself, but not to speak for everyone who’s “actually of the cultures and lands that your gods originated in”.