I recently saw a social media post where an atheist showed a picture of someone wearing a cross and said:
I don’t advertise my non-belief on my body. Why do Christians feel the need to advertise their belief?
I’m not going to attempt to speak for Christians. Some of their reasons overlap with mine and some are their own. But I want to respond to the question from my perspective as a religious Pagan.
The assumption behind the question: the public square should be religion-free
This wasn’t a neutral, value-free inquiry. This was a “hey, I’m just asking” question where a particular viewpoint is assumed to be correct.
The question assumes that the purpose of religious clothing and jewelry is advertising. Now, let’s be honest: some Christian apparel is all about advertising, especially the in-your-face t-shirts like those I sometimes see advertised on Patheos. But that’s far from the only reason people – Christian or Pagan or other – wear religious items.
Beyond that, it assumes that wearing such items is a bad thing. It assumes that the public square should be free from all religious displays and be entirely secular.
When governments put up religious displays, that’s a bad thing. When government officials and employees promote their religion in their official capacities, that’s a bad thing. When the gatekeepers of the public square allow some religious displays but not others (hello, Satanic Temple…) that’s a very bad thing.
But individuals wearing Jesus t-shirts or hijabs, crosses or pentacles, yarmulkes or turbans? That’s all part of the glorious garden of religions we have in this, the most religiously diverse society in the history of the world. And that’s a very good thing.
Atheists do this too
The original poster may not advertise their religion on their body, but some atheists do. Search for “atheist shirts” on Amazon and you get over 3000 results. Those aren’t all being bought by fundamentalists who want to burn them. Some of them are accurate, some are funny, and some are needlessly offensive.
Some atheists insist they have no religion. I take them at their word, but non-theistic religion is still religion. And at least some non-theists like wearing clothing and jewelry that identifies them as non-theists. Whether that makes them religious or not is a matter for them to decide, but it sure looks the same as what theists of every variety do.
For visibility of a minority religion
Nobody likes watching commercials on TV or looking at the ads here on Patheos (but that’s the only way the writers get paid, not that any of us get paid anything close to minimum wage). But in an economy built on commerce, advertising is a necessity… although some advertising crosses the line into malefic magic.
Advertising isn’t a necessity for those of us who practice non-proselytizing religions. I’m not trying to “win the world for Cernunnos” – and if I was, I think He’d tell me I had my priorities mixed up.
At the same time, visibility is a good thing. If nothing else, I want people to know we’re here, that there’s a religion (or a group of many religions) that sees the Divine as many and Nature as sacred. And I want people who are looking for what we have to be able to find us.
Wearing a Pagan t-shirt or my Awen pendant silently says “hey, we’re here!”
To remind ourselves of our commitments
Read any wedding vows – traditional or contemporary – and you will see words of commitment from spouse to spouse. “With this ring I thee wed” and such. Wedding rings aren’t there to tell the world someone is “off the market” – they’re there to remind the spouses of their commitments to each other.
The same can be true with religious jewelry. When I wear my Cernunnos pendant, I am reminded that I am His priest and that I have made certain commitments to Him. My Awen pendant reminds me of my commitment to this path of Druidry.
To fulfill a requirement
There are no clothing or jewelry requirements that apply to all Pagans. But I have friends who have a geas to always wear certain items of clothing, or to not wear others. It’s not a fashion choice. It’s not a choice, period – that’s what a geas is. It’s a religious requirement. Some have items they are never allowed to remove for any reason, or only allowed to remove in certain places around certain people.
This isn’t advertising or visibility or even a commitment. It’s a requirement, a command, something a person was instructed to do by their Gods. And so they wear it, even if it upsets Christians and atheists… and the Pagans who don’t like the idea of Gods who make demands.
I’m thankful I have no such requirements. I rarely wear jewelry outside of ritual – I don’t like the way it feels on my body. But some do, and I respect their dedication.
As amulets and talismans
Anyone who grew up on classic horror movies knows you wear a cross to repel vampires (and those of us who read Anne Rice as teenagers know it doesn’t always work that way). Some of our Pagan jewelry isn’t just religious – it’s magical.
The pentagram is a symbol of protection – a pentacle (a 3-dimensional pentagram) serves as a shield against harmful spirits and energies. Some crystals and stones do the same thing. Others draw certain energies and spirits to the wearer.
Pagan jewelry can have a functional aspect.
Because we like the way they look
Not everything has to have a deep meaning or functional use. Sometimes we just like the aesthetics of something.
When you’re dealing with aesthetics in the context of religious and spiritual traditions, the question of appropriation always comes up. Christians have complained about pop stars wearing crosses since at least the early days of Madonna. In 2017 we were arguing about the “basic witch” trend – I wrote The Aesthetic of Witchcraft and the Return of Real Magic where I said that my work “keeps me so busy I can’t spend much time worrying about those who just want to look like a witch.”
But you can’t appropriate your own tradition (you can misuse or disrespect it, but that’s another topic). If you’re a witch who likes to dress in ways stereotypical of witches, have at it. My wardrobe has a lot of black in it, in part because of its association with witches, but also because I just like black. I’ve worn tons of black since kindergarten.
And sometimes we dress against tradition, because we like other things too. I’m a Druid – sometimes I wear a white robe, and sometimes I wear khakis and a polo shirt.
As a Pagan, I will gladly ally myself with anyone who will help in the work to build a better world here and now – which includes the work to keep governments from establishing, supporting, or promoting any one religion over others. But those who want a religion-free public square are fighting needlessly and for the wrong things.