Y’all know that I used to be really way lots pagan after my deconversion. But there was this one incident that really brought home to me that no religion is immune to weirdos, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. This is how I converted to paganism–and then met someone who exemplified a mindset I thought I’d left way behind me, causing me to abandon religion altogether.
Feast to Famine.
The entire story of how I converted to paganism probably would sound like a wet dream to any fundagelical–and maybe even impossible. All it took to convert me was for me to hear one time that yes, there are people nowadays who really do worship all those ancient pantheons, and I was instantly all in. The person who told me that wasn’t even that flavor of pagan. The logistics came a bit later, but the idea was so appealing to me at the time that I converted without so much as a glance backward. This would have been I guess about 5-7 years after my deconversion from Christianity–it was after 9/11 but not super-long after it. So when I think about the ease of my conversion and the pulling-teeth approach that fundagelicals must deploy to sell a product that fewer and fewer people want every day, it makes me laugh, as you might imagine.
In the Deep South, I found an oasis of sanity in a sea of Christian zealotry. You’ve probably heard me expressing a great deal of affection for paganism and pagans generally, and that affection stems from the camaraderie I discovered in that community. For several years, I attended meetups and hangouts several times a week at times. And the people there were great, for the most part. Most of us followed all kinds of different kind of pagan traditions, some stuff that anybody’d recognize and some stuff cobbled together out of fantasy novels and religion (and yeah, one guy who literally thought he was a dragon), so these meetups weren’t really religious in nature; they were just hanging out, enjoying being around people who wouldn’t burst into evangelism and Bible quotes every five minutes. For my part, pagan atheism best describes where I eventually gravitated, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time.
Basically, if you were pagan and liked the SCA but maybe weren’t so thrilled with the costuming requirement and the constant camping, then paganism in that town would probably have made you very happy.
All Good Ends Come to a Thing.
Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest and everything went pear-shaped. I know Artor will disagree on my use of that term for the location, but I’m sorry, this is the PNW as far as I’m concerned. I mean gyahh, it’s still within a day’s drive to a coast. Either way, there I discovered that there was literally NOBODY who was both pagan and fun to hang out with there, so in that respect it was definitely much more like the Midwest than Hippie Central, aka Oregon. And that plumb baffled me. Like with the natural beauty of trees and mountains and rivers literally everywhere, somehow pagans hadn’t crushed this place? But no, they hadn’t. There were a bunch of Norse pagans who were basically skinhead racist gun nuts, and weirdo flippy-dippy Wiccans who sounded permanently out to lunch. That was it. Those were my options for pagans living anywhere near me.
So I withdrew from the pagan community. Since I’d never really been much into rituals anyway (they felt way too much like the magical thinking I’d experienced in Christianity, for obvious reasons), that left me coasting for the first time without any real religious mucking-about in my life.
If you’d asked me what I was, though, as disengaged as I was, I would still have said “Hellenic reconstructionist.” I’d have said it without hesitation.
It took a long time to discard even that label. Paganism was a refreshing change from Judeo-Christianity. It showed me very solidly that there were religions out there that were way more humanity-affirming and less horrific and grotesque than Christianity had been, and that a lot of my assumptions about religion generally were way more Christianity-specific than I could have guessed. And the people were mostly great. In terms of “fruits,” paganism has a lot more of them than Christianity does, that’s for 100% sure.
If I hadn’t met the young man I’m about to introduce you to, chances are I’d have stayed in that headspace forever and maybe we wouldn’t even be talking on this blog now.
So I suppose he’s done one useful thing in his life.
I suppose some people don’t ever manage even that.
I don’t want to doxx the guy, though I suspect he wouldn’t mind that much, so I’m going to call him Falcon. Or as he seemed to prefer it, FALCON. I only ever saw it in all caps. He was a member of a pagan site that I had once been fairly active on, where he’d seen something I’d written there some time previously about not having anyone in my town to play with. This young man (he was in his mid-20s, I think) lived in my town, and he had something to tell me.
I don’t have his original email anymore so this is going off my memory. I’m trying to make him sound as non-cringeworthy as I can, but gang, there’s only so much that modern technology and advanced imaging hardware can accomplish.
He wanted me to join his HARDCORE HELLENIC RECON GROUP, you see. It was HARDCORE. It was for HARDCORE PEOPLE ONLY. They were gonna start a real live temple acolyte group that was gonna do the ritual floor-sweeping (that was a big deal for Hellenic recons, at least at the time) and and and the offerings and and and the group feasts and and and the wow, the everything, man. He was trying to get a space to make into a temple for worship, and he’d be the priest of that temple–of course, since someone had to, right?–and he was trying to find worshipers and acolytes.
He only wanted HARDCORE people though.
He asked me point-blank: Was I one of them?
Um, Well, No, Not Really.
I read the email and recoiled.
I’d never heard of anybody doing what he was doing, and it went against the easy-going paganism that I’d enjoyed up till then. I sure didn’t think of myself as hardcore and had no desire whatsoever to become so ever again.
Further, at least as far as I’d learned, Hellenismos is way more loosely structured than what he was outlining. Obviously there were a lot of different flavors even then; one growing subgroup of Hellenistai at the time were folks who were way into the Eleusinian Mysteries, but that wasn’t at all what he was talking about. He wanted to make the UPCI except with Greek deities plastered across it all.
So I wrote him back and gently pushed back on this whole HARDCORE thing he had going on. I asked him if he was planning to be welcoming to people who maybe didn’t have a lot of time or the inclination to go all-in like he was saying, who perhaps preferred the more laid-back way of engaging with this religion.
Nope, came the swift, bombastic reply. He wanted a HARDCORE group of on fire sold out Hellenes, and he’d accept nothing less.
I told him I wished him well in that endeavor but couldn’t see myself in it, and that was that. If he responded at all, it was tersely. I never heard, either, about his group actually happening.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this brief contact had startled me into seeing something that I had never seen before.
I’d finally realized that you can learn a lot about a group by looking at what tethers that group to reality–or doesn’t.
Every group has an operating philosophy, even if they don’t say out-loud what it is. This philosophy is their worldview. It is how they view reality and how they interact with it.
A good group has a philosophy based on reality. They insist on examining their beliefs to make sure they’re in accord with reality, and if they aren’t, then they insist on changing until they are.
A not-so-good group, though, has a philosophy based on fantasy. They can’t test that worldview adequately to ensure it aligns with reality because it doesn’t, at its core. So they either don’t test it at all, insisting that it is simply correct and unquestionable, or else they test it in ways that don’t really show them how objectively untrue it is.
In a reality-based group, if someone is objectively wrong about something, that tether is something that can be used to bring that person back to reality. They can be shown to be wrong in a way they’ll understand, and they’ll re-align themselves or be cast out.
In a fantasy-based group, there is literally no way at all to tell a member that he or she is objectively wrong. Period. There’s no way to pull that person back from a bad idea and no way to demonstrate to them that they’re on the wrong path.
And a group can seem very wonderful on the surface, with members who get along and who get shit done, but if they subscribe to a fantasy-based worldview then there will eventually be drama between those members as one person insists on something that’s not true and not working and the others strive to make that person see that they’re wrong. (This is why young Christians try so earnestly to persuade peers from other denominations that their doctrinal positions are totally wrong–and almost always fail.)
The funny part is, there are some Christian groups that I’d regard as fairly reality-based, and there are very secular groups that I’d call fantasy-based. I’m not sure many groups would be totally 100% reality-based or 100% fantasy-based. I’m betting most groups have a mixture of beliefs that make up their governing philosophy. One of the best ways to find out which route a group has taken is to discover that they’re objectively wrong about something and try to bring that error to their attention–and see how they respond.
This stuff whirled through my head in ways that would take years to unpack and understand fully, but eventually this None got her wings. I simply noticed one day after that email exchange that I just didn’t feel like I had time anymore to spend on stuff that wasn’t tethered to reality better than religion was. I had no more patience for stuff that wasn’t true. I’d begun to feel middle age pressing upon me by then–and for me at least, that pressure sharpened and intensified that feeling of spinning one’s wheels that religion has always produced in me. Remember how we were talking last time about how religious people never seem to produce anything truly new about their religions? That they just have to keep mulling over the same ancient input they created eons ago and figuring out new ways to express that input to keep it fresh? Well, that happens in religions besides Christianity, is all I’m sayin’.
We’ve all gotta work out how we’re going to spend our finite lifetimes on the good dark earth before we’re put under it. To some people, religion–Christianity, Islam, paganism, that guy who thought he was a dragon–is going to seem like the best way possible to spend those limited years. To others, it won’t seem like the best possible use of that time. And it seems to me that the people who insist on pushing themselves into extremist forms of religions are the ones who are the most afraid of coming to the end of that time. Extremism keeps their minds busy and their days active–so much so that the fear gets pushed into the background of their minds. It’s never fully gone, but the busy-work of extremist religion helps them feel like they’re doing as much as they can to escape whatever they fear.
And, too, I saw the pure greed in FALCON interwoven with the fear that all zealots suffer. His naked desire to hold power over others, to be important to others, repelled me just as much as his demand for zealotry in his future followers. Luckily, he was simply too young and inexperienced to know how to pander sufficiently to those vulnerable to religion’s come-ons and threats.
So for a whole variety of reasons, FALCON’s sales pitch did not fall on fertile soil that day.
And Now Here’s the Postscript…
Years later I was cleaning out a purse and an ad I’d clipped (for humor value) out of the local underground rag fell out of one of its crevices.
In it, a guy was offering to train a small, hand-selected group of people to be modern knights in this world–sorta like Batman, I guess–with swords and sai and martial arts, to protect the weak and defend them against evil. This ad was dated about two years before the email exchange I described in this post. I’d seen it at work one day and laughed at it and clipped it. The guy offering the training only wanted people who were willing to be Big Damn Heroes–who were totally all in, all go no quit, willing to die to protect others etc etc etc., to mold into his vision of the flower of modern knighthood. Candidates were advised to bring their weapons down to the local park that weekend so they could be evaluated.
The name on the ad wasn’t FALCON, but it was similarly bombastic and spelled in all caps. The writing styles and general attitude were similar enough that I figure it was indeed FALCON’s earlier attempt to gain the power and validation he sought before trying for “literal cult leader.” Who knows, maybe it wasn’t, but it just sounded so similar. I just wish I had the ad. I really can’t do it justice. If I ever find it, I will totally scan it for y’all.
(Who wants to bet he went through a half-dozen other such projects before eventually settling into fundagelical ministry, complete with an impressive testimony?)