Problems in Heathenry in its Current State

Problems in Heathenry in its Current State February 11, 2016

Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR) has many intelligent, strong individuals that see the necessity to speak up about what they feel are the biggest problems within Heathenry. Here they will use their own words to express their main concerns, which gives those who identify as Heathen some very heavy topics to consider and commit to solving. HUAR is comprised of members that consider themselves Heathen, and members that do not, and we believe both points of view are extremely valuable, as they provide a broad perspective to consider.

"Thor and the Midgard Serpent" by Emil Doepler,  From WikiMedia
“Thor and the Midgard Serpent” by Emil Doepler, From WikiMedia

Just as much as these people felt a responsibility to respond to the current state of Heathenry, it is the responsibility of all Heathens to make sure these messages are heard, and that these concerns do not get ignored, or set on the back-burner by those who are in leadership of Heathen organizations.

220px-Sharon_Knight_drumSHARON KNIGHT

“I have had an uneasy relationship with Heathenry for about 12 years now. Its power is undeniable. Its Gods and its inner landscapes are both beautiful and terrible. And yet, its willingness to accept racism as a defining feature among some of its practitioners is utterly abhorrent to me. It makes me ashamed to call myself Heathen. So I often don’t.

The Blood and Soil nonsense needs to be abolished. It is hurtful, exclusionary, and completely fallacious. We humans have been nomadic since forever. We’ve been intermingling with one another since we dwelt in caves, so the thought that there has ever been any sort of racial purity is ridiculous.

Also, Gods have called to people across cultural boundaries for as long as we have record of people experiencing Gods. Who are we to second guess the choices of Gods? It is laughable to think this is our decision to make. Aside from the absurdity in such thinking, this attitude in no way demonstrates the hospitality that Heathens boast of.

The kind of Heathenry espoused by Stephen McNallen makes my skin crawl. I want as far away from it as I can get. However, I am unwilling to cede the ground to such views and let them poison something so breathtakingly beautiful. So I stay, that I may be part of defining a Heathenry I can be proud of.

I don’t know Ryan Smith well. I don’t know Steven Abell at all. But to suggest that Ryan is too extreme in his condemnation of racism while Stephen McNallen is a friendly fellow to chat with is everything that is wrong with Heathenry. Personally I think an aggressive stance against racism is called for. People are being killed over it. If you don’t like Ryan’s methods then come up with your own. But do something, because racism is poisoning the well.

I am glad HUAR exists. I wish it didn’t need to. The fact that some felt a need to create a group to demarcate those of us willing to stand against racism is telling indeed. The day we don’t need a special group, because the word “Heathen” itself already includes within it a bold stance against racism, is the day I will wear the banner of Heathen proudly.

I can’t stop people being racists. But I don’t have to tolerate racism, or welcome it at any events I produce, sponsor, or attend. Racism is not welcome in my sphere of influence in any way.

Standing up for true Heathen hospitality by welcoming and defending ANY person who is genuinely drawn to Heathen traditions is the kind of Heathenry I want to be a part of, and one I will help to create.”

12714493_958045470898440_797466608_nSIERRA DAWN

“I would consider myself an intentionally practicing Heathen since 2007, and in that time I have watched the problem of racism grow and spread throughout the community. This is absolutely the biggest issue, and needs to continue to be addressed amongst Heathens.

It’s a hard one in this case, because a lot of people aren’t blatant about it. Few have neither the stupidity nor the bravery to stand up and scream, “White power for Odin”, because they understand the back lash they would soon be suffering. So they’re sneaky about it, attempting to hide their belief in cultural superiority by stating that they’re only trying to keep the blood line of their ancestors pure, or that it is the right of those descended from Europeans to practice ‘their’ religion separately from those of other nationalities.

By urging people without Northern European descent to ‘drink from their own well’, as McNallen puts it, and shunning or shaming those who do not, these people are promoting the complete segregation of religious practices based on race, and possibly making people who are not of the “proper” descent feel unwelcomed. Those who may be new to Heathenry may get the wrong idea that all Heathens have this view. There is no reason that Heathenry should not be inclusive to all, and there are many of us who feel this way.

This is a growing problem that is turning into a continuous battle. Perhaps we, as inclusive Heathens, cannot stamp out every angry individual who is trying to give Heathenry a bad name with their racist beliefs, but what we can do is continue to speak out against those individuals and their collectives.

In raising our voices, the people we can reach are the ones new to Heathenry who are seeking community. We have a chance to warn people of the groups that perpetuate racism. The more articles, blogs and pieces of writing we put out, the stronger the chance that people will come across us first and become aware of this divide in heathenry before they stumble into a racist kindred and learn to believe that ‘that’s just how this religion is.’ ”

11208638_10203328843421634_1770256389545025790_nNAN EDWARDS BOYSTER

“I am the leader of a kindred. I do not, here, speak for that kindred, but only for myself. It is important to make that clear up front.

Heathenry has issues. I love my religion and the many, many positives things about it, but it has a reputation I wish it didn’t: a religion of white supremacy, an intolerant faith, a religion that hates, and a religion that has more in common with fundamentalist Christianity than most Pagan faiths.

Right off the bat, we have the issue of racism, which we can’t hide from. Steven McNallan and his ilk make it impossible. Those who make apologies for, and persist in treating such people like valued members of the community don’t help. There is no room in Heathenry for the coddling of racism to any degree, or in any form if we ever want to move beyond that stereotype and ill reputation. Period.

Then there is the Loki thing. Some of us treat him like he’s Satan. Except—we aren’t Christians and the Lore is not infallible. We make those who are called by Odin’s blood brother unwelcome. How is this hospitality? Can we not have a rational conversation about this?

Odin does magic and Seidr and Spae, as does Freya. Why do some of treat those who also as if they are some kind of pariah?

Then there is this relatively new urge in some circles to separate the men from the women in what seems to be some strange kind of misogyny. In a faith that already seems to smack of “bro-ishness,” do we need this?

Can we not discuss these issues calmly and come to rational agreements? Or do we simply not care enough to try? Where will we draw the lines?  Heathenry has issues, but they CAN be dealt with, if we’re willing to do so honestly. Are you?

12421463_957756064260714_1047395969_nSOPHIA FATE-CHANGER MARTINEZ

“The world of Heathen politics is an overlapping chasm of chaos. As a former member of the AFA, The Troth, current member of an inclusive kindred, and a member of HUAR, I have personally examined and experienced the full spectrum of Heathen ideologies. While I am a member of a kindred, and of HUAR, my statements only represent my own personal beliefs on this subject. My following conclusions are based on my experiences.

There are the obvious problems in Heathenry, such as racism, and all other imaginable forms of bigotry that reflect the problems in broader culture beyond the scope of Heathenry. Heathenry is not the original source of oppressive thought process, but is often used as a tool to justify these negative behaviors and thoughts. It is an extreme problem that Stephen McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) has perpetuated racism in the many ways he tries to disguise it for something else, and an even bigger problem that he targets audiences that are easily influenced through prison ministry, and those who are innocently drawn to Heathenry because of their lineage.

Having Northern European lineage is a perfectly fine and respectable reason to pursue this noble path, it is when people start believing that only people of Northern European lineage are worthy of walking down it. It seems logical that if an ancient way of life is to be revived in modern times from scratch, that it wouldn’t turn away potential members for an absurd reason like heritage. Of course, membership numbers aren’t the only concern, or the most important reason to fight against racism. It is simply the most honorable and ethical choice to do so.

Moving to recent bustling in the community, Steve Abell makes his position on racism quite clear. He believes Ryan Smith, an original founder of HUAR, is a worse problem to Heathenry than racism is. While no one in HUAR could care less of Abell’s opinion of Smith (including Smith himself), it cannot be ignored that Abell downplays the very real, and critical issue of racism. A group called HUA-Racism wouldn’t need to exist if there wasn’t a problem with racism, and The Troth may have never branched away from the AFA had there never been a problem with racism. It is antithetical to the very purpose of The Troth’s existence for their Steersman to be throwing that reality on the back-burner.

The problems that have stemmed from Abell’s recent statement go deeper into the loose policies of The Troth. I know many members, and have witnessed other members that I don’t know, make their grievances about Abell’s opinions known to no avail. These people are good people, with questionable leadership. This makes it evident that Troth members have no power to make or influence necessary changes, and that all of that power sits at the top of The Troth within the Rede and above them, the Steer. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. The first, is that this is an example to members and potential members that this type of behavior is not only tolerable, but acceptable. Second, it provides a gateway for future leaders of The Troth to do and say whatever they please in the name of The Troth.

The Troth leadership has recently made it clear that criticism from non-members is just as valuable as the opinions of actual members, which is not at all. Not only is this a good way to turn away potential members, but it is a sign that The Troth does not recognize its roll in representing Heathenry as a whole. This representation is not just a responsibility to its members, it is a responsibility to all Heathens. At present, this is what I believe to be one of the biggest problems in Heathenry, that The Troth is not taking accountability for how its actions and inactions effect the rest of us. It is extremely frustrating that my own opinions have gone ignored as a non-member who would actually like to see The Troth succeed.

Despite my complaints, I believe that if The Troth could recognize and correct its faults, they would not only gain membership, but they would stop losing members. Seeing them succeed and go forward in a positive direction (and perhaps strengthening their anti-discrimination statement), would not only be a wonderful move to revive their organization, but would improve the image of Heathenry altogether. Everybody wins that way. As it is currently, The Troth and the AFA are both representing Heathenry, especially here in the U.S., and they are both poor examples that I currently feel ashamed to be associated with.”

12714434_958046127565041_1349229902_nBEQUI MARIE

“As a non-Heathen, and looking at the challenges currently plaguing Heathenry that are rooted in racism and bigotry, the parallels to Christian insecurity, arrogance, pomposity, bigotry and patriarchy are stunning. It’s not just that this “makes Heathenry look bad”. It’s not an image thing in sum. It is that it runs smack into identity for Heathens.

Many have accepted Stephen McNallen’s leadership as a principled and educated guide to, and protection of, Heathenry. Until most recently, it seems many Heathens were willing to allow his bigotry to slide based on his leadership, and his ability to network with important individuals and groups outside Heathenry. It’s unclear how many Heathens understand how McNallen has led so many down an odious path, but there are a couple of issues that are noteworthy now that he’s come to a more direct acknowledgement of his biases.

His theory of “metagenetics” has provided many with the idea that their heritage, “racial purity”, and “spirituality” are inborn; innate. The manner in which he’s appropriated Jungian theory on the subconscious, other religions and his applications of pseudoscience, have given his believers the structure upon which they base their belief. Few understand the underlying deception or folly here, but I’ll leave the appropriation of Buddhist principles to Buddhists, and the pragmatics behind DNA science for another time.

Carl Jung was a product of his environment, and he of all people knew this. In developing his cognitive and developmental theories, Jung never presented these as anything beyond what they were; he was a psychiatrist who understood the need for evidence and development beyond current theoretical frameworks. In breaking from his mentor, he argued accordingly but he never left the framework that provided the basis from which his own beliefs could be challenged. He merely defended them. That process in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, is inherently mocked and deliberately left on the cutting room floor as McNallen appropriates his theory, leading many to understand that there’s a substitute for the term “species” that grounds the fundamentals in understanding collective unconscious.

It’s a deliberate act that, taken in any other context, would be forgiven perhaps, or addressed as the fundamental error that it is, on any paper or assessment presented by a neophyte in the field of psychoanalysis. Anyone who learned from Jung–who didn’t simply use one of his ideas in a manner which would conflate at least a healthy body of his work, or his history in the field, can understand the problem here. What we know now about how the brain works would suggest that Jung might reorient some of his thinking-we know now for instance, that “genetic” is a limiting base upon which to formulate all ideas about cognition, and development, or even illness. We know that in certain instances, part of the brain can die or be permanently harmed, and another will compensate, often performing its function. There’s brain science that McNallen misses when he shares his ideas of what Jung intended to convey in his developmental models.

Jung knew of his limits and saw these more appropriately as boundaries from which his ideas could be launched; anyone who has read The Red Book might find this reference familiar; anyone familiar with his work on dreaming would find this familiar. McNallen approaches the “spirituality” of blood born “inheritance” from a framework that theoretically, could have justified Jung’s own bigotry and misogyny–but the difference between the two personalities is here: Jung knew the science of his day; he would have, as a trained professional, honored the process and he would likely have developed an entirely new source of ideas had he been born in contemporary time.

Jung understood the importance of developmental theory as it’s anchored to science in psychiatry, and he would have learned from what is currently understood in and provided by neuroscience on both brain development and cognition. These of course are boundaries, not limits. Jung was many things, a psychoanalyst and spiritualist, but he was not a Nazi. McNallen relies upon a misinterpretation of Jung’s idea as it is dated and within its cultural context, to sell Heathens on “racial purity” that lies in their heritage in spite of currently understood progress in DNA science and brain function. Jung would have been appalled. And it’s that cultural context that leads me to comment on the other thing I find notable. Jung tried function outside the context of cultural and sometimes even religious patriarchy which he often voiced a personal dependence on, and discomfort with these concepts. McNallen’s effort appears to mirror a patriarchal structure and context that many who have been raised as Christian find very familiar.

Most Christians have some passing familiarity with bigotry and how the Christian Bible teaches and justifies it; many argue that the Old Testament and its bigotry is absent from the New, and others argue that this is not entirely so. Many in more recent times are encountering this core as they either embrace or attempt to divest themselves of these teachings-the Mormon church recently abandoned its teachings against blacks, more churches/individuals have either spoken strongly against or in favor of rape, or the LGBT community–all using the varying themes, books and/or verses from Scripture or the Bible to do so. Many more progressive Christians argue the distinct paths taken by those who follow Jesus Christ as savior, and Paul, as even a counter to Jesus.

Few argue outside the context of a top-down theology created by their “God” but they argue about whose interpretation is more valid, speaking to the history of various influences and interests in who reports what God said, wanted, or did. McNallen’s theories on “metagenics”, their development and those who argue in favor, follow what is a familiar behavioral pattern, looking at American Heathentry from the outside in. Ideas from varying sources have been taken in whole or parts, and appropriated or reformed- those coming from other belief systems- from psychology and pseudoscience, have been used as adjuncts in order create a “heritage” based on myth making.

In effect, this has been his effort to gather “heritage” from the mists of time, and “collective” or “spiritual genetic” history, one virtually destroyed by a monolith of a religion that relied upon its varying storytellers, interpretations and sociopolitical norms to justify genocide, in order to ensure that anything which countered its theology, its theosophy, its means or justifications, was subverted or destroyed. Again, this background speaks to behavior that is openly acknowledged and debated in Christianity, whose base is taken not only from the teachings of Jesus, but from other previously existing sources, as all Pagans are aware, McNallen isn’t proposing and he hasn’t done anything novel in having deliberately created ideology that codifies embracing a “spiritual purity” and its incumbent “racial” construct, presumably superior and unique, lauded and placed in hierarchy above all others.

It appears most of Heathenry outside the USA is flummoxed, many corners angered by the insertion of racial and political overtones throughout the presumptively “spiritual”, and that includes those insights shared by Heathens familiar with Jung and how his work is understood outside the confines of how psychiatry is practiced in the USA. American Heathens who practice their beliefs in accordance with what McNallen teaches seem to many outsiders like myself, dependent on and increasingly rooted in a construct that to us, is acutely representative of a patriarchal and monotheistic context which seeks the destruction of diversity in order to preserve and maintain its “purity” via race. I’m left to wonder how for some this doesn’t at least feel a bit familiar; how they could miss the cues.

A reliance on something such as “metagenics” over the recovery and understanding of the Havamal is something that, as I discuss my continued support of Heathenry, can’t and will not answer to. Each Heathen will do as I know they must- I wouldn’t dream of intruding. But knowing the difference between answering a call to Heathen gods and their teachings, and clubbing someone over the head with a manufactured “heritage” as any insecure, bigoted monotheist might do with their sacred holy book, there will come a time when American Heathens will be more openly understood to either have recovered what was lost and rebuilt from true heritage and spirituality-from all of its sources and their diversity.  Or they’ll simply be understood and perceived to “be” what some are doing now, answering the call of an increasingly isolationist, tribal and rigid “prophet” who preaches the consequence of enmity and suffering to those he fears, as he seeks increasing influence using fear, and circular myths which seem grounded in  little else.

The growing, loud consensus from American Heathens who are speaking against bigotry speaks for itself. From what I have gathered, although the claim is made that each individual must answer to what they must in Heathenry, McNallen has functioned as an important guide for so long, that he should not be questioned. But, American Heathens are questioning. They are denouncing racism.  Heathens are their deeds.  And McNallen’s response has been consistent with his bigoted history-one of fear mongering, denunciations and appeals for “solidarity” behind his stance.

From the outside looking in, this seems akin to a backward shaming kind of thing for those presumably capable of individuating from old models predicated on monotheism and its continuity. As I learn more about Heathenry and continue to argue for its right to travel on its own terms out of the confines of marginalized “minority” religions in the USA, I’ll support its continued growth and agree to consign the behavior exhibited by McNallen and his followers to what a lot of people I know perceive what Heathenry is not, and that is right-wing Christianity. My task as I see it, is to help people understand that the minority within which insists it’s got a “spiritual source” in “metagenics” is being taken for a collective fool by what is commonly understood as a “false prophet” in Christian terms, and that this is where any similarity really ends, as far as Heathenry might go.

There’s no room for, and I’ve never once heard any Heathen argue for boilerplate Christian behavioral influences in Heathenry.”


“I’ll be honest. I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of modern Heathenry. I don’t have the time nor energy to delve into Reddit forums, Facebook comments, email threads, etc. where most of this stuff seems to be taking place. But some things are simply too obvious to ignore, even for someone like me. So here are three big problems, at least according to me.
1: Racism 
I’m fortunate to belong to a kindred that welcomes people. By this, I mean that we welcome people of all heritages and cultures, genders, sexual orientations, economic classes, spiritual backgrounds and spectrums, and more. As long as someone is a good person, as long as they’re polite and respectful, they can hang out with us. This was very important to me, because the last thing I wanted to do was join a group that was racist or exclusionary.

I was a solitary Heathen for many years before I joined a national group. Doing research was tricky because none of the main US groups said they were “racist” but a little digging pointed me in the direction of The Troth. I’m glad that I joined and I remain firm in belief that The Troth will welcome everyone who wishes to join, then continue to make everyone feel like they belong.
I believe that racism and folkism have no place in Heathenry. There is simply no precedent in history nor the lore to support such exclusion. Yet there are many Heathens who channel their ignorance and fear through our faith to further their hateful causes. 

I was drawn to Heathenry in a big way because my family came to the US from Sweden and Norway, and I wanted to learn more about my ancestral culture and ways. However, if I wanted to join a “Scandinavians Only” club I’d join the Sons of Norway or something. I’m grateful that since joining The Troth and my kindred I’ve met Heathens of many different cultures, genders, and identities. 

What have we had in common? A dedication to the wights, disir, alfar, goddesses, and gods. A desire to explore the lore, to learn the runes, and to grow as people. We’ve held blots and sumbels together, ate, drank, and sung together. We’ve even had disagreements together. In other words, we’ve been HEATHENS together, and nobody will ever be able to tell me otherwise.
I am committed to making Heathenry welcoming to anyone who heeds the call of the gods and goddesses. And I will strive to uphold hospitality to all who show themselves worthy, not by the color of their skin, but by their words and deeds. 
2: The Internet
The Heathen Talk podcast recently had an episode called “Face-to-Face Heathenry.” In it, the hosts discuss the pros and cons of online Heathenry. They also discuss the advantages of real human interactions. It’s so easy to make a rash, hurtful comment from the safety of our screens and monitors. I’ve seen it on email lists, Facebook posts, YouTube comments, and I hear it’s even worse in places like Reddit, et al. 

It’s so easy to polarize and divide ourselves, and it’s something that we seem to be very good at. While I have no problem with a lively and respectful debate over important issues, let’s not forget that we’re humans. Living, breathing, feeling, humans. If you have a chance to sit down and discuss something, person to person, do it. If you can’t do that, why not try to contact the person directly before dragging something out into public? If both those fail, and that person continues to be a harmful or negative presence in our community, then by all means call them out. But first, let’s try to deal with each other respectfully.
3: Myopia
I’ve known several people who have attempted to join in Heathenry only to be scared off by other Heathens telling them “you’re doing it wrong.” There’s an eagerness to criticize and ostracize, even within the universalist community. Someone sidles over from Wicca – they’re doing it wrong! Someone performs the Hammer Rite – they’re doing it wrong! Someone says they want to explore the spiritual side of Heathenry – they’re doing it wrong! Your interoperation of this particular edda or saga is wrong! Then there are debates on whether or not Heathens are Pagans, if we are this, if we are that. It’s like walking into the record store in “High Fidelity.”

To the rest of the world, we’re a bunch of weirdos. We really are. We have made a decision to not follow any of the major religions. We are on the fringe. And it certainly doesn’t help that most people think of us as neo-nazi thugs at worst, and Ren Faire nerds at the best. We need to ease up on each other. We really do. We need to be more welcoming and patient with newcomers. We need to be more civil and helpful to one another. If somebody says something that’s dumb or mis-informed pull them aside and discuss it with them. Privately and courteously. In the way that you would like to be spoken to.

This isn’t to say we should turn a blind eye to obvious stupidity, nor should we be politely dishonest with one another, but can’t we do it in more thoughtful ways? 

I believe that this would go a long way in bolstering our numbers and retaining members of our kindreds and organizations. And again, back to problem #2, if people would simply speak with one another, rather than flame people in the comments section, we’ll all be better off for it. 

All of this said, let me finish on a positive note. I am very grateful to have found Heathenry. Its impact on myself and on my life has been profound. I’ve met some amazing people through it and I know I will continue to meet more and more. While I’ve pointed out some problems here I truly believe that there are solutions to these, and that we will work together to evolve and improve Heathenry. For ourselves and for those who are yet to heed the call.”

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