By Olivia Hamilton
I went through a stupid year of school to learn how people work, including the pompous minor of philosophy, with a concentration in religion, which accomplished little more than to make me sound smarter than I actually am. In those years I learned a lot about religion, as literally nothing has shaped the world more than religion. The human experience itself, has been defined by the numinous for as long as humans have been recording history. Nothing continues to shape man more than religion.
In Heathenry, most of our converts come from Christianity. The few who don’t, or insist they don’t, were still were raised in a world so steeped in Christian ideology that they don’t even understand how ingrained it is. Most, whether they admit it or not, come to Heathenry wounded deeply by judgment and ideas of Christianity. Many feel out of place, due to expectations of the churches of their birth, or have been abandoned by the same in their time of need. Many feel the victim of Christian hypocrisy, outcast and judged, and in need of something; anything else.
Due to all of these reasons, and so many more, they end up in some flavor of Heathenry. The theme is the rejected and lost, who are looking for something to fill a need. When people are psychologically or emotionally hurt, they will avidly fill that wound. Very frequently, the idea that not all religions are the same with different diets is difficult to grasp. At the other end of the spectrum are those convinced that if it’s in any way connected to a Christian idea, by de facto it cannot be Heathen. This is a distortion of black and white thinking, and is blatantly untrue. All religions are complex, because we are complex creatures and so is the world around us.
The extent to which one has been wounded by their family, society or the church will absolutely dictate how difficult the conversion will be. The most common struggles are the denial of dogma, resistance to authority/hierarchy, lack of personal relationship with the gods and non-eddaic afterlife. With a loose understanding of trauma it makes sense that the conversion process, which is already difficult as a shift of identity, can look even messier than before.
Trauma has no hard line intensity. Opposed to common belief, just about anything can traumatize a person. Not all trauma symptoms qualify one for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or are found in PTSD. This does not negate trauma symptoms in a person. Symptoms for trauma fall into the categories of hyper-vigilance, avoidance, disassociation, mood disturbance, and cognitive disturbance (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These symptoms can all be seen among the churches’ wounded: on Facebook groups, in private conversation, and sadly deep inside the development of canon within the Heathen movement. This combination of emotionally and psychologically wounded people, with loose understanding of ancient religion, has created endless varieties of Heathenry. Our reaction to new information, different information, or altering information leads to endless comments of “that’s so Christian of you”, “this isn’t Christianity”, “The gods aren’t like the Christian God,” and “You can’t tell me what to believe we don’t have dogma”. With no existing central body to answer to, it allows free thought and practice and frankly, some unethical thought and practice, but that is a completely different editorial.
Yet over time, especially the last five or so years, there has been the rise and competition to create a central governing body. This has led both to further splintering of groups, as well as some further consolidation. As with quite literally every religion since the dawn of time, we are solidifying. We have access to more and more information, with the ability to converse online making the world much smaller. The wounded who address their wounds, who are introspective enough to not only admit their baggage, but willing to unpack that baggage, experience what looks very similar to post traumatic growth. They are able to reduce avoidance of change (new information, new theory, change in theory), reduce hyper-vigilance and problems with authority. Because it is no longer a threat to their identity as the wounded, they can move toward the desire of deeper understanding, meaning, and action.
There are those who cannot. There are those locked in the distortion of what is commonly known as “victim stance” or “blaming stance” (Beck, 1967; Burns, 1980). They resist challenges to their views and ideas, genuinely processing it as a personal attack, demonstrating the phase of identity pride with roots in Cass’s identity theory. They continue to ignore the wound, and so unknowingly continue to wound themselves. This is the majority of observable converts in the online community.
The question then becomes this: how can one move past these stagnant places to find more than superficial plug and play religion? There has to be a point of understanding that “Not Christianity” is also “Not Heathenry”. The idea that practice, theology or ideas are mutually exclusive, shuts off entire portions of a rich religion. I often stated the same stance in my research of women in ritual. The continued narrowing of scope of idea, practice, myth and history in an attempt to “dumb things down” or to “make it more palatable” creates something different. Something that is neither Christian or Heathen, and far more spiritual than it is religious. When that discussion is broached, it tends to ignite the massive defensiveness that people don’t have the right to decide what is and is not religion. This is reactionary, not factual. Yes, people absolutely have that right, and in fact will define what a religion is and is not. We are human, and we like categories and boxes and labels. What people don’t have the right to define is one’s spirituality and the two are not mutually exclusive. Currently we are a movement of the Churches’ Wounded, a collection of lost souls attempting to bury the hurt that Christianity has placed on us. I am proposing self-awareness of that injury, to move towards self-actualization and growth, into what can actually be a separate religion with an even vague understanding of cannon. Which is crazy I know, but hey, weirder things have happened.
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.