I Do Not Stand with the AFA

I haven’t posted anything here yet about the latest AFA snafu, mostly because I’ve been caught up on other social networks about it. So let me repeat the statement I made on my tumblr:

Most of you have probably seen by now the AFA’s post about gender. I saw it on Facebook this morning and was flabbergasted. They’ve tiptoed around being racist and bigoted for such a long time that I honestly never thought they’d outright say such things. Now we have it. “Beautiful white children” and nonsense about gender being a gods-given gift.

Needless to say, I disagree. I distance myself from this bullshit. These opinions are not accepted on my blog or in my hearth. Rest assured I am a safe space from the racism, sexism, transphobia, and general hatred.

Don’t let these guys and people like them put you off Heathenry.

Let it be known that I have signed Declaration 127 in solidarity with a large chunk of the Heathen world.

I stand for an inclusive Heathenry.

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Why Religion?

As an atheist, I always thought science and rationality and lack of emotion were the way to go. As a Heathen, I still think that. The big difference is that Heathenry has injected a strong sense of Romanticism into my life, and it’s made everything more worthwhile.

You hear about fundamentalists who reject science and choose to (literally) believe the Word of God instead. Now, I grew up around these people (fundamentalist Christians, that is), so I know they exist. The reason I mention these people is to draw a stark contrast between their style of worldview (everything was created by God and science has been infiltrated by the Devil) and an atheist (read: New Atheist/anti-theist) style of worldview (all religion is deluded and science has all you need to know about how the world works), which I absorbed as a kid, and which is still floating around in my head nowadays.

Science is great. It’s impartial (when not overlaid with politics) and honest and open-minded. The scientific method is the best tool we have for understanding how this world works on a physical level. I used to think the physical world was all there is. So I thought science was the best and only tool to learn about the world. And I couldn’t take these fundamentalists seriously when they clung to their book and said that dinosaur fossils had been placed in the earth by Satan. But other people, less literal religious people, thought that science didn’t have a heart or soul. They said, “doesn’t science just take all the fun and beauty out of natural phenomena?” Maybe for some people it does. For me it didn’t. Just because I knew how a rainbow worked didn’t make it any less fucking amazing. If anything, it made it more beautiful, knowing how exactly the colours came to be. I saw a world. I looked to science to tell me how it worked. I was impressed with the world and with science.

But none of the explanations had any feeling of profundity. “Why do you need profundity, you drama queen?” Well, first of all, life is depressing and I am extremely depressive, so it’s nice if the world isn’t an empty husk, and second of all, I had an instinct that things in our world were deeply important somehow. Unfortunately, science didn’t explain or expand on this instinct; it just said, “this is all there is and this is how it works”. And that felt okay, but it didn’t sit well.

Back to religious/Christian belief. Christian teachings, as I understand them, tend towards the idea that everything was created by their God, and that things happen for a reason. Everything is part of a divine plan. People who believe in intelligent design believe that things are the way they are because they were made to be that way. As an atheist, I thought this was ridiculous and unnecessary. How could you believe some man in the sky made things the way they are? Clearly things just happened this way because it was the best way for them to happen. If we’re talking evolution, well, the organisms that didn’t have the best traits simply died out. Good enough for me. (For about 16 years, that is.)

From my perspective now, I can understand wanting to believe that things were put together with a whole in mind. It would mean that existence had meaning, that we weren’t all limited to our lives and our deaths. I can see the beauty in a divine plan. I can even understand a little why someone might reject evolution for a Creationist standpoint: it’s much neater and fuller-feeling. But I feel that these viewpoints are still too closed and limited. You need a mix of the two. You need to satisfy both the mind and the spirit.

Now, there are a lot of Christians, maybe even a majority, who accept science alongside their religion, and these are the people that I can agree with more. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I don’t want to make this some kind of debate. What I want to say is this: science gives us empirical knowledge. Religion and spirituality give us a framework in which to place that knowledge to give it coherence. In other words, science informs our spiritual understanding of the world. They are two very different systems, and they fit together beautifully.

I’m going to talk about Heathenry now, because I’m not a Christian and I don’t understand Christianity very well, and Heathenry has waaay fewer problems reconciling with science than Christianity seems to (lack of dogma and centralisation, mostly, but let’s not).
Heathenry presents a lot fewer theological and practical issues for me. I can wangle it around and find a way to be comfortable with that religion. There are a lot of different ways to believe, a lot of different views you can hold, different ways to practice – reconstructionism vs modernism vs syncretism, hard vs soft polytheism, magical vs non-magical, et cetera. No matter what I believe, I can call myself a Heathen if I share Heathen culture. I could be an atheist, for Thor’s sake, and still be a Heathen.

So while theological belief and ritual practice are important and helpful for me, there is something else to Heathenry that is really enriching, really worthwhile, and that is the culture, the worldview, the poetic, Romantic way of seeing life and the world. That is part of the religion, no doubt. You can embrace it as little or as much as you want. I go all the way.

That Heathen Romanticism lights up my world. It sets a layer of beauty and sanctity and wholeness over everything. I breathe easy. I see connections between myself and the trees and the buildings. I can live and die happily, under Mani and Sunna, under the brain-clouds of Ymir, among his broken bones, on the coast surrounded by his salty blood. Everything has a presence, and nothing is merely mundane, even if it is mundane.

I go back and forth on the nature of divinity. But this way of living in and loving the world is something that has made my life worth living. I really, really mean that. I despised this world for so long. Now I am content to live in it. This worldview doesn’t just come for free (at least, not for me) – it came with reading and learning the myths and stories and taking them into myself. Connecting with them and letting them nurture me. Thinking “the natural world is beautiful” is one thing. Looking around and sensing the glow of life and being awed by it every time is something totally different.

Here’s a simile that I hope will make my point clearer. You hear people talk about love. How it feels, how they fall head over heels, how it makes them do crazy, brave, wild things. So much human energy has been spent pertaining to love. If you’ve never experienced love, you can intellectually understand these sentiments, and you can understand that love must be a very powerful force, even though you do not comprehend its gravity. It makes sense. You get it. But if you’ve actually fallen in love, you do comprehend its weight. You feel it. You experience it. You see it from every angle, not just the flat, one-sided, intellectual “love seems to be important to humans” viewpoint. You live it. It’s a part of you, all of you, not just your brain.

My life as an atheist was like life without comprehending love. It made sense, it was fulfilling enough, but there was no luster, no gloss of beauty, no brilliant sheen over existence. There was no heart in it. Like the eddying myriad emotions of love, Heathenry has made my life lustrous and brilliant. It’s lent a beauty to all things – all things – and it’s helped me appreciate all of existence with my heart and soul. I already appreciated these things with my brain, but now I’ve finally learned how to feel and live.

What Is Heathen Culture?

It’s totally impossible for us to know what exactly the cultures of historical societies were like. We can’t go back and live them and know what people thought and felt. This is one of the reasons reconstructionism is hard. And yet modern Heathen culture isn’t totally modern-made. It draws its inspiration and roots from historical cultures.

So what is Heathen culture nowadays?

There are two main fora where our culture develops, and those are online, in the wild wastes of racist roulette, and in meatworld, in the slightly less wild wastes of racist roulette. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with meatworld Heathen and Neopagan groups, because there aren’t a lot of Heathens around here and I am extremely wary. But there is certainly etiquette and commonly-held ideas and values. As a side note, not all Heathens are theists, and even though a lot of Heathen culture is centred around deities and religious practice, Heathen culture is not dependent on a theistic framework. (I find this fascinating.)

A lot of the aforementioned ideas and values are drawn from sources like myths and sagas, which I will talk about in detail in a later post. This is stuff like sticking to your kin (if they are honourable), being generous when possible, and defending your friends.
There are also more concrete, practice-based things we do based on the sources. For example, we use words like “heill” or “waes hael”; we might recite poetry from the Eddas or pour out a blót to the vaettir and gods; we carve idols and runestones and drink toasts of mead. These are all things done like they were “back in the day”, as close as we can make them, of course. This is the realm of the reconstructionist.

Then you have the practices which are heavily influenced by modern paganisms, or which are purely modern developments. An example is divination by runes. People who do this often use the Elder Futhark, because it’s clean and orderly and it’s easier to find runesets of these than of other futharks. First of all, in the Viking Age, the time most of us emulate/are spiritually inspired by, people used variants of the Younger Futhark, not the Elder. On top of that, there is no good evidence that runes were used for divination. Tacitus mentions some sticks with carvings on them being used for divination by the Germans – but we don’t know that the markings were runes, and his writing has problems of its own, quite apart from being centuries before the Viking Age. Regardless, modern Heathens use runes for purposes of divination and magic, and the practice is not going to die out any time soon. It is a part of modern Heathen culture. Other things along this line are the hammer rite, which seems to have some influence from Wicca, taking a Heathen patronymic containing a god’s name, using runes as simple letters to spell out English or other languages that are not Old Norse/Proto-Norse, using mead or other drink instead of blood for blót – the list goes on, I am sure. None of these things are bad or wrong if you ask me. They’re simply part of our culture. That culture is alive and changing, and we’re living in it.

Then you have etiquette sort of things. Again, I don’t know many Heathens in meatworld, so I can’t say as much here. Every kindred will have different etiquette: who speaks first at ritual, what one is supposed to say, what is appropriate for the hörgr and what is appropriate for the table, even what entities to hail (some groups frown upon Loki being included, wrongly, I think). These things, too, are Heathen culture, and they change from group to group.

What is Heathen culture? It’s not one thing I can point to. To be honest, I don’t think I can really answer that question. But I can tell you what it’s made of: historical practices, derived practices, and organic social habits. Heathen culture is a big, developing body, reaching and changing as it grows, like Yggdrasil’s branches, and we are all a part of it.

One thing I think we have to be careful of is dismissing newer practices as unprecedented or ahistorical. Saying “this is a modern habit, therefore it’s invalid”. This is dangerous. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to say this: if we don’t allow our practices to evolve and grow, we will be stuck in a rut. Times change and people change, and to cleave solely to historical traditions while dismissing newer practices is kind of defeating the purpose of being Heathen. We’re here to live our lives as Heathens, aren’t we? That means doing things with heart, as they happen, naturally. Our world is necessarily different to the world 1000 years ago. Of course we will find and develop new ways of worship, ritual, and living.

Culture is alive. Religion is alive. We should be in it celebrating it and living it.