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.

Facing Your Challenges With a Hammer

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The most important thing my religion has taught me is to never give up. To keep on fighting against everything that challenges you.

Heathenry especially seems to hold this message in all its sources and current forms. I think this arises from the cultural context that surrounds the religion. (All religions are a product of their cultural context.) Specifically the cold, biting weather of the North, long winters, unforgiving landscapes, communities that rely on each other for support. In all the myths and stories and sagas and poems that have come down to us, there is a pervading spirit of resistance and stubbornness, to see out our lives as well as we can, and to flip the bird at our enemies (and at the weather). Even when everything looks bleak and impossible (which it would in medieval Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain), we have to persevere and kick life in the ass while we can. Because we can, and because we’ll be damned if the challenges of life get the better of us.

There is also the culture of gallows humour, which one often finds in the literary sources. Warriors make jokes in battle or laugh as they die. Our figures find humour in the bleakest of situations, because they would be overwhelmed otherwise. They did what they had to to survive. They made jokes in the hardest of times and refused to be beaten down.

(It’s not that other cultures and religions don’t have these sentiments. But I’m a Heathen and I know about Heathen stuff, so that’s what I write about. It’s familiar to me and it resonates in a way other things do not.)

It’s a very inspiring philosophy, to defy hardship just because. It has been important for me in the past, as I’ve gone up against depression and general hopelessness. Even when I couldn’t imagine anything improving, ever, I persevered after the example of my gods and heroes, and continued just because – because I wouldn’t let these things get the better of me. Because even if I was hopeless, I was still stubborn, and I would fight while I was able. To do anything less was, for me, to not live up to my name as a Heathen. My point is, Heathenry was a very strong motivator. And lo and behold, things have improved. No doubt they’ll get worse again in the future. When that comes, I’ll stand and fight for myself again. I deserve to be fought for.

Keeping a defiant and humorous disposition when faced with hardship will get you far in life. Deciding to fight is half the battle when things seem hopeless. My religion inspires me to pick up sword and shield every day and fight – for myself, for my future, for my well-being (and my family if I had one). I think of hard times as challenges set forth by the universe. I’m not a victim; I’m a warrior facing my enemies.

I Feel Wyrdly Whole

I love being Heathen. It has brought a sense of wholeness and contentment that I never had as an atheist. I think this sense has to do with the concept of Wyrd.

Heathenry for me (and probably pantheism/animism in general) fosters a sense of our world being complete somehow, like everything that there is and ever was and ever will be is part of a coherent whole, even if we’re too small to see it. Whatever happens to us or our earth or the universe is okay, really, because it’s all one big system made up of smaller systems. The Whole, made up of the universe, is organic.

That’s not to say that whatever happens happens for a reason. I find that this idea usually assumes that ‘for a reason’ means ‘for eventual human benefit’, which is anthropocentric and therefore ridiculous. It also tends to imply that there is something or Someone pulling all the strings, which  doesn’t sit well with me, though I remain open to the Norns. If we look again, however, things do happen for a reason. For many reasons. Things happen because the conditions required for them to happen just happen to be set up by things that happened before. In a less awkward formation, the present is dependent on the past. If the past were any different, things now might also be totally different. Who knows. If your parents had never met because one of them got stuck in traffic, you wouldn’t be you. On a huge but suitably ridiculous scale, because the universe itself is huge and ridiculous, if Genghis Khan had never conquered the nations of a good chunk of Asia, a lot of people’s genetic makeup would look very different. Maybe there’d be different genetic diseases. Maybe his would-be descendants would be different people.

My point is, everything now is the way it is now. Your parents did get together at some point, and Genghis Khan did sow his seed all over the continent. Everything that has ever happened has brought us here in a specific and unique constellation, and that is mindboggling and beautiful. It’s mindboggling and beautiful not because Someone planned it that way (even if They did it’s irrelevant to my point anyway), it’s mindboggling and beautiful because everything fits together as a whole. The world’s interlocking systems of ecology and society and environment and inscrutable webs of energy all work together to give us the Here and Now. Here’s the really awesome thing: we are all part of this wonderful behemoth. We can change the future; in fact, it’s inevitable that we will change it, every one of us, in small or large ways.

Not to get up on a soapbox, but this interconnectedness begs the moral questions. With so much power, you should do the right thing for yourself and for others. (I mean, I’m just a blogger, do what you want, but it’s some real food for thought.) You can choose to smile at your cashier, who because of their raised mood will give money to a homeless man, who will finally have enough to get some new clothes to get a job, and eventually have a family, and make a company, and hire people in his struggling home town. Stranger things have happened. Or, you could, you know, frown at your cashier. Your choice. It’s your choice completely how you’ll use your place in this wonderful behemoth.

All this just to emphasise the feeling of wholeness I get from Heathenry. We have a word for the wonderful behemoth: Wyrd (pronounced like ‘weird’). If you’re not familiar, it’s an Anglo-Saxon word related to concepts like fate (remember Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters?) and personal destiny, except that we have power over the path of our fate. Importantly, everything is dynamically connected in large and small ways. That is the Whole.

The Problem With the Hávamál

Heathenry doesn’t have a list of commandments. There are no rules telling us how to conduct ourselves. There aren’t even any encompassing authorities to dictate such things. It can be tempting to look for a convenient list to memorise and then abide by. Hell, the Odinic Rite created the Nine Noble Virtues as a moral crutch to make up for the lack of Commandments, and the Ásatrú Folk Assembly modified them to make them more useful to their ends. While most of them can be virtues in some lights, it’s far too simplistic a list to adhere to, especially without context. The Hávamál, so often quoted like a Heathen 10 Commandments like the NNV are, has its own set of problems. Let me try and explain why we should be treating the Hávamál like an historical source, which is exactly what it is, instead of like an incontrovertible doctrine.

I often see the Hávamál quoted as being the “word of Odin”. While it’s true that ‘Hávamál’ translates to something like ‘Sayings of the High One’, the High One being Odin, who’s to say that Odin actually said these things, and that someone recorded them, and passed it all on unadulterated? Why think these words come from Odin? Surely if Odin was going to tell members of mankind anything, it would have more to do with divine ecstasy and wisdom than rules about not getting too drunk (Bellows translation, 12) or always carrying a weapon (38). I don’t know any Heathens who really believe that Odin really said these things (theological questions aside), and yet I still see people toting Hávamál quotations like they’re the incontrovertible law of the earth.

The Hávamál is actually a collection of stanzas written down in the 13th century. That’s it. Some guy sat down and wrote down some poetry. Doubtless most if not all of it was passed on before that through various oral traditions. And you know what oral traditions are like. They change over time depending on who’s giving them and when. People change details. People forget details. People add in new details. Over time, a bunch of folk lessons, culture, and common sense took on the form of an oral tradition, and these poems were written down by some guy in the 13th century. Hardly the word of Odin. It’s called Sayings of the High One because hey, Odin is a pretty wise guy, and it’s a nice-sounding title, not because he dropped by and shared all this advice over a horn.

It should be getting clear why the Hávamál is not some golden standard for human conduct. Like other literary records, it provides a window into the culture of the time in which it occurred. Context, of course, is everything. The Hávamál talks about always carrying a weapon with you (38), and not overstaying your welcome (35), and not drinking too much (12), and not judging the safety of ice until you’ve crossed it (81). These are important things for the time (a lot still relevant today, but more on that later). However it also talks about how unfaithful and untrustworthy women are (84, 90, 102). This could also certainly be chalked up to its time, but might say more about the author of the stanza and the oral traditions that were going around at the time about Odin and his female conquests. Of course you also have the mythological sections of the Hávamál, which talk about Odin’s quest to earn the runes, and the rune-charms. These sections add to our mythological knowledge, of course, while also providing information about the people who passed them down.

These are historical records. I cannot stress that enough. The Hávamál tells us about the people who lived in the 13th century and the oral traditions that came before them, exactly as Adam of Bremen’s account tells us about the rites at Uppsala, or ibn Fadlan’s account tells us about Rus traders. What do we do with our sources? We analyse the shit out of them. We take into account their authors’ biases and motives. We don’t cleave to their word without consideration. We remove ourselves and examine them from a distance.

That’s not to say that we can’t have an emotional or spiritual connection to the sources. It just means that we have to do our work first in understanding what the nature of the sources is, and why it is that way. We can’t just accept things at face value. The Hávamál, exactly like any other text, must be analysed to some degree. Just because it bills itself as a “Handbook to Morality” doesn’t mean that we should treat it that way. It’s a product of its time. If we can extract bits of it and make them useful, wonderful. We’re doing our jobs as Heathens then. But we can’t just swallow it whole and regurgitate antiquated advice from several centuries ago. We need to use our brains. Because unfortunately, a lot of the time our rich lore gets distilled into the Nine Noble Virtues, and people start shouting the Hávamál at each other because it’s easier than actually sitting down and having a discussion or deciding for ourselves what we think good advice is.

Once we’ve fully understood (or even have just an inkling of) the nature and drawbacks of our sources, we can begin to work with them. We’re going to throw away (or modify) the parts that are irrelevant to us as modern humans. Some of this advice is just strange. We’re going to ignore the bullshit sexist advice on women. We’re going to abstract the advice about it being better to have a pair of goats and a crappy roof than having to beg (36), and apply it instead to having a small mortgaged house as opposed to living on the street. It’s easy enough to think metaphorically and apply a lot of this advice to a modern context, if it’s good advice. The bad advice, we might as well just throw away, because it’s bad advice. You’re not a hypocrite for taking the good and leaving the bad. You’re being smart.

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of common sense and good advice in the Hávamál. Hey, I’ll probably have you-know-which stanzas read at my funeral. But, and I stress this here, if you’re going to look to the Hávamál for guidance, do this: read a stanza, turn over the words in your head and your heart, decide for yourself whether they make sense to you, try them out, and then maybe decide if they’re worth keeping. Don’t just accept them without thinking. That never did anybody any good. Think for yourself. You’re smart enough. You owe it to yourself. And you’ll sure as hell make better choices if you’re thinking about it.

What I’m trying to say is this: the Hávamál has issues. Be aware of this and don’t just accept it as a flawless standard. Extract guidelines based on their own merit.

And, heck, the Hávamál is not the only place to look for guidance, but I’ll talk more about extracting “Heathen values” from other sources in another post.