I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Aadita Chaudhury.
Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up? Did your parents talk much about their own faith, or take you to any religious services? When do you first remember being aware of the concept of God, and what did you think of it?
I grew up very Catholic. My mother’s side was Irish and Italian but primarily Italian. My great-grandmother was around until I was 14 and was clearly the matriarch. She spent her days running the house where my mother grew up and my uncle and grandmother still lived and “doing laps” as my father would say. (Praying the rosary). She was exceptionally Catholic and that was passed on to the family. On my father’s side everyone is French Canadian and so also Catholic. The family would all get together every Christmas Eve for a huge celebration and all the adults and teenage children would attend midnight mass while one parent would stay and watch the younger children who’d been put to bed. So culturally we were always very Catholic, but I think that faded as we all got older and relationships changed in the family.
We went to both Mass every Sunday, then catechism (Sunday school) after, where eventually my parents became the teachers. That was after I’d become a “problem” though and was not particularly into Catholicism anymore.
As a child with this upbringing I was exceptionally religious and a strong believer. I had a strong concept of God from my youngest memories. I liked what people had to say about Jesus, but honestly had no idea what the point of the Old Testament readings the priest would often go over during Mass were about at all. I prayed quite a lot, both in the context of asking for “favors” and also just maintaining a spiritual connection. I think even as a child I was drawn to the esotericism inherent in the ritual of Catholicism.
My falling out with the church began when I was a young teen, first railing against, then accepting my queerness as inevitable. I don’t recall ever asking God to not make me queer, but I do remember realizing I really had no choice and I’d just have to deal with it. I began looking more in-depth at my religion and realizing that I couldn’t at all understand the God which preached non-judgmental love, and also hating those people over there. I was sure there was some mistake. I told my parents and they were not pleased (understatement) and so we all went off to discuss this with the head priest. Each of us sure he’d be on our side; after all, didn’t Jesus say to love everyone? Not to judge? As it turns out in the priest’s interpretation I was quite obviously going to hell. This event coupled, with my inability to comprehend an essential truth of monotheism, that God does “terrible” things simply because you don’t understand his plan, pushed me farther and farther from Catholicism and set me looking for something new.
Is that when you also became an atheist? I’m always curious when talking with other gay/queer people about their own experience with religion – did you feel like you had no religious options, as a queer person, or did you feel like your queerness simply opened the door to atheism that you might have found otherwise?
So as I was a 14-year-old lesbian in the mid-90s, I did not in fact go straight to atheism without first having a mild couple of years of attempted Wiccanism, which was generally not as cool I was lead to believe from The Craft. For one, I did not meet three hot girls who would always hang out with me in gothic clothing. I came to atheism sometime around 18, I guess, and held to to that through college and for several years after. I don’t think I could really let myself consider another religion until I was pretty well out of that know-it-all teenage phase that lasts until somewhere around 26.
As for whether or not queerness opened a door to atheism, I don’t think I felt like I had no options but I do feel like once you’ve gone from Catholicism to queerness and survived, you’ve stepped over this threshold that makes you think, “What other imaginary forbidden lines can I cross that will result in me being happier?” So you proceed try out a lot of things that society says will give you chlamydia and die, like witchcraft and atheism.
Without that major transgression I feel like each minor experimental transgression would have been a huge deal, whereas after it I was already theoretically damned so it didn’t really matter, or I wasn’t damned and who knows what else I could do.
OH, THE CRAFT. OH, SEASON FOUR OF BUFFY. How heavily they both influenced my ideas on lesbianism and Wicca! (Both involved, naturally, a LOT of candles).
I definitely know what you mean about feeling like once you’ve transgressed that line of queerness, everything else is sort of on the table, so to speak. “I’ve already done the one thing I know I’m not supposed to, so let’s see what else is out there, I don’t have anything left to lose, really.”
I personally know very little about neo-paganism! Can you tell me a bit more about Asatru? Do you have any Norse heritage? How do you practice? How does it differ from your teen Wicca years? Is it like The Wicker Man?? (Is asking about the Wicker Man a stupid thing to ask a Norse neo-pagan?)
So Asatru is a reconstructed polytheistic religion of northern European origin, that has a lot in common with other proto-Indo-European religions. Most people would recognize it best as “Norse Mythology” but that’s probably just because most was written by Icelanders and the Nordic peoples, though its roots go back quite a lot further. It’s an animistic religion, and nature worship tends to play a large part, with “low mythology” (ideas about elves and land spirits and everyday ritual) playing nearly as large a part as “high mythology” (stories of the Gods ‘proper’, large holidays, etc). We don’t believe our Gods are all-powerful, we don’t have sins really, just a collection of stories that outline what it means to live a good life and a selection of rough suggestions on what Odin personally feels you probably ought to do. (Shut up, never give up, and be hospitable.)
While we have a good deal of information from the age of the sagas, much of it is filtered through Christian ideals so we spend a lot of time doing our homework, reading Roman accounts of our ancestors’ habits, looking at how our beliefs are mirrored in other PIE religions such as Hinduism.
As for my heritage, I’m half French, and a quarter Irish so it’s likely I have some Germanic blood, but I haven’t bothered to be tested. While many certain Asatru groups feel that it’s very important to ensure someone is “really” Germanic, as a member of The Troth, I’m firmly in the camp of practitioners that believes that your heritage matters not at all. If you’re called to the Gods, more power to you, and I support that. I think concerns raised about appropriation or dilution of beliefs is kind of silly when A) you’re reconstructing the religion in the first place so almost no one grew up in an Asatru culture, and B) you’re not speaking out about Marvel turning your holiest Gods into intergalactic magical space alien super heroes. Can you imagine if someone made a movie where Jesus were an alien from outer space who came to earth through a super wormhole and Jewish God was his space alien dad? [Ed. note: WELL.]
I practice mostly solitary on our own land, but also sometimes with a small group of local practitioners. Primarily I focus on the land. Small sacrifices and rituals when we plant food, when we harvest food, when one of our animals dies, when we’re forced to kill a wild animal to protect our livestock. We put out sacrifices for the land wights (spirits) at the equinoxes and solstices. We take care of the small old cemetery near our home. Those are the observances that are most important to us. We also of course celebrate the larger scale holidays, Yule, Ostara, Winter Nights (generally celebrated as Halloween) and a number of others. The three listed specifically are the three largest and most important.
This differs from my Wiccan years in that during those years I was a teenager, and mostly I read New Age books, and The Mists of Avalon (the title of which I just blanked on and remembered by googling “arthurian lesbians”), driving to sing-songs with hippies on communes, and generally praying to the moon to escape being queer in a small town. So, it’s a fair departure to be sure.
That must be interesting; I can’t imagine what participating in a religion that’s attempt to reconstruct itself after a long – dormancy, I guess? – is like.
It seems like participating in a reconstructed religion like neo-paganism brings a lot of the issues that plague any religion – how you determine membership, how different cultures play a role in shaping religious belief, who determines policy and dogma, how racism and white supremacy can affect the way certain traditions take hold – into sharper relief. It also seems incredibly rewarding, that you’re able to be part of a process that determine what shape your faith takes.
I’m interested in hearing more about the Troth – my first association with neo-Nordic religion (after, like you said, the Marvel Universe) is with white supremacy. Is that a source of contention within Asatru? Is this something that gets talked about much, or is there a pretty clear divide between people who are interested in Asatru on its own merits versus people who are interested in, I guess, deifying their idealized version of whiteness?
It is interesting – we tend to do a lot of “homework.” There is an enormous amount of archeology, writing from Iceland, missives from the Romans about the culture, as well as historical and mythic tales from the periods where people practiced actively. Even distilling a single culture out of all of this can be difficult. Thankfully the Icelandic sagas can be a fairly good indicator here; they’re just a lot of reading. Even with all this homework people get differing impressions and so you take some time finding people that you see eye to eye with in the community. Asatruars can range from highly esoteric “woo-woo” liberally-minded people who are all about their personal experience of the Gods to extremely conservative lore-only types. You have to do a fair bit of hunting to find where you fit within this scope.
So before I start answering this second part, some quick terminology: Asatru is a specific form of what can more generically be called “Heathenism” which covers all European reconstructionism, apart from Celtic beliefs. So, Theodism (which is folkish and clan-based), Anglo-Saxon neopaganism, Germanic neopaganism, and Norse. I’ll use the term “heathen” as an umbrella term.
I think it’s both a clear divide AND something that is talked about often. So not to dig too deeply into the history here, in the US, the main organizations are The Troth, and the Asatru Folk Assembly, which identify as universalist and folkish respectively. They were previously a single organization, the Asatru Free Assembly until they split over obvious differences. Universalist groups are accepting and eager to welcome all peoples regardless of race, orientation, etc, and tend to be more liberal. Folkish groups often require some “provable” amount of northern European ancestry and tend to be much more conservative about sexual orientation and other things. (Personally, I can’t believe someone would have the balls to call their heathen movement “folkish” considering the past of the “volkisch” movement, which was what married germanic heathenism to the Nazis.)
I sometimes find it hard to come up with a good argument against folkish thought on the grounds that I think random hippies appropriating Native American practices are terrible, but the difference to me is that there is no danger of a random non-white person entering the group and “corrupting” or “diluting” the culture as the culture is already dead and must be resurrected. So the ideas of any non-white person about what the culture should be, if they are called to practice are just as valid as my own. The situation that makes those negative things possible just doesn’t exist in heathenism.
There are plenty of groups who are not interested in anything beyond their whiteness, and for this reason The Troth engages in prison “inreach.” This service aims to provide reading materials and support to inmates interested in heathenry in order to show them that the beliefs of these racist groups are not the only way the religion can be practiced and that they needn’t rely on gangs for support either inside prison, or when they are released.
It’s a a very big deal, and very sad, and honestly I think if there’s a danger to the religion it comes exclusively from these supremacist movements and not at all from people of color practicing heathenry.
Lurene Grenier is a veteran of the information security industry. She currently resides in rural Massachusetts with her husband, four dogs, six cats, and many chickens.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.