Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dealing with the Mainstream

"How do you deal with the cultural / societal challenges involved in following a non-mainstream religious path?"

When I first read this question, I had to laugh. Not because I think the question itself is funny, but the circumstances in my life have presented me with two very different approaches to dealing with this, based on the experience of living in two different cultures / countries, each with their own take on religion.

In Germany, where I currently live, you don't really talk about religion all that often. I've lived in this country for a few years now, and I can still count on one hand how many times I've been asked about my religious beliefs...despite my wearing a Thor's Hammer pendant, and talking about one day opening up an esoteric center. At least in the region of Germany in which I live, one's religion is considered a very private matter - asking someone about their religious beliefs (unless they are family or a very good friend) can be taken as a very rude intrusion, and is a sign of poor social skills. It's pretty close to being a social taboo. So while it would be safe to say that Christianity (although to a growing extent, Atheism) is the mainstream choice for religion, it's also safe to say that religion itself is not a mainstream topic of conversation here. If I were to bring up religion in day-to-day social interaction the way it is often brought up in America, regardless which religion I brought up, I'd be branded as a fanatic and people would go out of their way to avoid me. For the most part, people here want to get to know whether or not you're a decent sort of person - and to the mainstream people I've encountered here, one's religious affiliations do not determine one's decency.

I know that, for many of you who are reading this in America, I've just described paradise...but even paradise requires a bit of adjusting to. When I first moved here, I thought I was going to go nuts - I figured if no one asked me about my religion, that meant they really didn't want to get to know me. When I was teaching one of my classes about American culture, I naturally assumed they would be interested in knowing about how religion is approached in America...I was quite stunned by their reaction. It was getting to the point where I was about ready to spark up a conversation with one of the Jehova's Witnesses that stand around our main train station, just to get a bit of religious action. Finding other Heathens in this town, other than my wife, was next-to-impossible...even looking for people wearing Thor's Hammer pendants fails when you live in a place where little kids wear them on their necklaces the way American kids wear arrowheads. You see, I'd spent the prior third of my old life living in the American Midwest. I lived in the same town that fueled Dubya's fanaticism, I spent time in other cities that were nearly as fantical, having at one point lived a good drive of the golf ball from one of those so-called mega-churches that boasts a congregation of 4,000. I was so used to having to hold up a small wall that when I moved here, it was like the wall fell out from under me.

In America, I really did hold up a wall. On my side of the wall, I was armed with plenty of facts, philosophies and educated guesses. I believed that the only way to deal with the mainstream was to lob these things over my wall whenever it looked like someone was approaching, then walk out and have friendly and informative exchanges with whoever was left (usually either Pagans, Heathens, or people who were of a more tolerant nature). In the American Southwest, I never really had this problem...but then during the first two thirds of my old life, I wasn't aware that there were options outside of Christianity, so it could have been just as bad and I wouldn't have known the difference. Since I've come to Germany, the hardest part about dealing with the mainstream has been to de-program myself from my years of living in the Midwest. My old wall has been dismantled...with nobody intruding, there's no reason to keep the thing up, it blocked my view and limited my perspective. I'm still a pretty religious person...I have no problems doing outdoor rituals out in public view, I research, study and contemplate religion whenever I have the chance, I have a pair of blogs that are each dedicated in their own way to religion...but I approach all of this now from the point of view of someone who lives in a place where he's able to share his beliefs and perspectives with people who are interested, rather than having to defend them from those who are intolerant.


Sojourner said...

I think you may be right - most people in the US would love to have that type of religious privacy, especially those of minority religions. I know I would.

But at the same time, being in the US, I can see that it could create a problem of closing lines of communication. If you can't talk about your religion because it is a social taboo, how can you foster understanding? (In Germany, it seems as if the tolerance is there, but that is not the same as acceptance or understanding.)

Bernulf said...

Thank you for your comment, Sojourner, and I hope you're having a great time in New Orleans :-)

With regards to understanding and acceptance of 'alternative' religions in the mainstream, I really don't think it makes such a difference here. There are undoubtedly exceptions...Germany is notoriously hostile toward Scientology, and Islam is also experiencing more friction these days (as it is in other parts of Europe). As long as your religion takes more of a live-and-let-live approach, and you aren't constantly talking about it, mainstream Germans really seem like they could care less. Tell them that you are religious, and they'll seem disinterested. Tell them you play soccer, and they'll want to know what team you play for, what position, what your favorite World Cup game was, and so on.

This isn't to say that mainstream Germans don't spend time thinking about the great what-if's in life - because if you can get them to start talking about their beliefs, their beliefs (whatever they may be) tend to be thought-out - they just prefer to keep such things private. I've had such conversations with a few Germans - oddly enough, during these conversations, I wasn't asked about my own beliefs, or even what I thought about the other person's beliefs. Like I said, religious acceptance doesn't seem to be a priority here.

Hrafnkell said...

It is difficult to imagine a situation like you face (or enjoy) in Germany compared to the United States. Christians here, especially Evangelicals, seem to take seriously the injunction to spread the gospel and it can be difficult to escape a conversation without religion coming up, though the last time in the hospital I did manage to give my religion as "Heathen" without so much as a passing remark (the girl was about 19 and doubtless had no idea how to respond).

I would imagine you're not troubled by door-to-door evangelists then?

Bernulf said...

Actually, there are some of the door-to-door types, and there have been a couple of blurbs on the news about the fundamentalist types coming into the southern part of the country, where it seems they sort of spill over from the increasing numbers of fundamentalists in France. But these types are rare up here, very rare, and are treated by the mainstream as fanatics.

My wife and I were talking about this subject last night, and she was kind enough to remind me that before we moved here, she tried very hard to explain to me how things are over was hard for me to understand because, not having spent a lot of time here, I simply had no concept for the German way of looking at this; so I can understand how difficult it might be to imagine, having had the same difficulty myself :-)