Thursday, January 11, 2007

Don't You Go to Church?

Zen and the Art of Childhood

Being a non-Christian in the United States is not always easy. I know, because I grew up here, and I’ve never been Christian.

I was raised essentially Zen Buddhist in the southeast, a region not known for its tolerance and open-mindedness. My mother was Zen; my father and his family were Baptist.

When I was in kindergarten, in 1979, my teacher used to lead the students in Christian prayer before lunchtime. She would do it surreptitiously in the classroom, not in the cafeteria, because prayer in a public school was illegal. When my mother found out, she was irate; she demanded that the school put a stop to it. They didn’t. But in a small southern town, you can’t raise too many waves. My mother dropped it.

In fourth grade, I remember my teacher reading stories to the class – Bible stories. Again, there was nothing we could do.

As I approached puberty, the emotion I most frequently associated with religion was incredulity. Whenever the other children found out that I didn't go to church, or that I didn't believe in God, they were incredulous. Aren't you afraid you'll go to hell? they'd ask. No, I don't believe in hell. But the Bible says... I don't believe the Bible, either. But the Bible says... Why do you believe the Bible? The Bible says... (I'm not making this up.)

For my part, I was incredulous about their beliefs, as well. I was amazed that people could just completely believe every word of a two-thousand-year-old self-contradictory book, without, as it seemed, thought or question. Especially when the Bible had so many things in it that were obviously just wrong -- things that contradicted evolution, geology, astronomy, etc.

We were children; we couldn't argue these things out properly. I couldn't explain my point of view, and they couldn't explain theirs. The upshot was that I was just too weird to be friends with them. That was ok with me, though, because I thought they were weird.

A Foreign Homeland

As I grew up, the simple directness of childhood religious conversation became more nuanced, but the results were the same. People asked me what church I went to, or invited me to attend theirs, and I tried to deflect the questions by saying things like "I don't really go to church". This would generally end the conversation and any possibility of friendship, too. Their unspoken assumption was this: if you don't want to go to my church, you don't want to be my friend.

One result is that I have never, ever felt like I was part of mainstream American culture. I'm not even sure I know what it would feel like to be part of a culture. Effectively, I grew up like an immigrant -- except there was no country I had emigrated from.

Eventually I started to hide my beliefs as much as possible. I never lied about it, but neither would I ever bring it up or wear it on my sleeve. I did sport a yin-yang necklace in high school classes, where everyone already knew I was strange and it wouldn't do any damage. But I didn't wear it to work or to visit my father's family. It would have started too many uncomfortable conversations.

Was I religiously discriminated against? It didn’t feel like that. It was more like I was treated like I was slightly insane.

But probably the reason I didn’t feel discriminated against was that I could hide my religion whenever I wanted to. In the South, discrimination can get pretty bad, and there are lots of people who can’t just hide the fact that they’re not white Protestant conservatives.

I decided pretty early on that I would rather not live in the South. I’d heard things were more progressive elsewhere. Not everywhere else, of course; there are plenty of places in the U.S. where the discrimination is just as bad, but less overt. Now I live in western Massachusetts, and I can be open about my beliefs. I don’t introduce myself by saying, “Hi! I’m a Druid! What about you?”, but I have been able to mention my beliefs or rituals in passing, and no one has batted an eye.

A Majority of Minorities

While just about every minority suffers some discrimination here (and some majorities, too – e.g. women), some have had a lot more success fighting it than others. African Americans made a lot of progress at great cost in the middle of the last century, but (at least from what I’ve seen) not much movement has happened since. That is striking compared to the rapid progress made by homosexuals in the last thirty years. Admitting to homosexuality was nearly unthinkable in the 1960’s; it was worse than admitting to insanity. Now it’s still not easy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose your job, your house, and your family.

Why the difference in progress? I’m no sociologist, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s partly because of the 1960’s sexual revolution, partly because of the publicity surrounding HIV, but mostly because straight white Protestants sometimes discover that their children are homosexual, but straight white Protestants never discover that their children are black. If fine, upstanding, rich Southern white people, through the grace of God, sometimes had black children, that would make a world of difference. It would be much more difficult to dehumanize them, which is the first step in discrimination.

It may be that our situation as pagans is more like that of the homosexuals than of the African Americans. We are in the same families as Christians, and we can allow Christians to get to know us and like us before we let on about our differences. This makes it harder to “dehumanize” us. On the other hand, our beliefs directly challenge Christianity in a way that homosexuality doesn’t. If, by some miracle, our numbers swell, and we are perceived as taking believers away from Christ, will we be directly targeted? After all, not long ago, they were setting fire to Christian churches simply because the congregation was the wrong color. Will the sacred groves be burned again?

I no longer think all Christians are insane; I know that Christianity is ultimately a religion of love and tolerance, and many good friends of mine are Christians of that order. But discrimination, especially religious discrimination, has been a hallmark of Western civilization for two thousand years, and its roots run deep.



Fabrulana said...


It was great to read your blog entry. As a South African I can't believe we are trying to right all the wrongs that the rest of the world couldn't sort out. I think you have written quite an insightful article. I hope I can quote and like you link you to my blog.


Summer said...

I was raised Southern Baptist and I recall with a shudder the discrimination, the threats of hell, the cruelty of kids who don't know how to think any way than their parent's way. In high school I wore my religion openly and was ridiculed for it daily.

The oddest twist of it all, for me now, is that my best friend is the wife of the Baptist pastor. And I met her after she married him. Most open minded loving woman I ever knew, which is saying a lot for a Baptist. LOL

Serenity Valley Farm said...

Great read. Thanks. I have felt like you describe more often than not, having grown up as a catholic raised child in "mormon country"... and now having embraced paganism. Thanks for the great insight.

Brainwise said...

I enjoyed this entry very much. Thanks so much for sharing this overview of your journey. As I myself have been moving away from a (mono)theistic practice, I see how deeply entrenched the Judeo-Christian culture is in America -- indeed, the West.

I well remember the look of incredulity I received when, upon being inquired what my "religion" was and I responded with "independent." Mind you, this was while I was undergoing admission for an emergency appendectomy. :)

Angela-Eloise said...

Terrific post, Jeff! I think your insight about "dehumanizing" being a necessary part of discrimination is spot on. In fact, I think your paragraph about whites, Christians and discrimination is one of the best distillations of the subject I've seen.

Jeff said...

André: by all means, plase feel free to quote and link anything you want. South Africa cetainly has a great challenge in front of it. I have to say I am optimistic, however. It may take generations, but I have to believe progress will be made. My own great-grandmother, Zillah Tainton, was born into an upper-class English family in South Africa in 1889; and while she was a firm racist and elitest throughout her 100 years of life, each generation of her descendants has become more and more progressive and open-minded. Surely that's reason to hope? :-) Totsiens!

Mama Choas, Tammy: It takes a lot of strength (or, at least on my part, dumb stubbornness) to hold on to your beliefs in a hostile environment like that. I salute you. :-)

Brainwise: I hope you're getting on well sans appendix. My Grove leader, Ellen Hopman, recently gave an invited presentation at a local hospital in Massachusetts about how to treat pagan patients respectfully. I hope that other hospitals around the country will take similar steps.

Angela-Eloise: Thank you for your high praise. I especially value it because it comes from someone whose writing I admire so much! :-)

Fabrulana said...

Jeff : Thanks for the permission. I will link to my blog. I am as optimistic but unfortunately there is a lot of people that are not. But I won't give up - Strength To Strength ! Fascinating about your great grandmother. Groete en mag dit goed gaan met jou en jou familie ! :)

Slade said...

Please visit my comments on the cross-posting of Jeff's article on


Anonymous said...

Those experiences are known to me as well. I had to deal not only with religion but also with language and nationality. I chose to construct my own from personal experimenting. It takes courage and special kind of weird and inquisitive person to do such a thing. Your post said it well.

Mama Kelly said...

As the lone Pagan in a family of Devout or Lapsed (to varying degree) Catholics I am often treated as if I am weird or strange or as you put it "slightly insane".

There were times in the past -- at college in the workforce -- that I did feel discriminated against for my faith. And while that is over a decade ago, the lure of the broom closet is still very much present.

Thank you for you post

Mama Kelly