This essay was originally offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick on Sunday, December 17th.
Every religion, including having no religion, has challenges that come with it. The intricacies of practice, whether or not your religious holidays require you to use vacation time to honor them, how available supplies specific to your path are, and a host of other bumps in the road are plenty to manage as is. But along with that entire body of concern, there is an additional layer: what other people think. I’d love to live in a culture where it truly does not matter, but what other people think doesn’t just end with the inside of their skulls. Unfortunately, there are very real consequences to the stereotypes that go with different religions. As a Unitarian Universalist Pagan, I’m most familiar with the issues Pagans face. It’s gotten better – my funniest stories are starting to be old enough to get drivers licenses, but we do still have problems.
In 2021, a Panera employee in Pennsylvania was asked point-blank by the manager and assistant manager what her religion was. They were all on break, and it was a direct question, so she was truthful and told them she was Pagan. The usual conversation about how she was going to go to Hell followed. Most Pagans are used to that one, as are the atheists. However, things turned more serious. Her hours were cut, and when she asked why, she was told that she “needed to find God” before returning to her “previous schedule.” She was reportedly docked pay for breaks that she did not take. The escalation continued, culminating with her firing. The lawsuit is still unfolding.
This was only two years ago. It’s an extreme example of how the stereotype that Pagans are evil or devil-worshippers can cause a lot of harm. The further away we get from the Satanic Panic of 1980’s and 90s, the less common this particular stereotype is. However, although that one is in decline there are new ones now.
I regularly represent Paganism in diverse spaces. This means that I’ve given presentations on our religious needs to chaplains groups at hospitals, writer’s groups so they can write Pagan characters accurately and, of course, I’ve talked to Unitarian Universalist Congregations like our own. A few years ago, I was offering an overview of Paganism as part of the Religious Education program at another UU. After my talk, I opened the floor for questions, and one of the adults asked, straight-faced, “Why do Pagans only wear black?”
Now, as someone who never got over falling in love with the goth aesthetic as a teenager, I was of course wearing all black. So my first joking answer was that it’s slimming. But that also opened the floor to talk about it more.
Somehow, the goth aesthetic, which many of you will be familiar with from bands like Depeche Mode and the Cure, got mixed up in the goofy occult references from Halloween decorations, and then the whole thing was given wings by shows like American Horror Story. There now seems to be a fairly strong misconception that all Pagans wear black and too much eyeliner all the time and tend to be dripping with occult symbols of various sorts. And don’t get me wrong, that looks really cool. But it’s just not accurate.
The truth, of course, is that you can’t tell who’s Pagan by looking. We do not have a uniformity of dress or adornment.
The other stereotype that Pagans live with is honestly more harmful, and it is that our religion is ridiculous or shallow, and that following it is some sort of juvenile phase. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told something along the lines of “yes, well, obviously Paganism doesn’t count” when discussing religious practice. The understanding that the different belief systems within Paganism are followed just as reverently and devoutly as mainstream religions just…hasn’t made it across.
It’s usually this latter stereotype that keeps people in what we refer to as The Broom Closet: privately practicing Paganism, but never discussing it outside of very carefully monitored spaces. I have been a religious leader among my own people for many years now and over that time I’ve had to be very careful about who ends up in photos or articles.The perception of frivolousness can be very harmful to a Pagan’s career. Similarly to Unitarian Universalism, we have a surprising percentage of engineers, researchers, and scientists in our religion. In this region, we also have a large number of government employees, some of them quite high up in the chain. The perception that an engineer practices some sort of ooey-gooey-good-vibes-only-love-and-light nonsense can cause real problems. It’s so extreme that some of our researchers who publish peer-reviewed papers use an entirely separate name in the Pagan community to protect their professional identity and standing.
I think one of the saddest things I’ve seen play out are a few people who left Paganism because they couldn’t find a good way to reconcile their religious life with their day-to-day life. I can’t imagine how it feels to give up a faith that resonates with you and supports you simply because the fear that it could wreck your ability to make money and support your family is overwhelming. Or because you can’t convince the people who love you that you’re not evil.
And, I’ve also talked to people who feel the pull of Pagan beliefs but feel like the Path isn’t an option for them because they’re not into a goth or spooky aesthetic.
We’re not the only religion with stereotype problems, of course, and there has been progress. I’m not asked anymore what time the orgy is scheduled to begin (that really happened). But we’re not out of the woods, or the Broom Closet, yet either. Part of why I’ve devoted so much of my life to clergy work within Paganism is in the hope that the next generation will have it a little easier.
So, I’ll keep on explaining that my own preference for black clothing is because I listened to too much Siouxie and the Banshees as a teenager. And, I’ll continue to work as a bridge in the hope that one day people will understand that my religion is no less vibrant, meaningful, or devoutly practiced simply because it has a different structure than Christianity.
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