Review: Can academic discussion meaningfully advance antiracist Paganism?

Emore, H. S. and J. M. Leader (Eds.). (2020). Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Most days I don’t know who I’m writing for.

Some of my writing, especially this essay on racism, is material I want the world to have. I want to press it into people’s hands and have them understand it as important, as vital to the work we are all trying to do. “This is necessary for us to have a healthy Pagan religion,” I want to say. “Please, help me figure this out.” But I am writing with the only tools I know how to use, the research and somewhat distant language of academia. I know this is a problem. Some people are going to find it inaccessible. Some are going to find it deeply boring. I think everyone is going to struggle to integrate it into their practice.

As far as I can tell, people are less likely to engage with ideas in the living place where religion nestles. That place responds to experience, to relationship, to the pumping and driving mysteries of the blood. Someone who is fervently racist and ties the symbols of my religion to their understanding of white supremacy isn’t going to be swayed by my research on Germanic tribal practices. I may have proof that their beliefs are factually incorrect, but it will not matter to them in the slightest. We are speaking different languages, and they will most likely not believe me in any way that matters.

If I am not talking to the people who disagree with me, who am I talking to? Why am I pouring my time into convincing the people who are already sitting at the same campfire, with the same stack of books beside them, ready to illustrate why the other guys are wrong? If I really believe that this knowledge we have is so important to the spiritual wellbeing of our larger community, how can I express it so that the other side will listen?

The cover to Paganism and Its Discontents, ed. H.S. Emore and J.M. Leader [Cambridge Scholars Publishing]

These are probably unfair questions to ask a book of academic essays. Paganism and its Discontents is a volume of papers originally given at a conference sponsored by Cherry Hill Seminary and the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology. Despite its more generalized name, the attendees at the conference came for one reason: to discuss the racism problem in modern American Heathenry. The published papers cover a range of topics – genetics, history, social trends – but they all ask the same question. What can we do about this problem of racist Heathens?

I think it’s an important question to ask. I also know that, when the publisher offered to send me a copy of the compiled essays to review, my main response was relief that I would be able to afford the volume. Conference minutes like this are published by academic presses and intended, as far as I can tell, for purchase by academic libraries. They’re thin, limited in their release, and incredibly expensive. Very few people, even if they are deeply interested in the topic, will be able to afford the $100 price tag for a 150 page book. That’s not the fault of the editors – just a fact about academic publishing – but it does mean that this conversation, originally held in a small gathering in South Carolina, is difficult to access even after publication. The essays here ask what we can do about this problem, this pervasive misunderstanding that has linked Heathen spirituality to white supremacy for so many people. We can be better scholars, said the keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Strmiska. He was, I imagine, addressing a room of scholars at the time. His words will extend to scholars in other rooms – and not much further.

That limitation is underlined in the book itself. In the preface, Dr. Helen Berger points out that this conference took place on the same weekend as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. While this incident took place outside of the United States, the terrorist was motivated by many of the same “racialized” ideas that were being discussed in South Carolina that weekend, and, in his final post before the action, called out to Valhalla. Dr. Berger mentions this as a background that “offered greater urgency” to the papers presented. It is hard for me to read it as anything other than a juxtaposition that asks in the harshest terms whether conversations behind closed doors are accomplishing anything at all.

Some of the participants at the conference seem to have had the same question in mind. Dr. Jefferson F. Calico’s paper talks at length about how effective and simple the messaging racist Heathenry uses can be. His work focuses on Stephen McNallen, whose long career in the public eye has been effective at both converting Heathens to white supremacy and seeding the language of Heathenry into white supremacist circles. He does this, Dr. Calico says, by asserting “ a racial-religious identity where White, Heathen, and American are conjoined – through performances of Heathen religiosity.” In other words, McNallen uses his religion to spread these ideas. Performing his religion in the public sphere and linking it to white supremacist thought is all that’s required to gain attention, followers, and eventually converts, as new people take up the performance themselves. It’s a more effective, easier to access, and more contagious way to transmit beliefs.

Skull cast of “Kennewick Man” at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe. “Kennewick Man” has long been the basis for the racialist theology of Stephen McNallen. [Ghedoghedo, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

As a collection of different writers, the papers here vary widely in quality and how easy they are to understand – but even the best of them must go through systematically and point out the flaws in white supremacist arguments by citing examples, illustrating bad sources, and picking apart logical fallacies. It’s not sexy work. It doesn’t translate well to the eye, or the tempo, or the heart.

The one paper from the conference that claims to address this issue directly, “Radicalization, Recruitment, and Realities in Modern Paganism and Heathenry,” does not appear in the published book. It was held in a closed session “due to the paper’s frank discussion of the processes, techniques and platforms used by racialized groups to further their ends and the possible points of interdiction to shift outcomes.” Some of this work is sensitive, and I get that, but the book and the conference itself seems so reluctant to engage in actively anti-racist work that this direct confrontation can only take place behind closed doors.

Even taken for what it is, Paganism and Its Discontents is missing some key points. While all of these papers are at least nominally discussing white supremacist thought, very few of them are engaging with the fiction of whiteness. Slightly more than a year later, this already seems dated. One paper bases its entire argument about historical race on descriptions of complexion in Icelandic sagas. Another argues that the historical presence and intermarriage of ethnic minorities undercuts myths of a “pure” white race. The idea of “white” as a created category that shifts over time and has very little to do with ancestry is only lightly touched on, and race itself is used as a given value rather than an ahistorical fiction in many of these papers. Too many of the arguments used here to argue against white supremacy are engaging uncritically with the ideas that lead to white supremacy itself. Racism, in this collection, is exemplified in acts of violence and hate speech – not in the structural and unexamined cultural beliefs we inherit.

The papers are also remarkably out of touch in reference to possible antidotes to their collective problem. Again, this is understandable: this was a conference to discuss ideas and theoretical underpinnings, not a strategy session. Still, when suggestions do arise over the course of these papers for what Heathens might do to combat the rising tides of white supremacy in their organizations, they seem dangerously out of touch with the non-academic religious life.

Dr. Strmiska is the most comprehensive in offering potential solutions, suggesting that, in addition to being better scholars and maintaining a cultural understanding that more closely mirrors modern scholarship, Pagans could focus on linguistics as primary to their religious life, in the hopes that “a language-centered Pagan group would be better informed and more thoughtful than the group whose only commonality was ancestry.” This stymied me. As someone whose CV (over-confidently) lists Old Norse and Latin, Dr. Strmiska’s suggestion belies a lack of reflection on what it takes to learn a language and the social support necessary to allow for that.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “A Scholar Seated at a Desk,” 1634 [public domain]

All of that said, I wish I had been in the room where this conference happened. As an academic event, it was notable for inviting community members to present their papers, giving them a voice alongside the scholars studying them. I know several of the contributors, one or two of them personally, and it is good to see their lived experiences presented with the same formality as the more thoroughly academic texts. Even the scholars count practicing Pagans among their number, and I imagine that the real strength of this conference would have been, as it usually is, the discussions after each session. I want to see how these ideas interact when freed from the fences of title and works cited pages, how their words might give birth to movement and flow back into the practice they come from.

Because there are themes here, running through all of these papers like living wood through a tree. Although I might push back against some of Dr. Strmiska’s points, he taps into these themes when discussing how he understands pushing back against the tide of white supremacy. “[W]hat we can do,” he says, “is take every measure to make sure that any racist, white supremacist or neo-Nazi who comes to a Pagan gathering […] is immediately informed that racism is not spoken here.” Tahni J. Nitikins’ paper emphasizes actions by Heathen organizations that take a visible stance against racism, as well as individuals taking anti-racist actions while wearing their holy symbols prominently, an answer to Dr. Calico’s illustration of the AFA’s performances. I do see plans for action here, generally in line with the often-cited Declaration 127.

It is not the fault of Paganism and Its Discontents that I wanted it to be something other than it is. It’s the same problem I often have with my own writing, and even with this review. It’s a problem I see in a lot of the arguments that have helped me understand the world and brought me to my current beliefs. But it leaves me wondering – if we can have these conversations at a high level, scented with the thuribles of the academy, can we find a way to make them more approachable? How do we perform our beliefs in ways that reach people who might need them but do not have the money, the education, or the time to climb the ivory tower? What can make American Heathenry less racist, and American academia less classist?

Whatever the answer is, I’m not sure it will come in a book.

Editor’s note: This column was edited post-publication to remove an insensitive term. 

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