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.
Zen and the Art of Childhood
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 the hallmark of Western civilization for two thousand years, and its roots run deep.
This essay is cross-posted at Pagan Sojourn.