Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Covering Ásatrú: Plagiarism and Disrespect

Update (February 5): The American Copy Editor Society's definition of plagiarism in journalism has been added below.

Update (February 11): The response to this article by Religion Dispatches has been added at the end of this post.

The current Ásatrúarfélagið Center in Iceland

Religion journalists, like most members of the modern media, tend to pile on a story. Where one reporter goes, many are sure to follow. As soon as a writer who covers religion posts an article on a new subject, a great many of his or her colleagues will quickly come up with their own versions of the story. Until now, Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” the modern iteration of Old Norse religion) hasn’t gotten this mob treatment by the press.

Iceland Magazine’s January 6 article about the building of the new Heathen temple in Reykjavík seems to have opened the floodgates. Several other articles about the news followed in other media outlets. Reporters who had never mentioned Ásatrú couldn’t resist a story about the first public hof (Heathen temple) being built in Iceland since the nation officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000.

Unfortunately, many of these secondary articles recycle information lifted from stories available online. Very few journalists in the English-speaking world have bothered to do original research or to conduct one-on-one interviews with anyone who belongs to the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), the religious group that is building the new temple.

I got zinged, myself. You can read the story of what happened after I agreed to appear live on the BBC to discuss the temple construction by clicking here. Is it really so hard for journalists to respect minority faith traditions?

Apparently so. The low point so far has been an article with the unwieldy title of “After Early Christian Opposition, Iceland Gets First Pagan Temple in Nearly 1000 Years.” It was posted yesterday by Religion Dispatches, “your independent, non-profit, Webby-nominated source for the best writing on critical and timely issues at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.”

This is a website with heavy connections. The publisher is Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California – the academic entity that also hosts the content generated by Religion Dispatches.

The author of the piece is Joseph Laycock, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School’s Program in Religion and Secondary Education. He’s an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University and the author of Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds (published this month by University of California Press). His journalistic publications include “We Must Teach about Religion in High Schools” for the Religion & Politics website.

Joseph Laycock
Photo from Texas State University website
Given all the academic power in the engine, the fact that the article is almost completely plagiarized is shocking. Nobody expects footnotes and bibliographies for a news article, but this crosses whatever line is left in modern journalism. Other than part of the introductory paragraph and the final rumination on the parallels between Icelandic Ásatrú and American Satanism (!), practically every sentence is taken from an online source.

When I brought the article's plagiarism from Wikipedia to the attention of Religion Dispatches editor Evan Derkacz on Twitter, I received this public reply:

I hereby accept his challenge. What follows is a line-by-line sourcing of Mr. Laycock’s article. Like the worst undergraduate practitioners of plagiarism that I have uncovered, Mr. Laycock did not even bother to carefully rearrange what he lifted. His sentences appear in the same order as they do in the original sources.


Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s language or work as your own. Whether it is deliberate or the result of carelessness, such appropriation should be considered unacceptable because it hides the sources of information from the audience. Every act of plagiarism betrays the public’s trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, our craft and our industry.

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to attribute information, a practice available in any medium. Credit should be given for information that is not common knowledge: facts, theories, opinions, statistics, photos, videos, graphics, drawings, quotations or original wording first produced by someone else.

Telling the Truth and Nothing But
Newsbook produced by National Summit to Fight Plagiarism & Fabrication as part of the 2013 conference of the American Copy Editors Society


Note: The editors of Religion Dispatches have now modified Mr. Laycock's article in response to my criticism. See text box at the bottom of this post for details.

The first uncredited source used by Mr. Laycock is Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Michael F. Strmiska.

Laycock: This month an Icelandic Pagan organization called the Ásatrúarfélag (roughly translated, “the fellowship of those who trust in the ancient gods”) will begin construction of a temple in Öskjuhlíð hill, Reykjavík.
Strmiska, page 127: In Iceland, the poet and farmer Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson and a group of friends… formed the association known as Asatruarfelagid, “the fellowship of those who trust in the ancient gods”…

The next chunk comes from The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, edited by Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis. As he does with the Strmiska book, Mr. Laycock here only uses material available in the free preview of the text available online via Google Books.

Laycock: During an “Allthing” assembly in 1000 CE, Iceland adopted Christianity as its national religion. But the people were still free to worship the old gods such as Odin, Thor, and Freya.
Rabinovitch, page 15: At the national parliament known as the Althing, a decision was made in the year 1000 to adopt Christianity as the official national religion, but Pagan worship practices were allowed to continue in private.

Laycock: When Iceland fell under control of Denmark from the thirteenth century until World War II, stories of the old gods became linked to ideas of independence and nationalism.
Rabinovitch, page 16: In the nineteenth century, intensive study of the Sagas and other early Icelandic literature went hand in hand with rising nationalism and a popular movement for independence from the Danish crown, which finally came in the wake of the Second World War, in June 1944.

Laycock: In 1972 the Ásatrúarfélag was formed by a group of artists and intellectuals led by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a farmer and poet.
Rabinovitch, page 16: The modern Asatru Society was founded in 1972 by a close-knit group of Icelandic artists and intellectuals, led by the charismatic Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924-1993), a farmer and poet…

The next section is taken from the Wikipedia entry for Ásatrúarfélagið. The image of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson used to illustrate the Religion Dispatches article is taken from the Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson Wikipedia page, but it is credited neither to Wikipedia nor to the photographer, Jónina K. Berg, who briefly led the Ásatrúarfélagið between the tenures of Jörmundur Ingi Hansen and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.

Laycock: Beinsteinsson [sic] regarded Christianity as an alien religion and wanted Icelanders to have “a faith of their own,” more connected to the land.
Wikipedia: Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson described the founding of Ásatrúarfélagið as based on a belief in hidden forces in the land and connected to "the desire that Icelanders could have their own faith, and nourish it no less than imported religions".

Laycock: When the Ásatrúarfélag sought to become a legally recognized religion they were met with resistance from Sigurbjörn Einarsson, Iceland’s Lutheran bishop.
Wikipedia: Sigurbjörn Einarsson, Bishop of Iceland, recommended to the ministry that the organization not be granted recognition.

Laycock: Einarsson argued that while Iceland’s constitution granted everyone the right to “found organizations to serve god,” this meant only monotheistic religions; [sic]
Wikipedia: In a written opinion, later published, the bishop pointed out that the Icelandic constitution granted everyone a right to "found organizations to serve god" and that this assumed a monotheistic outlook.

Laycock: The faith of Beinsteinsson [sic] and his friends was polytheistic and enjoyed no Constitutional [sic] protections.
Wikipedia: Sigurbjörn cited the opinion of legal scholar Einar Arnórsson, published in 1912, that "polytheistic religious organizations founded [in Iceland] would therefore not be protected by the constitution".

Laycock: Einarsson also suggested that the worship of Norse gods could not be separated from the racist ideology of the Nazis.
Wikipedia: In Sigurbjörn's opinion the most significant effort to revive Germanic paganism happened in Nazi Germany and was connected to the racial ideology of that regime…

Laycock: Other critics piled on, claiming that everyone seemed content with Jesus save for Hitler and Stalin.
Wikipedia: Morgunblaðið, Iceland's biggest daily newspaper, declared its agreement with the bishop in an editorial. The paper stated that the Christian faith was the "basis of Icelandic society" and that "Christ is enough, though he was not enough for Hitler, Stalin or their followers".

Laycock: Michael Strmiska, a leading ethnographer of modern Paganism, did not detect any racist elements while observing the Ásatrúarfélag.
Note: Althought Mr. Laycock hyperlinks Mr. Strmiska’s name to the publisher page for Modern Paganism in World Cultures, this sentence appears to be a lift from the Ásatrúarfélagið entry.
Wikipedia: In a 2000 study of Ásatrúarfélagið, religious studies scholar Michael Strmiska noted that "Ásatrú movements in America and Scandinavia have been known to espouse racist and Neo-Nazi ideology" but that he was "not aware of any member of Icelandic Ásatrú espousing such sentiments or ideology".

Mr. Laycock next returns to Rabinovitch and Lewis’s The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism.

Laycock: Despite these objections, Ásatrúarfélag became a legally recognized religion in 1973 and has gained increasing acceptance ever since.
Rabinovitch, page 16: Asatru initially experienced difficulty in obtaining recognition from the government, but in recent years it has been increasingly accepted into the mainstream of Icelandic society.

Laycock: Beinsteinsson’s [sic] funeral in 1993 was broadcast on national television.
Rabinovitch, page 16: The funeral of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson in late 1993 was broadcast on national television.


Every writer takes ideas from somewhere. However, it is shocking to see such brazen use of unattributed borrowings in an article by a published academic in a source hosted by the communication school of a major university.

This is not a case of an independent blog or personal website. Religion Dispatches is a major generator of journalistic content on the subject of religion that openly displays the academic credentials of its staff and contributors. They claim to provide not merely good writing on religion, but “the best writing.”

We must now question how much of the other content on their website has been lifted from Wikipedia and other online sources, how much of Mr. Laycock's past academic and journalistic writing has been plagiarized, and how responsible the editors are for allowing this material to be posted.

Religion Dispatches editor Evan Derkacz wrote that the allegation of plagiarism “should discredit you thoroughly.” I completely agree, and I question whether he had himself bothered to “do a plagiarism check online for free” before publishing the article.

Following Mr. Derkacz's own logic, the question is:

What will the consequences be for the discredited author, editor, publisher and institution?


There are two things in the article that appear to be original ideas by Mr. Laycock – or at least ideas for which I haven’t found an online source.

One is his comparison of the religious tradition of Icelandic Ásatrú to phenomena in American pop culture:
The early movement drew from many of the same Romantic currents of the 1960s that in the United States led to the cult of Tolkien and the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronism.
As religious historian Hugh B. Urban points out in his 2011 book, The Church of Scientology,
…since the early 1980s, most American scholars of religions have criticized and often vehemently rejected the use of the word cult, which they see as so burdened with negative connotations as to be largely useless, if not downright dangerous, when applied to new religious groups.
I find it very hard to believe that Mr. Laycock, a well-trained academic who writes on new religious movements, is unaware of the connotations of this term when used in an article about a minority religion. In addition, drawing comparisons between practitioners of a religion and fanatic fans of fantasy fiction or members of a hobby organization that performs costumed historical re-enactments is hard to take as anything other than condescending and dismissive of Ásatrú as a religious tradition.

The other seemingly original idea of Mr. Laycock is to compare the Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland to The Satanic Temple in the United States. Again, I find it very hard to believe that a scholar of American religion doesn’t know of the history of paganism of various sorts being illogically conflated with Satanism by politicians, journalists, police and Christian leaders in the United States.

After inventing parallels between Ásatrú and Satanism, Mr. Laycock acknowledges that the “satirical antics” of current Satanists “cannot be compared to the spirituality of Beinteinsson.” No matter what equivocations or explanations he makes at the end of the piece, he has in fact made exactly that comparison. That’s simply an ugly thing to do when covering a minority faith tradition.


Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project for Heathens in the military, joined the brief Twitter conversation with the editor of Religion Dispatches:

In fact, no Heathen was interviewed by Mr. Laycock for his piece. As shown above, all of the direct quotes in his article were lifted from online sources. In the internet age, how hard is it to find one breathing follower of Ásatrú on the planet?

It’s not that hard. Last night, I asked ten Heathens (and one Pagan) to give their reaction to the Religion Dispatches article. Here’s what they said.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, goði (priest) of the Ásatrúarfélagið
I really don't think this is an “all bad” article, since he admits that the connection to Hitler and all that crap is not connected to Iceland as much as the US. His sight on Ásatrú, of course, is based on his own lack of connection to Ásatrú in Iceland (like so many others). In my mind, naming Ásatrúarfélag and Ásatrúar people in Iceland and Hitler, racism, militarism and so on in the same sentence is an insult to us and our religion and shows exactly just how little people know about it. I don't know this guy, but I can only speak for myself.

Haukur Bragason, goði (priest) of the Ásatrúarfélagið
I don't get any of the connections. Tolkien, SCA, Satanists. I don't get it. Can't see where that comes from. The connections to the three groups are absurd.

“More importantly, the temple symbolizes the arrival of the Ásatrúarfélag, founded in 1972, into Iceland’s religious mainstream.” What? We've been mainstream for years. To me, this doesn’t add up.

Kári Pálsson, member of lögretta (board of directors) of the Ásatrúarfélagið
I would have things right before posting. Keep things right and working academically is the key to reflecting the best message.

Steven T. Abell, Steersman of The Troth, a Heathen organization in the U.S.
There are some old stories out of Northern Europe. They still matter to some people. Some of these people are supernaturalists. Some are atheists. Some are somewhere in between. What we all tend to hear in these stories is the need to pay attention to the world we live in, and to behave as honorable adults. If that is a problem for anyone in a civil society, I know where the problem lies. If the Religion Dispatches writers want to report on Ásatrú, they might start by talking with actual Heathens, instead of recycling the gossip of others.

Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project
Journalism should be about finding the truth, uncovering the story that needs to be told, and not pretending to do research when what you are writing comes from Wikipedia – and claiming it’s true! This gentleman can do better. He needs to do better to represent himself and the organization for which he writes, and to show respect for the people whom he's writing about.

Its a tired trope to associate Heathens and Pagans with fantasy and roleplaying games. Both are respectable hobbies and art, but that is all they are. Heathenry/Ásatrú is a worldview that offers solutions to society by focusing on community and self-improvement and building reciprocal relationships with the earth and its natural gods. Stop attempting to make the equation fantasy + immature people = Heathenry.

Eric Scott, author at The Wild Hunt
Note: Mr. Scott’s article on the Icelandic temple is the best coverage to date.
While I believe Mr. Laycock's intentions in publishing this article were good, it should be noted that Ásatrúarfélagið's place in Icelandic society is considerably different from the place of any minority religion in the United States. While Ásatrúarfélagið's early days may have been marked by some conflicts with the Icelandic parliament, in modern times the fellowship has enjoyed considerable support from the national government and from the city of Reykjavík, the latter of which donated the very plot of land the new temple will be built upon. Comparing Ásatrúarfélagið's position within its society to The Satanic Temple's position within the United States does not seem appropriate to me.

Jennifer Lohr, author of Baltic Mist (a series based on Icelandic sagas)
I don’t think this article gives a deep enough perspective into what Ásatrú represents for someone like me. There is a progression and moving forward perspective about Ásatrú – always growing and evolving. It’s much more than the mythology.

Sigurboði Grétarsson, member of lögretta (board of directors) of the Ásatrúarfélagið
I'm not sure how to put my feelings to words right now, but I'm rather tired of people constantly trying to compare Ásatrú with Christianity and how we are different and/or similar. Comparing Ásatrú to Christianity is like comparing a tree to a star.

Icelanders have been embracing their heritage for centuries (this is no different from any other culture), and I believe Sveinbjörn only wanted to re-awaken a declining custom of our nation by getting people interested in reading about their own flesh and blood from hundreds of years ago, and what adventures they had, and what they believed in.

Andreas Zautner, member of Eldaring, a Heathen organization in Germany
The association of Forn Siðr/Ásatrú with Tolkien’s fantasy and something anachronistic seems only to be used to deny the seriousness and legitimacy of the modern Norse religion. LARP [live action role-playing] based on Tolkien’s fantasy is something completely different from modern enlightened Norse religion.

Einarsson's suggestions that the worship of Norse gods could not be separated from the racist ideology of the Nazis are complete nonsense. So far I have not seen any connection between Stalin and the Nordic religion outside of this text – nowhere. This is complete nonsense.

Regarding the privileges of Christian churches, one should adopt a secular point of view – i.e., we should give every religious organization the same rights and no one should be supported with (misused) taxpayers' money.

Regarding The Satanic Temple, one must first of all make clear what constitutes a religion. The word religio originates from the roman mos maiorum – ancestral custom. It is the bond between gods and mortals to preserve the pax deorum – peace of the gods – or simply the harmony and balance in the universe. Satanism falls hard for me into this category. On the one hand this is for me in many parts a very symbolic criticism of the Christian church. Actually, we find here the old Christian view that everything non-Abrahamic is somewhat evil.

Anyway, the blót-house (temple) of the Icelanders is a symbol of the freedom of religious self-determination.

Robert Chapderlane, member of The Troth
I don't expect an article to expound Heathenry in great depth or to know that Icelandic Ásatrú is just one aspect, albeit the public face. I do expect an author and assistant professor of alternative religions to put in more effort than plagiarism and at least treat the subject with the respect it deserves.

Heather Greene, Managing Editor of The Wild Hunt
While sincere in his attempt to shed light on Iceland's Ásatrúarfélag, Religion Dispatches' Joseph Laycock muddled the discussion when juxtaposing the tireless religious freedom efforts of the U.S.- based Satanic Temple with the quest for legitimacy of Iceland's Ásatrúarfélag. Within each country, minority religions and their organizations face an array of obstacles that are wholly based on the country's unique socio-political environment. While it is always tempting, as a journalist, to compare these struggles across national borders, such a comparison often results in confusion and misrepresentation.


What will the consequences be for the discredited author, editor, publisher and institution?


A week after my criticism was posted, Religion Dispatches has modified Mr. Laycock's article in response.

► A photo credit has been added that acknowledges Jónina K. Berg of the Ásatrúarfélagið as the photographer.

► Quotation marks have been removed from a statement wrongly claimed to have been made by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið.

► Hyperlink citations have been added that acknowledge previously unattributed sources used by Mr. Laycock.

► A statement has been added: "RD regrets the errors."


Anonymous said...

Plaigarism charges aside, ill-conceived comparisons to Nazis, Satanism, and Christianity aside as well, I was profoundly excited to hear of an actual Asatru temple being built in Iceland. I would like to renew our wedding vows in this temple. I truly can't imagine a more meaningful way to spend our 20th anniversary than in Iceland at a real Heathen temple.

Unknown said...

Dear Dr. Seigfried,

in "COVERING ÁSATRÚ: PLAGIARISM & DISRESPECT" you wonder about "maybe original ideas" of Laycock.
Well, you can find the idea to connect Ásatrú and fanatsy fiction in Stefanie von Schnurbeins work (e.g.: Religion of nature or racist cult?
Transformationen neugermanischen Heidentums seit 1900). Von Schnurbein started her project on this topic in 2010.
You can find on her homepage at University the following text as a short description of her work (sorry, german only;

Die Welt "nordischer" Mythen, wie sie vorwiegend in mittelalterlichen isländischen Quellen überliefert ist, inspiriert bis heute weite Bereiche des (populär-)kulturellen Lebens und erreicht derzeit in der Musikszene (Metal und Neo-Folk), in der Rollenspielszene, in Fantasyfilm und –literatur und im Internet einen neuen Höhepunkt. Dass hinter diesen imaginierten Bildwelten eine kleine, jedoch höchst aktive, mittlerweile 100 Jahre alte religiöse Subkultur steht, ist hingegen kaum bekannt. Diese Subkultur vermittelt einerseits ihre Ideen und Imaginationen in weitere kulturelle, soziale, politische und wissenschaftliche Felder. Anderseits schöpft sie ihrerseits Ideologeme und Glaubensinhalte aus politischen (nicht zuletzt auch völkischen), wissenschaftlichen und künstlerischen Strömungen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Gegenstand des geplanten Buchprojekts ist eine umfassende qualitative empirische Untersuchung von Gruppierungen in Deutschland, den USA, Großbritannien und Skandinavien, die zum Ziel haben, das, was sie für vorchristliche "germanische" Religionsformen halten, wieder zu beleben und die unter Namen wie Asatru, Odinismus, Alte Sitte u. ä. firmieren. Dabei stehen die erwähnten historischen und aktuellen Austauschbeziehungen zwischen der Ideenwelt des „neugermanischen Heidentums“ sowie neuen sozialen und politischen Bewegungen, Wissenschaft und Kunst im Zentrum des Interesses.

The other question about the connection of Ásatrú and Contemporary Satanism might be slightly connected to me and my own research topics. My dissertation was about Contemporary Satanism. My Habilitation is about Ásatrú in Iceland and Germany. No matter how often I point out, that there is no connection (if we don't talk about Edred Thorsson/S. Flowers), people still think that they must mix it up.

Next Post Previous Post Home