Saturday, September 3, 2016

Questions About Ásatrú Religion

On Thursday, a journalist from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis contacted me with questions about Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Norse and Germanic polytheistic religions. John Reinan was writing a local-focus piece involving the traditions and was researching background on the religions to give context to his article.

The core of Mr. Reinan's story was Camp Courage's cancellation of a booking by the Asatru Folk Assembly, an extremist organization that planned to use the Minnesota campground for what was presented as "a harvest-type festival." The AFA's reservation was cancelled when Camp Courage management determined that the group's "mission and areas of focus significantly conflict with [our] core values."

Logo of the Asatru Folk Assembly

Mr. Reinan did due diligence on the subject, speaking to practitioners of Ásatrú within and without the AFA, and wrote a piece that leaves no doubts about the racialist views of this particular organization. His article, "Minnesota camp cancels booking of Nordic heritage group with white supremacist bent," rises above past reporting on Ásatrú by Religion Dispatches and Religion News Service.

Across the globe, Heathens come from a wide variety of nationalities, ethnicities, economic circumstances, educational levels, and gender identities. There are African-American Heathens, Latinx Heathens, transgender Heathens, and Heathens who are members of LGBTQ+ communities. Ásatrú and Heathen organizations and individuals have repeatedly and publicly denounced the AFA as a fringe group that does not represent the overwhelming majority of those who practice the various associated traditions.

The questions that Mr. Reinan asked me were more insightful and interesting than many I have been asked by mainstream journalists on the topic of Ásatrú. Due to the space limitations of his article, he didn't use most of my answers. He has kindly given me permission to post his questions (in bold) along with my full replies.

In general, what is your view on the current state of Norse-focused religions? Are they gaining adherents in the United States? I’ve seen your 2013 census – do you still think that’s accurate?

Ásatrú and Heathenry are definitely growing in the United States. The results of the Worldwide Heathen Census I conducted in 2013 led me to estimate the number of adherents in the U.S. at nearly 20,000. The number has surely grown since then, and I am planning a follow-up census to reflect this growth.

Worldwide Heathen Census was conducted in 2013

My original study was designed to complement works like the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center, which disappear members of minority religions into categories like "New Age" or "No Religious Preference." Such erasure distorts the rich web of small religions in the United States.

To what do you attribute the appeal of Nordic heritage religions?

The various revivals, reconstructions, and re-imaginings of pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religions appeal to a wide base of people for a wide variety of reasons.

In Iceland, members of the Ásatrúarfélagið ("Ásatrú Fellowship") can trace their family trees directly back to the pagan heroes of the sagas, so they are literally returning to the religion of their ancestors. This connection cannot be claimed by those who practice Heathenry in the other ninety-seven countries in which adherents have self-reported.

Some are attracted by the powerful pagan poetry of Iceland from the Viking age, some by the magnificent myths of the gods and heroes that have survived. Some people are drawn to the mystery of archeological finds documenting religious practices dating to nearly 2000 BCE – practices as old as the earliest beginnings of Judaism.

Bronze Age rock carving in Sweden

What makes Heathenry different from the majority of world religions is that the vast majority of its followers today choose to participate in the religion. This distinguishes the tradition from so many faiths – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in which one basically continues the religion in which one was raised.

Through such a lens, Heathenry is a religion of free will and adult choice, and the others are based on family practice and ancestry.

What makes a group a religion rather than a cultural enterprise?

What makes any group a religion rather than a cultural enterprise? If we define "religious practice" to mean only a sacred moment in which one is engaged with the numinous, then Heathenry qualifies just as much as Christianity or any other better-known faith.

But the lines between religion and cultural enterprise are blurred for all of us. How often do we hear that a friend is "culturally Catholic" or "culturally Jewish"?

There is more to belonging to a tradition than that moment when one eats the communion wafer or raises the horn to Odin.

How accurate or authentic are the religious beliefs and practices observed by these religions? In other words, do you think they’re some actual approximation of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, or are they more a wishful re-creation in modern terms of what people hope or guess they were like?

There is a variety of approach to ritual and belief in worldwide Heathenry, just as there is for any religious tradition.

Like Christians who insist that today's practice must approximate as closely as possible the rituals of the first century of Christianity, there are Heathen reconstructionists who insist that ritual and worldview must be based on rigorous study of primary and academic sources.

First-century ritual of the goddess Nerthus (Emil Doepler, 1900)

Like liberal Jewish practitioners, there are Heathens who believe that their religion must change with the times and incorporate modern developments in science, human rights, and so forth.

Is it fair to ask a Muslim today how "accurate or authentic" her religious beliefs and practices are? Religious traditions are very complex and interesting things.

Do you consider the Asatru Folk Assembly to be a white supremacist group?

Since its inception, the leaders of the Asatru Folk Assembly have defined the organization in opposition to the tolerant mainstream of Heathenry.

Stephen McNallen, the organization's founder, told religious historian Mattias Gardell that the founding of the group was in reaction to "liberals, affirmative-action Asatrúers, black goðar [priests], and New Agers" populating American Ásatrú.

McNallen is profiled in Gods of the Blood

For decades, McNallen and prominent members have issued screeds against racial minorities, claimed that religious affiliation is determined by DNA, and insisted that their version of the religion is only for white people.

The group's tactic has long been to use dog-whistle terms while simultaneously engaging in activities such as recruiting at white-power conventions, as reported by Media Matters and confirmed by sociologist Dr. Jennifer Snook. Recently, the new leadership has abandoned the old caution and openly used white nationalist rhetoric in public statements.

At this point, with decades of history and documentation, it is difficult to see the AFA as anything other than a hate group on the extreme fringe of Heathenry.

In your view, how widespread are supremacists in the Nordic folk religions versus those who are involved for benign cultural reasons?

Every religion has an extremist fringe. Many groups have racists that appropriate their traditions to promote far-right ideologies.

Heathenry is no different, yet the coverage of Heathenry is different. Almost without exception, journalists and academics will only cover the racist element. This is quite different from treatment of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

White nationalists vs. regular Heathens as % of total Heathen
community, based on research of sociologist Jennifer Snook
The tiny percentage of extremist Heathens is repeatedly held up for public scrutiny while the mainstream of everyday Heathens is completely ignored. This is a shameful practice, and I hope that – with the growth of the Heathen population in the United States – this will change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said and well done. Thank you.

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