We’re Probably Not Prepared

A few months ago, some new Pew stats dropped — a model of what happens if Christianity continues to down-trend. In the model, America becomes dominated by “nones” (and everyone grouped with them, presumably including the “spiritual but not religious” crowd). The information Pew provides on the release itself clarifies that:

Under each of the four scenarios, people of non-Christian religions would grow to represent 12%-13% of the population — double their present share. This consistency does not imply more certainty or precision compared with projections for Christians and “nones.” Rather, the growth of other religions is likely to hinge on the future of migration (rather than religious switching), and migration patterns are held constant across all four scenarios. 

In other words, we will likely not see a massive influx of people in polytheistic and pagan movements, but the number will not be insubstantial. One reason I suspect the numbers may be higher than expected is pop culture occultism and “occulture” — a person comes in for the astrology and stays for the prostrations to Selene. This has entered the mainstream. Also making its way into the mainstream is the idea of a grounding ritual practice and the wearing of divine images. Again, it takes only a small shift to develop piety.

One major point of uncertainty I have about the model is whether or not we are actually prepared as a movement to handle a large influx of ex-Christians, many of whom have exited their previous religions-or-noneship under duress or after a transformative experience. My family started going to pagan circles when I was in late elementary school, and my memory of that period is that I was happy we were finally doing something that made sense. I did not grow up with a sense of original sin, and I stayed under the pagan/polytheist umbrella, unlike my sisters (who have moved around a bit faith-wise). This has its benefits in my devotional life in that the challenges I have to work through are more straightforwardly related to personal things and ambient American cultural detritus, without much in the way of an inner monotheizing tendency or religious trauma response — although my dislike of monotheisms, especially Christianity, has led to some social friction. I know how to explain to others how to juggle logistics so they can finally carve out time to pray when a million things are hitting them at once. Due to the prevailing circumstances, I plan the advice I write with the expectation that a significant minority of readers will need scaffolding to effectively make their way through content that may awaken unpleasant emotions — challenging topics are totally worth it, and being dismissive makes the problem worse. Sometimes I misjudge and end up confused about how something got from point A to point ⴰ. Most of the stuff people label “Christian baggage” is fairly common even among non-Christians, and people just don’t realize how much humans from different environments have in common (we all have similar psychological toolkits, even if there are differences, and most religious trauma results from the exploitation of human social instinct), so it’s also just a good accessibility practice in general.

But. Someone I know who converted to Christianity a while back and is looking to exit keeps having starts and stops due to bad nightmares and the sense of weird things watching them or harming them, and those two symptoms completely disappear whenever they go back. I am completely ignorant of how to wrap my head around any of that. When I am dealing with an unpleasant spiritual state, I do some combination of purification and prayers to Apollon and other Gods, which usually involves me venting about whatever issues I’m experiencing. Sometimes, I do compassion meditations — those are intrinsically purifying because they involve creating an image/icon of providential love within oneself to flow forth to others, and the impure cannot approach the pure. Basically, whatever problem I am experiencing goes away. The only time I ever feel like I’m being watched is if I’m up too late and my mind has started suffering from lack of sleep, a fairly common psychological phenomenon that is solved by going to bed. I plug along day after day, prayerfully, through the fruitful and fallow periods of devotion. Something tells me that my status quo isn’t that helpful to people dealing with complications from prior religions.

This has led me to wonder if factionalism has damaged our ability as a community to handle hard things like this — it’s one thing to talk to people one knows and get a verification that stuff like this happens and quite another for us in general to know where to direct people. (And I’m guessing that this problem impacts ex-Christians more than ex-nones.) I mean, some steps are obvious. First, one assesses whether an experience comes from the gates of ivory or of horn, and in either a yay or nay case whether it’s being amplified by a mental health condition; second comes acting based on where that analysis leads. And then we get into the weeds, where a lot of the spiritual treatments may unintentionally awaken trauma responses if they involve concepts that are similar to whatever the person was wounded by, and where the factionalism issues are thus likely to rampage about everything from the praxis to the theoretical underpinnings of treatment.

So it’s no wonder that I do not believe I have ever read a sincere walkthrough of the topic of weird spiritual malaise sh–t happening on exiting a monotheism by a polytheist (especially not by a polytheist expert on relevant topics) — just the usual primers about practicing discernment when one starts out and then a lot of stuff I would never link someone to that says praying to deities is dangerous. (It’s not, nor is praying to a God “work.” It’s prayer, and anyone can do it. Billions of people around the world pray to Gods and have since young childhood. Let’s not exoticize this.) How easy would this be for someone to find without my librarian skillset given that I’m having so much trouble? How often are they just pushed into New Age-tinged occult videos on YouTube or TikTok (and the algorithms will funnel the person Gods know where after that first click)? Why aren’t there workbooks or one-month-newsletter-prompt signups or something to help these people?

This isn’t the only issue, obviously, but it is one of the big ones on my mind right now. And this post is definitely more of a “hmmm, this is a problem” feedback piece than one that posits any kind of solution — as I said, this stuff is not within my skillset. But maybe it’s in someone’s.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

9 thoughts on “We’re Probably Not Prepared

  1. One big difference is that if you’re leaving a polytheist religion the worst you’ll probably get is ‘sorry to see you leave’- a bit different from ‘you will burn in hell forever, and generations of your descendants will too.’

    The idea that polytheism is stupid and primitive is so pervasive and ingrained that it’s hard to imagine a troublesome influx of new people.

    Also there’s the idea that Christianity is the template for how all religions work. You see that in every atheist meme. I’ve been thinking that Prothero’s “God Is Not One” should be recommended reading- even though it isn’t specifically pagan. Each of the religions he covers has a central problem it addresses, the solution, and method, and they’re all different.

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    1. I recently read “Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt” by Stephen Quirke (2015), and I think a lot of his thoughts have general application.
      He warns about using Eurocentric terms because they send people in the wrong direction: “The very first word that needs a warning sign is religion itself, closely followed by priest, king, and temple.” Faith and belief are other loaded terms he mentions.
      For instance, to most people “priest” means someone who regularly preaches at you and tells you what to believe, and temple=church, where you go every week. An Egyptian priest was more of a ritual technologist, and an ordinary person’s access to the sacred part of a temple was as likely as us visiting the core of a nuclear reactor today.
      Anime fans are figuring out that we’re better off saying Kami and Yokai rather than God and Demon for the same reasons.
      So it might be beneficial to educate new people about that, in a non-stomping manner.

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  2. all the more reason to be better gatekeepers. the problem with “Nones” isn’t that they have no religion and might be drawn to polytheism. the problem is they have no comprehension of what religion is, how to fit it in to their lives, how to do devotion, what it means to be in a devotional relationship with Gods, and moreover, tend to be religiously illiterate across the board. If what you describe becomes the norm, we have to be both better gatekeepers and better teachers. And as to demons…I do think evil spirits exist. Our polytheistic ancestors knew that and most religions save the most debased of the new agers at least give passing acknowledgement to it. The problem there is that given the influence of pop culture, not only are nones religiously illiterate, but they have none of the protections against evil spirits that the devout can call on, and moreover may be attracted to misaligned beings because they’ve been trained to see them as powerful and redeemable by the pop culture in which they swim.

    first thing I’d do when someone comes in is teach them how to honor their ancestors and also to do basic devotional work to the Gods, or one or two to Whom they’re feeling drawn. If they don’t want to do that much, then let them go LARP. we have enough pollution in our communities already. we don’t need more.

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    1. My approach is definitely to focus on the logistical info because cognitive overwhelm/overload is something I have experience with and can give first-person advice on — I’ve heard anecdotally that the way I presented starting daily worship in The Soul’s Inner Statues has helped people do a daily devotional practice consistently as opposed to haphazardly.

      Re: the evil spirits, while the Platonic position is that, in absolute terms, evil spirits cannot exist, it’s a moot point in practice. I mean, if someone is using connections of sympathy to link someone up with material daimones through malefica, or if someone else has attracted daimones that are wrathful and sin-punishing due to the person’s spiritual tradition’s fixation on original sin, it doesn’t matter that the material daimones are innocent in and of themselves. They’re still impacting someone badly. It is admittedly like an entomologist encountering someone with a fly infestation and talking about the ecosystem role of flies and how cool they are instead of actually helping the person with the infestation and side effects, which include the facts that flies carry diseases and pollute food, not to mention that trash maggot battles are plain gross. And I think the case example I used above is one in which daimones are attracted that are causing the nightmares &c. It has too predictable of a presentation to be all in the person’s head.

      Thanks for the info on where you’d start people out.

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  3. “I’m so glad I waited a few years to do deity work when I got into paganism” is an actual sentence I saw written once and the absolutely no questioning of it from people (other than myself) is demonstrative of your point, Kaye. We aren’t. Paganism has become a New Age occult cult of trying to get what you want and curse people you politically disagree. The Gods have been put so far back They’re not even in the backseat. They’re in that flat part way in the back strapped in with the luggage while the dog is also back there constantly tripping over themselves because they can’t seem to figure out that they can’t stand while mom is driving. I’ve been digging through comments on YouTube videos about how “witches” (can I even type that word without quotation marks when literally every spell they do now looks like a DIY art project off of Pinterest?) go about talking about the Gods and it really is crazy how we’ve let the conversation get out of hand. It’s not all bad but there’s more than enough to know we’re not in a good spot. Now, among more grounded people like us, unfortunately I’d say things aren’t sustainable. It sounds like everything is getting subsumed under a collection of interconnected coteries online led by internet personalities trying to force their politics and social expectations on the community. People like Ocean Keltoi and Aliakai are basically running brand cults of themselves that claim to be under the auspices of the Gods. Their only aspirations are the gimmicky Discord servers they run. If that’s all there is then I’d say the future is in bad hands. Most ex-Christians are probably going to go Muslim. I already know someone that converted from Heathenry to Islam because Islam “felt more traditional and had more customs”. That speaks volumes.

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    1. “What starts out [in America] as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.” ― Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

      I don’t usually watch videos from Pagan YouTube, and I have heard that TikTok is worse — I’m very critical of Influencer culture, though. With the cultish, personality-driven spaces, it’s not, for me, even about the politics bit — I’m moderately progressive, so sign me up for high-speed rail, raise my taxes, go go gadget regulation mania, &c. It’s about the fact that Influencers get scared of losing followers and being caught as the sophists they are. I do watch some non-religion-space Influencers, and when they’re doing their dramatic fights with other channels, I have no emotional/belonging investment and can just accept it as weird reality entertainment. I mean, they’re all personalities with monetized channels, this is what they signed up for, right? And their brand stuff is cringe but endearingly cute, like Rowena Tsai’s potato thing. Religious spaces are different because they’re about community, and we’re all equal before the Gods regardless of our ritual role. The coming together is at its most ideal an imitation of the divine symposium of the Gods.

      When the pagan Influencers do their Influencer drama thing, they are spinning stories to make followers dependent on them and their close allies, and their ire is not directed at competing channels. It’s directed at real people, and the goal is to cut followers off from hearing other perspectives because they have become addicted to validation and having followers/power. It can’t be about “block and stay safe” — some influencers said online that I was trying to keep other people from worshipping Gods, and their followers believed them instead of checking my actual record, which is that anyone can worship the Gods, and my critiques are about escapism and the need to stop pretending to be what we’re not. Who needs to be kept safe from that? It’s only threatening to Influencers selling people a fantasy ideal and hooking them into a state of dependency. There is also no human empathy or connection, just an expectation that someone is willing to throw away others they’ve known for decades to appease a crowd of strangers or get blacklisted and hunted out. Definitely no concern for Gods. And the entire situation is a total disaster. Human societies can’t function sustainably like this.

      I’ll stop there because it’s a bit off-topic, and I’d prefer to keep the comments closer to the actual point of the post, so let me steer myself back. I agree that the Gods are not usually being centered in discussions. I think more to the point of the post: we have almost no resources on what to do in situations like the nightmares/entities weirdness I mentioned, and I’m nearly 100% certain that this lack is due to factionalism issues that stifle conversations around treatment protocols for bad sh–t.

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      1. Sorry. I was half out of it when I read this so I forgot about the weird demon thingies lol

        I feel like that’s a simple fix. Or at the very least something that can be dealt with. Ground them in cleansing and devotional practices while also undergoing therapy regarding their conversion journey. If those really are demons, that person will soon realize that those demons will fear getting their butts kicked by the Gods. If it’s just a manifestation of hell anxiety ingrained in them from the over culture then talking through their feelings will make it all go away. I’d suggest that person spend some special time with Gods known for monster / demon killing like Hercules, Thor, Hanuman, Zhong Kui, etc. Whoever it is in that person’s preferred pantheon that takes on baddies. I’d remind the person worried about demons that our Gods have been fighting evil for a lot longer than Jesus. Perhaps maybe tell them about how Apollonius of Tyana fought off empousae or how Orphic rites were used to placate the dead. Our Gods and holy men have been out there superheroing since Day One!

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      2. Yes, praying to a God was the advice I gave, and I’ve mentioned one or two specific prayers — and I’ll add to your Apollonius of Tyana example the example of Iamblichus going to an event and informing everyone there that a dead guy was spoofing the God. I think it’s trickier in these situations because the best source of the advice isn’t a practitioner who has never experienced “Hell anxiety” (me), but someone who has either (a) gone through something similar and overcome it or (b) a person in a position where they’ve helped enough other people through spiritual issues that they are speaking from a place of authority and piety. I’m completely out-of-touch with the context and might as well be on another planet. If it were me going through something like this every. single. time. I tried to spiritually leave a faith and saw the symptoms completely disappear when I went back, I’d be skeptical of advice from a person like myself, too.

        My (Platonizing) framework is that there are no evil-in-and-of-themselves daimones, but that we experience evil as a side effect of getting in states where we’re out-of-sorts with ourselves and become entangled with them and what they do. So prayer and working on becoming a better person/developing the virtues naturally make oneself less vulnerable to them. But that’s a general thing and not something specifically related to ex-Christian issues.

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