Our nation prides itself on what we consider our vanguard attitudes toward religious freedom. It was the reason Plymouth colony was founded. It is the very first amendment of the U.S. constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (U.S. Const. amend. I)
It is a subject that has been publicly debated in minute detail for the entire duration of our nation’s history. It is part of our identity, part of where we come from and, hopefully, part of our future. That Christians in this country have freedom of religion can not be seriously disputed. In spite of the efforts of some right-wing conservative Christian groups to assert that their religious rights are being imposed on by the institution of marriage equality or the decisions other Americans make with their bodies, no one is preventing them from worshiping as they choose. Judaism and Islam, although sometimes challenged with bigotry and social prejudice, are at the very least recognized by both government and society as legitimate world religions and are protected as well due to their high visibility in our culture. There is an awareness of their existence, and although there may not be a universal harmony and acceptance, persecution of Jews and Muslims is most often openly frowned upon in our society. The problems of religious intolerance and discrimination become far more acute, however, when we leave the familiar confines of Monotheism and enter the world of the non-Monotheist.
In this paper, we will define any religion that believes in or worships multiple deities or spirits a non-Monotheistic religion. This will include practices such as Paganism, Hinduism, Spiritualism, Native American religions, and ethnic and folk religions such as Vodou or Shinto. While these groups are very different in origin, practice, and belief, they all share a similar stigma in our society as marginalized groups, often falsely associated with cult activity or distasteful behavior, such as accusations of ritualistic abuse, animal or human sacrifice, or what is commonly known as “brainwashing”.
Many of these forms of non-Monotheism are not new inventions or are based on older traditions. Hinduism is the predominant religion of India, and with its gods by the thousand it is the oldest extant organized religion in the world. In fact, it predates monotheistic Zoroastrianism by almost 2,000 years. For much of early human history, non-Monotheism or Animistic religions in one form or another were the default. However, our perceived national foundation in Monotheism, in particular Christianity, has left much of our culture blind to the needs of those who follow a non-Monotheistic path. They are often “shoehorned” into pre-existing systems built on Christian scaffolding, are told they need to adapt their beliefs to the majority, or are ignored completely as being too few to consider.
In planning this paper, we were asked to discuss our research topics with our classmates. One of my classmates seemed confused as to why I saw issues such as the denial of access to Pagan chaplains in prison a problem. “Maybe it’s just not cost effective for such a small group”, he said. I was puzzled by this confusion, because what better defines the term “minority” than a small group in a sea of millions? This demonstrates the fact that most Americans have some very distressing ideas about non-Monotheists in this country, the first being that they are a fringe minority and do not merit consideration. This lack of visibility directly leads to dire misconceptions and gross misrepresentations in the media and society as a whole. Because these religions are so badly misunderstood, many adherents avoid public identification with their religion, for fear of derision or persecution at school, at work, or in social circles. All of these factors perpetuate the cycle of neglect and ignorance that is damaging to the individual and has become the hallmark of how non-Monotheism is treated in contemporary American society.
For most non-Monotheists, their religion is an anomaly, something society expects them to keep hidden or to be diminished as the “other.” There are reasons non-Monotheists often wistfully joke about being “in the broom closet.” The ASARB U.S. Religion Census is a very comprehensive study done of the religious landscape of America, however with the exception of Hinduism and Shintoism, it almost completely ignores the majority of non-Monotheist groups. Were these groups deliberately excluded? I contacted the head of Data Collection for ASARB to ask him how they collected this information:
We proactively seek information on groups we’ve heard about, and we solicit information about additional groups. We especially concentrate on larger groups, since they are both more likely to have the resources to provide information directly AND by definition will include more people.
No group that has supplied data has ever been excluded, at least not since the 1990 report when I began managing the data; and we’ve no records of anyone being excluded before. Dale E Jones (personal communication, July 27, 2014)
This indicates that there is no specific effort to exclude these groups, they just are not on society’s radar. The emphasis on the concept of “larger groups” being easier to count also points towards the passive, implied supremacy of the dominant Monotheistic religions maintaining their stranglehold on religious visibility on our country. To look at the ASARB data and assume it was an all-encompassing and completely accurate accounting of religion in the U.S. would lead one to assume that this truly is a non-problem, that almost 2 million Americans simply do not exist.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population, the combined adherents of non-Monotheistic traditions numbered well over 1.8 million (U.S. Census, 2010). That is more than Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism. While each of the groups we have counted as non-Monotheistic (Hinduism, Native American, Wiccan, Pagan, and Spiritualist, specifically) are vastly different in practice and belief, they share the distinction of all being groups that are often socially and politically viewed with a certain snide dismissal in our culture as fringe cults stocked with loonies, hippies, or con artists. Part of this issue is the fact that most statisticians completely ignore these groups in favor of larger, more “important” groups.
In surveys, forms, and legal documents, most non-Monotheists are resigned to having to check the “other” box with no chance to assert or clarify their belief system. This leaves them in a demographic limbo, uncounted and often undifferentiated from Atheists, Agnostics, and other humanistic oriented belief systems. This attitude of all beliefs not of the Judeo-Christian world being lumped together under an anonymous non-religion is a demonstration of the tacit contempt our culture has for religions that are so different from the conventional norm. To say that being a non-Monotheist is the same as being a non-believer degrades and demeans the non-Monotheist’s spirituality in a fundamental way.
In most of the country, non-Monotheists tend to exist in solitude or, if they are lucky, in small communities. According to the U.S. Religion Census study, Hindus in San Jose are 2,383 per 100,000 citizens, and so have the advantage of living in a thriving community of people who share their faith and can practice together (ASARB, 2010). They are also fortunate that because of their numbers, they are not strangers in their own city. Even if you are not Hindu, if you live in San Jose, odds are you know someone who is. It is interesting to note, that although Hinduism is treated as a fringe religion in this country, according to Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life it is the 3rd largest religion in the world at 1 billion adherents globally, just behind Christianity at 2.2 billion and Islam at 1.6 billion (Pew 2012). As for the other groups discussed in this paper? They were listed in this report under “Other Religions” along with the Montheistic religions like Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, as well as questionably religious organizations like Scientology, if they were counted at all.
Similarly, the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is known in the Pagan and Wiccan community as “Paganistan” for its large and thriving New Age, Pagan, Wiccan, and non-Monotheist population (Clifton 2005). New Age and Pagan oriented businesses such as the New Age publisher Llewellyn are located in the Twin Cities area, which has created a Pagan-friendly employment and social environment for many people. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area was also the geographical center for the legal fight Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson (District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin January, 2007), which fought for, and eventually won, the right for Pagan U.S. war veterans to have Pagan symbols on their headstones. This cause was certainly aided by the ability of groups to organize and interact openly and with the support of their immediate community. There is strength in numbers, and having a consolidated hub of like-minded individuals gives them the social, psychological, and financial clout to accomplish what needs to be done.
Only Witches and Weirdos
There is a certain stigma associated with the non-Monotheist community. They are portrayed in the media as being superstitious, silly, juvenile, or even sinister and malicious. Non-Monotheism is treated as if it is the cultural equivalent of a teenage “phase,” and that if we ignore it it will “go away.” American society does not see the need to take these religions seriously, because in the collective mind of America they are not real religions. These are clearly the beliefs of the unbalanced airhead, the attention-seeker, the disenfranchised loner. These are seen as faiths that one has defaulted to, either by disillusionment with Christianity or because the individual just has not had their moment of spiritual epiphany that leads them back to the Christian god. I have been asked by many a Christian what it was that made me turn away from God, to which I can only reply that I have not turned away from God, rather I have turned toward many. There is this idea that since Christianity is the default in our culture, those who choose a divergent path must fit into that paradigm somehow, even if it is in the role of a disgruntled betrayer, Judas. The false depiction of Pagans and Wiccans as Satanists has only served to fuel this stigma, sometimes to the point of violence. Kenny Smith described the attempts of a small Wiccan organization to gain acceptance in the American South in his article “You’ve Been Wonderful Neighbors”: Key Factors in the Successful Integration of a Wiccan Coven into a Suburban Community in the Southeastern United States (2008):
Ravenwood members experienced a wide range of similarly unfortunate incidents, including smoke bombs lobbed through windows, physical assaults and beatings, and so many broken windows and doors that the installation of bullet-proof glass was required. Members were shot at, pelted with stones, and verbally harassed with slogans such as, “Kill the witch.” (p. 107)
This “witch burning” scenario is at the heart of why many Wiccans and Pagans remain publicly hidden in the 21st century. Depending on where you live, declaring your religious affiliation with one of these groups runs the very real risk of violent reprisals or even death threats in this country. In a historical context, accusations of witchcraft have been used to silence people, especially women, for centuries., and it still has a chilling effect today. In a bizarre example of how damaging accusations of witchcraft can be to a woman’s public persona, right-wing Evangelical Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell had to specifically refute her own previous claims that she had dabbled in witchcraft by producing a campaign ad during her run for Senate in 2010 stating she was not a witch, but a good Christian woman with good Christian values. She still lost the election, and was a subject of ridicule online for months to follow.
Hindu groups such as International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also know as the Hare Krishnas, are often depicted as harmful cults. While there have been dangerous or malignant cults with in the ranks of Hinduism, this is true of any religion, regardless of how many gods it contains. Outside of what could be considered “mainstream” Hinduism, which would be impossible to define in any certain terms to begin with, there are many groups that lean toward concepts such as communal living, intense hours spent meditating, and the surrendering of material goods. These are held up as examples of cult activity by the media, when in reality they are simply a different dynamic than what our Western capitalist Christian country considers normal. Because of its ways seemed exotic and inscrutable to the British Colonialists during the 19th century, Hindu iconography quickly became a cheap fashion statement co-opted by stylish Victorian trend-setters with little to no understanding of the profound symbolism contained within. This cultural appropriation persists to this day, with chain “fitness” yoga studios that dilute the spiritual meaning behind the practice replaced with the pursuit of firmer thighs, or pop stars wearing saris, bindis or tilaka onstage, yet showing no understanding of what these adornments symbolize.
Vodou, or Voodoo, is the religion practiced in Haiti based in part on the traditional religions carried with African slaves to the New World. It has a fearsome image associated only with malicious magic spells and zombification, in spite of the fact that zombies in any form have nothing to do with the practices of Vodou. Likewise, other ethnic or folk religions of the African diaspora, such as Santeria, Candomblé, and Obeah are equally misunderstood and maligned. Films as diverse as Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) or the horror film The Believers (1987) exemplify the image of the Vodou or Santeria practitioner as a malevolent and murderous boogeyman of great destructive power. Not only does this expose the inherent religious prejudice against these beliefs, it also shows a complicit racism hidden within the folds of this religious prejudice. These were the syncretic religions of the slaves brought to the New World from Africa, and therefore their frenzied ecstatic rituals and belief in sympathetic magic was something truly fearsome and Satanic to the European Christian slave owner. When you believe the people you oppress are invested with the ability to strike back from a distance, you do everything you can to demonize and exorcise that power. When Haiti was devastated by a earthquake in January 2010, televangelist Pat Robertson claimed it was because the Christian god was angry for Haiti making a “pact with the devil”:
And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said,
“OK, it’s a deal.”
And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. (Robertson 2010)
Mr. Robertson’s poorly constructed attempt to equate the 1791 Haitian Slave Rebellion led by a Vodou priest named Dutty Boukman with a “pact with the devil” shows how deeply ingrained this fear of an exotic god empowering the powerless is in the minds of many Monotheists.
And It Harm None…
So what harm is in the marginalization of the non-Monotheist in American society? To begin with, the very fact that we are having to discuss these groups as a single, conglomerated entity in need of attention speaks to the need for better demographics and understanding. The only thing these groups as religions share is the tenuous and superficial connection of being non-Monotheistic. Even within the groups themselves there is daunting level of diversity. A famous Hindu teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, once said, “There can be as many Hindu Gods as there are devotees to suit the moods, feelings, emotions and social backgrounds of the devotees.” Within the Pagan community the variety is comparably vast. A Wiccan is not the same as a Reconstructionist which is not the same as a Heathen which is not the same as a Druid. To compare one to another is like comparing a Catholic to a Mormon. Christianity frequently rears its head in many of these religions as well, with syncretic or melded systems like Christian Spiritualists or Christo-Pagans. Many of the Native American and Ethnic religions, such as Santeria, combine Christianity with their traditional beliefs, creating a system that is not wholly Monotheistic, nor Polytheistic, but something in between. While all of this seems daunting to consider from a census point of view, it is crucial from a societal perspective for us to realize that just because we have seen a “witch” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not mean we know what a Pagan is.
On large reservations, Native Americans are able to practice their traditional religion together, but it has only been since the passing of the Federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978 that they have been able to do so freely. Even in the present day, many Native Americans struggle for access to sacred lands, sacred objects, and the ability of practice their religion without interference. Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming is a site sacred to several Native American tribes, including the Lakota, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. Climbing the tower is considered a desecration by the tribes, but the U.S. government has only asked that climbers voluntarily refrain from climbing the tower in June, when most of the tribe’s sacred ceremonies are performed. In spite of this rather paltry compromise, climbers still continue to defy the request.
I was recently personally involved in a situation where a friend discovered numerous very sacred Ute and Shoshone artifacts while clearing out his family’s estate in Colorado, including several items that turned out to be medicine man paraphernalia. As he knew the items were purchased illegally, most likely from thieves taking advantage of his elderly and wealthy mother, I agreed to help him track down the rightful tribes to return the artifacts. I contacted tribal leaders and verified the authenticity of the items, only to have my friend’s brother swoop in at the last minute and refuse to part with the items. He claimed that the artifacts were worth a large sum of money, and that if the tribes wanted them returned they would have to pay for them. Although my friend argued vehemently against this, in the end the tribes could not pay the insulting amounts of money the brother expected, he refused to back down, and the only items returned were those that contained eagle feathers, as federal law prohibits the possession of eagle feathers to anyone who is not an American Indian tribal member. It was crushing to see first hand the level of greed and complete lack of consideration given to something so sacred to a group of people.
In many Native American religious traditions, the separation of the spiritual world and what many Monotheistic Americans consider the “real world” is non-existent. What happens to the body, happens to the spirit, and vice versa. Native American children in public schools are often disciplined in harsh ways according to their cultural standards. Their religion considers this damaging to the child’s spirit, which in turn can create a physical or mental illness brought on by a psychic imbalance. The American public school system is not prepared to change its way of dealing with Native American children, and the outcome of these methods can be incredibly devastating to the child. A shocking example of the dire harm that can be caused by a lack of respect or understanding of non-Monotheistic religions comes from Carol Locust’s paper, Wounding the Spirit: Discrimination and Traditional American Indian Belief Systems (1988). In this article, she described exactly how personally destructive society’s ignorance can be:
Indian tribes tend to allow each person his or her harmony without forcing absolute conformity to all cultural standards. This custom allows the individuals who are less capable mentally to find a meaningful place in their society in simple physical tasks, such as wood-gathering. A beautiful Hopi man once wept when he recounted the story of his friend “Bear,” a big, loving, mentally retarded boy who was the village water carrier. The Bureau of Indian Affairs social worker insisted that Bear go to a school in the city. Bear went, but he was terribly homesick and became violent. He spent the next twenty years in the state hospital for the criminally insane and then returned to his village to die. (p. 322)
The heartbreak of this story is that had the young man been left to his own devices, his spirit might have thrived, and he might have survived. The intervention of what the social worker viewed as being “best for him” by the social worker’s cultural standards shows the levels of impersonal indifference to the spiritual needs of the Native American. We dismiss this as being irrelevant; of course he should go to school, why should they be any different than the rest of us? What this ignores is how completely inseparable the Native American spiritual perspective is from their world view. To ignore their cultural needs is to ignore their spiritual needs. The body can not be removed from the spirit, or both will die.
As we were reviewing our oral presentations with our classmates, one of my classmates who has worked on the Lummi reservation recounted a story that was similar to other stories I had heard of Native American children experiencing a loss in their family and then being haunted by their deceased relative in a phenomenon known as “ghost sickness.” This condition can manifest itself in very real and frightening ways, with digestive problems, lethargy, anxiety, nightmares, fainting, and profound depression. My classmate stated that the Lummi child was mocked by her teacher when she raised concerns about her own well-being after experiencing a loss in the family, and the teacher actually laughed at her in front of the entire class. Not only does this clearly illustrate the level of disdain with which many people approach non-Monotheistic religions and dismiss it as superstitious twaddle, this also demonstrates how dangerous it can be to do so. This young child has had her trust broken, why would she ever confide in her teacher again?
At the heart of the denial of non-Monotheists of their share of the American Pie lies fear. Upon reflection, who do we consider the primary adherents of these religions? The stereotypical Spiritualist, Wiccan or Pagan is almost always portrayed as a liberal, feminist woman. The image of the practitioner of Vodou or Santeria is Hispanic or African diaspora. Hindus lived in India under the thumb of British colonial rule until the early 20th century. Similarly, Native Americans were exterminated and oppressed for centuries in America’s own colonial meat grinder. What all of these groups have in common is a distinct lack of prominent privileged, white, male presence. These are the groups that have historically been converted, persecuted, and oppressed, and had Christianity used as a justification and a means to steal their wealth, property, and power. It is deeply embedded in our culture to suppress these individuals, to keep them from amassing a positive presence in our society, and to use force when scorn is no longer effective.
These groups are kept invisible by a systemic lack of effort by governing bodies to recognize and sanction their existence, by society’s reinforced negative stereotyping of them, and by all of these factors chipping away at the identity and cohesion of both group and individual. Until these groups are given equal consideration by the establishment in our society, until they have a positive voice in our communities and media, there can be no true religious equality in America.
ASARB U.S. Religion Census Requirements [E-mail to the author]. (2014, July 27).
ASARB. (n.d.). Religious congregations & membership study 2010. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://rcms2010.org/
Barner-Barry, C. (2005). Contemporary paganism: Minority religions in a majoritarian America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Census, U. (2010, April). United States Census Bureau Self-described religious identification chart. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf
Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson (District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin January, 2007).
Clifton, C. (2006). Her hidden children: The rise of Wicca and paganism in America. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Jensen, G. F., & Thompson, A. (2008). “Out of the broom closet”: The social ecology of American Wicca. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(4), 753-766. .
Locust, C. (1988). Wounding the Spirit: Discrimination and traditional American Indian belief systems. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 317-330. Retrieved July 7, 2014, from Metapress Journals.
Pew Research Center. (n.d.). The Global Religious Landscape. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/
Robbins, T. (2001). Introduction: Alternative religions, the state, and the globe. Nova Religio, 4(2), 172-186. Retrieved July 5, 2014.
Robertson, P. (Writer). (2010, January 13). The 700 Club [Television series episode]. In The 700 Club. Christian Broadcasting Network.
Smith, K. (2008). “You’ve been wonderful neighbors”: key factors in the successful integration of a Wiccan coven into a suburban community in the Southeastern United States. Nova Religio, 12(1), 103-115.
Smith, T. W. (2002). Religious diversity in America: The emergence of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 577-585. doi: 10.1111/1468-5906.00138