(This will be the last of the “Intro” variety posts for a good while at least.)
“How I abandoned monotheism for polytheism, and then polytheism for atheism” -by BNF, age 8 (+/- 30 years)
Up until I was around 5 years old, my family attended the local Lutheran church every Sunday. Then my parents bought a 22′ cabin cruiser and decided that since God is everywhere, He can certainly be in the Chesapeake Bay, blessing us with lots of fish to catch and ignoring our blasphemous swearing when jellyfish would congeal on the anchor line. There was zero talk of religion during these numerous fishing trips, but often as we’d move from one fishing spot to the other, my mind would drift towards big questions, like the nature of free will and whether or not we’ll get home in time to catch “Star Wars” on HBO. Regardless of whether or not we filled the cooler with trout, flounder, or bluefish, any day out on the Bay was far better than one that began by being lectured by some guy in a bathrobe.
I’ll fast forward a few years to my parents’ divorce, which was nice and messy. During one of the failed reconciliation attempts, my mother’s ex decided we all needed Jesus in our lives and had to be washed of our sins. Funny, I don’t recall running off to Florida for 2 weeks with my secretary at the tender age of 8, but damn it, I too had sins that had to be purged. Or so I was told. This began a several months-long tour of every church in the area. After each service, my mother’s soon-to-be ex would often ask the minister if he could be forgiven for his sins. Without fail, every last one of them said that yes, he could be saved – as long as he loved Jesus.
Really? Forget apologizing to his wife of 19 years, forget apologizing to his four children for using us as pawns to fuck with my mother’s head – as long as he believed in Jesus, he would be fine. And we were supposed to be okay with that? What about responsibility for one’s actions? What the hell kind of morality comes out of this insane system of “You can do pretty much anything and get to Heaven, as long as you love Jesus” malarkey?
Ultimately, the reconciliations failed, my parents’ divorce was finalized, and my mom got full custody of all the kids, the house, and (most importantly), the boat. Fishing trips soon resumed, we didn’t set foot in a church unless it was for Boy Scouts or a rummage sale, and all was right with the world for almost ten years.
What happened next might have been a caffeine-inspired hallucination or a very overactive imagination or some combination of the two, but I had a “divine experience” a few months before my 18th birthday. I was fishing at my normal spot on Johnson’s Pond when I heard something in the woods nearby. I looked up the hill into the thicket and saw a large deer head, complete with a full rack of antlers. I’d never seen a deer by the lake, and whatever inane problem that had been bothering me left my head at the same time, so obviously this was no ordinary deer. And did I catch a glimpse of a human face beneath the deer head? Yes, I was certain that I did, which could have only meant that I had been visited by Herne the Hunter. Truly, there was no other explanation, aside from my (at the time) current obsession with the BBC’s “Adventures of Robin Hood” in which Herne plays a central role in the earlier seasons. Or the oodles of books on mythology I had read over the years, not to mention my ownership of no less than two copies of “Deities and Demigods” from TSR. Yes, verily this was a divine experience and not just a wandering buck stumbling across a teenage boy fishing. I ran home, cracked open my loaner copy of Ray Buckland’s “Complete Book of Witchcraft” from the library, and started on my new spiritual path. I mean, what else could I have done? I was chosen, right?
While living at home, I hid my new-found faith from my family, knowing they’d only mistake it for Satanism or seriously question my sanity. After I went off to college, I became more open about my practicing of The Craft of The Wise, eventually meeting up with a few like-minded individuals. Irked at the number of Christian organizations on campus, we formed the University of Vermont Pagan Society, a “safe space” for all practitioners of polytheism, though most of us were Wiccan. Not only did we get money from the school for a budget, but we received a spot on the Spiritual and Religious Life council, a group of clergy and representatives from all of the student religious groups on campus. Praise the Goddess, amirite?
I met my wife during my last year at school, and – surprise, surprise – she too was a Wiccan, though of a Dianic tradition that met as a coven. Once we were married, my wife received permission from the Grand High Priestess to start her own coven, and I was her first member. I still went to Pagan Society meetings, so we had a nice steady flow of potential coven members, most of whom were women trying to escape the grasp of a Patriarchal belief system. Bullshit and woo aside, we all made great friends in the group and had loads of fun just hanging out before and after the monthly rituals. And I was the first male to go from Initiate to Priest in this particular tradition – Boy Power!
After four years of running the coven in Vermont, we ended up moving to Pennsylvania due to monetary issues. Vermont is a beautiful and fantastic place to live, but it’s one of those places where you need a high paying job to thrive, and regrettably we were always just skating by. At least by moving to PA, we would be closer to my wife’s family, who has been (and are) an immense help with everything life’s thrown at us. The other cool perk was that my wife’s mom just happened to be a Priestess of her own Dianic Coven, so we just hopped right in and joined the cavalcade of whimsy. There were more men involved with the group, but nobody seemed to mind as long as the Goddess was praised first. We stayed in the coven for about five more years after moving to Pennsylvania. My mother-in-law and my wife both became High Priestesses, and at least a dozen new initiates were flown out as full Priests and Priestesses during this time. Our last year in the group saw me start the path to becoming the first High Priest in the coven, but this did not happen due to – brace yourselves – drama.
You see, when my wife was elevated to High Priestess, another gal in the group – who I shall hereafter refer to as WitchPope – was also working towards her HP rank. Well, “working” in a very liberal sense. My wife wrote out rituals, shopped for crafts and food, coordinated meetings, ran the website, and probably a dozen other things behind the scenes. WitchPope just seemed to show up, read her part of the ritual, and spend the rest of the time there talking about her daughters. Also, she was still attending Catholic services with her husband *and* she had her daughters baptized, so there were some questions as to her commitment to Sparklemotion…erm, the Coven. These concerns were brought up by some of the group (myself included), but were dismissed by the High Priestess (my mother-in-law), who figured once WitchPope was elevated to High Priestess, she would run off and form her own coven. Miraculously, sometimes even the Goddess gets things wrong, and what happened was that after my mother-in-law stepped down, my wife and WitchPope were put in charge. After a year of this shared leadership, my wife stepped back to let WitchPope run the show unilaterally. Honestly, I think she did it just to see what would happen, not unlike a child putting a fork into an electrical outlet. The results were not as shocking, as WitchPope attempted to micromanage the coven, even going so far as to come up with a dress code for private rituals. This pissed off most of the group. As if things couldn’t get any worse, one of the new Priestesses (codename: Seductress) had decided to leave her husband and look for a new man. After putting up an online ad, she found a guy, who just happened to be a married pastor at one of the local churches. Had this been Vermont, none of us would have batted an eyelash, but as this was northeastern PA, the threat of potential violence against the group was deemed very tangible. However, because Seductress was very tight with WitchPope, the union was given a divine blessing and we were forbidden from discussing our thoughts on the situation. Almost immediately, my mother-in-law left the coven, followed by two other Priestesses, and then my wife and myself.
The dissolution of the coven really got me to thinking about just how fucked up working with groups can be, so I decided to go my own way and put my pentacle aside. I had always been a huge fan of the Norse mythos, so I decided to try my hand at Asatru. I bought the Eddas off of Amazon, picked up a few Mjolnir pendants at a nearby pagan shop, and constructed a Hof out of a gazebo one weekend, then stocked up on mead. It was a gloriously lonely time, hailing the Asgardians and getting pissed on Bunrattie in my backyard while my fundamental neighbors watched and shook their heads. Fuck ’em, Odin was pleased, and that’s what mattered, right?
During this foray into Scandinavian paganism, I spent a lot of time on YouTube, mostly to watch videos of viking metal bands. My wife and I would trade links from our YouTube adventures, and she sent me one from a site called Symphony of Science. I watched the video, and it consisted of an autotuned Carl Sagan from clips of “Cosmos” singing about the universe. Having seen bits of “Cosmos” as a kid, I found it hilarious and wanted more. So I subscribed and started looking into these scientists. Following links around, I ended up watching some of Atheist Experience, and then I found Thunderfoot and Aron Ra and Dusty Smith. Holy shit, these fuckers made sense! All those big questions actually had answers that didn’t rely on ice giants or divine tata’s in the sky or any such balderdash! And the questions that didn’t have answers were acknowledged as such – what a marvel concept! I spent less time reading the Eddas and haunting Northvegr in favor of watching videos of Hitchens and Harris and Shermer and Dawkins. Hell, I think I even cruised by Pharyngula once or twice, then realized it was run by the guy that fucks with online polls and thinks he runs the internets because of it, so I gave it a wide berth.
My wife noticed my rejection of deities before I did, as I was exuberantly telling her about all the cool shit I had read and seen. We’d talk about the nature of reality, whether science and religion could co-exist, and all manners of esoteric shit that years ago we would just defer to the wisdom of the Goddess. After weeks of this, my wife asked me if I believed in any of the gods and goddesses anymore, and I sighed and shook my head, saying that there’s really no need for them as we as a species has either figured out what really makes shit work in the universe, or are on the way to doing exactly that. I posited that if any of these mythic figures did exist, they were likely just heroes or chieftains or popular figures in their respective cultures that became deified as time went on. She looked at me and asked, “Even Odin?”
Yeah, even that one-eyed fucker with the ravens. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great stories. But they’re just total fiction not intended to be used for shaping one’s worldview with regards to our place in the cosmos. That and in nearly two decades of being a spellcasting holy man, I never once got to lob a fireball or call down a lightning strike on anything. Weaksauce.
Wow, you made it this far and you’re still awake? You have my sympathies.