Pagan Studies

Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Religious biological determinism is racism

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Religious biological determinism, the idea that your race or ancestry determines who you should worship, is just racism by another name, lies beyond the pale of Paganism, and is not to be tolerated.


There has been a spate of discussion on the net about racism in the Pagan community. There is a lot to say about racism, but being an Irish-Slovak male, I tend to take leadership from those who are oppressed by racism and support them like I do women regarding feminism. So, normally I support rather than speak, but today speech is that support. First a rundown of some of the major elements:

On August 24 Piparskeggr Skald wrote a post on his W&P blog site, “A short note on my associations…”, which opened with, “I am a man who freely admits that I am most comfortable with folks who resemble me most strongly,” and quickly followed by
Joseph Bloch on August 28 with “Is this Pagan? (Part 1)”. There were a number of objecting comments and debates regarding their support for racially and ethnically segregated Paganism(s).

On the same day Morpheus Ravenna posted on W&P, “Whose Ancestors?” Which opened with “Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King's speech seems a good day to write about them.” Ravenna took the other side of the argument, starting with the problem presented by an upcoming music festival which is reported as being a fascist and racist rally here: “Anon: Fascists Rally at Stella Natura Festival, Guest post by a concerned group of antifascists who are lovers of black metal and Nature”, 19 August 2013 on Who Makes the Nazis? Keeping an eye on the neo-fascists burrowing their way into a subculture near you.

Debate ensued in on-site and off and resulted in Skald, and Bloch resigning their blogs on W&P and Ravenna having hers terminated by W&P. All of their posts have since been removed. Joseph Bloch wrote about his withdrawal in “Why I am No Longer Blogging at Witches & Pagans” on Jön Upsal's Garden, August 29, 2013. Ravenna’s post was mirrored on her own site, Banshee Arts, and so remains to read.

This brief skirmish is just the visible end of a larger conflict heretofore quietly being waged in the Pagan community. I am but a mage and a priest and so my focus is on the religious health of our community. But studies by those far more focused on the subjects of race and politics than I are showing that the Pagan community is being infiltrated by racists and their pernicious ideas, wrapped in clever rhetoric. This is happening on a number of fronts but our Heathen/Norse friends are taking the brunt of it. One of the better summaries of the problem as they see it is here: “Racism in Asatru” by Wayland Skallagrimsson. More about one of the organizations involved, the Asatru Free Assembly is here and here.

Seeing the problem, folks are taking a stance. Thought leaders like Amy Hale in a recent interview with Erik Davis and John Beckett here have started building up the critical and incisive arguments that the Pagan community can use to prevent the subtle but pernicious infiltration by racists and fascists we are currently enduring. Applying my own discipline, I hope to make a modest contribution to this discussion below.

The point is simple: Anthropologists have concluded that there is no factual basis for associating culture with a genome.

The proof is also simple: The foreign born, raised amongst us, adopt our culture. They don’t spontaneously start speaking the language or practice the religion of their genetic inheritance. They take up the religion of their adoptive family.

To use a contemporary metaphor, culture functions more like software on the body-as-hardware. Culture is not even analogous to the Operating System. That is the truly ancient system of knowings, learnings, and doings that are our common humanity. We all eat, excrete, mate and move.

A worthy parallel to culture is something like a desktop application like Windows running over DOS or the Apple Finder over UNIX. Only a little imagination is required to see in a desktop app an implied cosmology (environment, look and feel) and a pantheon of commands and subordinate applications. Culture and Desktop apps condition our way of moving and being in their respective worlds.

Religion, group spiritual engagement, is an aspect of culture, the way a group of people does things. It is learned from those you are with. In today’s world we are exposed to many ‘ways’ and have the opportunity to choose how we will live our lives from among them, even religiously. In the ancient world, while visiting or living in a different culture, one makes offerings to the Gods of the host culture. It is simply polite. If one adopted or was adopted by a culture, one could fully participate in that religious life: if you spoke Greek, you could participate in the Eleusinian mysteries, no matter where you were from.

Some today are taking a recent notion of nationhood, one developed only since the mid-1700s, and reifying it into a false concept of ‘race’. Then they assign who should worship which pantheon. Normally I would not care. There are only a few behaviors in our fairly antinomian subculture that are unacceptable. Violence and abuse are among them. So is racism, itself a kind of abuse.

Taking one’s genome as determinant of who one should worship is simply another form of racism. It is a way of creating division amongst humans unfounded on any facts, on any reality, other than a misconstrued notion of what makes a people, what makes a culture. Culture, and religion, is found in what you do, not your bloodline. Those who use the idea of culture or religion as tied to one’s genetic inheritance are attempting to sneak racism into Paganism, and this must not be tolerated. It must be spotted, called out and banished. Not in Our House.

Last modified on
Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Don Kraig
    Don Kraig Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Thank you for bringing this up, Sam. It was also a topic of concern at this year's Conference on Current Pagan Studies held at Claremont Graduate University. It's important to discuss and, to the best of our ability, eliminate.

    Part of the problem, IMO, is that this extends to all modern occultism. Racist ideas were promoted and popularized by the likes of Blavatsky, Dion Fortune, and Aleister Crowley. They, and others like them, added a great deal to the modern occult world. But they should be honored for what they did right, and their memories should be properly admonished for their errors. They were men and women, influenced by their times, who wrote on paper, not gods and goddesses who etched all truth into stone.

    Errors were made in the history of occultism. We can't move into a better future without acknowledging the errors and correcting them with fact.

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Thursday, 12 September 2013

    I hope to address some of this in the upcoming Conference on Current Pagan Studies. :)

  • Morpheus Ravenna
    Morpheus Ravenna Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Thanks for speaking about this, Sam. As always, you address it clearly and well. Here is my own follow up regarding the censored post:

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Morpheus, I read your post and I agree with both of you guys - AND I hope you can work something out with Anne, who is a wonderful servant of the Goddess in her own right and would never support biological determinism personally. She has the difficult job of offering a communication forum for the free expression of people of many different persuasions; and in keeping with that purpose, she cannot allow language that would make any of them feel unwelcome or discriminated against (as ironic as that might sound, given the present subject). I'm sure it has nothing to do with her own beliefs or whether or not she might agree with you in a private conversation. It is the restriction she must live under as the provider of an open forum for all contributors. In any case, I would be sorry to lose your blog on this website.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Saturday, 21 September 2013

    That's really the double-edged sword of "free speech" in the private sector: Anyone has the right to say as they believe, no matter what the facts support. I fully support free speech, where government is concerned, and not imprisoning people simply for speaking their beliefs, barring things like the clauses where one cannot incite violence or "yell FIRE! in a crowded theatre", as they say. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if in legally "private" avenues, like a webzine or community blog, the concept of "free speech" is overrated or not.

  • Kellia Ramares-Watson
    Kellia Ramares-Watson Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    To whom the Deities choose to speak is a mystery. The racists in Paganism also forget that perhaps a certain person has past life agreements with Deities that they are carrying forward into the present life so contact with a deity that made sense from a racial or ethnic perspective in a past life continues.

    My husband is mostly of Scottish heritage with some Irish, French and Choctaw thrown in. He is very proud of his Scottish heritage; he even has a flag of the Scottish lion that appears in heraldry. He is ordained Alexandrian, and has had contact with a non-Choctaw Native American shaman who taught him some ceremonies. But he has finally discovered that the goddess who has been trying to get his attention since his childhood days in Montana is the Voodoun orisha Yemaya, and while he did not honor a male deity for a very long time, he now honors Papa Legba. Having found them, both his life's direction and his esoteric practices have become more clear and regular.

    He thinks he's had a past life at sea and is anxious for us to sail to the Carribean. Maybe that is where his spirituality comes from. Maybe not, but if Yemaya wants to call him her son, who are any of us to gainsay that?

  • Heather Freysdottir
    Heather Freysdottir Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    I'd like to reiterate again that not all heathens are racist or folkish, and that the Troth actively works to the image of racism in heathenry. I joined the Troth because it is open to members of all races and ethnicities, both in membership and leadership roles.

    If worshiping the Gods of your ancestors helps you feel closer to Them or your ancestors, that's great, however, The Holy Powers choose who ever They will, and to try and exclude anyone is to try and limit Them, which is not a smart move, and not my place as a devotee.

    My own feelings about this are why I tend to choose "Pagan" as an identifier as often as heathen, and most Northern Tradition or Northern Tradition Pagans eschew folkishness and are more socially and politically liberal (generally speaking).

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Friday, 13 September 2013

    I absolutely agree that there is real value in honoring the gods of one's ancestors, but I draw the line at telling others that they may not honor the gods of my ancestors. It's nonsense whether one's ancestors were oppressors, oppressed, or somehow avoided colonialism and domination entirely. The gods make those decisions, not humans. We can choose to associate with whomever we wish, and if someone doesn't want to include me in their rituals, that's fine, but do not have the right or the power to decree who may worship what gods.

    A full-blooded native American told me, many years ago, that I didn't have the right to investigate or follow any religion born on this continent. The fact that he was a practicing Wiccan high priest didn't seem at all contradictory to him. I guess he imagined he had a set of rights denied to me as a function of our mutual heritages. I also guess he was full of hooey, but I was too young to realize it at the time, and believed that he was correct.

    There is a valid argument for cultural appropriation, insofar as picking aspects from one or more traditions out of their original context and presuming to understand them well enough to make a whole, but biological determinism isn't that.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Friday, 13 September 2013

    Excellent, Terence; I see that you had a similar experience to mine, and had to come to a personal decision about it as time went by. Yes, it's true that many westerners appropriate elements of a native religion or culture without fully understanding them - but on the other hand, no individual who has never met me can know the level of training and understanding that I may have; in fact, I have often found that I know more about some people's religions than they were ever taught in their not-so-thorough upbringing!

  • Brandy Williams
    Brandy Williams Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Thanks Sam for speaking out, and thanks Morpheus Ravenna for taking a stand.

  • Frith Wierdman
    Frith Wierdman Thursday, 12 September 2013

    I just have a few points I would like to make. I am a heathen, and while I resent the labels, with a gun to my head I would have to place myself closer to folkish than non-folkish. I'm deriving all my thoughts on this from my personal experience across 15+ years as a heathen. Perhaps my experience is broadly representative, perhaps not.

    1) The AFA does not represent the majority of folkish heathens or even the mainstream of folkish thought. In fact, I believe the incessant culture war between the major national heathen organizations over the issue of folkishness is a primary reason for these groups' faltering relevance to heathenry in America. There is a wide and well-traveled territory between the AFA's "theory" of metagenetics (which truly does represent biological determinism), and the edge of the non-folkish camp.

    2) In my experience, the supposed anti-racist hand wringing regarding folkish heathenry comes almost exclusively from privileged white people. I will not speculate as to the reasons behind this, but in my experience followers of Native American religions (apologies to my indian friends for the use of this term, I only use it for the sake of clarity), Hindus, Shintoists, and followers of African and African Diasporic traditions who belong to the ethnicity historically associated with each of these indigenous religions immediately "get" folkish heathenry. This is because the belief system known as "folkish" in the context of heathenry is a nearly universal feature of indigenous society.

    3) Racism and bigotry are entirely different things. If you buy into modern theories of racism, then all "white" people are racist by virtue of being white in a racist society which privileges whiteness. That means all white people: christians, pagans, heathens, folkish, non-folkish, Sam Webster, me... all white people. A bigot is someone who strongly and unfairly dislikes or mistreats another based on their actual or perceived group membership. Racists may or may not be bigots. Bigots may or may not be racists. Please do not conflate the two.

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Thursday, 12 September 2013

    I want to respond to a couple of points and give them some context since I feel you misrepresented some of it.

    The anti-racist hand wringing regarding this stuff is not just done by privileged white people. What I might question instead is why do some people have more of a voice while there are minorities that are speaking and not heard. I, for one, am one of the black people in this community that has more of an ability to be heard, but how many of us are there? I know the privilege that gives me, and I understand that we all don't have that. I also want to point out the significant difference in ethnic populations within modern Paganism.... who else is suppose to speak if our numbers are significantly lower?

    On your third point, I have to point out a couple of things as well. Modern theories of racism do NOT state that all white people are racist. As a social worker, researching past and current inequality, racism and systemic oppression, this is a largely subjective statement that is very inaccurate. If you want information on the modern forms of racism, research adversive racism, systemic racism, symbolic racism and historical oppression. The intersectionality of privilege is what is largely underlining a large part of oppressive theory today. I am so profoundly sad that you implied that to be the truth when it is so far from the truth.

    And lastly, racism is systematic forms of oppression that attack a races ability to function within a normalized society... on social, economic, and political levels. Racism is a system. But there is no difference between racists and bigots.... see adversive and systemic racism reference above. There has been a lot of research and theory applied to the modern manifestation of racism and its effects. The attempt to separate those terms is a form of cognitive dissonance that appears as if there are different levels of bigotry but in reality.... racism is racism.... often confused with biases and preferences.. and it is still racism.

  • Frith Wierdman
    Frith Wierdman Thursday, 19 September 2013

    Thank you Crystal. I truly do appreciate that you took time to respond to my comment. I deeply respect your work and your voice. Your words carry much weight for me.

    I would like to appologize to you and this community for any statement I made above out of ignorance and frustration. I will take your advice to educate myself further. Also, I am pleased to be corrected on my assertion about racism theory. as you can no doubt tell, my only real exposure to the issue cam via a series of mandatory university courses. The take away lesson was (this is a paraphrase, but was repeatd often enough that it may as well be considered a composite quote) "All white people are racist and only white people can be racist."

    Since I was a very young man I have consiered myself folkish or folkish-alligned. The reasons for this are deeply prsonal and spiritual. I am always happy to share and discuss my thoghts on folkishness with anyone who might be interested, but it strikes me that this comment thread may not be the appropriate forum. I have exactly zero interest in telling others which gods they should honor, and even less in presuming to tell the gods who they allow to honer them.

    It was out of frustration that i permitted myself to comment from a position of such ignorance, and I have to own that. My frustration stems from the (perhaps unjustified ) impression that discssions of racism in paganism begin and end with overwrought and usually borderline paranoid condemnations of folkish heathenry, with perhaps a nod twoard other recon traditions. I rarely see anyone from the non-folkish side take the opportunity to look inward at their own prejudices. I can own my beliefs, but it is tiresome to constantly used as the screen upon which others externalize and project their guilt, fear, and insecurity. I apologize that I allowe this frustration to manifest in the form of a childish, poorly thought out, and misinformed comment.

    Deepest and humblest regards to you Crystal, to Mr. Webster, and to this community.

    Deepest regards to you and to this community. From the

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Thursday, 19 September 2013

    Frith, thank you for your response. What I respect about it is that you took the time to revisit your thoughts. So many people won't do that. Thank you for showing an example of how to do that and why it is important for us ALL to do that. So often we stay in our one view and don't take that chance.

    As for the frustration, I feel ya. I personally do not associate the AFA as all folkish people and I am sure there is a lot of variation in beliefs, there always are. I also know that the cloud of racism gravitates towards folkish Heathen sometimes, for those who do not feel that other people should be excluded, they will get lumped in.

    And I think that your experience about old racism lessons are a good one to think about. It is one of the reasons that we need to have these conversations, the theories of racism have changed significantly as our understanding has changed. I think that more recent studies and research has given us a lot more information around the idea of racism, what it looks like, and how it has changed as the social construct has changed. When we think in terms of timeline... Jim Crow was not that long ago.... within my mother's lifetime and ended in about 1965... and Racism looked much different then. (at least how it was expressed outwardly and legally).

    And so we have to keep having these conversations, otherwise we will continue to miss what is happening and what we are unconsciously supporting to happen.

    And for all those reasons, I want to say thank you for continuing the meaningful part of conversations like this. I believe it is exactly the conversations we are and should be having together.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Tuesday, 17 September 2013

    Note: The expression "privileged white people" is a RACIST comment expressing a RACIST position.

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Tuesday, 17 September 2013

    Greybeard, this statement is completely inaccurate. I would suggest doing some research on what racism is.... not prejudice, but racism, to gain an understanding of systemic, political, social, economic forms of oppression that cause the disenfranchisement of an entire race. That is racism.

    While you may feel your statement to be true, it is just a personal statement that reflects the misinformation that is confusing to people who do not understand exactly what it is.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Tuesday, 17 September 2013

    Better grab the shovels. Its getting way too deep in here.

  • Christine Kraemer
    Christine Kraemer Friday, 13 September 2013

    Crystal, how would you term the act of making assumptions about someone or treating them differently on the basis of race? Since I live in a neighborhood where my husband and I are often the only white people in any given business, community center, or park, we get some strong reactions -- some very friendly, some not so friendly, but we definitely don't get to blend in. (Being heavily pregnant seems to add to this -- I get a lot of stares, these days.) I don't think this makes any of my neighbors bad people, even the few folks who have been unwelcoming... I'm aware of the power dynamics of gentrification and what our presence probably means to our neighbors, even the ones we've become friendly with. I'm pretty sure many of our neighbors think of us primarily as "that white guy and his pregnant wife," but would totally help us out in a pinch, which is way more important to me than not being treated differently or stared at.

    How do you talk about social dynamics where people think of each other primarily as members of a group rather than individuals, but where everyone is still largely committed to treating each other as human beings?

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Friday, 13 September 2013

    Hey Christine. You know... it would be presumptuous of me to assume what is happening in that neighborhood because location puts a lot of additional variables onto cultural and historical perspective as well. For example, the variables in the inner parts of Oakland are different than LA or even San Jose, and we are all in the same state. So that is one thing... but speaking from more of a global sense,

    I could give the common view or the psychological/ecological view. Common wise, I would say it is a form of prejudice. There can be black people who are prejudice. From a ecological perspective, I would say that there are many parts to the function of a society and a individual. The perceptions of white people in that environment will highly influence the integration of different cultures there. If there is a "ghetto" where it is all Black and the surrounding neighborhoods are the middle to upper class white people (and blacks get a certain kind of treatment when in those parts) then their safe zone is in the hood. And that will reflect their experience of you. Other factors will play a part.... jobs, education access, etc.

    From the psychological perspective, I would go back to the theory of Dr. Joy Degruy and say that culturally we continue to be affected by the effects of our past. (Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome). Some of the symptoms of regular Post traumatic Stress Disorder come into play here.... hypervigilance, anxiety, irritability, anger, and self destructive behaviors (to name a few). And that is based on one traumatic event. Now compound that by ongoing, continuous experiences of oppression from many systems (incarceration, police profiling, poverty, social and political system), which also retrigger the transgenerational trauma passed down by generations of experiences and stories and conditioning.... and you have a very challenging scenario to pick apart. In some neighborhoods where oppression is high and living in that re-traumatization is ever present... the white face could (not always) be triggering as a symbol of what you will never be and why.

    Does that make it right? Nope. Do I have the one answer? Nope. But it is systemic... and filled with generations of oppression and pain that we then pass down to our children. And because it is still present, even threads like this are damaging and triggering of that oppressive historical past for people like me. (people attempting to tell me my people are in Africa, etc).

    So would I call it racism? No. Because it is not a form of systemic legal, political, educational, and social oppression that changes the trajectory of an entire group of people. Would I call it prejudice? Yes, probably. Would I call it understandable.....? Yes. Is it ok? No.

  • Crystal Blanton
    Crystal Blanton Friday, 13 September 2013

    Sure... I think it is so hard to translate a lot of what we learn to what we experience. Racism is challenging because of the type of social conditioning this nation has put in place since the Europeans stepped foot on this land. To understand the social values of this country means to come to terms with the concept of social darwinism and see how those practices here have greatly affected people's ability to honor the humanity in one another. It is an epidemic. And it affects good people, including yourself.

    When I leave my job in West Oakland, and go to my home in the burbs... I have to take time to filter through all the injustice I see and experience in order to feel whole. I have to release it... because it is so hard.... so hard.

    I was just telling a co-worker that I live with the memory of one of my students who was 14 at the time, who was shot 9 times walking home on a Sunday morning. He laid in the street for 45 minutes until the ambulance arrived. 45 minutes waiting to die for a 14 year old basketball star with a 3.5 GPA, because this neighborhood is not as valued as others. It happens all the time here... all the time. And that dynamic makes us re-live hundreds of years of not being valued. It is suckie.. and a lot of healing is needed.

    (and congrats on baby!)

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Additional information