Content warning: This conversation touches on various issues of religious abuse, including some description and discussion of attempted exorcism
Michelle Simkins: Hello! Welcome to the first part of our From One to Many blog series on unpacking monotheist baggage. If you haven’t read our intro post, please do that before reading this conversation. It will give you some basic information you need to know.
Now, in our first installment of the series, we’re talking about the way monotheistic baggage influences the process of meeting the Gods, whether we approach Them or They approach us. I'm sure we’ll just barely scratch the surface of this topic, but I think the initial approach is extra scary for many people who start hearing the Gods or wanting to know Them but don't know what to do. So I think it's a good jumping off point, though many different topics are tangled up in it and will probably come up again in future chats in more detail.
Jane Goblin: I think we all had a different entry into polytheistic devotion, but we all grew up with pretty fundamentalist versions of monotheism, so that makes a nice base.
Michelle: I agree! So let’s start out with talking a little bit about our first experiences with approaching the Gods after leaving monotheism.
Raechel Larsen: I’ll be honest, I only approached the Gods because I thought I had to with paganism and witchcraft. Every beginner book I read mentioned Them, and I wasn't sure I wanted that kind of relationship. But then I read Althaea's blog, and saw her posts about devotion and the Gods. I thought, “that makes sense. That seems better than what I was doing.”
Michelle: Did you reach out to Them right away after reading about Them?
Raechel: I think I didn't reach out to the Gods until a year(ish) After I started calling myself a witch. Of course, I didn't really start doing anything other than reading all the things until a year after that.
Jane: Making the separation between witchcraft and polytheism is important here, I think. Not all polytheists are witches and not all witches are polytheists.
Michelle: 100%. You can theoretically be a witch and not a polytheist. I mean I can't but some people can.
Jane: It’s both a tough question and an easy one for me. Tough because I had so much cognitive dissonance in church, and easy because polytheism was really like being home. My path after dedication to my Sisters wasn't much different from before, kind of like when you've lived with a person for a while before you marry them. But, weirdly, I've always thought of myself as a spiritworker and not a polytheist. I work with big spirits and small spirits and sometimes the big spirits are deities. It wasn't until really recently that I've accepted the polytheist label,
because it fits the definition and my experiences, but it doesn't fit the fantasy novel description.
Raechel: Oh interesting. What changed?
Jane: Mostly talking to other devoted people who have a different path than I do, honestly. The similarities are pretty obvious, so I was like, “hmmm... how about that.” Though one difference is I rarely see my People as human shaped.
Michelle: That’s the beauty of having awesome people to talk to; the ways it can help us understand ourselves and our experiences better.
It was a long journey for me: I started out with "archetypes" and "the divine feminine" because I was so traumatized by religion, and it was so much more comfortable to intellectualize and reduce it all to some kind of mystical psychology. It was a long time between leaving the church and being willing to revisit the idea of deity as real. But I reached a point where I needed something more meaningful. So one day I just sat down and said "I need something real. Is there anyone out there who wants to talk to me?" And oof. Did I get an answer.
So let's talk about some of the things we struggle with when we begin to encounter the Gods while still toting around our monotheistic baggage.
Michelle: Fear is so common: I know I felt it. There was a barrier for me, coming out of fundamentalism, that maybe, just maybe, my childhood community was right, and these Gods I was encountering were somehow secretly evil. And if that was true, what about hell? It's especially hard to deprogram from fundamentalism of any kind.
And getting over that just took time. One thing that was helpful, for me, was looking at the variety of religions in the world and understanding they all had a different view of the afterlife, but the concept of hell, as a place of eternal torment for our “sins,” was really rare. The odds seemed to be in my favor, however funny that sounds now.
Jane: I was 12, and I was still going to church school and services with my family, when I first started unpacking that, so it's interesting to look back on. I had visions of Lucifer during church services. (He might not have been actual Lucifer, but Someone else.)
Michelle: Did that scare the crap out of you at the time?
Jane: No! He was pretty awesome, and He was there with my Sisters, and They were so snarky. So I learned to question everything the church was telling me because when I brought up my own ideas, or that of my People, I got exorcised. So my experience of this baggage is that I Do Not Trust organized religions
Michelle: And why would you?
Jane: I also think the fact that I moved so much was what helped me. With every move we went to a different fundie church with different “omg you're going to hell!” rules from the last place. That kind of kept me from falling under the fear of hell glamour. Speaking of glamours, here’s another fear:
We worry that we are being deceived.
Michelle: The fear that we are being deceived is a thorny one.
Jane: Very thorny, especially if you struggle with mental illness.
Raechel: I was worried it was still the God I used to worship in my childhood. Because some of the experiences felt the same. So I wondered if I was just making up an experience because I wanted it so badly.
Michelle: How did you work through that?
Raechel: I didn't. Not really. I still have those doubts come up. I’m working through it but it’s a thing. But basically I've forced myself to accept that what I was feeling back then was real. And this is how my body perceives the Divine. And the God I worshipped before does exist, we did have a relationship, it just wasn't a consensual one, and it was based on a lot of trauma and abuse.
Michelle: That's a thing we don't talk about a lot in pagan/polytheist circles. How if we believe our Gods exist, then we can't reasonably deny the Gods of our childhood also exist. It hurts to examine the pain of how that relationship was real, but no we didn’t consent to it or were too young to give informed consent.
Raechel: But if I go down the road of “He didn't exist, I was just making it up,” then that means I might still be making things up and that hurts more.
Michelle: Right, because if we deny the experiences we had, how can we trust any of our divine experiences?
Raechel: Exactly! I still struggle with that.
Michelle: I do too.
Raechel: The fact of the matter is, monotheist religions touch on truth. It's just often cloaked in abuse and control, and that destroys us.
Michelle: It’s usually the institution and not the religion that is why we can't have nice things. The abuse of the institution was a big hangup for me. One thing that helped me separate the trauma of the abusive institution from religion itself was doing a ritual to sever my ties with the Gods of my youth and the institution of the church. After doing that I felt so much clearer, and more ready to really dedicate to Herself. And I couldn’t do that ritual until, like we discussed, I acknowledged that my childhood experiences were real, but harmful. And Raechel, I know from past conversations that you did this kind of ritual too (and helped me write my own!). But Jane, I don't know if you ever had an experience like that?
Jane: I pretty much did that while I was still in church. First I started refusing to do the "normal" things, like standing for hymns or closing my eyes for prayer, to see what people would let me get a way with. But also, after I left the church, I dedicated to my Sisters almost immediately, and I now have a nausea feeling every time I have to do a church type thing. So I can say I severed the connection pretty well that way.
I also spent a couple years bad mouthing Christianity on the internet and in pagan groups that was mostly processing trauma, and also just being spiteful.
Raechel: I feel that spite too.
Michelle: That spite is another piece of the baggage. But it can also help us unpack the baggage. Because letting ourselves be angry is valuable too.
Jane: Right? Realizing I had a reason to be angry and owning my anger was really powerful.
Michelle: But we have these conversations so hopefully we can move past the spiteful feelings into a healthy relationship with religion, and so we can make peace with the past.
So we see not every person who was involved in monotheism needs to ceremonially disconnect. But it can be a very valuable act if you were deeply immersed, or had a hard time getting away from the religion of your childhood. Which was definitely my experience.
Raechel: It was definitely necessary for me. The ties went too deep to just wait for them to go away with time.
Jane: I mean, I joke about the exorcisms, but having them happen at multiple churches was really ostracizing and I'm a deeply community oriented person.
Raechel: I can't even imagine how traumatizing that would be.
Jane: Like, why would you do that to a kid? I know I scared them and they used me as an example to warn the other kids not to be like me, but holy shit.
Michelle: I can't imagine being a parent and letting that happen to your child.
Jane: My parents were so caught up in the miasma of it all. And my dad has serious mental illness issues. I think that was my ritual severing, honestly. But it was them severing from me, so I didn't have to do it myself.
Michelle: That would absolutely break any bonds, wouldn't it? You would never be able to trust any of them again. The humans OR the deity.
Jane: But I also never had that God-shaped void because I was already called by that point. Which was pretty much their issue with me.
Michelle: No one ever attempted to exorcise me, but at 14 or so, I was encouraged to participate in the attempted exorcism of a woman because she was a lesbian. (Gee why did it take me so long to realize I’m gay?!) And just that tangential exposure was incredibly traumatic for me. To be the target ... ugh. I can't even imagine.
Jane: It's that sitting in a chair with everyone yelling and shouting around you bit that really was the worst.
Michelle: Ugh, I believe it. Being betrayed by your community like that is so damaging. And makes it hard to build polytheistic communities too, which is a shame. Because having other polytheists to compare notes with is so helpful. Without community, it’s so hard to take a step back from the dominant culture’s message that monotheism is the only valid religious expression. Outside confirmation makes a big difference.
Raechel: Finding community is the only thing that helps me with the doubts.
Jane: That trust is sooo hard to find, though.
Michelle: And it can take a really long time. But that’s also one of the reasons we started these conversations in the first place. To tell others out there, you are not alone in this struggle.
Raechel: I honestly don’t know if I’d still be on this path if I hadn't found people to talk to. It’s way too easy to distrust myself.
Raechel: And it's why polytheist spaces are precious.
Jane: And why it ruffles feathers when non-polytheists with FOMO show up.
Raechel: The amount of work we have to do to feel confident in our relationships with Them, the battle with our upbringings and our fears, to have it be ridiculed or minimized by general pagans … it hurts.
Michelle: It’s why so many polytheists end up withdrawing from public discourse altogether, in spite of the potential to find more community in the public sphere.
Raechel: You met the Gods, but now you doubt. And the Pagan community makes you doubt still. But we aren’t to pagan baggage yet!
Michelle: Speaking of doubt, though - Jane, it sounds like you almost didn't have a chance to doubt. It seems like your Sisters were just there for you from early on. Am I understanding that correctly?
Jane: That’s correct! But it took me a long time to see Them as Who They are. Disentangling Them from the Frank Peretti novels' guardian angel fantasy themes took a while.
Michelle: How did clarity come for you?
Jane: Honestly, it was Latin class. I randomly took a latin class in 4th grade, and even though I went to 8 more schools between 4th grade and graduation, I had a latin class available to me every year. And the Fates were my Thing. And because I was able to learn about polytheistic society and participate in a way (We made lars and penates shrines for arts and crafts! And I kept mine and met my house spirits!), I had a contrast to what I was learning in church. I also learned about oracles and omens, and that lined up with a lot of the "daydreaming so hard I don't see anything but the dream" visions I was having. So, being in super fundamentalist churches, I layered the spiritworking skills I learned in church over the experiences I was having on my own and the history I was learning and voila, I found my path.
Michelle: Another fear: we worry we'll “do it wrong” (“it” being devotion, worship, offerings, whatever) and be punished.
Raechel: That one, you just have to do the thing anyway. Doing it wholeheartedly, but imperfectly, is the only way to work through it.
Jane: And do it simply. Don't buy expensive booze for an offering until you're told “water is nice, but that feast day is coming up.” And do the fancy stuff with purpose.
Michelle: Yes, purpose! It’s good to ask, “what is my motivation for this act?” If the motivation is love for Them, a desire to share the gifts you’ve been given, you’re good. If you're coming to Them with deep respect and sincerity, they’ll guide you to improve if you fuck up, but they won't zap you.
Jane: This is a no smite zone!
Michelle: It is! And with practice, you’ll be able to gauge Their reaction to your efforts. You’ll probably find out not every act of devotion is a big hit with Them, but no sincere act of devotion is going to be punished.
Jane: Seriously! I like the pictures my nephew draws for me, but I'm not going to enshrine them. But if he gave me a new spinning wheel? OMG! If he did the dishes without me asking? I’d really love that. We become part of Their family and the dynamics are super similar.
Michelle: That analogy leads me to another piece of this, which is how it helps to focus on giving what They want, rather than the things we want to give Them, if we possibly can. Often what a God wants as devotion from you will be different from what They desire from someone else. I think They’re willing to be in relationship with each of us because They see a different kind of value in each individual. So give them what They value, even if it seems small to you. Even if you think someone else is giving something more valuable.
Raechel: That comparison game tendency goes deep though.
Michelle: It DOES, and it leads to performative offerings and "devotion" all too often.
Raechel: Having the fancy statue, the offering bowls, the perfect prayer, the beautiful altar. It feels like they are necessary sometimes. Especially if you're on social media.
Jane: And if you’ve created your own divinely-led practice and then meet people who claim to follow the same gods, but their practices are so much more upper class than yours, it's really upsetting. And then when you realize later that all that isn't necessary or needed, it's both a let down and a revelation.
Michelle: Yep. What They want from us is heartfelt devotion. And, possibly (probably) They will have tasks They want us to accomplish for Them. But those tasks rarely cost money. Or if they do, the way is somehow made clear when the time comes.
Jane: Make Devotion Accessible Again
Raechel: Of the people, for the Gods
Michelle: You can have every fancy expensive statue and replicas of archaeological finds from sacred sites but if you don't have a relationship with your God(s) … what’s the point?
I wonder, too, if that feeling a need to be fancy and performative is what makes so many people think they have to be a priest of some kind, instead of embracing the beauty and value of being devoted in day to day life while not being a religious specialist.
Jane: For. Real.
Michelle: But even if you will, eventually, be called to priesthood, or some other religious specialist role ... guess what? The simple daily devotion will always be crucial. The majority of my religious practice is talking to Herself, listening to Her voice, and being like, “I picked you some flowers!” But so often we want to skip past that and have the whole experience right now, instead of accepting the slow re-making of ourselves over time.
Jane: It’s okay to be in the cocoon for a while. Wade in your caterpillar goo.
Raechel: It's so uncomfy though. Tell that to people who want to be priests.
Get ready for the discomfort!
Jane: Super uncomfy! And here's another mystery: You go through the caterpillar goo multiple times.
Michelle: Multiple! Gods are big. If you want to embrace them, you’ll get cracked open. Ouch. But I think that's why so many people who suffered religious abuse end up where we are now: they got cracked open in the wrong way, but it doesn’t matter how. They are still cracked open. Once you've been reshaped you can't go back to the shape you were before. You need to continue to be your reshaped self. And if you’re already cracked open, you’re more willing to let that process happen again, especially if it can lead to healing instead of more trauma.
Jane: The trick is to be ready for it and realize when goo times come.
Michelle: And not to fight the goo!
Jane: Don't fight the goo! Right time, right place. Things will be easier if you don't force things that don't feel right
Raechel: I tried to fight the goo, and then I got smacked.
Michelle: We all try to fight the goo at least once. More than once, if you’re anything like me.
Jane: I always fight it until I realize what's happening.
Raechel: Lol. Just what newbies want to hear. If you're really wanting to do this, if you're all in, it's gonna hurt. But it's a cleansing hurt.
Jane: It's like cleaning the gravel out of your skinned knee. You'll still have a scar, but it's not gonna be infected anymore.
Raechel: Break the improperly healed bones.
Michelle: And it's worth the hurty parts because it’s something meaningful. And because these relationships become so loving over time, they fill our lives in ways nothing else can. So yes, you probably will be hurt, but the hurt will be part of a process that heals you and makes you more.
Jane: I like that we started out talking about our trauma and are now at how to do nice things for Them and be all in for Them.
Raechel: It’s like we love Them or something. There’s no processing this trauma without love for Them. Not in a way that will help us be devotional polytheists anyway.
Jane: Because the trauma is where we are without Them
Michelle: Right? It took a lot of self examination for me to realize that, however afraid I was, the void I was feeling was God shaped, and was never going to be filled by talk of archetypes or by loving trees very much. The pain of the religious abuse had to heal just enough so I could feel the pain of the emptiness. Because, however terrible my childhood experiences were, I have a religious nature. The presence of the divine is crucial for my well being.
Raechel: Yes! Exactly that! What I was running from, that hurt so deeply, was something I desperately needed. But the reason it hurt so much was because I needed it.
Michelle: Yes. And that's why religious abuse is extra insidious. Because we long for the Gods. We are built to love Them. And abusive religion uses that need to manipulate and break us.
Raechel: And it separates us from something we need to feel alive
Michelle: And while it breaks us, it convinces us that we are what is wrong, and we end up not trusting ourselves and not trusting the Gods instead of not trusting the abusers.
Jane: The whole "God shaped hole" can be such a trigger, too. But it doesn't have to be a monotheistic God.
Michelle: Right? I was always told if I "ran from God" I would never be whole, and I resisted it so hard, but for me, it’s true. It's just ... not THAT God.
Raechel: My parents told me I was lazy for not going to church, for not being religious. So I resisted religion for a while because then they would be right. They were wrong about the laziness. But I didn't want to admit that I needed religion.
Michelle: And we’re back to why these conversations need to happen. Because we need to be able to approach our Gods without being held back by our baggage. This has been a great conversation and I hope our experiences will resonate for someone else out there who needs to know that many of us have gone through religious traumas, many of us have baggage we need to unpack, but it can be done. None of us can say we’re finished with this process but I think just starting to look at it all critically can bring about shifts that help us build the relationships and do the work our Gods want us to do.
And to you readers out there, thank you for being here. We hope you got something out of this. Our next chat will be in a few weeks!
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Standing stone photo by Tanya Dahlin, courtesy of pixabay.com.