At some point on the pagan journey, there will be a run in with those less than thrilled with your religious path. It is almost a certainty that you will be confronted with an attempt to convert you away from paganism. It will most likely be either from an evangelical Christian or militant atheists. Yes, many other religions do have a core belief they are the only valid path, but those are the two groups most militant about making sure everyone else is on their path and not caring about the method used.
What makes this more difficult for pagans is that paganism isn’t really well known outside of certain circles, and it is often demonized. The common definition of demons is pagan gods. There are definitely those who don’t care to even understand what your path is, will just insist it is wrong, and see it as their duty to steer you away from it. Below are my own personal tips for when this happens.
Assess the Relationship
Do you care what this person thinks? If you don’t, are you going to be forced to have additional contact with them? Do they have any power or authority over you? Do you need anything from them?
Is it a street preacher passing out handouts? A casual acquaintance? Or a coworker/ classmate?
A stranger on the street has an easy out—leave. When you are certain of your pagan path, and if you have a personality for it, go ahead and engage. But not at the beginning of a pagan journey.
A casual acquaintance there are usually polite but firm ways of ending the conversation. “I understand that is your belief, but mine are different and there is no need to discuss further. “
Unfortunately, when there is a power differential, that might a be a situation of forced smiling and nodding, while using all self control to not scream.
Assess the Intent
This one depends on how charitable you feel like being. An attempt to convert is still rude, even if it is made with the best intentions.
There are people who legitimately enjoy engaging with people of different religions, and have never heard of pagans in the modern world. There are also people who weren’t raised learning anything about different religions, and might be interested but don’t know where to start. Some people may be trying to be friendly to form a relationship so you’ll read the material you give them. Then there’s people who pretend they want to debate when what they really want to do is manipulate and browbeat into changing religions.
The biggest indicator to me would be if they are genuinely listening, processing what you are saying, and asking clarifying questions. Hostility or being dismissive, or attempting to get a rise, usually mean this isn’t worth the time or energy.
Many Evangelicals are blatant in their convert attempts, because that is what they have been taught is the moral thing to do. Or they honestly believe your religion will bring harm, and tell themselves this is an act of saving you.
Navigating a workplace can be tough. Yes, there might be an anti-harassment policy and there are non-discrimination laws, but if there is a less than friendly HR or unsympathetic institution (imagining one can afford a lawyer) getting it enforced in practice can be difficult. If financial considerations make quitting impossible and the mundane path to getting a harassing boss or coworker to stop fail, that is definitely time to try some workings. Or at the very least praying for guidance.
Don’t Use the Bible to Argue
Most pagans are converts, and in my experience, many spent some time exploring different religions before coming to paganism. It isn’t strange to find pagans well versed in the Bible. There is definitely material around the history of the Bible to argue back against Evangelicals—literal interpretation is relatively new, writings made and revised at different times of course have contradictions, and that isn’t even opening the whole translation and societal changes bag.
The problem is arguing the Bible back to a Bible thumper is acknowledging the Bible as an authority. While I totally understand the fun it is to beat them at their own game, I came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth it. I went through a period before I became pagan where I read up on feminist spirituality, so I am familiar with feminist Bible interpretations and evidence for a Goddess in the Bible before Monotheism. I do have a genuine curiosity of other religions, and as someone interested in history understand what an influence the Bible and interpretations of it have had on Western history.
But it isn’t the basis for my religion, or a source of spiritual inspiration for me. Taking time and energy studying the Bible would be taking time and energy studying my own tradition—of which I have my hands full. I only have so much time in this life, and I would rather spend it doing things that I am interested in and give me pleasure than trying to one up people who cherry pick what they believe anyway. Leave the biblical arguing for non-evangelical Christians who actually have a stake in the argument.
Seek to Educate First
Give the benefit of the doubt on the first offense. People can legitimately claim ignorance as to what paganism actually is. Being a part of a minority, this might be a chance to change someone’s opinion of pagans as a whole. That being said…
You Aren’t Under an Obligation to Educate People
Its ok to have days you check out. We all have so much patience and energy. Some people are better suited for educating/correcting myths/debating/withstanding abuse than others. Even the people who are good at it and enjoy it need off days.
No one is obligated to your spiritual biography. If you’re new, still not sure of all this yourself and don’t know how to explain it another, its ok to end the conversation.
The Other “F” Word
When it is family, that throws a whole other set of complications.
No matter how terrible your work, school, or doctor is, at the end of the day those are relationships of necessity. People don’t love their bosses (usually). People don’t expect to be loved and supported by their doctor. Family have complex emotional ties, social obligations, and childhood programming. Words uttered by a parent or trusted adult family member have a different impact than those of a street preacher or even a trusted friend.
First, try to stay calm. Choose a situation that isn’t charged to bring up the subject. Try to tell them how this makes you feel, and try to show some empathy. “I understand you believe you are doing good, but it really hurts me when you say things like that.”
Respect and trust does have to go both ways. It is perfectly reasonable to not leave pagan items in the common areas, but it is also reasonable to expect family members to not mess with private space. Becoming disillusioned with a religion you were raised in can bring rage, but do give the people who taught that religion to you the benefit of the doubt, and try to find compassion. Don’t be an asshole is always a good guideline. I have a family member who had a difficult childhood, and church offered the support she needed to get through it. For that I am grateful, and know I must respect her beliefs.
For a situation that is overwhelming, therapy and counseling can help, although it might require a bit of shopping around for a pagan friendly therapist. Abuse definitely requires an exit plan. Always take care of yourself first. This is a huge part of why I wrote the stealth paganism blog post. Family is tough, and leaving a difficult situation is not always possible in the short term.
Time can also help. Going back to most people have been taught paganism is evil, sometimes even the people we love have a knee-jerk reaction when we drop the “I am pagan” bomb. If a year later you are demonstrating Paganism is something you are serious about, there might be some softening. Maturity and distance apart can soften many arguments, especially if it is the period of growing from a minor child to an adult.
When the Bad Gets Worse
Sometimes, you’re in a situation where leaving isn’t an option, people don’t respond to attempts to stop things, and don’t recognize they are hurting you. Or the worst scenario of all, they realize they are hurting you and don’t care. Most likely this will be family, because those are the ones that believe they have a stake and will honestly believe this will help you, or need the ego boost.
Definitely work on long term solutions (saving up to move out, being able to keep a distance, becoming independent so whatever hold is lessened). But short term, a strategy that would work is building shields. Practice this skill when calm, but visualize things like a wall of thorns around you, or a rubber shield that bounces all the negativity back at them. Another would be the art of being “unseen”. Simply, visualize not catching someone’s attention.
When Thanksgiving Requires a Flak Jacket
Cough into the phone and explain you have a cold. Seriously. It is perfectly fine to avoid situations you know will be painful that there won’t be any benefit from. This is a part of take care of yourself first.
It totally sucks to be in a minority, but people will not just be judging you. They will judge all pagans based on how you react and what your answers are. It sucks. But that is the way it is. Running into hostility to paganism is a simple fact of life in modern America, even if I wish it wasn’t that way. Having strategies and tools to handle it when it happens will serve best in the long run.