Poetry: Who Are We

[The UUC wherein I am a member had a wonderful Labor Day service that inspired me.]

I grow more weary with each passing day

Of this world, by which I mean to say,

This society that we humans have built

For what is it, if not a cage

These capitalist ideals chains

Which keep us from embracing

Who we truly are as a people

As individuals and as community

Our minds and bodies kept too busy

To care for ourselves or others

To do the things we love

Or to allow ourselves to be loved

Who are we

When stripped of these boundaries

When freedom truly reigns

In balance with a sense of humanity

Would we not be a better people

Were we not focused so on survival

In a world filled with greed?

If all were equal to each other

If all took their turns in caring

All allowed to share their gifts

Instead of time and labor stolen

Would it not be more beautiful?

Who are we

These creatures who have adapted so

Learned to build and imagine

And turned it into… this

This cruel society that cares not

For anyone deemed lesser

That decides people are less worthy

What kind of injustice is this?

Why have we allowed it for so long?

This is not the way

Senseless sorrows, we’ve been betrayed

By the entire system we created

Who are we?

Learning Day By Day

When I first started thinking about homeschooling my preteen, I was under the impression that it would mean weeks (if not months) of pre-planned curriculum and hours of instruction time for my child each day. I was operating under the assumption that it would have to be a similar format as public school; which really would defeat some of the purpose of homeschool for many families. Once I actually started, it took some time, but I started to figure out what would work for us.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, for any stumbling upon this post and interested in our background story: My child [he/ xem pronouns] was an Honor student throughout elementary in public school. During 4th and 5th grade, he began showing anxiety about going to school. It became a struggle getting xem to school, though my child continued making good grades. Meeting with the guidance counselor left us with no resolution to the problem. They were aware that my child was bored because much of the work was too easy, but never followed up on any of our discussions.

Then, everything went remote due to the pandemic. My child finished out 5th grade via distance learning with his public school teacher and graduated elementary school from home. The following school year was a disaster. We tried the self-paced virtual school option, but the (out of state) teachers offered little to no support for the work they assigned. After a few months, my child began falling behind. Then, we switched to the distance learning option with local teachers and a set schedule. All I will say now about that option, is that it ended up being an even worse experience. My child lost nearly a year of education time before I realized that public school was failing xem. He had previously requested to be homeschooled a few times and I had wished that I could. It simply didn’t feel like a realistic option. I needed that push. Thus, after some discussion with friends who homeschool and looking into the laws for my state, I decided to take the plunge and withdrew my child from the public school system.

One of my first attempts when we started homeschooling in February was with a paid online curriculum. While the concept sounds nice, I learned that it wasn’t for us. My child does not do well with self guided work and I’m simply not a fan of pre-planned curriculum. Perhaps my problem was that I was relying on it more than I should have, but I decided that I would be better off saving my money in the long run. Besides, there was a (relatively minor) issue of the curriculum’s grammar unit teaching prescriptivist ideas that left us with a sour feeling toward it. This is a progressive household and we will not stand for outdated teachings. Unschooling, while it would have likely been wonderful for my child at a younger age, was not fruitful enough to continue after an initial de-stressing period. My child needed a break, but education must go on at some point.

I’ve found, so far, that I enjoy piecing our curriculum together day by day. I’m using middle school books from the Big Fat Notebook series (BFN) as a basic guideline; alongside a combination of videos, workbooks, free worksheets, games, and other resources to assist me in teaching my child. Much of what we’ve been doing so far is review work to refresh forgotten subjects and playing catch up from all that time lost. We’re getting to the point now wherein we are working on a blend of review and catch up. Slow, but steady is what I’m aiming for. I’m trying to worry less about my child being on track per public school standards, and more about being sure he is learning before we move on to the next big thing. Eventually, I do hope to have xem back on track and ready for college or trade school by the time we get through high school. If it gets to a point wherein I no longer feel that will be feasible with homeschool, I am also aware that public school may become a necessary (though undesired) option.

Currently, our routine takes place in the evenings after I get home from work and take some time to cook dinner and/or decompress. We spend around 2 hours with school, so roughly half an hour per subject. Our days alternate between the different resources we’re using. If we read a chapter from Everything You Need To Ace Math In One Big Fat Notebook, we usually practice the examples together from the book that day as we’re reading; then follow up the next day or two with videos and answering “Check Your Knowledge” questions at the end of the BFN chapter. Other days, I have xem play games (Prodigy is a favorite for math), review with worksheets or in a workbook, or do practice questions/ quizzes online (such as on Khan Academy).

It’s mostly the same for the other subjects, as well. We do often spend more time per chapter for social studies and science than we do math or English/ Language Arts (ELA). The chapters for the former two subjects are often longer, so there’s simply more to cover. We mostly watch a few more relevant videos in leiu of review worksheets and games for these. I am also incorporating more reading and writing assignments. To start out this year, once a week, I am having my child choose an article from Dogo News to read and discuss. He will be starting cursive practice again. I want to have xem work again on a foreign language (or ASL), music, and art; but this is not an immediate goal just yet.

I always plan what we’ll be doing day by day. This prevents me from stressing out about being “on schedule” and allows us to spend extra time on a subject or move forward as needed. There are some days when I have a panicked feeling of “what do we do now?”, but there’s always room to decide.

Poetry: Poem For Mamaw

[My grandmother just passed away. This is something that I wrote to help sort out my feelings. Because of this, “Poem For Mamaw” felt right as the title. That’s all I will say about it for now.]

Spinning
Everything keeps on circling
Without a care for our hearts
Trees changing color
Then falling
Dancing in the wind
It all goes to the earth
And the leaves are gone
The air turns cold
Even on a summer day
Memories left…
But was it enough?
Running
Always moving too much
To see that time doesn’t stop
The fires burn away
Pausing
The clock stutters
Missed a turn
Lost a chance to remember
Hesitance stealing
The chance is gone
Was it enough?
No, no…
Not when seeds float away
Only returning
When the flower fades
Ebbing
The flow imprinting
Such a grandiose carving
From such a tiny river
Weaving
A story worth telling
Of a formidable storm
Moving through these mountains
Leaving
But a spark within our hearts
A longing to try again
Though we cannot go back

Reflections on Homeschool

When I previously wrote about starting on a homeschool journey, I never intended for this to become a home school blog, nor did I plan to entirely forgo the subject in my posts. It makes sense that, as the traditional school year has come to an end and our assessment has been done, that I finally write on my experience. We officially started homeschooling in February of this year. Those few months were up and down. I toggled between feeling as if we barely accomplished anything at all and realizing that we’re moving along at a good pace. My child struggled with keeping interest and sometimes got to the point wherein they shut down rather than do school. They’re a preteen, so one could expect it to be a difficult age. On top of that, this past year has been one full of change due to the pandemic and other life situations. That has not made my child’s emotional state any better, nor has it allowed us much of a chance for the in-person socialization that children need.

Regardless of my fears of inadequacy, I am pleased to say that our assessment went well. A certified teacher (as required) looked over the portfolio that I had put together and saw progress in all required subjects, with no subjects needing improvement. It was a relief, as well as an encouragement. My child has been learning. As it turns out, I was unfairly judging myself, as well as the kiddo, because we hadn’t crammed a year’s worth of learning into a few months. How ridiculous of me, right? The main objective of school should be to learn, not to simply move from one thing to the next. Had we managed to cram too much in for my child to learn, then I would have failed in my goal of providing my child an education.

Those first few months were a learning experience for both of us. We had to learn what methods of teaching work best for us, how to pace ourselves, and how to communicate more effectively with each other. While teaching is an integral part of parenting, doing so in the context of homeschool can be a whole other experience. I hadn’t studied or otherwise consciously (if at all) used some of the information we covered since I was first taught it. Many of the topics were a refresher for me, and many weren’t exactly taught as accurately (if at all) when I was in school. It helps my experience with teaching my child that I enjoy learning, whether it is something I have forgotten or something completely new to me. There is no shame in not knowing everything, only in pretending that there is not always more to learn. There are teachers, even in the public school system, who cling to outdated information that is not correct or unbiased. It has been my goal to avoid being one of those teachers for my child.

Because I am not an expert in any given subject, I have taken care to choose reliable sources to assist me in teaching. I learned quickly that online websites that provide specific curriculums didn’t seem to work well for us. Some are even inaccurate sources in regards to certain topics. Thus, I purchased a few books to help build a basic framework for our home school; and incorporated educational videos from trusted sources, games, written work, discussions, and real life learning experiences. It worked pretty well. My only real issue at that point was learning not to rush through each subject. There were a few times wherein we had to revisit a topic we’d previously covered. Sometimes doing so is more important than moving on to the next thing.

Despite the frustrations that came with the learning curve of being new to homeschooling, I enjoyed it. My child wants to continue their education at home. I am less nervous now and all the more excited to continue homeschooling after our summer break.

Poetry: Successful

Not everybody wants to be
What society deems “successful”
For what is success
If not an ability to enjoy life?
Some are happy to do the work
Of clerks and delivery
Of food preparation and cleaning
The only real downside
Is how society treats them
Like lesser beings
Who don’t deserve to live
And aren’t worthy of respect
It makes no sense
Because, at the end of the day,
Aren’t many who have jobs
That society deems “respectable”
Unhappy with their life?
If the stresses make them ill
And lack of life-work balance
Steals away their joy
That could hardly be called success
It’s merely a cruel manipulation
Played out on human fears
Of not being good enough
By an unjust capitalist society
We, the people, deserve better
No matter the field of work
To be happy with what we do
To know we can afford to live
Without losing our personal time
Our time with loved ones
Or our very spirits in the process
Not everybody wants to be
Some mockery of “success”
At the mercy of a cruel system

– B. A. McNeely

Musings on Being Appalachian

I mentioned almost a year ago in West Virginia, Take Me Home about growing up in Florida until the year I turned 13, but always thinking of West Virginia as home. My parents moved to Florida for work before I was born, but they still kept that connection to home. They, like many generations before them, were West Virginian born and bred. Like many others from the state, they left home looking for opportunities. My grandparents did the same, heading out to California for some time when my mom was young, before returning home. I’ve heard it said that West Virginians always come back home, or they at least want to. It’s seemed to be true for much of my family who’ve left.

Though I sometimes feel nostalgic remembering the ocean and the river we lived on, I can’t remember ever really thinking of myself as Floridian. I can’t imagine going back outside of maybe a vacation. The idea of Florida being a place that I used to live almost feels like a distant dream – one of the strange ones that leave you wondering, “what in the world was that about?”. I simply had no connection there. When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories were those spent visiting my Papaw’s house in Lincoln County, WV and running amuck with the other kids up and down the hollow and into the mountains surrounding his property. Not sorry, Sunshine State, you don’t hold a candle to these hills.

I feel a deep connection to these mountains. To me, they are sacred. I grew up hearing stories from my family that I now realize are a testament to our Appalachian heritage. It was like a whole other world to me. It’s no wonder I didn’t connect with that other state. Yet, partly because I did grow up hundreds of miles away from home, I sometimes feel like I’m not Appalachian enough. This despite my living here for almost 2 decades now. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little monster that will gnaw at anything you hold dear when it finds a way in. Sometimes I also just find myself comparing who I am to some stereotype of what an Appalachian is “supposed” to be.

Religion and it’s influence is a big part of what I think of. Like most Appalachians, my family is traditionally Christian. I recall visiting the Baptist church my mom grew up in. We didn’t go back because it must have been too painful for her to be there after having lost her own parents years ago. My Mamaw, though a self-identified witch, also grew up Baptist and still held Christian-oriented beliefs alongside her craft. The culture around Appalachia as a whole often centers around Christianity. As for me? If you’re reading this blog, you’ll already know that I’m a polytheist Pagan. Sure, I now have a church aside from nature; but it accepts people of all faiths. I love that it’s so inclusive.

It’s important to remind myself that the religious influence on the culture here is based on a history of colonization that used religion as a weapon. Christianity was the dominating religion across Europe, and thus across the colonized America’s, for so long. Of course the people of West Virginia were just as influenced by that as everyone else. As people in this past century have been finding their own religious and spiritual paths, Appalachia now has a growing and diverse Pagan community. Leaving behind the religion of our more recent ancestors doesn’t make any of us any less Appalachian.

This brings me to Appalachian folk traditions/ magic/ witchcraft, also now commonly called Granny magic. Because of the history of our people, it is true that these traditions have a heavy Christian influence. Does that mean that an Appalachian Pagan can’t practice our own family’s traditions, or reclaim what we’ve lost? I’ve seen some make that claim. It doesn’t make those people right. It just makes them gatekeeping, bigoted assholes. Yeah, I said it. It seems that most have the sense not to share those harmful views, though. My family’s stories and beliefs, despite the Christian influences, are part of me. They’re part of what led me toward Paganism, to my gods and my identity as a witch. Nobody can take that from me. And, besides, a lot of the beliefs and traditions aren’t even specifically religious, anyhow. They work no matter what else you believe in. The women (and gender diverse people) in my family still have dreams and feelings that show us the future or other things we have no logical way to know. Owls are still a symbol of death and deaths often come in three. Blowing smoke in an ear can still cure an earache. Spirits are still real. So on and so forth. For me, these things are part of my Appalachian heritage.

A lot of the old traditions are disappearing among families. There are people publicly sharing their family’s traditions to preserve them, but different families have different ways. I recently spoke to my mom about our family’s old traditions. Aside from what I remember learning from her, she didn’t remember much else. Most of the older folks in my family who would have known more of the old ways are gone, or else their memories are fading. People like me, who ache for our Appalachian folk ways, are left to put the pieces back together in whatever way we can because we either waited too long or were born too late. It is for this reason I am thankful for those who are sharing the Appalachian folk magic from their own family traditions.

What it means to be Appalachian is going to vary among individuals. We’re a diverse bunch with our own backgrounds, but we’ve all got common ground. We share similar histories as a people and a love for these mountains. I am proud to be Appalachian, proud to be West Virginian.

Worshipping the Dark

Polytheists time and time again have written their own perceptions of the “dark” gods and goddesses we follow. Do we really need to add to that? Well, I sure am going to, anyway. So, here it is. Those of us who follow the gods that we do, generally speaking, we know what we’ve gotten into. We know that our gods can be harsh, Tricksters, even downright scary sometimes. It is not uncommon for some of us to be afraid of these deities before we decide to give Them a chance in our lives. The condescending tones of people who don’t even work with our gods is completely unnecessary. I’m not saying that their views are never valid or wanted, just that they don’t often see the full picture.

The thing is, pointing out that someone’s god is known to be “dark” or a “Trickster” with an air of judgment, as if it makes it wrong or foolish to work with or worship Them, is hurtful on multiple levels. It assumes that the person one is speaking with doesn’t have the sense to make their own decisions. It assumes that those who have a relationship with these deities don’t know Them as well as the person who says they would never work with or honor Them. Yeah, as if someone who doesn’t have experience with that deity is going to know better. Unless you have studied non-biased sources and/or worked with the deity in question, how in any deity’s name are you going to act like you know better than someone who has? That is what’s foolery.

Oft-times, these discussions completely miss the fact that “acceptable” deities can be just as harsh, just as much Tricksters, just as scary as the “dark” ones. Take Loki versus Odin for example. Some Norse Pagans act like Loki is some horrific being, all while pouring out praise for Odin. One has to wonder if those same people have actually read anything of the Eddas or retellings beyond the story of Ragnarok to come to that conclusion. There’s so much more to the mythology leading up to that point. It’s not a story of “good vs evil”. It’s complex. It’s about relationships among friends, families, and cultures. It’s about prophecy and the consequences (both good and harmful) of allowing it to lead one’s actions. It’s about the natural cycles of life, the earth, and the cosmos. And, there’s much more to it than I can discuss here. It can’t be denied that Loki does questionable things, but Odin also makes some pretty cruel decisions. Meanwhile, many of Loki’s decisions end up helping others. While I am more wary of Odin than Loki, I know it’s not okay for me to pass judgment on those who do work with/ honor/ worship Odin. I assume they know Him better than I do. I understand that both gods have equally complicated stories.

Flamehair, by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Watercolor.

The Odin example can admittedly be somewhat shaky for some. I’ve run into pagans who seem just as scared of Odin as they are of Loki. At least they’re keeping it somewhat fair. I’d even say that’s smart, in a way. Not that I’m defending any sort of condescension from them about either god. Again, those making condescending remarks are usually people who haven’t built a relationship with either deity. Their perceptions of them simply don’t include the experience to stand on. These are also people who often view the gods as less complex than what they are and don’t much consider the context of Their mythologies.

There are also deities who are considered “dark” not as much for any specific acts we modern people may find unethical, but for their associations with things such as death. Death is a frightening thing to many people. It is an ending, a separation from loved ones, and an unknown. Though we may have our beliefs about the afterlife, those beliefs aren’t always the comfort we hope them to be. It is, however, important to remember that death is part of the natural cycle of life. Among many pantheons, even the gods do not escape this fate.

The Morrígan is a goddess associated with both war and death. Thus, she is yet another designated as “dark”. It is important here to note that the modern conception of war is vastly different, much more cruel, than the concept of it that the ancient peoples knew. In addition, The Morrígan’s role in war seems to align more with death, sovereignty, and prophecy than any direct acts of battle itself. Among these things, it is only Her role with death as “Chooser of the Slain” that most would point out as reason to fear Herself. When left with that, it’s surely not more frightening than any other force that may play a hand with fate. Though The Morrígan is known among many of Her followers to be harsh, much of that is due to Her no-nonsense attitude. Being a goddess who has historically dealt with the things She has, it’s no wonder She’s not known for being particularly gentle. This deity isn’t particularly known among Her followers for being unnecessarily cruel, however.

The Morrígan by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Graphite pencil.

This brings us to the UPG of it all. Unverified personal gnosis. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, this can lead to shared UPG that many followers of a deity hold true due to similar experiences with Them. It is common for polytheists to attribute modern associations with our gods. For us, the gods are beings who are capable of changing with the times. They no longer exist solely in the world of our ancestors. They’re being worshipped by modern people with new problems and new things to celebrate. Because we see the world differently than the ancients did, the gods must come to us in ways that we can recognize Them.

Many of the deities that people today often label “dark” have now become associated with social justice issues. It is not uncommon for followers of these deities to be part of marginalized groups or to engage in social justice work as a way to honor their gods. Due to Ireland’s history of colonization by the British and The Morrígan’s association with sovereignty, those who worship Herself may feel called to spread awareness about the harmful effects of colonization and appropriation on colonized cultures worldwide. Loki has become a role model of sorts for those within the LGBTQIA+ community due to common UPG of Him being genderfluid/ transgender and pansexual. (This UPG being based on mentions in Norse lore of Him living for a time as a woman and birthing children.)

These associations with social justice can also tie in with shadow work, which the “dark” gods can be especially helpful with. I’ve previously touched on part of this in a post about shadow work. It is my opinion that social justice work is a form of shadow work on a larger scale. Acknowledging one’s privileges as well as one’s struggles is a part of both, after all. It is also my opinion that, perhaps a reason why so many fear “dark” deities, is because they may not be ready to face some shadows of their own.

I have worked with The Morrígan, Loki, Fenrir, and others long enough to feel that I know Them. I am not going to claim to be an expert on Them, either academically or spiritually. What I do know is what I have learned about Them through reading, educational content, conversing with others, and my own experiences. I am glad that They have been an influence on my life. They have given me things, from harsh lessons to joy and comfort and empowerment, that I am grateful to have received. Sure, my gods can be scary – if you don’t bother to get to know Them. They’re not always gentle – but gentle isn’t always what’s needed.

It’s okay not to work with any given deity if one doesn’t want to. It’s okay to have different beliefs about the gods, or to not believe in Them at all. What’s not okay, is talking down to someone about their gods from a place of fear. It’s not okay to talk in a condescending manner to someone about the gods they believe in, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.

Evil, Really?

Throughout my life, I have heard Christians speak of others as sinners or lost. To outright call those who aren’t Christian “evil”, though? That’s one that I’d only heard within the confines of their churches when I was forced to go as a youth, or by random strangers on the internet. That is, until today. It finally happened. For some context, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure that the person who made the comment was aware that I’m a gods and goddesses worshipping Pagan. This person was talking about how witchcraft and other “alternative” spiritual practices are okay if done by a Christian, rather than one of those other people. This person then went on to say that non-Christians are evil.

I have to say, that hurt. I was furious. To know that certain types of people think like that is one thing. To hear it said aloud, especially by someone I had assumed was more open-minded, is another thing entirely. I approached this person about it, saying that I understood that they were speaking based on misconceptions. I was prepared to educate if they were willing to listen. Instead, I was met with ignorance. “I know you see it as a misconception, but it’s my beliefs.” It’s this person’s beliefs that people who aren’t Christian are evil. That’s… well, it’s all kinds of messed up, to put it plainly.

I understand that, in their eyes, they speak from a place of caring. They truly seem to think that. Some may say that, at worst, it just results in offense or hurt feelings. Yet, these beliefs they hold about others have real consequences.

This conversation occurred after I read about the Panera Bread incident. A woman was recently fired for being Pagan. Soon after, Panera Bread posted a tone-deaf meme to their Twitter account about manifestation. To be called “evil” for my beliefs, whether it was intentional or not, hurt all the more after the very large reminder that Pagans aren’t treated with the respect that all people deserve. It hurt all the more after the reminder that Christians often get away with discrimination, harassment, and violence in the name of their beliefs. Sure, there’s a lawsuit going against Panera, but that doesn’t make the fact that this sort of thing happens any better.

The belief that certain groups of people are “evil”, “sinners”, or in any way “lesser than” is dangerous. It allows those who believe they are in the right, are “good”, or otherwise “better” to think that they have a right to treat others poorly. Sure, that might just mean making jokes or distancing themselves. It doesn’t always stop there. An atheist father was recently doxxed and harrassed by the “good Christians” of his town for exposing Christian teaching in a public school. Hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community are still all too common. People get fired, denied adoptions, and denied shelter for not being Christian. In the US, this is illegal. But it still happens because Christians get away with it. This isn’t just about harmless beliefs. These ideas promote real harm. If anything can be called “evil”, I would wager that systemically promoting harm to people easily falls under that category.

To be clear, not all Christians are the problem. There are many who practice their religion in a responsible way that’s respectful toward others who don’t share their beliefs. It is crucial to keep this in mind. As a Pagan, I don’t want to make the same mistake of judging all Christians the way some of them judge Pagans, Muslims, or atheists. This isn’t about demonizing an entire religious group because there are too many within it using their beliefs as an excuse to hurt others. We should respect the beliefs of others. The exception to that rule is when those beliefs lead to harm.

All of that said, let’s circle around to another part of the issue with what was said to me. The person who made the comment about non-Christians being “evil” admits to practicing witchcraft. This person admits to using spiritual practices common in Paganism, then says (by inference) that Pagans are “evil” because we’re not Christian. That is all sorts of problematic. This is an issue that goes much deeper than the Christian witches debate that comes up within the Pagan community. This comes up throughout history. After colonizers attempted to erase the cultures of Indigenous people by forcing them to assimilate to Christianity and Euro-centric cultures, they later turned around and started appropriating Indigenous cultures. (As someone who isn’t Indigenous, I don’t feel it’s my place to speak much on this topic, so I highly recommend looking to Indigenous sources for more information.) For someone to say, “these people are wrong/ evil/ lesser than” and then start practicing parts of that people’s culture is perhaps the worst type of hypocrisy. If someone can’t respect a group of people, why should they have any right to share in their traditions?

I’m not sorry to say this: Some beliefs aren’t worth respecting, Christian or otherwise. When they’re causing harm, they deserve to be dragged through the mud.

Seeing the Spectrum in Religion

What comes to mind when one hears the word, “religion”? It depends on one’s own spiritual and cultural background, doesn’t it? For many in the United States, Christianity is the religion. If someone “finds religion” or is said to be religious, they might be assumed to be Christian. Even those speaking from an atheistic or agnostic point of view often seem to make assumptions about religion based on their own experiences with the Christian religion in their culture. It’s difficult to get away from. Still, there are over 4,000 religions in the world. A quick search on the internet shows that only 5 of these are widely considered major religions. They include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (Some search results show up to 12 listed.) These are the religions with the highest percentages of practioners in the world. They hold the most political and cultural influences in our modern societies. Other religions, such as those that fall under the neo-Pagan umbrella or practiced by Indigenous peoples, often go ignored in mainstream discussions unless reduced to a fluff piece or for shock value.

re·li·gion/rəˈlijən/

noun

• the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”ideas about the relationship between science and religion”

• a particular system of faith and worship.plural noun: religions“the world’s great religions”

• a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”consumerism is the new religion”

Oxford Languages

The dictionary definition of religion allows plenty of room for the plethora of spiritual beliefs and practices that are recognized by people across the world. Yet, when the subject of religion comes up, assumptions that leave out certain types of religion are oft made by those in the majority. Articles written from an atheistic/ agnostic/ secular viewpoint may speak of a singular god or issues with “the church” without specifying any one religion. Yet, it is clear that the religion being referenced is Christianity, with Judaism and Islam typically being treated as an after thought. When major religions are viewed as negligible in conversation, what hope is there for smaller religious communities to be taken seriously? In a society where discussions about religion center around a specific monotheistic religion versus atheism, a lack of wider understanding on the topic as a whole arises. The idea of religion becomes restricted to a certain set of beliefs and practices as influenced by political powers who have historically used religion in one form as a weapon.

It is folly to make judgments on religion as a whole based on a single religion and it’s history. Not only does it sow division, it also further reinforces the false idea that there is only one valid religion or a singular way of practicing said religion. It not only encourages stigma against those who practice minority religions, it also creates misunderstandings about why people hold certain practices and beliefs. Rather than potential enrichment of life being at the heart of the topic, the misconception spreads that ignorance or abuse of power alone breeds religion. What with the overall histories of major religions and even a small few well-known cults that have made news, it can be difficult to look past the horrors that it can be used for. That said, those particular issues sometimes tend to push other conversations to the wayside.

As mentioned previously, religion encompasses a diverse set of beliefs and practices. Some who follow certain traditions may be hesitant to use the term “religious” as a self descriptor due to the connotations that the label can take on. Some find offense at the idea of their spiritual traditions being considered religions at all for this same reason. Nobody should be forced to use a label they are uncomfortable with, however it is a problem that certain labels are so often incorrectly implied to belong to a single type of modern religion. Just as there are those who prefer the “spiritual, not religious” identifier, there are those who embrace religious labels in their own non-monotheistic traditions. Some polytheist Pagans are reclaiming language that the mainstream cultures typically view as belonging to Christians. While it can’t truly be said that Unitarian Universalism is or is not monotheistic (that depends on the individual in UUism), many of the congregations within the religion still use religious language whether their membership leans more Christian, more humanistic atheist, or more of another faith. Whether one believes in many individual gods, one god, many aspects of a singular god, or no god at all; it is possible to be religious and to engage in worship.

For many, the idea of religion requires some sort of spiritual element rooted in the supernatural. While this is commonly the case, the idea of spirituality has also evolved to take on a more psychological approach. Someone who leans more toward atheism or agnosticism may find spirituality and religion in what science has discovered of the universe surrounding us. They may also find a spiritual connection in humanism, meditation, secular ritual, or any number of other things. These ideas, of course, aren’t limited to a skeptical mind. Likewise, anyone from monotheists to polytheists and animists may find spiritual enrichment from these things in addition to the unverifiable beliefs they may hold. Religion and spirituality is how we find connection within ourselves and with the universe around us. Simplified to the barest core, that’s it.

Yet, it is not enough to simplify the idea of religion to find common grounds. Acknowledging the many different types of belief systems is also crucial if one is to discuss religion in more general terms. After all, there are a great many misconceptions about varying belief systems. It can be othering to members of minority religions when their beliefs are either spoken of incorrectly or entirely ignored. The context of one’s religion matters. To assume, for instance, the idea that Neo-Pagans worship the Earth is both a falsehood and sometimes true. To assume that Christians don’t practice witchcraft or another magical folk tradition is, again, a partial truth blended with ignorance. In both of these examples, it depends on the specific religious denomination/ tradition and the individual practitioner. It doesn’t exactly help to simplify the matter in either case that both Paganism and Christianity each have many different traditions, some of which are syncretic between the two. Paganism takes it a step further, as well, in that it is an umbrella term for many different religions which vary greatly in source material, beliefs, and practices.

To further understand the complexity of religion, one must also recognize that religion is cultural. Religion influences the holidays one celebrates, the media one consumes, the way one expresses themselves, the laws of one’s country, and many other aspects of culture. This is, in part, how syncretic religions form to begin with. The cultural aspect of religion is how someone can be a Jewish atheist, Christian Buddhist, or any other number of examples. When one is part of a specific culture and converts to another religion, it is not always desirable to leave all parts of their cultural origin behind. Whether it’s about connection to one’s heritage, fun/ nostalgic traditions that have become secular, or practices that still hold a deep spiritual meaning; the blending of one religious culture with another is an important part of many traditions. In order to fully understand the context of any religion, one must understand it’s culture. In the case of closed and semi-closed religious traditions, this cannot be done without being part of their cultures.

For people of differing backgrounds, religion can mean different things. It can conjure up images that are positive or negative. It can bring up trauma or comfort. It can take place in churches, forests, hidden altars, or soup kitchens. Religion isn’t an either/ or thing. It is a kaleidoscope, a spectrum of the many different ways of looking at our existence. Religion in it’s entirety can not be reduced to only one idea without watering down all that it has been, now is, and can be.

Being Enough

There are many times wherein I feel that I am not enough. I find that I am not as well [formally] educated as some of my friends and acquaintances. I don’t have a job that’s as distinguished or well respected as some of them. I didn’t grow into adulthood with the same amount of financial privilege as some. There are too many “should” and “should not” expectations that I put on myself. These are expectations that this society reinforces via it’s broken values, media, and structural/ systemic factors. These are expectations that, up until adulthood, were completely out of my control. Even as an adult, because some of these expectations were not previously met, I was not in the same starting place as those who had more privileges at the get-go. Why then, do I still feel the need to compare myself to them? Just as I don’t have their experiences, they don’t have mine.

My therapist once told me that “should” doesn’t matter. It’s a lesson that I am still working on internalizing. These expectations set by “should” or “should not” result in guilt and loss of self worth. They aren’t useful to us. They are often a hindrance to our happiness and our desired paths in life. If one is held down by feelings of unworthiness, they may not feel as if they deserve to reach for the things they want for themselves. It then becomes a cycle that can be difficult to escape from. What I find more useful is acknowledging what has been, what is, and what can be. This does not mean making judgments on our past or present, but only seeing how it has and currently is affecting our lives.

If someone was not given shoes, they can not be expected to walk across a street covered in broken glass. If someone was given material to make shoes to walk across, they can not be expected to know how to make them without either trial and error or being taught. Whether one makes it without injury, with a few scratches, with deep wounds, or they are unable to cross at all; the circumstances that led to where they end up aren’t a reflection of their worth. Likewise, the past and present are naught but a reflection of one’s circumstances.

Just as I am still learning to accept that “should” is arbitrary, I am still learning to accept that I am enough as I am. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is as follows: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The worth and dignity of every person. No matter our background, no matter where we currently are in life, each of us is worthy and deserves dignity. If only all people treated others, as well as ourselves, with this principle in mind.

Despite my feelings of not being enough, compared to what was and what could have been, I actually am somewhat proud of myself. It helps to look at how far I’ve come, rather than how far I wish to be. It helps further to remember that circumstances aren’t linear. We don’t simply move from point A to B to C. We may also move from -3 to A to B to 1 to A again to green to something parallel to C. It’s messy and can get confusing. In all reality, it makes no sense to place strict expectations of “should” on individual human achievements. It makes no sense to judge someone’s worth based on unreasonable ideals.