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  • Interview: Dr. Karl E H Seigfried talks Ásatrú, Heathenry and beards

    Interview: Dr. Karl E H Seigfried talks Ásatrú, Heathenry and beards

    A few weeks back, we pushed out a post about the fact that Heathens serving in the U.S. Army are now allowed to sport a beard as part of their faith. In the story, I mentioned that a group that stands for heathens serving in the military stated that the growing of a beard wasn’t a tenet of Heathenry. Given that Ásatrú, Heathenry and Paganism have been used to describe a wide number of belief systems and religions, I wasn’t sure if making a basket statement like this was factually correct. Fortunately, I know someone who does.

    Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried was the first Ásatrú to earn a graduate degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School. While at the university, he was President of Interfaith Dialogue and served on the Spiritual Life Council, the advisory board for the Spiritual Life Office. He holds degrees in literature and music from University of California at San Diego, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and University of Texas at Austin. He studied literature and art history at Loyola University Chicago, Rome Center, in Italy and took Icelandic language courses through University of Iceland's distance learning program.

    Dr. Seigfried currently works at the Illinois Institute of Technology as an Adjunct Professor in Humanities and as a Pagan Chaplain. He’s Goði (priest) of Thor’s Oak Kindred—a Chicago-based organization, dedicated to the practice of the Ásatrú faith and a member of the Troth Clergy Program. Previously, Dr. Seigfried taught Norse mythology and religion at Loyola University Chicago, Carthage College, and the Newberry Library Seminars Program.

    Long story short, the good doctor knows everything about Heathenry that I don’t.

    While I wanted, primarily, to ask him if the wearing of a beard as part of Heathenry was bonafide bunk, I felt the opportunity to follow up with a few questions about an often misunderstood religion was too good to pass up. So here we go.

    How would you define Heathenry to someone unfamiliar with the term?

    Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives, reconstructs, and reimagines pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic religion with emphasis on medieval Icelandic texts. The term Ásatrú itself is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith” and means belief in or loyalty to the major tribe of Norse gods and goddesses. Practitioners usually refer to themselves as Heathens.

    More generally, the term Heathenry refers to the wider world of contemporary Germanic polytheism, which includes not only modern traditions based on older Icelandic and Norse beliefs and practices, but also on those of the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and other ancient groups that spoke Germanic languages.

    Depending where in the world you are, today’s practitioners may use the terms Ásatrú and Heathenry interchangeably, or they may insist that the first one refers specifically to beliefs and practices centered on Icelandic sources.

    When we self-identify as Heathens, it doesn’t mean we’re calling ourselves “heathens” in the popular or derogatory sense. There doesn’t seem to have been a native word for the various systems of polytheistic religious beliefs and practices in any Germanic language before the clash with Christianity. After the new religion came to the north, the term Heathen (Old Norse heiðinn, Old English haéðen, Old High German heidan) was used for those who believed in what was also called the Old Way, and it’s used in this sense by modern practitioners.

    Most Heathens around the world are deeply familiar with a wide range of source texts on various aspects of historical belief and practice. In order to understand the origins and development of our tradition, we study Roman reports, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, Icelandic sagas, medieval legal codes, early German literature, nineteenth century folklore collections, and many other types of written sources – along with academic works on archaeology, history, and so on.

    Although it’s a modern religion, Ásatrú has a four-thousand-year history. Its gods, symbols, and rituals have roots in Northern Europe that date to approximately 2000 BCE. From shadowy beginnings in the Bronze Age through a late flowering in the Viking Age, local variants developed throughout continental Europe, the Nordic countries, and the British Isles. Large-scale public practice ended with Christian conversion, but there is documentation of private practice continuing for several centuries. Some beliefs and rituals survived into the twentieth century as elements of folk religion throughout the Northern European diaspora, including North America.

    Ásatrú is what sociologists call a new religious movement (NRM). In Iceland, the old faith of Odin, Thor, Freya, and the other Norse gods and goddesses was officially abandoned for Christianity at the national assembly in the year 1000 CE. Although private practice continued for some time afterward – and folk practices continued much longer still – it wasn’t until after a group of twelve men and women adopted the term Ásatrú and formed the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) as a new religious organization in 1972 that the old gods were once more openly worshipped in the country.

    The Ásatrúarfélagið was officially recognized by the Icelandic government in 1973, and its members performed the first public blót (Heathen ritual) held in Iceland since the rite was outlawed almost a thousand years earlier. The religion soon spread out internationally, and the number of adherents has greatly grown over the past 45 years. Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the construction of a major hof (Heathen temple) is nearing completion.

    According to the 2013 Worldwide Heathen Census, some form of the religion can be found in 98 countries, with the United States having by far the largest number of practitioners. That’s an amazing spread of what remains a largely unrecognized and misunderstood religion in less than half of a century.

     

    What beliefs, if you are comfortable speaking about them, do you personally hold?

    Worldview might be a better term than belief. In both modern Ásatrú and the ancient Germanic traditions that inform it, the focus is less on subscribing to a dogmatic set of beliefs than to experiencing and living life in a way that engages with the numinous as an intrinsic part of the world, not as an external force that stands outside time and space.

    I sometimes think of Ásatrú as a poetic gloss on life that is informed by the poems, myths, sagas, legends, and histories that we turn to for information and inspiration. We don’t have sacred texts that parallel those of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We don’t have commandments handed down from the heavens and preserved in infallible texts. Instead, our lore provides a guide to forming ways of seeing and acting.

    For just one example, a quiet walk in a forest can be a deeply meaningful experience enriched by both conscious and subconscious internal connections of the present moment to past engagement with lore of elves, myths of Odin, legends of Siegfried, and history of the early Germanic tribes. The nonverbal connection of elements can be more meaningful as a religious experience than any verbal discourse about beliefs.

    This way of seeing the world leads to a way of living in the world. The past is an active force that affects the present as the present continually becomes the past. Heathens often say that “we are our deeds,” meaning that the actions we take in the now become part of the past that determines what can happen in the future. One way of conceiving of this process is as weaving a web of wyrd, of being part of a vast network of deeds and consequences. This naturally leads to the honoring – not the worship, as it’s often misunderstood – of those who came before us and whose deeds made our own lives possible.

    In this worldview, death is the final action of an individual’s life story, but it isn’t at all the end of that life's effect on the future present. In the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), the god Odin famously says,

    Cattle die, kinsmen die,

    The self dies the same,

    But the glory of reputation never dies

    For the one who gets himself a good one.

    The focus here isn’t on a mystical afterlife, despite the pop culture emphasis on the warrior’s paradise of Valhalla. There’s an acceptance of the finality of death, but it isn’t part of some cartoonish Germanic doom and gloom. The realization of the reality of death for the individual doesn’t lead to existential paralysis. Instead, it leads to a wholehearted embrace of living life to the fullest, so that one's deeds can continue to live positively in the minds of future generations and affect the life of the living beyond the death of the individual.

    The emphasis on the importance of deeds leads to a refocusing on life choices. What will you do to make a positive impact in your own lifetime? How will you work to make life better for future generations? Will you allow harm to come to your community through inaction? How will you preserve the lore of the past so that it continues to live on and have real effect in the present? Of course, other religions also ask these questions. Maybe the difference is that they are at the core of the Ásatrú tradition and not secondary to questions of salvation of the soul.

    I think the Norse gods are absolutely real, but I don’t think that they are walking, talking characters as portrayed in Norse mythology. This distinction seems to hang up a lot of people. Given the prominence of evangelical and fundamentalist voices in American public discourse on religion, we tend to equate literal belief in ancient religious texts with religiosity. If you don’t believe literally that your deity is exactly as described in the texts, you must be an atheist. I disagree.

    There’s a very wide range of relationships with the divine in Ásatrú and Heathenry. Depending whom you ask, the deities are conceived of as natural forces, psychological drives, poetic constructs, cultural figures, immanent material beings, or something else entirely.

    I think that the gods and goddesses are all around us. I feel the might of Thor in midwestern summer thunderstorms. I feel the inspiration of Odin in moments of musical improvisation. I feel the presence of the elves in quiet places of the forest. The Old Norse texts sometimes refer to the gods as powers. That conception makes complete sense to me.

    I think the Norse myths portray the gods in understandable ways, as symbols that interact with each other in narrative forms. Reading a story about Thor’s adventure can be a spiritual experience that is both related to and very different from experiencing his power in the thunderstorm. Taking myths literally as history does violence to the depth of their symbolic, religious, and cultural meaning. That violence can spill out into our interactions with others, because a fundamentalist approach to the word all too easily leads to a fundamentalist approach to the world.

     

    How did you come to find your beliefs?

    Finding is a good word to use. There was no conversion process, as there often is in the Abrahamic faith traditions. Instead, there was a realization and recognition that this modern religion with ancient roots was the right thing for me. As with many Heathens, it was less a sense of coming into a new belief system than having a sensation that this is what I already was.

    When I was a kid, my parents insisted that I learn Greek, Jewish, and Christian mythology. They told me, “You can believe whatever you want when you grow up, but you need to know these traditions, or you'll never be able to understand art, literature, and music.” I was only familiar with Norse mythology in a general way, mostly through Marvel Comics and Dungeons & Dragons. The specific moment when things changed was when I stumbled across Children of Odin, the Irish poet Padraic Colum’s 1920 retelling of the major Norse myths.

    Reading the book, I immediately saw my Opa in Thor. My German grandfather was born in the old country as a peasant farmer – traditionally, the major constituency of the thunder god – and worked as a bricklayer in Milwaukee after World War II. He loved drinking, dancing, children, and good solid food. The myths specifically show Thor sharing these loves, except for maybe the dancing. The god of the myths is arguably the idealized self-image of the free farmer, the ancient social class to which my Opa himself belonged. Like Thor, my Opa was quick to anger, yet equally quick to joy.

    Odin reminded me of my father. As a young child, my dad not only survived anti-German extermination camps run by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Partisans, but he single-handedly rescued his extended family and led them to freedom in Austria’s British Zone, repeatedly crossing a vast distance of hostile territory in Eastern Europe on foot. As a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago, he spent his adult life questioning and seeking answers for the most profound of life's questions. Odin appears when his descendants are in seemingly hopeless situations, as my father did in his youth for the members of his family. In his Wanderer aspect, Odin roams the world, questioning all and seeking wisdom, which is also the philosopher’s task.

    Neither Odin nor my father necessarily found joy in wisdom. Odin learns that all must someday die, even the gods and the world itself. More than half a century after he survived torture at the hands of brutal extermination camp guards, my father watched as the president of his adopted United States worked to enable the brutal torture of “enemy combatants” even as he was himself dying of cancer. For both Odin and my father, awareness of darkness led not to paralysis, but to determination to fight the good fight.

    The more I learned about Norse mythology and religion, the more I felt connected to Thor and Odin. Thor goes alone against the giants as he fights the forces threatening the gods and humans under his protection. He cares very little for his own safety as he rushes headlong into battle with overwhelming opponents. He’s a great inspiration as we fight today’s battles against bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, racism, and injustice of all kinds. Thor can inspire us to bravely face the dangers that arise when challenging discrimination.

    Odin inspires in a very different way. His endless questioning and searching for wisdom is what I find most inspiring. I’m not seeking mystical answers in the words of the god. It’s the questioning itself that I believe is important. I feel a connection to the poets of a thousand years and more ago who asked the same questions that bother me in the darkest hours of the night. I feel a similar connection to the god who still wanders the world and ponders the same questions under the same stars that shine down on me.

     

    Do you have any recommended starting points for folks that might be interested in learning more about heathenism?

    If someone wants to learn about any living religion, the best thing to do is to get to know practitioners of that tradition. I’m a member of the Troth, the international Ásatrú organization dedicated to inclusivity, education, scholarship, and training. We have members and representatives all over the place. Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Ásatrú group in Chicago that I lead as goði (priest), represents the organization in Chicago and the surrounding region. Anyone interested in learning about the tradition can contact the parent organization and ask about clergy, members, or groups in their area that are holding public events or are interested in discussion.

    If that seems like too much, reading is good. There are many approaches to learning about a religion, but I would suggest reading about the mythology, the historical tradition, and the modern religions.

    For mythology, I recommend starting with the book that first got me into all of this – Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin (1920). It tells all the major myths in a coherent way, has fantastic illustrations by the Hungarian artist Willy Pogany, and is suitable for all ages.

    If you’re ready for something deeper, read the Edda by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1220). Much of what we know about the myths comes from Snorri, and he writes in a straightforward prose style. Be forewarned: the Christian Snorri frames the myths in a hodgepodge of medieval Latin learning and sometimes gives his own interpretations that contradict what we now know about religious beliefs and practices of the earlier pagan era.

    For the most moving of the mythological texts, read the Poetic Edda. It brings together the great mythological and heroic poems of Iceland, mainly from one important manuscript of c. 1270. The poems tell of gods and goddesses, dwarves and dragons, heroes and Valkyries. These brilliant works served as sources for Snorri’s more straightforward text, and they can be very difficult to understand without reading a lot of footnotes.

    All three books of the mythology books I recommend are free to download from The Norse Mythology Online Library.

    There are two wonderful and accessible books for learning about historical Germanic polytheism. H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964) is my favorite introduction to Norse mythology, religion, and culture. The book introduces us to each of the major deities in detail and discusses not only literature but archaeology, theology, history, place-name analysis, visual arts, and more in a virtuosic work that my high school, college, and adult students love to read.

    Rudolf Simek’s A Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1992) is a wonderful work that’s really more of an encyclopedia than a dictionary. As the preface explains:

    the mythology and religion of all Germanic tribes – Scandinavians as well as Goths or Angles and Saxons – have been dealt with [in this book] insofar as they are Germanic in origin; hence, of the English mythology of heathen times, the religion imported by the Germanic tribes is included.

    Modern Heathens tend to have an expansive sense of the historical background of the modern religions. We study sources from Iceland, England, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere. Simek’s work is beloved by many of us both for its inclusion of a wide range of material and for its insightful drawing of connections between diverse sources.

    To learn about modern Ásatrú and Heathenry, I think it’s important to read works by practitioners rather than by the academics who study them. Patricia M. Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru (2013) and Diana Paxson’s Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism (2006) are both introductory books that give a brief overview of Heathen history and mythology, introduce deities and land-spirits, explain theological constructs, and describe rituals and celebrations performed today.

    For a more in-depth work, the two-volume Our Troth is a massive collaborative work divided into History and Lore (2006) and Living the Troth (2007). This is the standard text I recommend to scholars who want a detailed work on beliefs and practices written from a variety of perspectives within these religions.

     

    There was a recent story in the Army Times about a soldier who has been allowed to maintain a beard as doing so is a tenet of his heathen faith. However, the Open Halls Project stated that there is no requirement in heathenism to sport facial hair. In your experience as a scholar and practitioner, is this the case?

    There has been a long struggle for recognition of the rights of Ásatrú and Heathen members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and there has been some notable progress in the last few years.

    In 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to a petition by American Heathens and approved Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) as an available emblem of belief for government grave markers. The U.S. Air Force added Ásatrú and Heathenry as options on its religious preference list in 2014 , and – after an email campaign and the submission of the Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains to the Department of Defense in 2016 – the religions were finally recognized across all branches of the U.S. Military Services in 2017. However, there are still no Ásatrú or Heathen chaplains, and there are reports from practitioners that recognition hasn’t been fully implemented at ground level.

    These are serious issues of religious rights that have wide support across many subsets of the wider Heathen community. They concern access to appropriate counseling, keeping of texts and objects, time and space for ritual celebration, and last rites of memorial and burial. No such consensus supports the lone soldier who insists wearing a full beard is a requirement of Heathenry.

    First, there’s no theological or historical basis for such a claim. There are texts that mention some pagans of the long ago time having beards, but there are also texts that mention others that are clean shaven and still others that have moustaches only. There is no written commandment from Odin declaring that growing a beard is a prerequisite of being an adult male practitioner, and the evidence shows that fashions in facial hair changed over time and across space during the many centuries of pre-Christian Germanic polytheism.

    Second, none of the major Heathen organizations in the U.S. or abroad list having a beard as a requirement for practicing the religion. To the contrary, they have mostly criticized and ridiculed this idea in public and private. There are definitely modern Heathen men who wear full beards, just as there are modern hipsters, metalheads, liberals, conservatives, truckers, and professors who wear full beards. There are also Heathens with moustaches, goatees, long hair, short hair, no hair, and every possible combination of grooming choices.

    Third, there seems to be something else going on here. I’ve been contacted by soldiers and police officers asking me to provide them with evidence that beards were required in ancient Heathenry so that they can fight official regulations as discriminating against them. That’s the nub of the issue – the idea that they are victims of discrimination.

    They usually open by stating that Muslim and Sikh men are allowed to wear beards, so they must have the same right because of their Heathen beliefs. They then claim ancestral connections to proud Germanic pagans and claim that they are the inheritors of an ancient tradition of sacred grooming that is somehow bound to both ancestry and religion.

    From everything I’ve seen, this is mostly about the anger of these men at Muslims and Sikhs receiving what they see as unfairly preferential treatment. It’s a small part of a much larger cultural moment in which a subset of straight white men loudly proclaim that rights and recognition won by women, immigrants, people of color, members of minority religions, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are really attacks on them.

    I fully admit there’s a strong counterargument to all of this which insists that Ásatrú and Heathenry are not dogmatic religions with centralized power structures, that local communities of practitioners decide the parameters of their own beliefs and practices, and that individuals can have direct experiences of the divine. What if you made a sacred oath not to cut your beard until a specific task had been accomplished – a grooming view that does have precedent in ancient texts? What if your local Heathen community believes that beards are required as a mark of belonging? What if you had a vision of Thor in which he told you to grow a beard as a sign of devotion?

    These are issues between you, your religious community, and your deities. I don’t think it would be advisable or even possible for the U.S. Armed Forces to accommodate every religious oath, local community practice, and personal experience of revelation that contradicts some standard regulation. How would that even work?

    As I said earlier, there are serious issues for Heathens in the military that a large proportion of practitioners have taken stands on, and there has been real progress in some of these areas. If an individual soldier can convince his commander that Thor wants him to have a beard, more power to him. It’s just not something that will get a wide base of support from a large number of practitioners in the wider world.

     

    There’s been talk in the news, on and off, about white nationalists and other racists groups taking an interest in "Odinism." What’s the attraction and is their aggression and hate the norm, in your experience, with other practitioners of the faith?

    Despite media and academic fixation on this issue to the near-exclusion of any other aspect of Ásatrú and Heathenry, racist extremism is definitely not the norm among practitioners in the U.S. and worldwide. An impressive number of Heathen organizations worldwide have publicly signed Declaration 127, which includes this statement:

    “We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do. We will not grant the tacit approval of silence in the name of frið [peace], to those who would use our traditions to justify prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, orientation, or gender identity.”

    The document specifically denounces the Asatru Folk Assembly, an American group that had its Facebook page taken down last year for posting racist material and which is now listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group promoting “neo-Völkisch” ideology inspired by German racist nationalism from the late 1800s through the Nazi years.

    There are other Heathen groups and individuals that hold and promote racist views, and their loudness on the internet gives an exaggerated impression of their actual numbers. They have been emboldened in the U.S. by the alt-right-adjacent public statements of Donald Trump as candidate and president and by mainstream media coverage that continues to scold non-Republicans and insist they have to listen to the concerns of the right-wing extremists regularly portrayed as “the folks next door.” Members of Heathenry’s racist fringe in the U.K., continental Europe, and the Nordic countries have been likewise emboldened by the rise of far-right politicians and the hateful rhetoric against immigrants and refugees.

    The attraction of white nationalists to Heathenry today seems largely centered on an association of Germanic pagan literature and symbols with the Third Reich. Runic symbols pop up fairly regularly on flags and banners carried by neo-Confederates and alt-right activists, almost always in the distinctive forms used by the Nazis.

    There’s also a fixation of many young straight white male extremists on the Viking Age as some sort of model for a pure white ethnostate. Scholars in Scandinavian and medieval studies have done a good job of pushing back on these racist fantasies of the era, despite problematic race issues in their own academic fields.

    When religion is a factor in these hateful groups, it seems to be a secondary one. The Asatru Folk Assembly itself began as the Viking Brotherhood, a group that founder Stephen McNallen described as “a miniscule organization” that was “focused on the image of the warrior, and on the assertion of individual will and freedom that the warrior epitomizes.” He has also openly stated, “I think many people first get involved in racial politics, and then later decide that maybe Odinism or Asatrú [sic] attracts them.”

    There is a subset of the far-right subculture that decided relatively recently that the evangelical Christianity they were raised in was “tainted” by its connections to Judaism and then moved over to Odinism or some other racist form of Heathenry. The negative aspects that they carry over from the worldview of their pre-conversion faith are usually fairly obvious and manifest as fundamentalism, sectarianism, overt homophobia, and an extremely conservative ideology regarding roles of women.

    The mainstream Ásatrú and Heathen communities regularly denounce the hateful fringe. A far more widespread and pernicious problem is the fact that more subtle prejudice sneaks into even the most well-meaning groups of every religion. We all need to do a better job of questioning our own biases and challenging those around us who promote stereotypes and derogatory views of others.

     

    Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths are discussed openly in the media on a regular basis. With such a long-running tradition, and so many adherents, why are pagan and heathenistic faiths pushed to the side more often than not?

    That’s an easy question to answer: the quest for clicks and the inherent biases of the journalists themselves.

    On one hand, coverage of religion – like most corporate news – is driven by the profit motive. Journalists on what they themselves revealingly call “the God beat” write gushing pieces about Pope Francis as a liberal crusader because there is sizable demographic that will click on the headline. They write snarky pieces about fallen megachurch pastors because gleeful Schadenfreude also drives clicks. Writers fighting to justify their salaries in a hard market gravitate to the small cluster of topics that will get them hits and get them paid.

    On the other hand, the personal beliefs of religion reporters often drive their reporting for supposedly secular news outlets. I’ve had many conversations about this issue with journalists who cover religion for major mainstream and corporate media. Publicly, they talk a good game about supporting diversity in the newsroom and in subjects covered. Privately, they say amazingly revealing things about their own religious allegiances (Christian), explain why they mostly cover Catholicism (positively) and evangelicals (critically), and respond to my calls for true diversity in hiring and writing (furiously). Unsurprisingly, they insist that the private conversations are off the record.

    I have no problem with reporters reporting from a specific faith perspective. I was hired as a columnist at The Wild Hunt specifically to do so. But The Wild Hunt openly announces itself as “a daily, independent news journal dedicated to serving the collective Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities worldwide.” I openly declare my religious affiliations in my articles and my bio.

    The problem arises when reporters for trusted secular news organizations write news reports – not opinion columns – that promote their own religious tradition while actively hiding their own connection to that tradition. I’ve seen reporters who neglect to mention in their professional bios that they’re actually ordained and practicing ministers. Again, I have no problem with a minister doubling as a reporter. I just think it’s bizarre that their editors and publishers allow them to avoid full disclosure and to cover up conflicts of interest.

    I purposely used the term inherent bias earlier, because it seems that the prejudices of the reporters sometimes unconsciously override their own search for clicks. Mainstream religion reporters overwhelmingly cover white Christians, yet white Christians now make up only 40% of Americans. White evangelicals are now only 17% of the country’s population, and white Catholics are down to 11%, but – despite these shrinking numbers – they continue to receive the lion’s share of coverage on “the God beat.” Editors hire people they feel comfortable around, and reporters write about what they know.

    As always, bleeding can push a group into leading the news. Reporting on Islam surged after 9/11. Articles featuring Jewish perspectives on violence involving Palestinians continue to be regularly produced. Ásatrú and Heathenry only get featured in regards to the racist fringe we discussed earlier. Every once in a while, there’s a flurry of articles about Icelandic Ásatrú, but they either exclaim “People still believe in elves!” (with a picture of the Keebler Elves) or “People still believe in Thor!” (with a picture of Chris Hemsworth).

    For the past few years, religion reporters have been pushing a narrative of “the rise of the Nones.” It focuses on deeply problematic American religion surveys that ask “Do you believe in God or not?” Published articles regularly jump straight from discussing the Abrahamic faiths to theorizing about atheists, agnostics, and the “religiously unaffiliated.” There’s no questioning of the question asked or mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. Is the erasure driven by willful prejudice or by inherent bias so strong that it blinds reporters to common sense?

    This resolute focus on Abrahamic faiths and atheism while ignoring other religious traditions plays out not just in the media but also in interfaith organizations and university offices of spiritual life. Again, one factor is financial; as American participation in legacy religions shrinks, organizations are wooing atheists in an attempt to bolster their membership and income. The other factor is, of course, bias; the atheist who agrees to discuss the existence of an Abrahamic deity is necessarily part of a conversation in which practitioners of polytheistic religions have no part.

    If we want to change this dynamic, we need to apply public pressure to editors and publishers of corporate news organizations that practice exclusion, and we need to financially support news outlets that provide inclusive coverage. Waiting for positive change accomplishes nothing. We are our deeds.

     

    Headshot courtesy of Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried

    Thor flies over a farmer's field, painting by Max Koch (c. 1905), public domain

    Odin the Wanderer, Illustration by Willy Pogany for the book Children of Odin by Padraic Colum (1920), public domain

    Drinking horn, Thor's hammer pendant, and oath ring, courtesy of Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried

    Blót to Thor, painting by J.L. Lund (d. 1867), public domain

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