At my college filled with hyper-intellectual students, class discussions often left whatever obscure novel we were reading and went to things like Othering.
Othering is the process by which you mark people as being outside your group. In the Southeast where I was raised, Othering focused mainly on religion, leaving people in social groups designated by the church they went to. The Southeast US is a world in which being asked what church you go to by complete strangers is an absolutely commonplace occurrence. Knowing where people go to church allows you to know whether they are in your group or if they are Other, the feared group of strangers who are probably all going to burn in hell. I really knew Baptists when I lived there who feared to spend time with the Methodists because it might land them in hell.
For some reason or other, identities always come with a feared Other—the antagonist of the group. The Aesir have the Jotuns. The Heathens have the Neo-Nazis. We talk a lot about how we’re not Neo-Nazis and how we aren’t racist. Because the existence of the racists who claim to be a part of our group threatens our existence—we fear for our safety because we fear being branded white supremacists. We know that a religion of white supremacy will never get legitimacy in the modern world, and so the existence of modern heathenry holds it as our Other.
But this is not a rant about the Neo-Nazis. I am sure that my readers hold a similar stance to me on them, and the issue has been discussed at length. No, my question here is about Othering.
Most heathens, for one reason or another, have converted from their birth religion because they felt like an other. My own birth religion (those darn Southern Baptists!) has become a sort of source of contention for me in the past. For years, before I finally told my mother this past Yule season of my conversion, knowing that I had to out myself to my mother as the Other—Oh no! Not the dangerous pagans in my own family!–my fear of becoming the Other was something I thought about often.
And so I occasionally wonder if the tendencies of this culture we live in to romanticize the exotic, the other, have anything to do with why I became a heathen. I like about my religion that it isn’t something everyone else does. I like that it makes me sound interesting and exotic to the people I tell about it. Except for my parents, everyone I have told has been fascinated by my decision, and I love having that one crazy thing about me that makes me mysterious.
What if we like heathenry because we like the exotic? It’s an interesting question, but it doesn’t answer the issue. If we really just liked the exotic, wouldn’t we want to convert to a more exotic seeming religion like Buddhism or Hinduism? Something from some far away place we have no real connection to but a romanticized image?
But then, on the other hand, those people are our geographic Other. We call ourselves “the West” as opposed to the “East.” Sure, we romanticize the hell out of the East, but we also start a lot of stupid wars there. How many Eastern countries have we vilified at one point or another? We, here, are the West, the height of logic, reason, and Civilization! The East has the evil Communism and crazy backward ways!
I am exaggerating, of course. And I’m making no theses here—clearly far more issues are at play in our little revival, but I do wonder—is Heathenry our answer to Othering? It is our little compromise between the fearful other and the attractive exotic? A thousand years and a continent certainly make it far enough away that it can be easily romanticized. But then, we emphasize that it is our own religion, our own history, our own people so much. Is this because we fear the Other that we so much want to be?