Underground Kemeticism: How public are you about your beliefs and practices? How has it (or not) impacted your work life, your familial and friendly ties? What advice would you give to uncertain Kemetics about how to approach either telling or not telling others about their beliefs?
There is a fairly popular notion among many religious communities that people should be vocally public about their religious identity and activities. It is also widely held that if a person doesn’t engage in this socially expected behavior, that person is a coward, or somehow ashamed of who (s)he is and what (s)he believes. This is simply not true. What is true is that only each individual can decide how public or private to be, informed by his or her own particular cultural, political, familial, and career-related experiences and circumstances. It is also true that total openness is often not the wisest policy, and that there are many reasons for an individual to maintain some level of privacy regarding their religious identity and activities. In places like the United States, where Conservative Christianities and Neo-Conservative policies dominate many regions and professions, being “too openly Pagan” can potentially result in negative consequences such as termination of employment (see also RTW law and at-will employment agreements); harassment and discrimination both in and out of the workplace; and ostracism from one’s own family and community. In countries with religious, political, and socio-economic climates in far worse condition than America’s — as has been the case with Syria and Egypt for some time — the consequences can be and have been exponentially worse.
I tend to opt for semi-privacy over complete openness or complete privacy. I don’t share personal information with people I don’t know and trust. At least, not in great detail, and not while operating under my legal name. Using an online alias has been instrumental in safeguarding my academic career. It allows me to engage more freely in my personal religious interests without arousing the suspicion of my superiors and peers. I do take work home with me, both literally and figuratively, but I like to keep the “home” out of the “work.” Some of my superiors and peers might call my credibility and quality of work into question if they knew about my “unconventional beliefs,” potentially ending or at least measurably complicating my academic career and future aspirations. Because my blog and my social networking accounts are under an alias (one which, conveniently if at times frustratingly for me, most people can’t seem to spell correctly), standard background checks performed on my legal name will not turn up results for my religious activity and subsequent written material. Additionally, the usual abbreviation of my alias, “Sard,” when plugged into a search engine will mainly retrieve results for brown chalcedony and carnelian. In like kind, I use separate email accounts for my social networking, my academic work and interactions, legal and financial matters, and personal business and correspondence. It may seem like a lot to keep track of, but the diversification of my online presence and practice of basic internet safety makes it a bit more difficult for people with less-than-good intentions to dredge up information I don’t want them to, for purposes I don’t want them to.
I also have to maintain some level of privacy so as not to compromise my husband’s military career. The United States Marine Corps, despite official policies, is still dominated by Conservative Christian sensibilities. As such, there is a prevalence of open hostility toward non-Christians and non-Jews. Modern Conservative Christian attitudes toward non-Christians and non-Jews are, among other things, informed by Scriptural passages concerning the Egyptians and Canaanites in particular, being emblematic of all “foreign,” non-Monotheistic religions. As wildly historically inaccurate and misrepresentative of legitimate scholarship as presentations of those attitudes often are, they have certainly not helped those of a Conservative Christian persuasion better understand “alternative religions.”
My husband, who identifies as Asatru, has experienced manifestations of this manner of hostility firsthand from some of his peers and superiors. Some of those who weren’t so hostile were quick to dismiss his beliefs as “Dungeons and Dragons nonsense.” Two years ago, during boot camp, my husband also bore witness to the above-average mistreatment of one of his fellow recruits, a Muslim of Palestinian ancestry. My husband was also engaged in an intense personal conflict with the son of a Baptist Pastor in his unit. Thankfully the difficulties my husband has experienced for his religious differences have not been the worst possible. It is fortunate, too, that some of those among his peers and superiors who had formerly been hostile or dismissive toward him were able to reach some respectful understanding with him — namely (and surprisingly) the Baptist Pastor’s son, who is now a friend of his. My husband’s negative experiences with usually positive resolutions notwithstanding, discrimination is still alive and well within the US military.
Despite various pieces of legislation that have been put into effect and the battles that have been nominally won within the last two decades, the situation has not improved as much as it should have for all servicemen and servicewomen of “alternative religions” across the board. Wicca is becoming increasingly accepted, and Heathen religions are catching up slowly, though other “Pagan” religions like Kemeticism have yet to do so. It takes some of the pressure and unwanted attention off of my husband by being an affable social chameleon, which includes not being too public about my own religious beliefs and practices outside the “Pagan” community and my inner circle of friends. Rationally and politely explaining “what’s what” about my religion when asked can indeed help others better understand and be more tolerant toward people of “alternative religions.” There are times, however, when it’s much more intelligent and helpful to avoid getting involved in matters of religion with certain people, particularly when those “certain people” are known gossips and/or malignants, and/or are in positions of power that can directly and adversely affect my husband and me. It’s all a matter of risk assessment. It’s a matter of knowing when, how, and with whom I should pick my battles.
Public Presentation / Outward Appearance
I do openly wear amulets with religious significance, and clothing with Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs incorporated into them. Because Ancient Near Eastern aesthetics are always in vogue, I have little to worry about and feel very secure in expressing myself this way. People compliment my attire frequently without asking questions about my religious views. In the event that ever happens, I can explain that I am interested in Ancient art and am a Classical/Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. Making reference to my being ethnically Jewish is also useful sometimes. Such explanations tend not to ruffle any feathers, since C/ANES does cover the specialization of Jewish/Hebrew Studies, which in turn covers Biblical Studies. These are among the first things that leap to outsiders’ minds when and if they are familiar with C/ANES. Because I also have background in Art History, Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and the Aesthetics (Philo/Theo), I am familiar with Christian Scripture, subsequent theologies, and histories. It is thus very easy for me to “camouflage” myself in prolonged conversations with American Conservative Christians when absolutely necessary.
Family and Friends
From what I can gather, my immediate biological family doesn’t particularly care. Both of my parents were educated at prestigious Universities: my mother at Cornell University, my father at Syracuse University. Even during my parents’ time at school in the 1970s and 1980s, these Universities saw a culturally and religiously diverse student body and faculty. My mother eventually returned to Cornell University as an employee, which has only become more diverse over the decades. I think that has had an effect on how socially tolerant and “culturally aware” they both are. They are both cultural Christians of the Roman Catholic variety; my mother used to be a much more devout Catholic than she is now, and my father is essentially an Atheist (and a grumpy one, from a family of mixed religious proclivities and ethnicities, namely Northern European Catholic and ethnic Jewish ones). Neither of them “get” what I believe and do religiously, but haven’t interfered with it in any meaningful or lasting way, nor have they “outed” me to others. I don’t even know what my siblings believe; neither of them interfere with what I do either. My extended family on both sides are almost entirely Christian. Two of my cousins on my father’s side are Wiccan, and a grand-uncle and his family are observing and not “just” ethnic Jews. A few members of my father’s side of the family has some approximate knowledge of my religious status, and seem to be fine with it, particularly one of my aunts. My mother’s side is comprised of more strict Italian and Sicilian Catholics of fairly recent emigration, and I haven’t been “out” with them at all because of the strong negative reactions I know I would receive. As far as they have ever known I am Roman Catholic, because that is the expectation and the assumption from their cultural perspective. I’ll attend the periodic family function, baptism, funeral, etc., without fuss (as a child, it was much harder, as a few hours of Church-related activity each week is for virtually all children). I don’t have to deal with my maternal extended family very often, or for long, so it’s easy for me to “suck it up and deal” as an adult.
As for my husband, he is completely aware of who I am and what I do. He goes above and beyond “live and let live”: he sometimes prays to my Gods, both with and without me. He’s very accepting, inquisitive, and engaging, liking to know what I’m doing, studying, and practicing. We are entirely open with and supportive of one-another. It is a policy for us to honor each other’s Gods and traditions. There are no boundaries in our marriage in this sense, and we are well aware as to how fortunate we are for having one-another and for being able to maintain such policies.
My brothers-in-law, like my husband, are of the Asatru variety of Heathen. I’m only particularly close friends with one of my brothers-in-law, though I know for certain that neither of them has any problem with what I believe and do. Things are pretty chummy in that regard. I don’t have a relationship with my parents- and sisters-in-law, though, so I don’t know for certain what their opinions are.
I don’t maintain any form of contact with most of the people I grew up with. Those of my friends I’ve known since grade school and still maintain contact with have some basic understanding of what my religious beliefs are, and as far as I know don’t really take issue with them. Many of my local friends are some denomination of Christian, and the remainder is a potage of Atheist, Buddhist, Heathen, Hermetic, and Wiccan. One of my and my mother’s closest friends, a Greek woman who has been a family friend for decades, is a Greek Orthodox Christian with a New Age bent, and she and I have spent a good deal of time discussing many things, including religion — both our own beliefs, and religion as a wider topic. We’ve all gotten along rather well on the whole despite our religious and lifestyle differences. However, I tend to discuss matters of religion more often and in greater detail with my online friends and those in the wider “Pagan” community than with the people I’ve known since childhood and adolescence.
I’ve caught flack here and there online from some Heathens (specifically from more conservative Asatruar, and from Odinists — no love lost, to be perfectly candid) for not only “defecting” from Norse religion, but for being married to a Norse religionist while not identifying as “strictly Norse” myself. I don’t believe in the Norse deities any less; I simply don’t deal with the Heathen community much anymore beyond my husband, brothers-in-law, and some of my close friends. Being multi-traditional — which for some reason a lot of people think isn’t possible, or worse, is “immoral” — has been one of the causes of a few unpleasant conversations and abruptly terminated friendships, but only a few. Some of the Christians I’ve known throughout my life (and some of the ones I still know but who don’t know about my religious orientation), couldn’t handle my not being Christian, period, much less understand why or how I can be multi-traditional. Those among them who found out parted with varying degrees of incredulity and bitterness.
Some instances have been a lot worse than others, and there are some risks both actual and potential that both I and my husband have to contend with and step very gingerly around. Overall, though, my experiences haven’t been all that bad.
MY ADVICE TO THE UNCERTAIN
Disclaimer: The following is my own opinion and advice. And, like any opinion or piece of advice, no one is obligated to follow it.
It’s hard to dole out advice without knowing the specifics of any given individual’s situation. It’s also hard to dole out advice because there are some situations and circumstances I’m just not going to have any experiential knowledge of or proficiency with. That said, there are a few general pointers I can give.
Carefully evaluate the situations you find yourself in. Know your “audience.” Understand and respect boundaries and limitations, both your own and others’. Be aware of the potential consequences of religious openness, as well as those of total privacy — above all, know how far you are willing to go and what consequences you are willing to accept. Acquaint yourself with the rights and labor laws, etc., of your State/County/Province and country in the event you ever must and are able to fight back against mistreatment and discrimination. If you are in a position to be safely open about your beliefs without putting yourself and those dependent upon you at risk in any major, lasting way, and if you are comfortable with being open: be as open and public as you desire. If you don’t want to disclose that information to anyone in any way, you don’t have to.
What I recommend that is ostensibly safe for many situations is to “live your beliefs.” This is something even “Pagans” in the most ideal, secure situations should do. For Kemetics, it means living in ma’at. Living in ma’at doesn’t simply include worship and giving votive and food offerings to the Gods and the blessed dead. Ma’at also consists of doing “green things,” the things which (re)establish and (re)affirm a just and functional Order. These things tend to be common features of different systems, and are therefore principles almost everyone accepts and values the doing of. Do not commit murder; do not steal; prevent harm to the innocent; nurture and protect those who are unable to do so for themselves (clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc.); be good and fair toward your fellow man. Moral principles concerned with ecological matters, while they have existed for a long time, have become even more pronounced in recent years, so we can add “be a good steward of the Earth” to this list. These are only a few examples. By doing “green things,” you assert your value to society while making society better. This in itself is an offering: to God(s), to the blessed dead, to your fellow man, and to yourself. As was written in the Instructions for Merikare, whatever moral and objective value the text holds: “the good qualities [alternatively: loaf] of the straightforward person are preferred to the ox of the evildoer.”
If you are faced with intolerance bearing great personal risk to you and who/what you care about, and find yourself having to participate in the prayers and rituals of other religions: silently orient those rituals to your own God(s). At mealtimes, say inaudible prayers to your God(s) over your victuals to offer them, and then revert them before partaking. At least in your own mind and heart, you can make the rituals and circumstances imposed by others upon you about your God(s). It’s not ideal, but it is something of a livable middle ground.
I absolutely would not recommend keeping literature around, such as devotional volumes, prayerbooks, and grimoires, if you are living with intolerant family. Don’t do anything that would deprive you of a safe place to live. Respect the guidelines of your parents/guardians while you are dependent upon them and living under their roof. If they are abusive and living with them is not safe, seek outside help to try to expediently remove yourself from that living situation if at all possible. If you live with family who are a bit more tolerant and persuadable, I would suggest gradually introducing them to what you believe and do. For example, provide them a list of suggested reading about your beliefs to peruse and discuss together. Alternatively, you could invite your parents/guardians to observe a basic daily ritual, explaining to them the meaning of all you’re doing during the ritual. Try to take things slowly and appreciate the place the other party is coming from, along with their limitations. Sometimes it takes a lot of time, effort, and above all compassion to help others come to tolerate or accept something that does not agree with the only way(s) of thinking they’ve ever known. Be mindful of the possibility that they may not “come around” at all. Plan accordingly.
Additionally, if for whatever reason you cannot keep a permanent standing shrine wherever you are living, there are discreet, portable, and inexpensive alternatives.
No matter what you say or do (or don’t), you will receive some amount of criticism and opposition from someone somewhere along the line. Rather than over-concern yourself with what others say or think about you, do what you think is right and best, so long as you’re not hurting or putting anyone else at risk in the process. Whatever you decide to do, know that religiosity isn’t a competition. There are many methods and degrees of expressing religiosity. It doesn’t hurt any God(s) for you to not be the loudest, “most religious” person out there, whatever “most religious” even means.