Ethnic-Pagan Religions and the State:

Categories, Concepts and Possible Strategies

Hello. My name is Michael Strmiska, and I am a Visiting Lecturer in Religious Studies at Siauliai University in Lithuania. It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you here today in Belgium. As both a scholar and a supporter of Ethnic, Pagan and Traditional religions, I have been invited to speak about the problem of defining the categories and concepts that would be most constructive for members of Ethnic religions and organizations such as WCER to use in speaking to state governments and pan-governmental organizations like the European Union. I think we need to think of ourselves first as Religious organizations, and second, as Ethnic or Cultural Heritage organizations. I will talk about the Religious aspect first.

The key question, as I see it, is how Ethnic religions can most effectively represent themselves to increase public understanding and advocate for favorable treatment by governments and by society in general. I believe that the first thing we must take into account when we are dealing with governments, is that this is a political matter, which requires a political strategy. I suggest we begin by looking at this situation from the perspective of governments and thinking about the kinds of concerns that public officials have in dealing with our type of religion.

            Two things become clear immediately. Governments are very nervous and worried about dealing with religions, particularly when, as in the case of most  religions represented here today, the religions are understood as relatively new social phenomena, often classified under the label of New Religious Movements or NRMs. The other point is that governments are under enormous pressure from large and powerful religious organizations such as the Catholic Church. I will speak to the first point now and return to the second one later.

Whether we like it or not, Ethnic or Pagan religious groups are new religious movements from the point of view of the government and the public in most societies. We may claim with good reason that our religious traditions are thousands of years old, but the bare fact remains that the particular religious organizations that we represent are not extremely old, no more than several decades, in most cases. From the point of view of government, New Religious Movements are a cause for great concern because they are often associated with dangerous or antisocial religious cults or sects such as the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, Heaven’s Gate in the USA or the Solar Temple in Switzerland. Common fears which both political leaders and the general public have about such cults or sects include the following: (1) that the cult has a crazy but charismatic leader who the cult members will follow blindly; (2) that the members of the cult have been so thoroughly indoctrinated or brainwashed that they have lost the ability to think rationally;  (3) that the cult is dedicated to religious ideas about the end of the world which can motivate cult members to violent acts such as mass suicide; and (4) that the individual members of the cult, and the organization as a whole, are very strange and far away from the way of life of the average person and the  general society.

Considering that these concerns and worries are very common and influential, I think that Ethnic and Pagan religions must make a constant effort to educate politicians and the public that they have none of the characteristics that people associate with dangerous cults and sects. It is not enough to, for example, take out a large advertisement in a major newspaper and say, “Dear members of the government and the public: we are not a dangerous cult!” There must be steady, patient and continuing public relations efforts to explain to the media, to the government, to anyone who wants to know, that your group is involved with very positive and healthy religious and cultural activities and NOT engaged in the kinds of dangerous and anti-social activities associated with cults. I believe that if Ethnic and Pagan religions can successfully fight off the fear that they are dangerous cults, this will make all contacts with government and the public much easier. The reverse is also true. If Ethnic religious organizations do not respond effectively to government and public concerns and suspicions about new religious movements being dangerous cults, they probably will be viewed as dangerous cults or sects, leading to intolerance and persecution.

Therefore, my first recommendation for Ethnic religions is that each organization should practice conscientious public relations and actively pursue communication with government, the media, academics and the public, in order to ensure that the activities and intentions of our various religious organizations are so well-known that it is impossible for anyone to accuse them of being a dangerous religious cult. Such communication and public relations efforts are also important for changing public understanding of what religion is or can be, so that there is greater appreciation that going to a Christian church on Sunday is not the only way of being religious or spiritual.

Returning to the issue of how governments and the public look upon and react to Ethnic and Pagan religions, a second very important matter is the simple political reality that larger religious organizations such as the Catholic church or other Christian denominations are much larger, wealthier and more powerful than we are. An ancient Indian political text, the Arthashastra,  tells us that a basic law of life is that “the big fish eat the little fish.” We are very little fish in a sea dominated by huge sea creatures that generally have no interest in our survival, but are often intent upon our destruction, either by persecution, prohibition or simple slander, often by all three combined. It is therefore to be expected that wherever Christians or the leaders of other large religious organizations are able to influence political life, they will attempt to create laws and regulations that protect their interests and prevent other religious organizations, such as Ethnic religions, from receiving any benefit or support from the government.

How to respond to this is a very hard question. There are many different possible strategies. One could, for example, call for the government of their country to be strictly neutral in relation to religion, to give no special favors or privileges to ANY religious organization, in order to be fair to ALL religious groups, both large and small. Another solution would be to ask the government of his or her country to be  neutral but in a more positive way, which would be to give some privileges such as a certain amount of funding to ALL religious groups, large and small.[i] In my opinion these are both fine strategies based on logical and honorable principles. They also have their risks.

If NO religious group receives financial support or other privileges from the government, then religious groups that area large and wealthy would have a great advantage over smaller religious groups such as Ethnic religions. That is the risk of the strategy of “strict neutrality.” If ALL religious groups receive favors from the government, such as financial support, then this could help small or minority religions such as Ethnics by providing them some resources for rituals, publications and other purposes. However, because such monies are usually distributed according to the size of membership of religious organizations, the larger religious groups would probably receive larger amounts of support from the government, thus maintaining their financial advantage against small and minority religions. That is the risk of the strategy of “positive neutrality.”

However, I believe that the best way for Ethnic religions to protect their interests and to ensure positive treatment from government bodies is something much more basic. Democratic politics is all about numbers. For Ethnic or Pagan religions to be more accepted by governments and receive better treatment in a given society, they need to have larger numbers of members so that they will be taken more seriously by political leaders and government institutions as well as by the public. I realize this is a very controversial point, but I see no way around it. If Ethnic religions wish to be treated well and taken seriously, they must expand their numbers. This can be done in many different ways. At the most simple and uncontroversial level, Ethnic or Pagan religions that have internet sites or other publications could make more effort to invite the public to come learn about their religious groups and possibly join. Another way to increase numbers would be for Ethnic and Pagan religions to offer social services such as free food for the poor or visiting people in hospitals or prisons, which would increase the public image of the religious group in a positive way.

A much more controversial idea, which some of you will no doubt hate me for even mentioning, is for Ethnic or Pagan religions to consider having some sort of missionary activity, in the sense of organized outreach to educate people about Ethnic religions and invite their participation and possibly their membership. I know that many Ethnic and Pagan religions have suffered greatly from the aggressive activities of Christian missionaries in the past, so much so that even the word “missionary” is something of a profanity for many of us. For this reason, it is perhaps it is better to use a different term, such as “outreach,” to make it clear that we are not going to be doing the same things as Christian missionaries, but that we are going to make certain efforts to reach out to the public and increase our numbers. I raise this topic because I think the future of Ethnic religions is either to grow in numbers and gain greater power, respectability and influence within particular nations and the world community in general, or remain very small and insignificant in terms of numbers, and risk disappearing. Since here in Antwerp, we are guests of the Belgian Ásatrú association, I would suggest we remember the Vikings. They were not afraid to leave their homes, to go to new lands, to grow and expand. We should not be afraid either.

I would also suggest that Ethnic or Pagan religions increase their political influence by forming alliances with other minority religions in situations where we have common interests and concerns. As I noted at the beginning of this speech, from the point of view of many governments, Ethnic religions are understood within the category of New Religious Movements. Therefore, many laws and government policies affecting Ethnic or Pagan religions are going to be laws and policies designed for NRMs in general, including such groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology or Krishna Consciousness, the Hare Krishna group. I believe that where and when such restrictive laws and policies arise, we should join together with such religious groups to form the strongest and broadest possible opposition. This does not mean that we have to pretend that we agree with these religious groups or that we invite them into the WCER. It simply means that we cooperate with other minority religions to fight for the general principle of religious freedom, freedom for all religions.

To look at it another way, imagine what could happen if we did not cooperate with such groups. Imagine that the government of, for instance, Belgium passed a law against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe we in WCER would not do anything because we do not agree with the religious ideology of the Jehovah group.  Then the government passed a law against Scientology. Perhaps we would still not respond, because we don’t really like Scientology all that much. Then the government passed a law against Hare Krishnas; and then a law against Sufis; and then a law against Buddhists. Maybe now we would start to get worried. Maybe we would start to think about responding, but it might be too late. By this time, certain government officials and their supporters in the general society would have become confident that they could make laws restricting small religions. Such laws might after all be very popular. Perhaps the next law would be against our Asatru friends. It would be very hard to oppose or stop, because we did not speak out when other small religions were persecuted or discriminated against.

But imagine the opposite scenario. One day, the government passed a law against Jehovah’s Witnesses, and immediately, a large coalition of religious groups, from Ethnic religion groups to Buddhists, Sufis, Scientologists, Mormons and others made a strong declaration that we were ALL opposed to this law concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, because we believed that any restriction on one religion, could lead to a restriction on all religions. We could have a demonstration or a protest march, and make a strong statement in favor of religious freedom for ALL religions. With such a coalition, Ethnic religions would also have better protection than if we were to stand alone and avoid other religious groups.

So, to sum up my points so far, I have tried to emphasize that Ethnic religion associations should understand that they are perceived by governments and by the general public as “new religious movements,” with the suspicion that they may be dangerous, anti-social cults. To defend against such accusations, we should make every effort to communicate with governments, the media and other sectors of society to increase public understanding of our peaceful nature and non-harmful activities.  Because we are small religious groups compared to large organizations like the Catholic church, we should cooperate with other small or minority religions that are also considered “New Religious Movements,” especially in speaking out or organizing against laws, regulations or policies that governments may enact against minority religions. I also counsel that we would improve our political strength and security by taking action to increase the numbers of members in our respective religious associations.

Having talked about Ethnic religions as “religions,” let me now discuss the ethnic dimension as it relates to government and international institutions and public attitudes toward our religions. This is the area that sets us most strongly apart from many other types of religion, and gives us certain advantages and disadvantages in how we deal with government and the public.

As organizations that are dedicated to preserving the native cultural traditions of particular nations and regions, Ethnic religions can seek recognition and support from national governments as well as other organizations for their cultural heritage activity. For example, we can apply for funding for music festivals, folklore workshops, and other cultural and historical projects. This is our great advantage in comparison to other types of religious organization. Our ethnic dimension can also protect us from accusations that we are anti-social or unpatriotic.

However, our ethnic aspect can also be a disadvantage, because our dedication to ethnic cultural heritage may be perceived as racism, intolerance or xenophobia. In responding to this problem, each religious group must of course deal with their own particular social, political and legal situation. I would suggest that as a general rule, ethnic religious groups should respond with good public relations and open communications. If we explain to the public, to the media and to the government that we are dedicated to a particular type of cultural heritage, not to any program of racial hatred, violence or exclusion, and also explain that membership in our religious organizations is open to anyone who embraces this cultural heritage, this should deflect most charges of racism or intolerance. If the organization has a particular charter, creed or set of principles, which includes a clear statement of opposition to racism and intolerance, this should be shared with government, media and other public sectors, posted on the internet, and so forth.

I am aware that not all Ethnic religious groups may have exactly the same attitude about this issue. I have of course my own perspective based on my own experiences living in a very multi-ethnic country such as the USA and also in very mono-ethnic countries such as Lithuania and Iceland. I am aware that not all Ethnic or Pagan religious groups from all countries represented in the WCER may be equally enthusiastic about a policy of totally open membership for people from any racial group or ethnic origin.  However, I think this is a really critical issue that will determine whether or not Ethnic religions will be fully accepted and supported by national governments and international organizations such as the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or treated with suspicion and rejected. With increasing immigration and mobility of peoples around the world, the consensus of most governments and international organizations is that twenty-first civilization means integration and cooperation between different peoples and identities, not separation and suspicion. If we exclude people of particular racial, ethnic or national origins from membership in our Ethnic religion organizations, we will be seen as reactionaries, racists or even as some sort of Nazis. We will be pariahs in the world community.

The question, then, is, can we be devoted to ethnic heritage without being racist? Or, looked at the other way, can we be anti-racist and at the same time pro-ethnic?  I do believe this is possible. I think the key is to emphasize dedication to particular forms of ethnic culture and heritage without insisting on particular racial or ethnic ancestry. With today’s links of immigration and communication, a person might come from any national or racial background, and living in a new country, become attracted to one of our Ethnic religious traditions and wish to join an Ethnic religious group as a full member. Should we deny them?  I think that if these people come to us with sincere interest and spiritual affection for our ethnic religious traditions, we should welcome them.

I know this is a controversial topic. I see it as connecting back to another topic I mentioned earlier. I stated my opinion that increasing membership numbers in Ethnic religions would be one of the best ways to ensure the political strength and social acceptability of our religious organizations. Let me offer the further suggestion that increasing membership numbers by allowing people of different racial, ethnic and national origins into our Ethnic religions would be one of the very best ways to achieve the acceptance and support of international organizations.

I think this is really a “fork in the road,” an extremely important decision that we have to take that will have a profound effect on the future of Ethnic religions and the WCER. Do we want to be small, narrow groups on the edge of society, suspected by national governments, rejected by the world community, only allowing membership to people with particular racial and ethnic origins; or, do we want to be growing, expanding organizations that are open to many kinds of people who appreciate our Ethnic religious traditions, and be accepted by the world community? For me, the choice is very clear: ethnic, yes; but racist, no.

I will leave you with one last thought. I know we are all here because we find spiritual strength and nourishment in the kinds of ancient, Ethnic religions represented in our different religious groups. It seems to me that if we find our spiritual traditions so positive and valuable, we should not hesitate to share them with other people who could also benefit from the great spiritual richness of our ancient, Ethnic religions.

I do not claim to know all of the answers to all of these issues that I have discussed in this speech. I have done my best to make suggestions which I believe are reasonable, honorable and positive. I hope you will take these ideas seriously, even if you do not agree with them, and I look forward to hearing your own ideas and having many further discussions.

            THANK YOU.


[i]  See Zsolt Enyedi,  “The Contested Politics of Positive Neautrality in Hungary,” pp. 161-162.




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