Gotta Have Faith: Finding Different Truths in Alternative Religious Expressions

Story by NICK McNAMARA

Photos by WILLIAM ODIS MARTIN

Religious expression outside of the values and expectations of the largely Christian over-culture in the United States have often been scoffed at, persecuted or outright ignored. But the April 2017 addition of multiple alternative religions by the Department of Defense to its list of recognized faith groups shows a changing perspective toward faith among Americans.

Alternative religions, also referred to colloquially as new religious movements, are a collection of faiths of relatively modern beginnings or reconstruction. They are commonly faiths that have come into their own in the last two centuries. Even so, the terminology is not without problems according to Dr. Jon Stone, a Cal State Long Beach religious studies professor.

“That presents a problem because the definition from the perspective of the religion might vary from the perspective of ourselves,” said Stone. “So many religious movements that are typed as new think of themselves as recreating an older tradition, for example neo-paganism or Odinism. Those are newer religions from our perspective as they began emerging in this century, but neo-paganism says ‘well, we were a religion before that religion’ so they would see Christianity as a new religion compared to their own religion.”

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The United States saw an influx of religious concepts that differed from traditional American belief in the post-World War II era. Many faiths found a foothold in the counter-culture, including the Hippie scene of the 1960s.

“It was almost as if there was a collision of worldviews taking place [in] post-war America,” said Stone. “Baby boomers suddenly became dropouts of college – think Timothy Leary – and you have flooding the shores all these gurus, teachers, who are moving among the hippie population and the hippie population was experiencing a different reality - whether it’s through drugs or meditation.”

There is no uniformity to the formation of these new faiths as they come in innumerable expressions and worldviews. Some are reconstructions of dead religions, some are expansions and reevaluations of old dogma, and some are splinters off of larger established faiths.

Though the acceptance of alternative faiths has seemed to grow, Dr. Stone says it is difficult to quantify the number of practitioners due to the decentralized and short-lived nature of many religions.

“Some groups inflate their statistics so they’re not reliable, other groups don’t keep statistics, so we don’t know,” said Stone. “Some movements come and go before anyone has a chance to take stock of them.”

Despite the accusations of cultism and other opposition, Americans have not slowed their spiritual searching for different expressions of greater truths in the world.

“It’s really stepped into Alice’s provincial wonderland – any experience can become a religious experience, from the Wicca going out and honoring the trees to someone who goes into deep meditation within the soul,” said Stone “It can be outward directed or inward directed.”

The Baha’i faith

The Baha’i faith is a monotheistic faith believing in an all-knowing and all-powerful creator deity in the same vein of other Abrahamic faiths. It began in Iran in the early 1800s after a revelation came to its founders. Baha’i practitioners believe their founders, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, are the latest of a line of divine messengers including the prophet Muhammad, Jesus, Zoroaster and Buddha.

Baha’is believe in working to improve the world around them as a form of worship. Its an anti-discriminatory faith with values including equality between men and women, fostering harmony between religion and science, unity of humanity and the need for a universal language to bring people together.

“We believe that as Baha’is that these things can get corrupted over time – errors creep in – that’s why we think religion always needs to be refreshed and renewed,” Jeremy Iversen, author of the book High School Confidential said. “Conditions change. So what the Baha’i faith is saying that historically things like the tribe and the nation were the basis of society but now we have to see ourselves as a global civilization.”

Iversen lives in Santa Monica and grew up in an Episcopalian Christian household before finding the Baha’i faith. He tried to believe, but began questioning his Christian beliefs around the age 13 when he had trouble connecting his intellectual understanding of the world with his faith.

“When you’re very little you almost accept religion on a superstitious level where you just kind of know there’s this god up there, there isn’t really a thought about it,” said Iversen. “Then later on you start thinking rationally about stuff and you start thinking like ‘OK, to really put my faith behind this it has to really make sense.’ You have to have some kind of reason to believe this thing. That’s when it starts falling apart because you have to compartmentalize.”

Iversen first heard of the Baha’i faith around that same age and was instantly enthralled by its teachings, but did not dive too deep due to the Christian influences around him. He maintained a belief in spirituality, but had no clear religious structure in his life throughout high school. He dabbled in Buddhism, going to centers and temples, but ran into similar issues connecting the beliefs to his life.

Then on a family trip to Central America after college he met a group of travelers who had visited the Baha’i house of worship in Panama, triggering his resurgence into the faith. This time, he had no problem conceptualizing it or its laws.

“We don’t just do it because the book says to do it – we do it because the book says to do it, but there’s also every other reason in the whole wide world to do this,” said Iversen. “I think every single point in this religion is entirely intellectually defensible. If you look at every single one of the laws and look at what the scientific research is, it backs it up.”

Though not everyone in his life understands his new faith, Iversen says it has done a world of good for him already.

“I know I’m a much better person for having done it and part of the reason I think more people should be Baha’i is I know what I was like before I became a Baha’I and I know that it’s much better for the world that I’m a Baha’i now,” said Iversen.

Heathenry

Far from godless, heathenry is a reconstructionist/revivalist pagan faith centered around the worship of the pre-Christian Germanic gods and spirits. There are many different names for the faith, ranging from heathenry to Fyrnsidu to Asatru. Heathens have no orthodoxy, no dogma, and no set religious text that lays out the fundamentals of the faith. It is an orthopraxic religion centered around somewhat standard ritual practice, not a standard view of their gods.

Heathenry can be focused on the practices of the many different Germanic cultures, from Anglo-Saxon to the more prevalent Scandinavian. Revered spirits consist of deities such as Thor, Odin and Freya, less powerful spiritual beings called wights that live in the land and in homes, and passed on family and ancestors. They draw from a variety of folklore and primary sources on elder heathen practice as well as anthropological, archaeological and linguistic academic research to reform and fit the old ways into a modern context.

A female heathen living in Orange County – who asked to have her name withheld due to lingering stigma on alternative faiths in science and math fields – first began researching the religion on the Asatru forum on Reddit and currently focuses her practice on honoring the local spirits or wights as well as the spirits of her ancestors in the Scandinavian fashion.

“When I was growing up full moons were a big deal in my family,” she said “I really enjoyed that connection to the processes of the lunar cycle, so I selected to make regular offerings to ancestors and local wights on the new moon and the full moon.”

She learned of heathenry after meeting her husband in college after coming to California from a small, heavily Christian town in the Midwest. She was raised Catholic in an Italian Catholic family and first had issues with her Christian faith early in her childhood.

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“My mother bought a picture book for me and my sisters when I was a [eight years old] and it was about how Jesus is always with you – and that freaked me out,” she said. “So I was like ‘OK, if Jesus is always with me and I don’t like that, if I stop believing in him he’ll go away. Like he was an imaginary friend, that was my 8-year-old logic.”

Despite her decision to not believe early on she still maintained her practice in her Christian surroundings, continuing to celebrate the major Catholic holidays with her family. When she left home to go to college and found that the traditions around her were not present in her new setting, it threw her off. She had become accustom to the orthopraxy of Catholicism and without it began delving more into ethical philosophy and animism, which helped her connect to heathenry when it was introduced to her by her future husband.

“He was raised Asatru – we don’t call it that now, but that’s what he was raised,” she said. “The way he explains it is that his dad raised him Asatru – his father’s an atheist – because children need myths to learn. It’s this concept in psychology that children who have myths have a way to mediate their childish misunderstanding of the world.”

She agreed with this concept and the two decided to raise their children in the faith as well. She already had a connection to the concept of animism as well as the orthopraxy of her prior tradition and found it all clicking in the polytheistic heathen faith. She says her practice truly is practicing as part of reconstruction is constant research and reevaluation based on new information.

“It takes a lot of self-evaluation. Growing up my husband called his spring holiday Ostara. Ostara is – from what I’ve read – not a well-attested goddess [in the sources],” she said “So I asked ‘what if we call this spring celebration Vårblot, which means spring sacrifice or spring ritual?’ [and he agreed].”

Though she’s been practicing just under two years and has had to keep her beliefs secret from many friends and family, she sees the positive impact it has on her and the potential it has to positively impact her family in the future.

“I think that heathenry really dignifies the work of your relationship, putting in that work, ensuring that you have a clean home and that you observe these practices around holidays,” she said. “It’s not ‘oh its Christmas, I have to buy all these Christmas presents.” It’s something I enjoy doing and I want to do – I’m giving to my family because they’ve given gifts to me, and I make an amazing feast to give to my friends and my ancestors and to the gods.”

“I know I’m doing right by my family and my ancestors.”