Lately, challenging people’s prejudices has gotten much harder than it used to be. Once it was easy and fun. Over the years it became much more difficult. Lately, it often seems to have become almost impossible. For whatever reasons, it seems that most people today are a lot less willing to consider new ideas than most people were, say, back in the 1970’s.
Nevertheless, even today it is still possible to make progress in counteracting specific prejudices, if one is willing to be persistent about it.
Here’s a brief history of some of my major successes and failures at challenging people’s prejudices over the past few decades:
- Gay rights activism, late 1970’s and early 1980’s
- Challenging Pagan anti-Satanist attitudes, early-to-mid 1990’s
- Two very passive-aggressive Pagan bigots, mid-1990’s
- Clash with Pagan Educational Network, 2003
- NYC Pagan Pride festival: 2004, 2005, and 2006
- NYC Pagan Pride festival, 2008: the nadir
- NYC Pagan Pride festival: 2009 and 2010
When I was in college back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I was a gay righta activist — long before the gay rights movement became fashionable. Back then, blatant homophobia was still commonplace even among educated people. Nevertheless, challenging homophobia was easy and fun. Most people weren’t so closed-minded as to be unwilling to dialogue with me about their prejudices.
Whenever someone made an anti-gay remark in my vicinity, I responded by asking, “What, exactly, do you think is wrong with homosexuality?” Usually the person replied, “It’s abnormal!” or “It’s perverted!” or “It’s sick!” — or some other word which essentially means “unusual in a bad way.” To which I replied, “That word means you think it’s unusual in a bad way, but you haven’t told me WHY you think it’s bad. What, exactly, is wrong with it?” To which the person usually replied with another of the words “abnormal,” “perverted,” etc. I then asked the same question again. And so on, until the person ran out of synonyms.
Then the person sometimes said something along the lines of, “Well, there are obvious biological differences between the sexes!” To which I replied by asking if the person disapproved of oral sex between a man and a woman. Usually my questionee didn’t. I then asked, “Could you please tell me the obvious biological differenece between a man’s mouth and a woman’s mouth?”
Somewhere along the line, the people I questioned almost invariably fell back on religious reasons. To which I replied that they didn’t have the right to impose their religious views on other people. Therefore, I asked if they could give me any concrete nonreligious reasons.
No one was ever able to give me a nonreligious reason which, upon further questioning, didn’t turn out ultimately to have a religious basis after all.
It was almost always very easy for me to ask challenging questions. Usually people answered me until they were stumped, at which point they laughed nervously. Usually the conversation remained civil.
I also wrote letters to the college newspaper.
I succeeded in getting a lot of people to think. I even persuaded the local on-campus Christian religious right wingers to back down.
In late 1990, I installed a modem in my 286 PC and joined some of the many little computer networks that existed before the Internet became popular. One of these was PODNet (Pagan/Occult Distribution Network), which I accessed via a local “bulletin board service” (BBS) called BaphoNet.
Back then I had been practicing feminist Goddess religion (not quite Wicca, but Wicca-derived) for about four years.
In early 1991 I had the sudden, utterly unexpected series of intense spiritual experiences that led me to become a theistic Satanist.
Almost immediately I began responding to Pagan anti-Satanist comments online. Even before I knew anything about the then-dominant form of Satanism (the Temple of Set), and even before I was able to develop my own personal beliefs into anything at all coherent, I managed to accomplish a lot by simply being rational, civil, and able to spell. Within a year, I learned enough to win quite a bit of respect amongst the PODNet crowd.
My most frequent arguments, in response to Pagan anti-Satanist remarks, eventually gelled into the following articles of mine:
- A Critique of Wiccan and Other Neo-Pagan Disclaimers About Satanism
- Satanism and the History of Wicca
One thing that probably helped me a lot was that PODNet had been founded by Thelemites, most of whom had a genuine respect for individuality. So the leaders of the PODNet online community were on my side when I spoke out against the common Wiccan and Wicca-based Pagan tendency to scapegoat Satanists.
Back then I had friendly interaction with quite a few Pagans offline too. I became friends with the leader of a local Church of All Worlds (CAW) group — which, alas, no longer exists.
At one point, as a result of my online activity, I was invited to participate in a local in-person Pagan interfaith discussion. I don’t remember who organized it.
In 1993, when I went back to school for my master’s degree, I formed a close relationship with an undergrad who was active in the campus Pagan/Wiccan club. Other members of the club were friendly to me too.
Sometime in 1994 or 1995 my then-partner, whom I will refer to as Jane, was elected president of the campus Pagan/Wiccan club.
Soon after that, I began to get mysterious bad vibes from one of the club’s new members, whom I will refer to as Naomi. Several times I asked her what was wrong. Always she replied, “nothing.”
She and another new member, whom I will refer to as Debbie, soon became part of a clique of several of the Pagan/Wiccan club’s most active members who all hung out and played Dungeons and Dragons together.
Soon after that, several members of the Dungeons and Dragons clique claimed that the Pagan/Wiccan club’s elections had been invalid, due to some alleged technicality, and said they wanted to hold the elections again. I don’t remember what the alleged technicality was, but it was obviously a pretext. And it didn’t, in fact, invalidate the election according to the college’s student government rules. So Jane refused to consent to holding the elections again, arguing that if these folks thought she was unqualified to be president, they should come right out and impeach her.
This led to a lot of arguing. Eventually the underlying problem turned out to be that Naomi and Debbie were freaked out about Jane’s relationship with me. They were freaked out about me being a Satanist, and they regarded me as a generally “frightening” person.
Frankly, I missed the homophobes I had debated with back in my own college days. At least they were upfront and (for the most part) willing to dialogue, whereas these two Pagan anti-Satanists were backstabbers who previously had never breathed a word, to either Jane or me, about their discomfort with my Satanism.
Naomi eventually got over her hostility toward me about a year later and apologized. Debbie never did.
In the late 1990’s, the earlier-mentioned CAW group disbanded. I then pretty much lost touch with the NYC Pagan community entirely, until fall 2004.
Since the early 1990’s I’ve had various interactions with Pagans online. Some worked out well, others didn’t.
One of the worst was my run-in with members of the Pagan Educational Network (PEN), in PEN’s Yahoo group SacredAction. (If you join, see the archived posts beginning with #3661, Friday, October 17, 2003.) There, I encountered heavy-duty displays of willful ignorance on the part of several PEN folks. At least Nancy, the moderator, was one of the more reasonable PEN members, but even she had a very annoying habit of repeatedly misreading what I was asking. I forced myself to stay calm and reasonable for a very long time, but I eventually lost my temper and then left soon thereafter.
I was there to request that they modify their document “Modern Witchcraft” to remove offensive claims and insinuations about Satanists. My objections were detailed on the following pages: What’s wrong with PEN’s “Modern Witchcraft” document and Proposed revisions to PEN’s “Modern Witchcraft” document.
Seven and a half years later, it now appears that “Modern Witchcraft” finally did get revised, sometime within the last few years, to remove most of the offensive references to Satanists. The only remaining mention of Satanists is in the sentence “Lastly, while terms such as ‘white Witch’ and ‘black magic’ may seem like good clarifiers to separate Witches from Satanists, the terms are actually inherently racist and most Witches do not use them.” (A subsequent version can be found on a PEN’s own archived version of the PEN website.)
In September 2004 I checked out the local Pagan Pride festival. While there, I picked up copies of the festival’s official literature, including an introductory pamphlet on Paganism. It cantained the usual not-Satanists disclaimers, with some of the usual hostile claims about Satanists. I don’t remember the details.
The following spring, I attended a planning meeting for the next Pagan Pride festival. I raised my objections to the literature and gave out copies of a few of my own writings on Satanism. I argued that if they needed to didtingnuish themselves from Satanists and thus to talk about Satanists, they should at least make an effort to learn about various kinds of Satanists.
I asked that they organize — not as part of the Pagan Pride festival itself — a separate, earlier meeting at which local Pagan leaders could meet with a few Satanists to learn about various kinds of Satanism. (The local Pagan Pride Project did hold occasional small events throughout the year, apart from the festival.)
They seemed sympathetic to my concerns and said they would get back to me.
A couple of months later, a member of the planning committee told me they could not hold such a meeting out of fear that they would lose some of their funding for the festival. If I recall correctly, at least one of their major donors had objected to the idea of them holding any event whatsoever involving Satanists, even outside the context of the festival itself.
But the committee member who spoke to me said they would at least examine their literature and remove offensive references to Satanism.
A few months later, I found out that the keynote speaker at the upcoming Pagan Pride festival was going to be Isaac Bonewits, infamous among Satanists for his anti-Satanist diatribe “The Enemies of Our Enemies.” Back in 1992, I had written an “Open Letter to Green Egg” (of which a somewhat messed-up online copy has long been preserved by the Skeptic Tank) in response to “The Ehemies of Our Enemies.” (The Skeptic Tank also has copies of Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino’s replies to (1) “The Enemies of our Enemies” itself and (2) a subsequent Green Egg letter by Isaac Bonewits.) Bonewits had also written My Satanic Adventure (to which Aquino also replied).
I decided to protest. At the Pagan Pride festival on October 1, 2005, I stood near one of the entrances to the festival area and handed out a pamphlet I wrote for the occasion, “To Pagans: Explain your beliefs without maligning another minority religion,” featuring a critique of Bonewits’s article “Enemies of our Enemies.” To those who seemed interested in what I had to say, I also gave copies of a second pamphlet, What is Satanism?. I got a variety of reactions, some hostile, some sympathetic.
The following year, 2006, I went to the Pagan Pride festival again, this time not to protest but to try to network. I got into conversations with various leaders and vendors and told them about my concerns about the mini-revival of Satanic panic that was going on at that time, documented on my website Against Satanic Panics. I exchanged contact info with several people who seemed interested and said they wanted to learn more.
But then, when I followed up, I got no response.
I didn’t go to the Pagan Pride festival in 2007.
At the Pagan Pride festival in September 2008, I encountered some of the most blatant displays of utterly closed-minded bigotry I have ever seen.
By that time, I had become very concerned about the growing popularity of “conspiracy theories” featuring claims that the world is secretly controlled by “the Illuminati,” said to be an evil elite cabal of Satanists, occultists, and Pagans. To me, such claims are exactly like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, except that they target Satanists, occultists, and Pagans instead of — or in addition to — Jews.
A major proponent of “Illuminati”/”New World Order” claims is Alex Jones, who has a talk show on 30 AM radio stations around the country (not including New York City).
“Illuminati”/”New World Order” claims have long been popular in some parts of the evangelical Christian subculture, where they are associated with end-times prophecies about the Antichrist. These ideas have long been advocated, too, by various far-right groups such as the John Birch Society. And they have long been advocated by Christian religious right wing leaders such as Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye.
Alex Jones and other popular “conspiracy theorists” often downplay the Christian religious aspect. But, in most cases, an implied Christian-supremacist attitude is still very much there, in the form of vilification of non-Christian religions.
Alex Jones’s radio show isn’t broadcast here in NYC except on short wave. Even so, even here in NYC, I’d been running into quite a few political activists who were influenced by Alex Jones. This scared me a lot.
In September 2008, I decided to write a leaflet about Alex Jones, inviting Pagans to join me in opposing his vilification of Pagans, occultists, and Satanists. I went to the Pagan Pride festival and stood outside the main entrance to the festival area, because, not being a registered festival vendor, I was not allowed to distribute anything inside the festival area itself.
I didn’t manage to get very many people interested at all. Perhaps my leaflet wasn’t well-organized enough. Or perhaps a lot of people just didn’t see any reason to be worried about “conspiracy theorists” because they are “fringe” — albeit a very large and growing fringe, much larger than many people realize. Perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining what the dangers are. In any case, I was surprised at the apparent lack of interest in counteracting an ongoing defamation of Pagans.
I also got a lot of hostile looks from various passers-by. Sometimes people walked past me in such a way as to make an obvious point of trying to stay as far away from me as possible, as if they feared catching some sort of spiritual cooties.
The most extreme was a bunch of about twenty people, all wearing Pagan Pride T-shirts, who ran past me on the other side of the road while yelling at me things like “You stupid Satanist girl!”
That was the last year I went to the Pagan Pride festival alone.
But I was determined to come back. I certainly was not going to allow those closed-minded jerks to win.
Things got a lot better in 2009. I went with Sarah, who has subsequently moved to Massachusetts but was then a regularly-attending member of NYC Satanists, Luciferians, Dark Pagans, & LHP Occultists, and was also a regularly-attending member of New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry (NYARBB).
This time we promoted a NYARBB meeting at which the guest of honor was a civil rights lawyer with an interest in the civil rights of Pagans and other minority religions.
This was a topic lots of festival participants were interested in. (I suspect, also, that the relatively favorable response we got that year may have had something to do with Sarah being a very attractive young woman in her late twenties.) We still got some hostile looks, but, this time, we got quite a few friendly looks too, and quite a bit of friendly interaction.
One young woman even voiced the hope that, in future years, we could be official festival participants. When I told her how I had been treated the previous year, she was outraged.
We collected the email addresses of a couple dozen people interested in our forthcoming NYARBB meeting. Only one of them ended up actually attending the meeting (which otherwise was attended mainly by people from the NYC Satanists group, plus one or two other people who had found NYARBB via Meetup).
The following year, 2010, I went to the Pagan Pride festival with three men, this time to promote a NYARBB meeting about American connections to African witchhunts.
On September 21, several days before the festival, I had managed to get a little mass media publicity, in the news story “Christine O’Donnell’s “Witchcraft” Comments Rebuffed by Satanist” by Stephanie Condon on the CBS news website. Leading Pagan blogger Jason Pitzi-Waters made a note of this in his September 23 post More O’Donnell Reactions and Insight. (However, CBS did not interview me; they just quoted a press release.)
Apparently because of that publicity, the Pagan Pride festival’s keynote speaker, Jason Miller, actually made a point of seeking me out and introducing himself to me near the end of the festival. He was very friendly and interested in our pamphlet about witch hunts.
Again we got a variety of reactions, both friendly and unfriendly, but many more friendly than unfriendly reactions.
Again we took down a bunch of email addresses of people interested in our meeting. None actually showed up. (Again the NYARBB meeting was basically just us Satanists plus one or two friendly mainstream atheists.)
But, in terms of the attitudes of NYC Pagans toward me and toward Satanists, I clearly had made at least a little progress since 2008.