On Stories and Religion; My Journey from Midwestern Protestantism to Secular Witchcraft.

Little anise hyssop plants growing in my yard. This article is, after all, all about growth.

I’ve had a complex relationship with religion, though unlike most of my peer group, my experiences have not resulted in trauma. I believe stories can be powerful, social interactions are fascinating, and thinking about why we do what we do during our existence is important. Religion, to me, is the stories we tell to guide ourselves and those around us on a path. The characters are characters; some figures and events may have been historical figures or events, and the most important part is what effect the religion has on the life and practice of its practitioners.

Most of my story is a community story; my ideas and practices have always been shaped by those around me. This is almost unavoidable.

Raised Methodist

So I was raised Christian. Casually Protestant. Methodist, specifically. Like any large religion, Christianity has no single, clear, coherent, all-defining set of beliefs and practices; simply trends and tendencies that vary from place to place, person to person, and practice to practice.

The highlights of church were running around hallways, getting to ring the bell, and trying coffee for the first time. The highlights of the after middle-school hang-out group at the more conservative church where the cool kids went were playing dodgeball, hanging out with friends, and talking about Starcraft. In other words, these were decent socializing tools, but the official program was background.

To casually sum up that background story I learned from Christianity: I was created by a loving god who really wants to save me from his own punishments, but I have to work hard to prove that I deserve being saved first (and/or maybe I just have to let go of my skepticism and logic and just blindly accept an unprovable claim in order to be saved and don’t have to work hard at all — some unclearness there). The story also told me that I’m better than other people (so.. judging them), but that I should do everything I can to help make them also be good like me instead of pushing them away (still judging them), but also even though we’re all good enough (still judging), I’m also never good enough (still judging). The story explicitly says not to judge as it teaches us to cast judgements everywhere. Christianity — my experience of it — built a strong in-group community that worked to cut itself off from the rest of the world. In theory, the goal was to convert others to our faith. In practice, it felt like the effect was mostly just to draw a line. Are you with us or against us?

Now… that’s the harshest wording of my experience, but it’s not inaccurate. And for me, the churches conveyed all of that message quietly and casually, not violently. My parents, throughout this, were a wonderful counterbalance: they encouraged me to learn, but also to question, to reflect, and indirectly thus to think about the motivations behind and functions of these religious processes.

Some growth

So I kinda went along with it, as the path of least resistance, for a while. Some of my friends were Christian. The person I was dating was. But my discomfort with the overall message left me feeling a bit of an outsider (yay more impostor syndrome). And as I met more people in college and saw new experiences modeled, I branched out.

I took what turned out to be a great-though-controversial class on Islam and read a lot of good books, including a translation/English-interpretation of much of the Qur’an. I read more Reza Aslan, and heard him speak. I read Daniel Quinn. I did a deep dive into historical Greek Religion. I also studied some Judaism, especially via a more-historical-than-modern class, and talked a lot with counselors at the Jewish camp I worked at for several years (at, not for; my employer was renting space from their camp). I’ve read some Buddhist concepts, but not enough. I made a few Muslim, a few pagan, and more than a few atheist friends.

Friends Meeting House

After college I joined a Friends Meeting House (often mis-called a Quaker Church) in Pennsylvania, which redefined the concept of religious practice for me in a good way.

Finally I saw goals I could get behind: nonviolence, nonconformism, free thinking, an inherently anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist structure to their services. They long opposed slavery, refused to participate in wars, argued spiritual equality between genders, encouraged women to preach by the 1650s, and generally (but not always) were an early supporter of same-sex marriages (and often carried them out without state paperwork where not locally legal). I saw humility, strength, and a celebration of individuality and commonalities. There was no pulpit, no stage. Just a room like an old school room, and chairs (or pews) all set up facing the center, where nothing was but bare floor. (If you’ve seen Fleabag, there’s one scene that shows this, though the tone/quality in that show is incredibly inaccurate to my experience.) We worshiped together, and there was no leader. No one monopolized attention or the message. Being an unstructured meeting, the services involved 45 minutes of sitting in meditative silence, during which anyone who felt called could stand up and share an insight or reflection they’ve had. This was in a well-known college town, so there were a lot of well-educated people in attendance, which I appreciated. After the 45 minutes, we’d all shake hands. We’d go over introductions of anyone new or returning after absence, then announcements. Then someone (anyone) would sit at the piano, and anyone could call out songs from the hymnal (which included traditional hymns as well as Beatles songs). Then a large communal meal happened and everyone socialized, then I went out to the communal garden to check my vegetables. This was close to everything I needed in religion — with the exception that I wasn’t learning anything in an academic sense, which is important to me.

The story this (technically Christian) religious practice told to me was to value introspection and self-discovery. Value community building. You don’t do good for fear of punishment for being bad, you do good despite threat of punishment for the difficult work you do. Reject useless notions (they didn’t observe holidays (Christmas, Easter, birthdays, etc). Get to know and value everyone around you, and see everyone as important, everyone as able to equally contribute. You’re important, but not more than anyone else is, and the truth of things is more important than traditions or old texts. As the foundational George Fox purportedly said (as quoted from a song named for him), “The book, it will perish and the steeple will fall / And the Light will be shining at the end of it all” and “‘Will you swear on the Bible?’ ‘I will not!’ said he, / ‘For the Truth is more holy than a book to me.’”

But when I moved across the country, the nearest Friends Meeting House (still mistakenly/popularly called a Quaker Church) is far away and full of people I don’t know, and I’m really not keen on driving that much.

Morals of Greek and Norse mythology

As a teacher, I’ve studied (casually and academically) and taught Greek Mythology and Norse Mythology to students, generally at the middle school level. Most people don’t see these as religions anymore (though they are stories that underlie historical beliefs and practices, just like the stories of Christian Mythology or Jewish Mythology; the word “myth” doesn’t have to mean false). As another aside, many call these “ancient” or “pagan” religions, though Norse mythology as we know it is actually incredibly more modern in origin than anything Abrahamic, and the versions we have access to today were mostly written down by Snorri Sturluson, who was himself a Christian living in mostly post-pagan times. And “pagan” is basically a slur that just means “not one of the normal religions,” so… both of these terms are basically used to dismiss these sets of beliefs as irrelevant. Anyway, back on task, the main difference I heard between the Greek and Norse stories I listened to was striking.

In Greek mythology, consequences trickle down. If Zeus does some shit and Hera gets pissed, Zeus’s underlings will suffer the consequences, and one of Hera’s servants or followers will probably get turned into a tree. Or a peacock. Those in power are above direct consequences. While this seems accurate to society, the stories never showed how to take down the tyrants; they taught that if you were of royal birth and were VERY tricky or VERY powerful, you might do okay; otherwise, it’s just best to stay out of the way. Heroes in Greek myth are, unfailingly, harbingers of destruction for their surroundings. They kill a lot of “monsters,” sure, but probably at least several family members also get eaten, burned to death, driven mad, or turned into inanimate objects, usually as a way to punish the hero for their hubris. It’s the earliest fridging.

In Norse mythology as I read it, on average, the gods must clean up their own messes. This is frequently, but not always, Loki. I’m simplifying a lot here, but… okay, an average Loki story goes like this: He does something impulsive. There are accidental consequences for the community. He works hard to prevent those consequences and protect the community from the harm of his own actions, usually succeeding by cleverness in the end. He’s hurting himself to help the community, which is more in line with my sense of morality. This works great until he feels too unappreciated and unwelcome, and then he gives birth to monsters and directly brings about the destruction of society.

That last bit is problematic, but a good conversation starter. Either way, I appreciate gods with human flaws who own up to their own responsibility. Gods who are also mortal. Cause and effect, and the value of community. The stories we tell are a way of making sense of the world, and their lessons affect who we become as people.

Really just this specific pastor

So anyway, work situations changed for my household, and I moved to Illinois, leaving friends and Friends behind. I tried some local churches. The first one had a gay pastor, so I was hopeful it’d be good, but the sermon focused on what Noah’s Ark was (literally included the definition of an ark), and almost no one came to talk to me and my wife during coffee after, so I saw no point in ever returning.

The second church I tried had a young-ish pastor, and the first sermon I heard him give was about the history of and problems inherent in the concept of prisons and solitary confinement, as well as what we should do about it. His sermon included statistics, citations, and a quality powerpoint. Later that year, the pastor and Reza Aslan (this is the second time I met him) had a staged conversation one evening, open to the public. This all 100% hit my desire for more academic learning about direct action to improve the world around us.

This is still the best Christian church I have ever attended, and his sermons have continued to be thought provoking and worthwhile, though I’ve stopped for several reasons. First, I can’t be arsed to commit to a regular schedule, second, my un-medicated ADHD left me half-sleep for all the non-sermon parts of the service, third, the pandemic and lockdown started, and fourth… well, my love for the way one pastor leads things doesn’t translate to my feeling part of or accepted in a very large church that often felt at odds with the messages. I also strongly do not identify as Christian, and there was also a weird tension of “what if they find out” and “what am I even doing here?” I wanted learning and action; I couldn’t care less about the mythology, and their ceremonies were empty for me. So my partner and I joined a newly formed social justice committee there, full of intention, and attended for a while. A year of talking about what we could do, but only having written a few letters and joined one protest once disillusioned me about anything happening. I wish them well, but I got bored.

Queer (and etc) community and the pandemic

So then, mid/late-pandemic, and I’m hanging out with a progressively more diverse social crowd (outside; hikes, fires, etc). I am actively and intentionally building this crowd, as almost everyone of my age group around me reports not feeling enough connection, not feeling enough close friends, and not being sure what they’re doing.

Now, I don’t have exact statistics on my friend group, but based on what I do know, these spaces seem to have several variances from the general population around me in other parts of my life: these spaces are very low on Christian representation compared to the local norm. This does not surprise me at all, for clear reasons. My friend group is also over-represented by queer people (as an intentional goal, and including my own asexuality, panromantic questioning, and leaning agenderness), people in non-traditional relationships, Jews, neurodivergent people, and witches. Basically standard representation of atheists, I think.

I’ve had a lot of thoughts and conversations on why some these traits seem so highly represented in these spaces, enough to deserve a separate article and some delving into research (linked here if/when I write/research it).

Regardless, between the time for self-reflection during the pandemic and the interactions I’ve had while focusing on community building, I’ve had some conversations, done a lot of listening and reading, and reached some personal conclusions.

Secular witchcraft

And so, the punchline you’ve already read in the title, is that I’ve gotten into secular witchcraft for a while now. Young folk might say I’m vibing strongly with it. Older folk may say I’ve found something that feels like home.

The aesthetic is fun and I’ve always enjoyed nonconformism, but it’s really about the story. Remember, the stories we tell affect who we become.

“Witchcraft” is an old word encompassing enough traditions and bringing enough baggage that it ultimately means very little. My sense of it as a kid (turning people into frogs, deifying the stars and planets, and wearing robes) is unrelated to my current lived experience. As a secular, eclectic/green witch, I’m walking a personal path of exploration in which I seek to immerse myself in the seasons (the breathing of the world), to be part of the local ecosystem (plant and pollinator knowledge, carbon sequestering, the impact of my lifestyle, water conservation, etc), to figure myself out via shadow work and reflection, to build community with a positive impact, and to be more mindful and intentional about how I live. As the word secular implies, I do not believe in any deities. I may reference them because I’m a fan of metaphor — stories and characters can be tools, just like a nice cup of tea or calming music or books on psychology can be tools. I do not believe in magic, unless the placebo effect counts. But I know that reflection, knowledge, intention setting, grounding myself, and considering how to optimize my life’s impact on the world around me are all important.

A relevant image I came across. Source is clearly given in the tweet, though it’s unclear who added the background image. I should probably get a hat like that one.

The story I am telling myself, that I am getting from my own practice is this: I have access to resources that I must use responsibly, and I must do everything I can to redistribute and make available more resources (physical and cultural) accessible so that the future may better flourish. I will fight what needs fighting, reduce my wastefulness, plant things to turn dirt to soil, educate and spread empathy, and do all of it without some fear that I must do so to prove myself in hopes of earning some future reward. No… I do this because I want to and I believe in it, not because of a looming threat of hellfire or because of anxiety over not being good enough to appease an authority figure. (I’ll add a link here to the relevant dream I had, once it’s written and published.)

The stories I hope to pass on are stories of taking care of people and the world, of connecting with people and the world, and of becoming the best, most fully-realized people we can be. Stories of questioning tradition, delving into purpose, figuring out how to improve systems for the benefit of the disadvantaged — and thus for the benefit of the whole community — and then taking actions to actually manifest personal and systemic change. I can take concepts and teachings from my life, my experiences, my studies, and from other practices, and I can weave together what works for me.

But that’s big talk. Like fungus or any decomposer, I hope to accomplish big things through subtle actions. Quietly break down the old and quietly generate a fertile earth for the new.

Resources (coming soon)

So… what, specifically, do my practices look like? That’s for another article, linked here when written (soon).

What resources do I recommend for someone else who is new to secular witchcraft? Again, I have another article in the works. Linked here when written (soon).

If you’re impatient, though, check out the SASS Witches group on Reddit. SASS = “Skeptical, Agnostic/Atheist, and Science-Seeking.” Good stuff from a good community.

And that’s the end of the article. In it, we’ve covered about thirty years of my life, though the progress fits a curve rather than a straight line. Hopefully you’re as fascinated as I am to see what comes next.

[After every article, I’ll supply a not-necessarily related musical pairing. Your song for today is “Rozy / Donbass” by Dahk Daughters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wCgZh-nczY]

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Author, poet, and editor. He/they. Pollinator-friendly gardener. ADHD. Ace. Blogs are on Medium; fiction and poetry are elsewhere.

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Jesse William Olson

Jesse William Olson

Author, poet, and editor. He/they. Pollinator-friendly gardener. ADHD. Ace. Blogs are on Medium; fiction and poetry are elsewhere.

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