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Monday, July 22, 2019

Some Advice For Former Christians About Unpacking Christian Baggage

I've never made any secret that I wasn't raised Christian but rather grew up a secular agnostic, with all the fun of Santa and a magic chocolate delivering bunny. I actively got into paganism and witchcraft around the age of 11 or 12 and have been practicing since; I didn't make an effort to learn about Christianity until I was in my 20's. This gives me a different perspective on some things than people coming from a different background and sometimes that difference is more obvious than others. In particular it tends to be highlighted for me when I am accused of having Christian baggage - as I pointed out on my social media, if anything it would be more accurate to accuse me of non-initiatory Wiccan baggage - and also when I see particular ideas or concepts in paganism that do seem to be influences from the outside. I thought it might be helpful from this perspective to offer a couple suggestions for people coming from Christianity who are trying to let go of their former religion.

I want to preface this though by saying a few things first. I don't personally care if you syncretize your paganism or witchcraft with Christianity or any other monotheism. Syncretism has been going on forever. I also don't care if you personally actively blend Christianity into your beliefs and practices. Have at. Whatever works for you. What I do care about is people looking down on other people for the aspects of their former religion they may be unconsciously dragging along with them and the way that many people who converted to paganism from Christianity have come with preconceived notions that can be harmful to others. Particularly to others that don't share those ideas or ingrained assumptions.

The idea of 'Christian baggage' shouldn't be a pejorative used against people but something that you either choose to actively work with or actively overcome.

So. That said, here are some suggestions from an outsider for people coming into paganism from Christianity who want to be aware of what they are bringing with them. These are all based in my years of observing from the outside if you will and the things I have seen people focus on or be bothered by that baffle me, and which I assume then are shadows of their former belief system. These will not all apply equally and may not all matter equally to everyone and that's fine. But I do encourage people to give some serious thought to this.

  1. Don't jump to assume that everyone shares your own background and ingrained Christian associations due to growing up in a Western culture. There are some deeply ingrained cultural things that one can argue are rooted in Christian thought but in my experience the vast majority of things that former Christians assume affect non-Christians actually don't. If you are a former Christian instead of telling your never-Christian friends what you think must influence them, try listening to them instead when they talk about their own experiences. 
  2. Take time to reflect on how much you are centering Christianity in your own life, even as a pagan. In my experience this often occurs through people defining themselves as against their former religion, ie if they associate Christianity with prayer then as a pagan they don't pray, if they associate Christianity with submission to deity then they make a point of not kneeling or bowing to deity, if they associate Christianity with a personal connection to deity then they are vocally against such a thing in paganism. There is, of course, nothing wrong with preferring not to do or believe any of those things by choice but be aware of what is influencing that decision. But most if not all of these things can be found across world religions and in belief systems that predate Christianity including pagan ones. Be careful not to create a new spirituality that is simply the inverse of the old, which indicates that the old still has power over you
  3. On the other hand, be aware of how much you are shaping your paganism to look exactly like your former religion but with a Goddess instead of God. Just as you should be careful not to make a new faith that is based in animosity towards the former one you should also not strive to recreate the former one with new names slapped over the old (unless that's your goal). In either  this case or point #2 you are still keeping your old religion central in your life because everything you are doing is based on it one way or another. 
  4. Another step in decentering Christianity which I imagine will take longer is to work on not allowing it to still have power over you. Paul Huson's book Mastering Witchcraft addresses this by encouraging new witches to recite a Christian prayer backwards, something considered blasphemous. If you don't want to have any Christianity in your paganism but still feel wrong about doing certain things your new religion embraces or uncomfortable around some pagan imagery then you need to look at why that is. Basically while you should be able to be generally respectful towards any religion you shouldn't feel any more or less concerned with Christian myth, belief, or practice than you do with any other religion you don't follow. 
  5. Look at how often you use Christian mythology as examples for things or rely on Christian imagery. No, this is not just Western culture, this really is a reflection of Christian upbringing (with very few exceptions). If you aren't Christian why do you say 'damn it'? Why call on Jesus? Why use Christian theology or cosmology to explain concepts? (and yes people do this, because I have had to ask on many occasions to have something further explained because I don't know what the speaker was talking about).  I still don't understand what sin even is or the spiritual implications of forgiveness; Christianity has its own language of terms and idioms and these are not clear to people outside that sub-culture. It may take conscious effort at first but you can change the expressions you use to reflect your new spirituality.
  6. Don't assume Christianity is the default for everything. Yes Western culture tends to be majority Christian populations but the idea that this means Christian is the default is something I have only found in former Christians, perhaps because they were raised to believe that. As a non-Christian growing up I never assumed anyone's religion until they told me what it was, because why would I? 
  7. Don't shift Christian cosmology into paganism*. This may be more of a pet peeve, in fairness, but I'm seeing it more and more so I want to include it here. There is no pagan Heaven. There is no pagan Hell (except actual helheim which is something else entirely). The Gods don't save us, whatever that even means. 
A basic list here, and I'm sure it could be added to. I suppose it could all be summed up as 'look at how you are still centering Christianity in your life and find ways to stop doing that'. Obviously since I'm not coming from that background I am not the best one to offer ideas of the nitty-gritty how to there are even point out more in depth ways that former religions show up in new ones but hopefully this at least offers a start for those who want to shift entirely into something new. 

Editing to add: these points are specifically aimed at individuals trying to work through their own issues with their birth religion. Dealing with issues relating to wider cultural and institutionalized Christianity is a separate topic and one that does not fall under the purview of this article. While we may choose to root out these things within ourselves or not, looking at the wider impacts of cultural institutionalized Christianity often reveals problems and abuses that must be confronted en masse and resisted or over turned on equally wide scales. 

*unless of course you are syncretizing the two, but that's something totally different. 


  1. >The Gods don't save us, whatever that even means.

    Relating back to point 2, the idea of divine salvation is not unique to Christianity either. Hinduism and Buddhism in the modern world, the Neoplatonic traditions of the late Roman Empire, and a number of mystery cults throughout the ancient world have salvation as a goal (given some appropriate definition of "salvation," including salvation from death, suffering, etc.), and the means of that salvation often feature divine intercession as the means of obtaining it. I'm not aware of any particular evidence of this being common in Gaelic or the broader Celtic ancient religions, nor is it a component of my own polytheism, but it's not a component entirely absent from broader Indo-European thought, and one could even argue that modern Christianity's own concept of salvation borrows a lot from the Neo-Platonic philosophers who simultaneously practiced theurgic rituals aimed towards the deities of the ancient world.

    1. That's fair. I was under the impression that the Christian idea of humans being born flawed and needing divine saving to allow them to go to a good afterlife was unique and different from other cosmologies, but I admit my knowledge of the concepts are basic. For example I wouldn't equate the Christian idea to the Buddhist one of escaping samsara because that relies on personal effort to break free of illusion, rather than an external divine intervention. But I don't know enough about the Greek or Roman to weigh in on how similar they might be to the Christian and certainly Christianity did draw from pre-existing sources.

    2. A quick note about Buddhism before a few other comments: Buddhism isn't a single, monolithic thing. Different branches of Buddhism adopt different beliefs, and the Buddhism of the monks doesn't always necessarily perfectly align with things like folk Buddhism, and the "personal effort" view of Buddhist religion is a model mostly peddled by ignorant Westerners who want to co-opt aspects of Buddhist philosophy without engaging in living Buddhist religious communities. For example, Pure Land Buddhism is one of the most widely practiced branches of Buddhism, and it focus on veneration of Amida Buddha as the way of achieving reincarnation into the Pure Land that he created. Of course, this is not identical to the Christian idea of salvation, but it's not necessarily apples to oranges either.

      Besides that though, the history of the Christian idea of salvation is fascinating. Of course Judaism had ideas of salvation, but they were largely national rather than individual in nature (Yaweh saves the nation of Israel rather than individuals, just as many polytheistic state and tribal cults viewed the Gods as more concerned with the state or tribe), and were largely political rather than spiritual (with the Jewish messiah being a political figure rather than a divine one). Much of the messianic mythology in Judaism appears to take inspiration from the Persian Zoroastrians (another Indo-European group), with the Zoroastrians, in my opinion, having more of a spiritual aspect to the idea than popular Jewish culture seemed to.

      Christianity, at least as practiced in the Hellenic Eastern Roman Empire seems to have been viewed by many of the early pagan converts as something like another mystery cult, like the cults of Mithras, the Elusinian Mysteries, or Orphism, all of which had associations with the ideas of rebirth and/or the promise of rewards in the afterlife. The Orphic myths even preach that mankind was made half out of the ashes of the God Zagreus (who became Dionysus) and half out of the ashes of the Titans who tried to devour him, which explains humanity's mixed nature of divinity and flaws. Even the philosophical traditions of ancient Greece were long concerned with the apparent imperfections of this world and the human condition and attempted to find some ways of overcoming it - some through achieving personal perfection, and some, like many of the late Neo-Platonists like Proclus, through achieving unity with the Gods through practices like theurgy. Christianity's own view of salvation can only really be understood in terms of the Hellenic people who would come to create many of the foundational texts and doctrines of the tradition.

      Again, I personally don't have much room for the idea of salvation in my own practices, but I do find the topic fascinating. For example, we have ancient historical sources telling us that Celtic warriors didn't fear death because they believed in reincarnation, but that tells us so little about the intricacies of their beliefs. Did they think of reincarnation as a reward or, like the Hindus, did they think of it as a source of suffering? If they did think of it as positive, did they believe that reincarnation was a simple fact of existence for everyone, or did they imagine it as specific to their own groups and communities (say, limited to brave warriors like Valhalla for the Nordic peoples)? If it was limited, was participation in some mysteries (say, perhaps, a warrior-cult) necessary to secure reincarnation? Is the common Celtic motif of Gods who revive warriors in holy cauldrons and wells an indication that those Gods were viewed as instrumental in saving the warrior from death? There is so much that simply can't be known about the ancient Celtic worldview, and it's most likely that some groups believed in some variation of many of these ideas at some point or another. The variation of ideas even within particular religious traditions simply fascinates me.

  2. Hello... I was born in a christian family (they weren't deep into it, though) but I never had that sense of belonging to it. I believe that references to christianity in everyday speech are all a matter of habit. Every time I find myself saying something of the sort, I can see how deeply ingrained these habits are. But, at least in my case, it is only that... I don't have a clear conscience of what I'm saying. There must be a way of getting rid of them, and I deem a possible solution would be to acquire knowledge of another kind, which may raise awareness. I have always been well away from "institutionalised christianity", as I don't believe in any "politically correct" dogma. I believe I'm an explorer, a spirit in quest of the truth, so I'm not afraid of changes. Time will tell how devoid of fear I am.

  3. It's great to hear that someone else, raised in the USA,doesn't have an automatic grasp of these Christian concepts. I was raised in a secular home by an atheist in the buckle of the bible belt. In the bible belt you do hear phrases commonly used and some I never realized were christian until I moved away in my mid-30s. I didn't think about the original significance. After the move I had the opportunity to get to know a biblical scholar who's first language was Aramaic, had a grasp on the ancient languages and had studied extensively. I found out that those around me had had little understanding of the cultural context of the original stories and their assumed understanding was based on flawed premises. That realization was a tremendous lesson in cultural awareness for me. It was an even bigger lesson in cultural appropriation.