When I became a Gaelic Polytheist it was quite hard to get involved in the religion. In “pagan” circles, both in-person and online, polytheists rarely spoke out about their religions. Unfortunately for newer polytheists like myself, the only real public options were Celtic-style Wiccans (duo- or pantheists rather than polytheists) or folkish Heathens (racists with runes, rather than polytheists). Supposedly if you lived in Greece or a very specific section of New York there were Hellenics, but I didn’t hear about them until years later. No, back then there were no Gaelic Polytheists, or Brythonic Polytheists, or Heathens (the real ones, not the folkish) to speak to you about polytheism.
Rest assured they were there, and they spoke to each other, but they weren’t there to speak to you about polytheism.
If you wanted to adopt one of these revivalist polytheist faiths, you had to do your own research and reinvent the wheel. After a lot of reading, learning to be a linguist, and time spent in your own practice, you might stumble upon a group who’d then do you the favour informing you of just how wrong you’d been up until that point. “That point”, of course, could be anywhere from a few months to many years after you converted. For me, it was almost 8.
In modern polytheist religions, you’ll find an inherent aversion to proselytism. Many of us came from either Catholic or Protestant families and communities. Those who didn’t would grow up harassed and bullied for that very reason. Very angrily glaring, yelling, or even assaulting those who didn’t fall in with the over-culture’s religion is something we’ve had to deal with all our lives, and still deal with to this day as polytheists. For that reason and more, we cringe at the thought of proselytizing.
How lucky we are though, the privileged few, able to sit by and grace those who want to find our faiths and worship our Gods with the righteous life we all had to live. After all, if we had to spend years becoming theologians just to practice the basic tenants of the religion, then surely they must as well? What could be worse than denying them their right to search endlessly by giving them a welcoming hand into the religion? We must simply be fated to exist as a religion of scholars – no normal people allowed.
Of course, proselytism doesn’t need to be synonymous with evangelism or forced conversion. Proselytism is, by definition, “to induce someone to convert to one’s faith”. Induce, in this case, meaning “to convince by persuasion or influence”. Certainly, this can be done in an inherently negative way – after all, a sword or a gun is awfully persuasive. However, it’s also clear that one can be induced to convert via entirely respectful and peaceful means. Even so much as providing information about the religion in a persuasive way can induce someone to convert, and that allows those amongst us who are scholars to help those who would join us that don’t have the time and resources to pursue a degree-less PhD in Manx Cosmology.
What do we lose by refusing to proselytize, though? Even if there are positives, there are also clear potential negatives – perhaps it’s best to simply avoid it. I propose that by shunning proselytism we commit the gravest atrocity against those who would join our religions – we inherently rob them of their choice by forcing them into a lottery. In order for me to become a Gaelic Polytheist, I had to get lucky and find some vague information hinting at modern worship of Celtic gods – had I not, I’d have likely never found the faith and simply moved on, instead living a miserable pseudo-atheistic existence. Many of you readers will have similar answers to the question “What if you never found out about your religion,” and as stated earlier, we are the lucky few.
What we gain by proselytizing is more than just new converts and a more stable religion. We gain the knowledge that we, as worshippers, have not closed off our religion into an esoteric sect. It becomes clear to everyone that those who wish to join our faith, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, are in fact free to join. As it stands, we say to each other that anyone is welcome, and then wonder why our religions are White Boy Clubs. If every woman looking for her religion, or every non-binary person looking for their Gods is met with the stony faces of a small group of white men who have made no effort to be seen, and have only been discovered by accident – what message does that send?
I propose we send a very different message to those who may be interested. To my fellow polytheists, don’t be afraid to openly inform and recommend conversion to the spiritually searching, or the religiously abused. Our Gods are loving and we seek to emulate Them – if it’s inappropriate for us to invite someone into our faith, that simply means we have a very real problem that needs to be addressed.
It’s not enough to simply not prevent new converts from joining your faith. Reach out a welcoming hand.