In the midst of a wonderful and spirited discussion on social and political matters this weekend, the following exchange took place:

Someone mentioned the “Mormonism is a cult” news splash. The lady next to me turned to me and said, “Well, that’s true! If you look at it, it is a cult!”

I gaped, dumbfounded, for a moment as my hand went to my pentacle pendant hanging in plain view. When my voice came back, I said, “Well, the word ‘cult’ gets thrown at my religion a lot, too, so I’m not so quick to use that term.”*

She looked surprised and asked, “And you are?”

I replied, “Wiccan.” I had to repeat it for her – I’m not sure if that was because she’s unfamiliar with the term, or because of the background noise. Oh, shit, I was thinking to myself – did I just ‘out’ my hostess? Did this lady actually not get the joke behind the giant wooden silhouettes of three witches around a cauldron on the front lawn that had me almost doubled-over in laughter? (They say a Witch lives there!)

She said, “Oh. Well, I’m Quaker, so everybody always thinks I’m weird,” and turned back to the larger conversation.

I let out a slightly relieved breath and didn’t even stop to boggle at the total ignorance of Christian privilege inherent in her statement. (Yes, I know there are Pagan Quakers – some of them do some great blogging. But by and large, most Quakers are Christian or Christ-centric, and that was clearly assumed by this lady’s attitudes.)

Aside from causing a nifty little moment of gut-churning fear, this exchange helped clarify why I agree so strongly with Star Foster about Project Conversion. The blogger behind this “Try the flavor-religion-of-the-month!” experiment showed up in her comments section and basically said that Star was being a meanie and that we should all be oh-so-grateful that he’s trying to bring Wicca some positive PR. (After all, it’s the only religion he got negative comments about, he said.)

First of all, Star’s right about his problematic framing. (If you haven’t read Hecate on the topic, go do that. I’ll wait.)

But more importantly, I don’t have to feel grateful that this dude is doing me a favor, because he’s not. Yeah, Wiccans have a lot to gain from positive PR. But we also have a lot to lose, especially from people who think they’re doing us a favor by giving us more media exposure when they are actually reinforcing negative frames with that exposure. As Cara Schulz more eloquently put it, he is running a significant risk of making us all look like “fluffy bunny asshats.”

I look forward to the day when being Wiccan is no more weird than being Quaker, when religions less than 250 years old aren’t automatically dismissed as cults, when monotheism isn’t seen as the only way. (I also look forward to the day when someone who is called out ever-so-gently on privilege doesn’t double-down by asserting hir status as also less-privileged.)

But we’re not there yet, and in the meantime, pretending that you’re doing me a favor by helping out the poor, oppressed Wiccans is orders of magnitude more rude than ignoring the existence of Christian privilege. It’s one thing to be ignorant, even deliberately, and another thing to acknowledge that privilege exists and then claim you’re using yours to help the less-privileged without actually acknowledging the feedback you get from them on how they want to be helped – or not.

*Recommended reading on “cults” and the dangers thereof: The ABCDEF.

6 thoughts on “You’re not doing me any favors

  1. I’ll strongly agree that the Quaker faith is privileged in lots that Wicca isn’t. I’ve never heard of anyone being fired for being a Quaker, or losing custody of their children.
    However, I can sympathize with Quakers who don’t perceive themselves as privileged. Nothing erodes one’s sense of privilege like being investigated and “infiltrated” by the FBI, as periodically happens to the American Friends’ Service Committee whenever their nonviolence becomes too … uh… threatening?
    This is why the concept of “kyriarchy” — interlocking and parallel continua of privilege — is so damn useful.

    1. Oh, I know that Quakers don’t have as much privilege as other Christian groups, and I have tremendous respect for them in a lot of ways. But, yeah: we can haz kyriarchy.

      Actually, it was quite a good lesson for me that while I may be able to analogize from my own experiences of oppression to others’ experiences, those analogies aren’t the same as living the less-privileged status, day in and day out. Lord and Lady witness, if I ever say something like that to someone (“I know what it’s like to be black; I’m disabled!”) I expect people to sit me down and tell me otherwise, and remind me of this moment, if necessary.

  2. It would be nice if more people based their judgment of what groups are “cults” on actual coerciveness rather than on weirdness or on variation from the person’s preferred version of Christianity. Because of that issues and because the word “cult” is so othering of both the groups referred to and those groups’ members, I usually use “coercive religious group” instead.

  3. I generally just remind people that, etymologically speaking, all religions are cults, and that the pejorative definition of the word didn’t evolve until about 30-40 years ago. If they are being a jerk about it (and I’m feeling snarky) I’ve also been known to remind them that, even by the negative definition, the most successful cult in the world was started by the followers of a charismatic and radical leader preaching and teaching against the status quo, for which he was executed by a theocratic state under the aegis of Rome.

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