Personal Boundaries and Public Displays of Religion and/or Spirituality

pbp1This is a topic that comes up fairly frequently whenever you get a bunch of pagans together. It’s bound to; we live in a society that continually privileges Christianity over other religions or spiritual beliefs, and as such it will privilege the presence of public displays of Christianity over anything else.

This post isn’t about hating on Christians, for the record; just stating that they hold a certain amount of privilege in Western society, just like cis het white men do.

Anyway. This conversation comes up, usually in reference to things like door-to-door proselytizers, or people saying “Jesus loves you” as casual greeting, or crossing themselves casually, or people being even more aggressive with their faith in public arenas. Invariably, personal boundaries become part of the conversation, and often someone will begin arguing that your personal boundaries are wrong and you’re being rude to not let people smother you with their faith; those poor people with all the power in our society, cut them some slack.

I believe it’s rude to be aggressively religious in public areas. That said, everyone’s personal boundaries or definitions of what, exactly, is “aggressively religious” are going to be very different, and what I find rude, aggressive, or even triggering you may find just fine and dandy. In discussions about public displays of religion, it’s not productive to state that peoples’ boundaries are wrong or need to be justified. They are what they are, and you need to respect them.

Boundaries are things that are pretty important to me, as you know; they’re part of that whole Sovereignty thing that I talk about. And I’ve had my boundaries violated by people on a religious level often enough that it’s become a bit of a hot-button subject for me.

Some back-story [content warning: abuse]: from the time I was a kid until I was in my teens, I used to cross myself every time I saw a roadkill animal. I wasn’t Christian; during half that time I was explicitly pagan. But I felt the need to pray for the animal so they would find peace in whatever afterlife waited them, and I felt I needed an action to go with that prayer. The fastest thing, the easiest thing, the thing that came naturally to me, was crossing myself.

I made the mistake of doing this while my bio-sire was driving. I don’t actually remember what happened or what he did, because most of my childhood I can’t actually remember, explicitly. I do have implicit memories of that event, however, and they are full of misery, fear, and pain. He surely yelled at me, for that was his m.o.; he may have also hit me. I don’t know.

When I was in high school, a friend of mine and I were surrounded by her neighbors and prayed over, vociferously, for a least twenty minutes. It was terrifying, and we couldn’t escape.

One of my ex-boyfriends was Christian, and he was abusive. He continually disrespected my faith verbally and physically by denigrating it in conversation and putting things like Coke cans and his keys on my altar. He made it very clear that he thought of me as a pagan whore who was corrupting his pure Christian soul with my devil-influence.

(Before him, I dated a lapsed Mormon and a lapsed Catholic. They both also held some ideas about paganism and witchcraft, and while I won’t say they religiously abused me like this guy did, there was abuse present alongside those ideas, meaning the end result is I associate those ideas with abuse.)

My latest ex (the romantic, non-sexual poly relationship I was involved in) was dating a Christian for a fair amount of time and he was a complete asshole with his religion, to the point where she and I had to hide our relationship because he was so vehemently against polyamory (because it was ‘against god’s will’ or something). I had to deal not only with the bullshit he dealt to her (which was very reminiscent of what I went through with my Christian ex) but also what he dealt to me — ending in his never being welcome in my home again, because he so obviously disrespected my faith.

Those are the key events in my history that contribute to what I’m saying on this subject.

What we come down to, really, is trying to answer these questions: how do we navigate our own public displays of faith without infringing on other folks’ personal boundaries? Is there a way we even can?

I obviously cannot answer these questions; I am only one person. I can speculate a good starting point or two, however.

A good yardstick for this sort of thing is assessing whether or not your public display of faith is going to necessarily force strangers (or even friends) to acknowledge your faith or you. Is it something that everyone can easily ignore if they so wish? If it isn’t, why is it necessary that your display take that tack?

For example, let’s talk about things like Pagan Pride Day. Pagan Pride Day is an event that happens in places like public parks, normally. The park or a portion thereof is rented out for the day by the local Pagan Pride Day organization; vendors set up; there is usually a ritual or several in a designated area of the park, where different pagan faiths can show the public what their faith is all about. People are invited to participate. There are huge banners that say “Pagan Pride Day”, so it’s instantly clear what the event is.

Folks at these events often say things like “Goddess bless,” or “Blessed be” or “Merry Meet” in casual greeting. There’s often a lot of pentacle bling, and you may see people engaged in lively theological debate. There may be symbols you don’t recognize, or some that make you feel downright uncomfortable.

Pagan Pride Day could easily infringe on peoples’ personal boundaries — even folks who choose to go to the event.

Here’s the thing: Pagan Pride Day is not on pageant wagons, wildly meandering through town, forcing the populace to watch mystery plays about the gods. It’s not wandering into peoples’ homes and forcing them to acknowledge the presence of pagan religions. It’s not even forcing people it shares the park with, or people who may come by the park on that particular day, to acknowledge it. You can pass by Pagan Pride Day walking your dog and completely ignore all the people in fairy wings calling to the Greek gods with strident tones. No one is going to drag you kicking and screaming into the event and force you to participate. (And if they do do that, or if they try to force you to check it out, report them to the event organizers. That shit ain’t cool.)

Pagan Pride Day is an event that you choose to go to. And if it becomes uncomfortable for your personal boundaries regarding religion, you can choose to leave.

Bottom line, Pagan Pride Day is easily ignorable by people who are not interested. (Or, it should be, and has been in my experience. I have not been to every Pagan Pride event ever, so, obviously, your mileage may vary.)

The same goes for things like outdoor rituals or a church. Easily ignorable. Easy to keep the edges of your boundaries away from those things.

The things that are not so easily ignorable? People coming up to you and giving you a flyer. People knocking on your door to proselytize at eight a.m. on a fucking Saturday. People greeting you by saying things like, say, Jesus loves you. And on.

I think, really, when we get down to it it’s the same sort of thing as it is with all other sorts of boundaries. You have to ask yourself: does my need for this person’s attention trump whatever they’re doing right now?

Slightly modified for this subject: does my need to express my faith trump this person’s right to avoid displays of faith? 

I mean, let’s not forget — freedom from religion is just as important, if not more so, as freedom of religion.

But, again, I must stress: I don’t have all the answers on this subject, and it’s a bit thornier, I think, than most discussions of personal boundaries and interactions between and among humans. Some of us display our faith without thinking — we have the privilege to be able to do that without worrying about how others will react.

If you’re Christian, you have that privilege and freedom de facto in most spots in Western societies. If you’re not, there are still regional differences that can allow for that privilege. F’ex, I don’t have to worry too much about people freaking out at me for being openly pagan. The place I live in is liberal and hippie enough without being so liberal as to be anti-theist, generally speaking. But when I’m crossing the border to attend Spring Mysteries Fest, I often just say we’re going to a church event, because saying you’re pagan at the border can lead to you being banned from entering the US if you’ve got a particularly bad-tempered border-guard. It helps that Spring Mysteries is held by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church — a name that sounds decidedly Christian (if a bit hippie).

Even though I do have the freedom to be openly pagan in most places where I live, I usually keep my faith fairly private. A, it’s rude to be aggressively religious in public. B, it’s no one’s business but my own.

That said, with the crowds I run with most people assume I’m pagan or atheist regardless what I say about my faith. No one has assumed I’m Christian for quite some time now. So I don’t often feel the need to correct said assumptions.

At this point in my life I’m pretty lucky in where I live and the circles I run in that I don’t have to worry about my personal boundaries and people’s religions clashing, so I don’t have many more answers on this subject.

Do you have any ideas about how to navigate these waters? What are your experiences with personal boundaries and expressions of faith? Let me know in the comments; I’m curious to see what others have to say about this.

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2 replies on “Personal Boundaries and Public Displays of Religion and/or Spirituality”

  1. My best way is avoiding it outright. Sometimes I politely decline with a smile, I’m a southern girl at heart.

    If it forced at me I politely but firmly, then less politely and more firmly, ask them to stop.

    Just your general run of the mill avoidance tactics.

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