There is nothing that can light a fire under the Pagan community faster than someone non-Pagan saying or doing something that puts our beloved Gods in a negative light. In general, it's a huge overreaction on our part, coupled with a some stupidity and/or ignorance on the part of the offending party and I can brush off the affair without comment. For the last few days a stunt pulled by the AHA Wisconsin has been going viral. The group has created a graveyard filled with (paper) tombstones with names, images, year of birth, year of death, and a short description of many popular Pagan and Non-Pagan Gods. This time, I am starting to think that some of the indignation is warranted.

I've been trying to decide what I think about this. In general, I don't get offended by the misconceptions of others; it is the right of this group of non-believers to put that opinion out there. In the way that this park might be used for a nice Mabon celebration or a Pagan study group gathering, it is now being used to promote the views of another student group. That said, these are--at least in part--my Gods. I worship or used to worship these Gods on a regular basis. The religiously proud part of me is screaming it's head off inside my chest, hoping to take a shovel to these irreverent displays. Not that I will--or could--but still; I feel protective of the deities displayed here, even though They are very capable of taking care of something like this Themselves, should They feel so inclined.

I've been trying to retrace the thought process behind this campaign for the better part of 48 hours. The accompanying signs of the AHA read: "JOIN US. Question everything." and "GOD GRAVEYARD. Here lie the graves of thousands of dead gods. Once worshiped by entire civilizations, now only myths. How much longer will the gods of today last?"

There is a fair point in there if you skip over modern reconstructive, revivalist, and Neo-Pagan movements entirely: while a good portion of the Gods remembered in that graveyard can't actually die, their civilizations did. While we still worship the Gods and They are most certainly not dead, Their worship has changed to the point of a fringe religion. A religion none the less, but nowhere near the religion it was.

In a way, the display tries to raise questions about the validity of faith if Traditions within it are allowed to die out and question if--if religion is tied to civilizations--we will reach a point where faith is no longer an inherent part of our civilization. Sad to say, I am guessing if this was the true thought train that led to this display, because unlike blog posts about other events like a 'heathen' (non-Christian, not Asatru specifically) stoning-by-waterballoons for a good cause, this one was not accompanied by text explaining why the group undertook this type of action. I'm wondering if this is because the group thought no one would be offended? From that heathen stoning blog post, written by Amanda Supak, AHA Co-Volunteer Officer:

"It's always hard to tell how people will receive your message before you do an event.  I was concerned that people would be mad that we were "taking the bible out of context" or that our "blasphemy awareness was too blasphemous." Of course it was all in good fun, but I can't help but be worried that I will offend people when we make events like this."

Honestly, I am more annoyed by the dating on nearly all of those headstones and the inclusion of deities from still-thriving religions like Voudoun. Those are fringe as well, but modern. There was no need to include these.

The Atheist, Humanists & Agnostics is a student group linked to the UW-Madison. Their mission, in their words, is to:

"...promote the discussion of faith and religion on the UW-Madison campus. Through our services and programs AHA seeks to educate students on issues important to the secular community, and encourage the personal development of one’s religious identity. The activities of AHA include, but are not limited to:

1) Establishing a Secular Support Group for the secular student community and those seeking to learn about secular issues.
2) Facilitate the personal development of individuals’ religious beliefs through the Faith Questioning service.
3) Sponsoring educational events, inviting engaging speakers, and fostering constructive student dialogue on topics relating to religion through the Freethought Speaker Series and Freethought Festival.
4) Collaborating with fellow religious student organizations on campus to foster a greater degree of mutual understanding between atheists and people of faith, through the Freethought Forum.
5) To raise public awareness about the misconceptions surrounding nonbelievers, and to educate the campus community about our values, through Ask An Atheist Tabling.
6) Participating in volunteering and service projects in order to do our part to make the UW campus and the world a better place."

 I've gone back through their blog and in general, they look to be a small but thoughtful group of young people. I doubt any malintent was intended by the display. That said, I do want to question if points four and five were best served by basically dismissing the faiths of millions of people around the globe out of hand through declaring their Gods dead. Personally, I don't feel very welcome to discuss my faith with any of the members of AHA, even though I think the situation would be served by doing so. The comments on the blog post--before the Pagans spammed it, of course--only made matters worse.

All in all, it mostly amuses me that an atheist group spent hours photoshopping gravemarkers for Gods they do not believe in and then probably paid to have these printed and put up. I still have my little pride-monster skulking about in my chest, but overall, I am not annoyed; I understand not believing. Is it entirely respectful? Again, no, but I simply can't be bothered by these types of evangelistic displays. Freedom of (non-)religion is a beautiful thing and should be enforced; it's the very thing that allowes us to practice our faith while many, many, many, others would rather we do not. We can't say 'we want our freedom of religion, but those people can't have it because it offends me'; that's not how it works--because we are 'those people' for many groups.

I want to end my thoughts on this affair with a shout-out to whomever left the offering below at the marker of Freya; trust me, if I lived anywhere near the campus, I would have done the same thing. Faith in humanity: restored. Thank you.

Update: This blog post is revisited here, and includes reactions to the display by the AHA.