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Heathenry, Whiteness, and “Tribes”

Since the 1970s, Heathenry’s divisive racial interpretations and consequent polarizing identity politics have been a persistent issue over which factions divide and fall. The division finds most tension between those for whom Heathenry is primarily socioreligious, and not ancestrally determined, and those for whom Heathenry is “inherited,” tied to blood, ancestry, and racial classifications. Although most Heathens fall in between these two poles, the framing of Heathenry as a “birthright” of those with Northern European heritage persists among many Heathens. This self-consciousness about and attention to ethnic identity embroils participants in an ongoing dialogue that is fundamentally cosmopolitan. Both Heathens and scholars of cosmopolitanism seek to determine whether people should strive to protect the ways and traditions of distinct communities from the influences of the “other,” or seek out and attempt to understand the other through the adoption of various cultural insights: to be “citizens of the world” (Braidotti et al. 2013: 3).

Cosmopolitanism is a “multidimensional process” in which all people are essentially “unconscious cosmopolitans” due to the development of an “openness to foreign others and cultures even without conscious normative intentions”; it is based upon postmodern institutional (social, political, economic, cultural) transformations occurring at the “global level” (Saito 2011: 126). In a world of global communication, travel, and organization, people are living in an increasingly cosmopolitan environment. Even those—like many Heathens—who resist the concept are nonetheless swept up in the tide of globalization. Cosmopolitanism is the opposite of nationalism, which constrains social identity within “national” borders. Cosmopolitan projects seek to expand the sense of identification beyond such local constraints to a global or even cosmic level, in which the “cosmo” in “cosmopolitan” refers to a cosmic oneness or global humanness.

Yet, the categories of cosmopolitanism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Cosmopolitan global citizenship can best be accomplished through a dual identification, with both global and local poles (Appiah 2006). In the case of Heathens, while some champion a cosmopolitan appreciation for the unique religious and cultural heritage of ethnic groups around the world, many of the same individuals also make appeals to a racial and ethnic biological essentialism that fuels nationalism. This “rebirth of ethnic nationalism” is part of the polemical nature of cosmopolitanization embedded in globalization, which can result in the adoption of either cosmopolitan sentiments or an oppositional attitude (Saito 2011: 128; Beck 2003: 27). Where people are situated within this dialectic is based upon certain aspects of their social network, such as homophily (in terms of both characteristic similarity and geographical space/proximity) (Saito 2011: 128; Beck 2003: 27).

As a group of overwhelmingly white people, Heathens suffer from the normalcy and rootlessness of their racial category. To white people, ethnicity in the United States is optional and often superficial: they may celebrate being “Irish” on St. Patrick’s day, or “German” during Octoberfest, but are not otherwise cognizant of ethnic belonging or identification (Dyer 2002; Dalton 2002; Gans 1979). Whiteness offers its bearers the privilege of normalcy and “default” Americanness (Snook 2013). After the Civil Rights triumphs, in reaction to the forces of modernization and the perceived decrease in white privilege, many white Americans began searching for their ethnic roots (Jacobson 2006). To many Heathens, then and now, Heathenry provides an ethnic or otherwise sociocultural identity to those for whom ethnicity is divorced from social and religious life, and whose ties to ethnic identity and belonging have been complicated by centuries of transience, forced assimilation, and ancestral emigration. Yet, with the development of ethnic identity in the United States comes the unavoidable question of who gets to be Heathen, and who is excluded.

Even many of those Heathens cognizant that race has no biological foundation nonetheless believe—or fantasize—that Heathenry is an “ethnic folkway,” and should be counted among other tribal indigenous faith traditions. For some Heathens, “tribalism” is an attempt to redevelop cultural patterns and social organization more akin to those used by the Elder Heathens, and thus is a part of the basic cultural revitalization or reconstruction project that is Heathenry. For others, it is an emphasis on and celebration of an essentialist racial identification that they see stretching back beyond the dawn of history into the mythic past at the very root of what it means to be Heathen. For some, tribalism is simply another way to organize Heathen communities, one that appears to evade the quagmire of debates over the role of racial identification that has plagued Heathenry for decades. Yet for others, the distinctions between these various approaches are unclear and not mutually exclusive (Snook 2015).

The term “tribe” originated as a colonial construction (Xaxa 2005) to refer to “collectivities of native people, groups rolled up into units for administrative purpose” based on imperial/colonial policies connected to governmental power to control trade and land acquisition (Campisi 1982: 166). Generally, within anthropological studies, the term “tribe” refers to groups of people who are different from the mainstream society (white colonizers), based on the distinctiveness of their language and culture (i.e., ethnicity), religion, land territory, and government (Xaxa 2005). Postmodern “neo-tribalism,” as theorized by Maffesoli (1996) and Bauman (2000), is a constant process to construct a social identity where “new tribes” or communities “share religious, political, and/or ethical orientations,” existing on the “periphery of mainstream culture” (Lucas 2007: 38). The basis for “neo-tribalism” is not ascribed status; rather, it is a predominantly elective or actively achieved family- clan-sect structure providing a feeling of solidarity and belonging by virtue of a “re-actualization of the ancient myth of community” (Riley et al. 2010: 348).1

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