One day I realized that I'd started becoming a jerk. It crept up on me like a cat stalking a bird, the way it does with kids in school: I started hanging out with a group and I wanted to fit in. And I totally didn't want to be the kid who was being picked on. Even if I (shhhhhhhh!) had some things in common with that 'kid'. So I started saying nasty things about her— and I kept my mouth shut when the nasty things said by other people could apply equally to my own beliefs.

It's ironic, because I was the kid who was picked on in grade school. I totally knew better. I thought I'd never do this. And when I realized how I'd begun to behave, I nearly choked. A lot of Heathens take great pride in not being "fluffy". Oh, we never make shit up. Nuh-uh. We do scholarship. We research historical stuff. We, um, re-create stuff. According to the traditions of our ancestors. We read source material like Ragnarok is coming down on us tomorrow complete with a horde of evil, undead Viking zombies and giants spewing searing, fiery destruction while some screaming Norse guy thrashes chords on an electric guitar… erm, no.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of self-centered fluff out there on the internet and in print that makes me want to bang my head. There's also a lot of being so open-minded you check your brain at the door under the New Age/Shamanic/Spiritual/Not-Monotheist-But-Not-Atheist umbrella. Especially when someone is selling something. I'm not saying that you shouldn't exercise good judgment and skepticism when someone else claims some kind of divine insight or secret knowledge— cults, insanity and chicanery are made of that stuff. (In fact, I encourage people to seek out and form their own wisdom from direct divine contact rather than simply taking anyone else's word for it.)

But healthy skepticism is not the same as mocking someone else's beliefs or spiritual experience, simply because it's different from yours. That is called upholding the status quo, and when it comes to religion, that's called intolerance. Intolerance can lead to some incredibly vile things. In some parts of the world, members of the same religion still commit acts of violence against other members of their faith, simply because they hold varying interpretations about the same creeds. The history of Europe up through the 20th century is blood-soaked with religious and ideologically-fueled intolerance.

People who belong to a minority belief system should know better than to be intolerant. It's toxic to forming a healthy community, and our community is sparse enough as it is. As I joined a couple of different Heathenry groups online and followed discussions, however, I learned that certain Gods, subjects and people in the Heathen community, unlike among my Hellenic/Celtic polytheist friends, were taboo at worst and iffy at best. This did not stop at polite disagreement or jaw-dropping at practices someone might not understand or approve of: say certain names and a firestorm of vitriol is unleashed. A topic might be acceptable to explore if voiced by an 'elder', but that same statement made by a layperson would be ignored, shot down or mocked in a heartbeat. I've even heard women in the clergy get dismissed as 'not-Heathen' for their writings on Heathen religion (and two of them, mind you, have entirely different practices, politics and book publishers).

All too often the people I've seen scoffed at were women, and the practices that got demeaned were largely ones pursued by women - traditionally the deeply powerful mystics and magicians of Norse society! In more than one group setting, any whiff of personal experience or mysticism quickly led to snide remarks or offhand dismissal of the possibility that any of this could be real outside of the imagination. (Such an attitude is worlds away from the deep reverence for numinous experience held by the very ancestors these same people claimed to be imitating. These were not a people of the book, but of direct spiritual experience. Urbanized Roman contemporaries were astounded at their deeply mystical faith and respect given to wise women, according to Tacitus and Julius Caesar!)

Usually this scoffing happens when a worshiper voices an opinion coming from a point at which hard scholarship (written by non-worshipers) can no longer help them to own a spiritual path. Maybe it's the perceived lack of material related to Goddesses and female experience in the lore, along with a daunting search for some real scrap of female tradition to cling to that unleashes the frustration of many interested in Norse spirituality. (Go read some Polish and German fairytales and folklore! The Heathen Gods are right there. Fairy Godmothers? Fingers pricked by spindles? Frigga and Holle are all over that.) Maybe it's a modern respect given to agnosticism, stemming from admiration for scholarship— a respect that is not widely granted to actual faith in the existence of more than one, let alone any deity— which triggers the scorn brigade. Sometimes the bullying is as subtle and unintentional as crowding out, dismissing or ignoring the conversations of those who are willing to look at things from a different angle, and examine other cultures and traditions, especially neighboring ones, for insight on how to fill the gaps.

Sometimes, I think, this bullying and silencing of ideas is an imitation of stereotype-fueled perceptions of the lore, which can be downright brutal and easily skewed out of cultural context (so, too, is the Bible. Sometimes the behavior recorded in teaching stories—and myths are teaching stories— was not held up as an example to emulate) And sometimes— let's be frank here— it's obvious waves of sexism, homophobia and racism rippling outward from the hate-fueled influence of white supremacists and separatists, people whose beliefs are rooted far more in their own rabid insularity than faith in any deity.

Not all groups or individual Heathens I've met behave like this. Some are amazingly civil, welcome a variety of people to the faith, and work hard to embrace an open discourse of ideas. But I've observed it enough to see a tendency toward bullying in the religious culture of my fellow English-speaking Heathens, particularly in North America. It's hard enough to speak about faith, personal spiritual experiences, and unique perspectives on a minority religion in a world that denigrates the idea of faith itself. In an atmosphere of internal bullying, however, silence and shutting down dissent reigns supreme. It takes an iron will in this sort of environment to publicly ask questions about what's missing from recorded stories and why, or to discuss personal relationships to Gods in a way that might make them easier for some people to relate to. Sorry, that might smack of Christianity. Or Judaism. (Nevermind that our ancestors were also influenced by the beliefs of people around them; this is well-documented through comparative folklore, archaeology and tracing of ancient trade routes and marriage alliances. Just look at the shift in Viking burial customs.)

If we know that hatred towards others based on factors they born with (sex, skin color, inherent factors of sexual attraction), rather than chosen toxic behavior, is morally unacceptable, then why do we as a religious culture still accept bullying? What happened to the virtue of frith, of community bonds, peace and friendship? What happened to celebrating the Gods, myths and cultural stories which exemplify this, even in situations that begin as a crisis? What happened to honoring a cultural tradition in which there were predominantly wisewomen as well as men?

What of the deeply ancestral European idea of Gods, imminent in the very universe surrounding us, who just might be willing to make themselves known to mortals as their beloved children? Maybe, for one person, this touch of the divine is their interpretation of one of their dreams. Maybe for another it's just an inkling, a question in their heart, a gut feeling. Maybe it's a sign they perceive or attraction to some figure, symbol or idea. Maybe it's a mystical experience in meditation. Some of the greatest works of art and literature and impulses by historical figures to make the world a better place have been sparked by just those sorts of things. Inspiration used to be considered a gift from the Gods. So why, as a religious culture, are we intellectually and verbally shutting it down? (At the heart of this, what exactly do we fear? That the Gods might actually exist?)

Unsurprisingly, I see echoes of this attitude of intolerance toward other people mirrored in a disregard for the environment— and spiritually, in a lack of regard for classes of beings related to the environment and primal powers therein. Thor smites Giants so Giants bad, right? Giants live in Utgard, Outside-Land. Ahem. Except when male Gods marry them, and female Giants behave like Aesir men, and heroes and Gods alike go to them for healing and wisdom.

If we see our Gods as some kind of cartoonish divine enforcers against evil, outside supernatural people who are unlike them, it's little wonder that mocking people over their differences of belief is considered acceptable behavior. Maybe to uproot bullying in Heathenry we need to quit looking at our own Gods as cosmic bullies, and act as if they care about community, value knowledge, and cherish  existence— including the rest of life on this planet— something the lore shows them over and over again seeking out and trying to preserve.

And, maybe, if we want to be respected, we need to start by showing respect and allowing inquiry to flow, trusting that time and common sense will winnow out the ludicrous. Because we'll never be respected as a community if we can't even respect ourselves.