What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion

White supremacists are coopting Norse heathen symbols. Should the heathens ignore them? Protest them? Create a new theology?

A collage
Silke Schurack / Joshua Roberts / Reuters / Chip Somodevilla / Getty / The Atlantic

As white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, the high priest of a pagan religion looked on with horror from Reykjavik, Iceland. It wasn’t just their racist message that bothered him. It was that their banners bore the symbols of his religion: Ásatrú, also known as heathenry.

“I think it’s obscene,” the high priest, Hilmar Hilmarsson, said of the way white supremacists are coopting Norse symbols like Thor’s hammer because they believe the Vikings were a pure white race. This appropriation has been underway for a few years—not only in the United States, but also in Sweden, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere—and it’s rattling many of those who practice the Ásatrú faith in its birthplace. “We are absolutely horrified,” Hilmarsson told me.

Ásatrú is a new religious movement that attempts to revive ancient polytheistic traditions—like the worship of Thor, Odin, Freya, and other gods and goddesses—from Iceland’s pre-Christian past. The modern revival started with 12 men and women who met at Reykjavik’s Hotel Borg in 1972, and over the past few years it’s really taken off. Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the fastest growing. It counts over 4,000 members, Hilmarsson said (the country’s total population is just 335,000). For the first time in a millennium, a new temple is being built to accommodate followers of Iceland’s old Norse religion. It’s set to open next June.

The faith also has a global footprint. It’s taken on various forms as it’s spread to about 100 countries, with an estimated following in the tens of thousands. Yet there’s a certain fragility at its core. As the modern iteration of pre-Christian pagan worship, Ásatrú is a very young religion. And it’s less a single codified religion than a loose cluster of religions: It has no central authority or agreed-upon dogma. Although many followers cherish this ideological openness, it may leave the religion vulnerable to misappropriation.

It was partly to address this concern that a group of heathens convened last month in Germany. Their international conference, Frith Forge, invited inclusive heathens to discuss the urgent questions facing their faith: What do we do about the minority of heathens on the extreme-right fringe who embrace racist ideas? What do we do about the larger number of racists who don’t practice the religion but do co-opt its symbols? Can we reconcile inclusion with ethnic pride? Do we need to create a new theology?

For Karl Seigfried, an adjunct professor at Illinois Institute of Technology who is also a goði (priest) of an inclusive Ásatrú group in Chicago, the answer to that last question is a resounding yes. At the conference, he gave a scholarly rundown of existing Ásatrú writings before issuing a personal request: He wants people to write original theological essays, which he’ll edit and compile into the first international anthology of the public theology of heathenry. Each essay will identify a contemporary issue, discuss it through the lens of heathen myths, and suggest a solution based on heathen ideals.

Asked if he’s trying to make Ásatrú theology “racist-proof,” the way certain French imams are trying to craft a “preventive theology” that will make Islam resistant to being coopted by fundamentalists, Seigfried said he doesn’t think that’s possible. “If someone wants to go spelunking for mythological justifications of ethnic superiority, they’ll hit pay dirt in the texts of almost any religious tradition,” he told me by email. “Those who seek validation for hateful views will always manage to find some passage they can interpret in a way that justifies their bigotry.”

But Seigfried doesn’t want to let the racists set the parameters for how the heathen religion or its symbols get discussed in the media and construed by the broader public. His strategy is to expand and enrich Ásatrú theology so that it tackles many contemporary issues, demonstrating its wide-ranging relevance. He takes inspiration from the social-justice-oriented Catholic theologians of Latin America who created Liberation Theology in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We often say that we are a world-affirming religion, so maybe it’s time that we turn to the world and address the issues that face us today,” he said. “What do heathens think about reproductive rights? The role of government? Climate change? Gender identity? … We will never be included in the greater public discussion if we don’t first step forward and put our ideas on the table.”

One of several people who’ve expressed interest in contributing to Seigfried’s anthology is Diana Paxson. She grew up Christian, but, she told me, “I found that ecstatic religious experience was a lot more accessible in paganism than it was in Christianity. The gods are alive, well, and eager to party.” A founder of the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, she also spoke at the Frith Forge conference. Back home in Berkeley, she’s considering submitting an essay that uses the myth of Ragnarök—an apocalyptic event featuring floods and fires—to offer a heathen view on climate change. “To fight beside the gods of Ragnarök today means to get really involved in environmental protection and all the political structures that support it,” she said.

If Seigfried’s main strategy is theological, Paxson’s is political; she believes in the power of protest. “Before the last election, we in the U.S. could claim some liberal moral superiority. This is no longer the case,” she told me. “Ever since January I’ve been attending whatever rallies and marches I could and displaying heathen symbols. … We have to be out there with placards and slogans and banners. Every time they [racists] come out with their message, we need to get out there with ours.”

Paxson’s emphasis on public denunciations of bigotry is mirrored by heathen groups and Viking enthusiasts across the globe. Sweden, for example, is home to Vikings Against Racism, a network of people attempting to rescue old Norse iconography from misuse. They regularly show up at far-right events and other demonstrations. When the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi group that uses the ancient Týr rune as its logo, recently paraded through the streets of a Swedish city, it found itself vastly outnumbered by counter-demonstrators from Vikings Against Racism.

In Germany, where Viking symbols were coopted by the Third Reich, many heathens are particularly wary of misappropriation today. Ulrike Pohl, a member of the Eldaring, a German heathen group, told me she carefully screens the Facebook page of anyone who asks to join the group, checking to see whether their “likes” betray any racist leanings. Another organization, Nornirs Ætt, researches the way heathen ideas as filtered through Nazism manifest themselves in contemporary far-right groups, which it exposes online through its “Odin’s Eye” project. “I think it’s possible to take back the authentic runes, and to take back the narrative, through education—with new members as well as with the public,” Pohl said.

The battle has come to Canada, too. The Soldiers of Odin—a far-right group founded by a Finnish white supremacist in 2015—now has chapters in about a dozen Canadian cities. Members go out on street patrols that Muslims and other minorities describe as intimidating. But even within the Soldiers of Odin, there’s fracturing over race. In April, the head of the Canadian group, Bill Daniels, publicly denounced the Finnish organization for “racist, unorganized, reckless wannabe thug collaboration.” He was promptly ousted.

Back in Iceland, Hilmarsson, the high priest, has a much quieter strategy: It’s simply to set a positive example by performing baby-naming ceremonies, Yule celebrations, and other Ásatrú rituals—and ignore the haters. “We keep doing what we’ve always done,” he said. “We don’t try to use logic with people who are totally illogical in the first place. It’s absolutely futile.”

Hilmar Hilmarsson and other Ásatrú practitioners at a ceremony (Silke Schurack / Reuters)

The high priest added that the racist interpretation of heathenry is “a total perversion” of the original mythology, which he called “a wonderful blueprint” for multiculturalism and diversity: “The gods are of mixed races. We even have a crossdressing god.” Some LGBT practitioners say the gender fluidity of the Norse gods is part of what makes Ásatrú attractive to them. Several told me the faith is deeply inclusive and argued that it always has been.

“In pagan times, there was no real concept of race,” Paxson said. Instead, family or clan was the organizing category. And the sine qua non of Vikings’ lives was migration. As they traveled, they picked up other people and with them their religious practices—a fact that was recently thrown into sharp relief by an archeologist’s contested claim to have discovered Viking clothing that bears the word “Allah.” Regardless of whether that particular claim is true, it’s an established fact that Vikings borrowed from many faith groups, including Muslims. “The conclusion I’ve come to,” Paxson said, “is that the most traditional approach is adoptive.”

Unfortunately for heathens, there are racists who have also adopted the Ásatrú faith. This, in turn, can create the impression that the racism issue represents the faith’s central feature. The struggle of heathens today is ultimately not just about rescuing their symbols from racists, but also about dismantling the broader idea that this rescue mission is what defines them.

“There’s more to heathenry than just the fight against racist groups,” Pohl said, adding that to get this point across, heathens need “a combined strategy” that blends internal theological work, public political activity, and education geared at non-heathens. As for educating heathens with racist leanings, the most important thing is to be able to offer them a richer, more compelling vision. “If we can offer a sense of community and a sound theology, I think it’ll be easier to explain to people why the blood-and-soil idea makes no sense historically or spiritually,” she said. “The best way to get people to come over to the bright side is to simply be cool.”