"What do you believe?"
In my mind, that's always been one of the most incredibly personal questions one person can put to another, so it startles me every time someone asks it casually, as though it's akin to a favorite color or where one's parents hail from. My faith, to me, is the very core of who I am and who I want to be. That's not the kind of question you ask on a first date.
Even more startling is when the question is raised by complete strangers, who are then offended by the answer.
I live in a city. It's large, there are a lot of people, and it's generally thought of as one of the most tolerant places in the United States. Once, however, when I arrived late to class, I had to sit in the only empty seat, next to someone I didn't know. Throughout the lecture, I noticed the girl in the next seat over casting me sideways glances, odd little looks that unsettled me. There was nothing strange on my face, nothing in my teeth. I was taking notes with regular ink and not in blood. Nevertheless, there was a decidedly unfriendly set to her expression, which I couldn't for the life of me understand.
When the lesson was over, I prepared to flee, packing my notes away and heading for the door. Before I could get all the way there, though, the girl stopped me and asked, point-blank and with absolute seriousness, "Did you know you're wearing the sign of the devil?"
This confused me greatly. Grey sweater, black jeans—I couldn't see anything remotely devilish about thrift store finds. She must have read something to that extent in my expression, because she pointed at my neck and said darkly, "That."
It was one of those oh-NOW-I-get-it moments, because she had noticed the snake pentacle necklace that I usually wore beneath my shirt. It wasn't large, overt, or flashy, just a silver pentacle the size of a quarter with a snake wrapped around the arms of the star and the enclosing circle.
As a neo-pagan, I find nothing even vaguely evil about pentacles. Snake pentacles, in particular, are strongly on the side of good. The snake is an ancient symbol of rebirth, cleansing, and complete transformation, especially combined with a star pentagon—where the five points of the star represent Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind, with Spirit as the uppermost point, and the circle unites the five elements, showing unity, wholeness, infinity, the Goddess, and protection. With these two symbols together, the snake pentacle is a powerful symbol for faith and change, and it means as much to me as a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David would to people of those faiths. However, when I said as much to my classmate, she didn't believe me, and kept insisting that it was a sign of devil-worship and Satanism.
I don't particularly care when people find something wrong with me identifying as neo-pagan. That's all right. It's their prerogative, and while I rather wish that person hadn't asked in the first place, because it is so personal, as long as we can move past it I have no problems. However, when someone throws their ignorance and skewed beliefs in my face, and tells me that I am blatantly wrong about my own religion, I get angry. Yes, I worship the Goddess and the Green Man. Yes, I celebrate Yule and the Day of All Souls and Beltane. However, I don't go out on full moon nights and sacrifice kittens, nor do I push my beliefs on anyone else. I believe, which by definition is a personal act. How can someone find fault when all I try to do is be kind to nature and a better human?
Admittedly, my classmate didn't know me. She didn't understand how I go about my religion, though I rather doubt that she would have been interested even if I had attempted to explain. In her mind—as I know, because she informed me at such length that I was late for my next class—I wore a pentacle, and so I was going to Hell. She never specified whose Hell, nor did she take the time to find out if I was a wholly evil person, never mind the fact that I volunteer at the library and hold open doors for people who need it. She saw my necklace, firmly labeled what she thought she understood, informed me that God (again, which God?) "shalt not suffer a witch to live," and went on her way.
It was in the back of my mind to stop her as she left and inform her that I was lesbian, too, but I decided that would just be petty.
I love religions, and I love the faith they inspire in so many people. To believe in something greater than yourself, something good and kind that makes you want to be better and kinder, is a miracle. Druidic, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, Atheist, Agnostic—whatever you are, it's something to be proud of. They can be used in a way that is wrong, like all power, but they are at heart benign. (Unless, of course, you are sacrificing virgins or your defeated enemies on an alter, but then you probably have more problems than indignant classmates.) While I won't ask anyone what their belief is unless I know them very well, I make a point to keep an open mind and accept whatever is presented. It's akin to accepting someone's skin color, or his or her eye color—intrinsic, personal, and beautiful.
Therefore, it hurt when someone I had never even spoken to condemned me—literally to death—for my own beliefs, which hinge on the idea of "an it harm none, do what ye will." The girl who quoted Exodus 22:18 at me didn't even take a moment to think about the verse she used. King James I, for whom today's most common version of the Christian Bible was translated, was borderline paranoid about witches and witchcraft at the time, partly because of period politics. To keep him happy, the word chasaph—Hebrew for poisoner—was translated as "witch" instead, even though the original passage was about the crime of poisoning the Jewish community—and, going by the eye-for-an-eye laws at the time, death was a logical punishment. Even scholars in James's court (Reginald Scot, in particular, wrote an entire book on the subject of witchcraft and its misrepresentation) contested the mistranslation, but it was never changed.
This being a rather obscure fact, I understand that most people might not know it. However, if someone is going to quote the Bible, or any holy book, at me, I'd rather he or she knows the details of what he or she is accusing. It seems like a simple common courtesy. And I would especially appreciate being left to my own personal, private beliefs and allowed to worship as I see fit. My pentacle, be it snake or otherwise, is a symbol of my deep and abiding faith in the goodness of the world, the power of nature, and the kindness of my Goddess. I have my own rituals and my own churches, though to an observer they might seem more like a simple forest clearing than a house of worship. I have my holy days and my religious history, and I have faith in miracles and people's hearts.
"Bide the Wiccan laws ye must, in perfect love and perfect trust... Mind the Threefold Law ye should—three times bad and three times good...Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill—an it harm none, do what ye will"—This simple idea makes up the basis if what I believe. It is my heart, my spirit, and I hold it absolutely dear to me. Perhaps I am not a good person. Perhaps I will go to some fiery, Judeo-Christian Hell because I don't worship the way others do. However, I believe that Mark Twain once summed up my thoughts on that score rather nicely: "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."
Until the time when I will know for certain, which I hope will not come for a long while yet, I will believe in my Goddess and my Green Man, and care for my alter, and respect the rights of everyone else to do the same—in peace, in private, and without contention, because what we believe is as intrinsic as the color of our skin, and just as precious.