Dealing with Religious Jerks

(Version 3.0)

A Review of Antagonists in the Church:
How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict
by Kenneth C. Haugk

Copyright © 1995, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

If you are a Neopagan leader, community organizer, online forum moderator, or just someone bewildered by the astonishingly destructive behavior that people in our overlapping subcultures can inflict upon one another — run, do not walk, to your nearest Christian bookstore (yes, that’s what I said) and buy this book!

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict is a paperback from Augsburg Fortress Pub. (at 426 S. Fifth St., Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440, for those of you who prefer mail order), a company that specializes in training and educational materials for (mostly Liberal Protestant) clergy. It will be the best $13 you have spent in a long time (less if you use my Amazon link above).

Haugk discusses in detail the motivations, styles, and attack procedures of the people he calls “antagonists:”

“Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of nonsubstantial evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.”

As Haugk presented case study after case study of destructive individuals attacking pastors, chairpersons, and lay leaders in various churches, name after Neopagan name flashed through my mind. His listing of “red flags” to watch out for and his stories of failed coping strategies caused me to have one embarassing “ah ha!” experience after another, as I finally began to understand various conflicts I had witnessed and/or participated in over the years. At long last, I began to comprehend Neopagan politics…

The author is emphatically Christian and the Bible is quoted frequently. Nonetheless, Christian theology is actually irrelevant to the case histories and to most of the suggested defense (and better yet, prevention) tactics he discusses. I suspect that most people reading this review have seen the amazing swathes of destruction that some have caused in our own as well as many non-Christian communities — with this book a person of any or no faith will be able to stop such destruction before it gets out of hand.

Haugk is very careful to distinguish “antagonism” from normal criticism and creative conflict, and wisely warns the reader against seeing antagonists in every situation where disagreement occurs. This is not, however, a text on conflict resolution or consensus decision making (quite a few other works cover those topics) but a survival handbook for protecting yourself and your group from “wolves in sheep’s clothing” — those who appear outwardly pious (or in our community, “politically correct”) but who are actually far more interested in their own egos and power (“over” others, as Starhawk would put it) than they are in the welfare of the groups they (dys)function in. Offensive as the Christian imagery of good people as sheep may be, the wolf analogy is quite apt and recalls the ancient European warriors called “werewolves” who, like berserkers, savaged both friend and foe.

If I had read this book 30 years ago, many, many mistakes might have been avoided and Neopagan Druidism would be much further along in its evolution. In fact, if this book have been read by most of our “old timers” three decades ago, our community would be easily ten or twenty times its current size and far more effective at influencing the mainstream death culture. Tens of thousands of lives — and species — might have been saved and the environmental crisis significantly slowed down. Instead, we spent literally millions of hours fighting unending battles with antagonists inside our own community who never intended to “fight fair” because what they really wanted was the attention we gave them and the joy of destruction for its own sake.

Haugk has also authored, with R. Scott Perry, a Study Guide to go with the main book. This $5 workbook contains role playing exercises to help the leadership circles of your religious group to learn to practice handling antagonist personalities, and I received good reports from groups using them. Best of all, I’ve learned that the mere purchase of these books by Neopagan boards of directors has been sufficient to cause several antagonists to immediately leave those groups in a Huff (that’s a small German sports car).

I’d like to see these books become required reading for every Neopagan leadership training system in the English speaking world. I strongly urge my fellow elders in the community to get these books and study them carefully. If Haugk’s principles and practices are applied judiciously, in ways congruent to our own beliefs, this Christian author will have bestowed a major blessing upon all of Pagandom. Won’t he be surprised?

Since I began promoting this book five years ago, I’ve noticed an unhappy side-effect that I suppose I should have expected: the use of the term “antagonist” as a weapon to silence internal and external opposition. The only solution to that is to make sure that everyone in a given situation is familiar with Haugk’s precise definition (given above) and that evidence supporting such name-calling is clear. Just because someone is a pain in the rear, or refuses to shut up and go away, does not mean that she or he is an antagonist.

Related to the antagonist phenomenon are the “witch wars” (so called because Wiccans were usually the individuals or groups involved in the early years) that occasionally sweep through parts of the Neopagan community. These can result in the destruction of groups and individuals, often with valuable leaders resigning and dropping out of the community, leaving bad feelings lasting for decades among those involved. I think the term “witch wars” has been severely overused and that connecting it to the antagonist concept is not always an honest or accurate process.

I have no doubt that some witch wars are caused by antagonists, sometimes with antagonists on both sides competing to see who can be the most destructive, but others are the result of legitimate ethical and moral conflicts between individuals and groups — conflicts which need to be fought, honestly and wisely. Tossing the word “antagonist” into the middle of such community thrashing out of standards and expectations may be less than helpful (or honest).

Speaking of honesty, a number of people in our community have begun writing modified versions of Haugk and Perry’s material, removing the Christian theology and replacing it with Pagan concepts. As a Neopagan I approve, for we need training and study tools that reflect the specific needs and characteristics of our faith community. As an author, however, I am most uncomfortable with what can only be called “plagiarism,” especially since it is being done to living authors in violation of not just their copyrights but their religious beliefs as well. It may be obvious to us, as I mentioned above, that the Christian content of their work is fairly irrelevant to most of the principles and tactics discussed in their work, but they may feel quite differently.

So I would ask my colleagues who are modifying Haugk and Perry’s hard work for specifically Neopagan groups to include all the original copyright notices and to insist that modified versions be purchased only by people who have or will purchase copies of the source book and study guide. They are cheap enough that there are no excuses for ripping off two men who have given us such valuable tools.

Copyright © 1995, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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