Some still put faith in gods of the past

This year, Andrea Berman is watching the Olympics for the first time in her life. But she doesn't care who jumps the highest, runs the farthest or swims the fastest. She is watching the games--being held this year in Greece, their ancestral home--for any mention of Zeus, Athena or Apollo.

"I will watch it to see if anything even remotely resembles anything I would know as an ancient ritual and tradition," Berman said. "But I kind of have mixed feelings. On one hand it will be great to see ancient traditions represented. But on the other hand, I know what the country of Greece thinks of our religion, and people there who want to do this do not have the religious freedom to do it."

"This" is worship of the Greek gods.

Berman is a Hellenic reconstructionist--a practitioner of the religion of ancient Greece. A spare bedroom in her Boston-area apartment is decorated as a temple room with statues of Apollo, Pan, Artemis, Dionysus and Eros. She knows the original Olympics were not just a massive sportsfest, but a religious rite central to the worship of Zeus, chief among the Greek gods.

Reconstructionists are a group of neo-pagans--people who look to pre-Christian cultures for their faith, different branches of which worship the gods of ancient Norse, Roman, Egyptian and Druid peoples. And while scholars say their numbers are only a fraction of the neo-pagan community, they also say they are a vibrant illustration of the rejection of traditional religion in the United States.

And, in a curious boomerang effect, they are part of a movement away from the more eclectic forms of neo-paganism, like Wicca, taken up in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Reconstructionist groups seem to be kind of in the middle," said Sean McCloud, a professor of religion and modern culture at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. "On the one hand, they want to embrace a coherent religion where they are not making things up. On the other hand, it is not the religion of their parents."

That is certainly true of Berman, a 26-year-old Web developer who was raised in a non-religious home by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. As a young teenager, she practiced Wicca. By college, she was into Celtic spirituality but moved to the Greek gods literally overnight when, she recalled, a god appeared to her in a dream and said, "I am Apollo. You belong to me."

No one knows exactly how many neo-pagan reconstructionists there are. There is no formal membership, no centralized authority like a church or a seminary, though several groups run clergy training programs.

But Helen Berger, a religion sociologist and author of "Voices From the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States," estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 neo-pagans in this country. Reconstructionists, she said, are a sliver of the whole picture.

Because their numbers are so small, most reconstructionists are sole practitioners, conducting rituals, ceremonies and study on their own. Because of their isolation, and because many are young enough to have been raised with computers, the Internet serves as a pipeline to the broader reconstructionist community. Web sites and chat rooms are devoted to each of the reconstructionist faiths, outlining the customary worship of the gods, the origins of festivals and the proper preparation of rituals.

Jennifer Guimaraes, a 22-year-old Las Vegas homemaker and mother, says the Internet is vital to her worship of the Greek gods. She and her boyfriend, also a Hellenic reconstructionist, founded Thiasos Dionysos, an online discussion group dedicated to the Greek god of wine and agriculture. The group has about 60 regular participants.

Guimaraes, who came to the Greek gods after a period practicing Wicca, says tapping into the ancient rituals brings a sense of authenticity she has not found in other religions.