Words Need Meanings

In 2006 the International Astronomical Union clarified the definition of the word “planet” for the first time. Scientists do this all the time. You might even say that one of the main tasks in science is to define words. Once you have come up with a word for something and a definition of that word, you have made a classification. And classifying things is how we organize knowledge.

To my surprise, there was a huge public outcry. You see, the new, much more precise definition of “planet” now included Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but left out the “ninth planet” Pluto.

Many of the hysterics seemed incredibly silly to scientists. “But there have always been nine planets!” Um, no, Pluto was only discovered in 1930. Others acted like it was some sort of insult to Pluto, as if a chunk rock millions of miles away from us cares what some monkeys on the third rock from the sun calls it. OK, so maybe “dwarf planet” implies it’s not as good as a “true planet”, but come on, compared to the other planets, it’s tiny. But if you must, you can also call it a Kuiper Belt Object. Maybe that sounds cooler.

And if Pluto is a planet, then so is Eris, Haumea, Makemake, and Sedna. If you make Pluto a planet, then the word “planet” is a much vaguer term, and includes many more objects in our solar system than just nine. I mean, where do you stop? Are asteroids and comets also planets? They orbit the sun too. Ceres is an asteroid big enough to be rounded by its own gravity, and it’s between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was discovered back in 1801, but was never included in the “planets.” Why not?

Scientists don’t like vague terms. We like words to have precise definitions. Calling the eight planets something different than the Kuiper Belt objects and calling the asteroid belt something else conveys information. It lets you know that those categories of objects have properties that they share with objects in the same categories but not with objects in other categories.

Now, whenever you categorize something, you are also generalizing. The planets are still all unique. Calling them all the same thing doesn’t imply they are identical. It just means they share some things in common. Naming things and categorizing things has limitations, but if we didn’t attach labels to things, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. We need the name “planet” to mean something, or else the word is useless.

Scientists understand this, because labeling things is such a big part of our job. The controversy of “demoting” Pluto showed us that the general public doesn’t understand how this works. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too annoyed that the pagan community doesn’t understand how words work either, but it still annoys me anyway.

Ever since I first became a pagan 15 years or so ago, it’s annoyed me that people can’t even decide what the word “pagan” means. If you’re going to call yourself something, it would seem to me that it’s pretty important to know what that label means, but to so many pagans, it seems like the word “pagan” can mean pretty much anything. Calling yourself a “pagan” then conveys absolutely no information whatsoever.

Now, the meanings of words can evolve over time. In fact, language being an aspect of culture, they evolve in a way that’s similar enough to how living organisms evolve that Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe how culture evolves to go along with “gene” which is how living things evolve. Take the word “planet” for example. It originally meant “wanderer” and referred to the shiny dots in the sky that moved in a way that was different from the other shiny dots in the sky which were called “stars”. Originally there were five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This all made sense to people who only had their naked eyes to observe the universe.

Once we got telescopes, everything changed. We realized that the definition we had for “planet” was no longer adequate and had to be updated. Now a planet was a thing that orbited the sun, the Earth was one of them, and the sun was actually one of the stars. Then we found three more things that orbited the sun: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

Reclassifying Pluto was just the next step in the evolution of the word “planet” as we get more and more information about the solar system.

Now, I realize that’s a bit simpler, because the planets never changed, it’s just our understanding of the planets that change. With words that have to do with cultural phenomena, sometimes the culture itself does change, and then the words have to change. So let’s look at the word “pagan”. Originally it meant “country dweller,” but pretty soon it was being used to distinguish between people who still worshiped the old gods (who were mostly rural) and people who worshiped the new god (who were mostly urban). Before Christianity came along, everyone just worshiped “the gods” and didn’t really need to be classified. Christianity is what made a distinction between their one “true god,” and all those other “false gods,” and “pagans” were worshipping the false gods, and being a pagan was bad.

As Christianity spread, the Christians converted those bad, evil “pagans” worshiping the false gods to the religion of the True God. From the Roman Empire they spread to the rest of Europe, and then to the Americas and Africa and Australia. (Islam is just about identical in its attitude about other religions and just grabbed some different areas of the world, getting more of the Middle East and Asia and parts of Africa.)

So for a very, very long time, the word “pagan” has meant “a person who worships gods other than the One God of Abrahamic monotheism.” As Christianity and Islam spread, it became a very useful word to describe people who hadn’t yet been converted. It didn’t mean that all those people were exactly the same, but a word to categorize them was useful because they were all in a similar situation: targeted for conversion by monotheism.

By the twentieth century, monotheism had come to dominate the world. There were only a few countries left where the original polytheistic religions are still prominent, such as India and Japan. There were pockets of indigenous religion still trying to hang on despite monotheistic domination, like among the Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, some areas of Africa and Asia. In Europe and the Middle East, the traditions of worshiping the old gods and mostly vanished.

But then some of those Europeans and people of European descent started to think maybe we should go back to worshiping the old gods. And it made perfect sense for them to call themselves “pagans” just like the people back in the old days who hadn’t yet converted to Christianity were called. And yes, I understand that we’re trying to reconstruct a broken tradition, so of course it’s not going to be exactly the same as it would have been if the tradition hadn’t been broken. I always thought that Isaac Bonewits’s terminology of paleo-pagan, meso-pagan, and neo-pagan made a lot of sense. Those terms aren’t used much anymore, but I think those three categories still make sense: indigenous traditions that were never broken, traditions that came from a syncretism of indigenous traditions and monotheism, and revivals of indigenous traditions that were broken.

I suppose you could say that “pagan” only applies to European traditions, or maybe even Mediterranean traditions, since it’s a Latin word. I know that some Native Americans, Hindus, etc. don’t like to be called “pagan” because they see it as a European thing, and they don’t want Europeans defining them. And that’s fair, but if you do that, I think you’d still need a word that is more general and encompasses all those old religions to set them apart from the new religions of the Abrahamic god.

OK, then comes the confusion. Worshiping gods other than the Abrahamic God was considered to be a bad thing ever since monotheism took control. It’s “idolatry” and it’s a sin. It’s bad and naughty and you shouldn’t do it. It’s still that way today. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a more tolerant area, but I live in Texas, so I still live a life where my religion is seen by most of my neighbors as being a horrible sin that is very, very bad for society. Worshiping false gods is Devil worship!

And I think that’s maybe where people got the idea that “pagan” could mean anything we want. More specifically, it seems to me like a lot of people think paganism is all about doing things that Christianity considers to be sins. The occult, witchcraft, polyamory, homosexuality (shoot, sexually in general), nudity, doing drugs, anti-Capitalism, environmentalism, atheism, vegetarianism, all these things get “dumped” into paganism because they’re things mainstream Christianity rejects.

None of that stuff, in my opinion, makes you a pagan. Sure, that stuff isn’t prohibited in paganism, but I really don’t think that the word “pagan” should mean “everything that Christianity or mainstream culture rejects.”  Widening the definition of pagan this way actually makes the situation much more complicated. Suddenly it’s not enough to worship pre-Christian gods anymore, being a pagan means conforming to a certain stereotype.

Paganism is a type of religion. Paganism is the worship of those other gods that Abraham’s god told him not to worship. It’s a nice, simple definition. It includes a lot of different people, but it also excludes some people. I don’t think that makes it “intolerant.” If I say paganism actually means something, and that means some people don’t fit the definition, I don’t automatically hate people who don’t fit the definition. It also means that a lot of people fit the definition that I’m not going to like or get along with or agree with on anything else.

I just think that the word “pagan” needs to mean something, so that when I show up to a pagan event or get on a pagan website, I know what to expect, and I’d like to expect something having to do with the Old Religion(s). Unfortunately it seems like what I should really expect are a bunch of people who see themselves as being rebellious or non-mainstream, but think actually worshiping those old gods is dumb.

Where is an idolater supposed to go then? Everyone else in society thinks worshiping the old gods is dumb too! (At best they think it’s dumb; at worst they think it’s evil.) Monotheists think worshiping any gods besides their one is bad, and atheists think worshiping any gods is bad.

Having to constantly clarify what being a pagan even means seems like a distraction from the work of trying to help rebuild The Old Religion(s), which is the whole reason why I call myself a pagan. It’s what makes paganism distinct from other counter-cultural movements. Pagans aren’t just generic weirdos, Pagans are a specific type of weirdo!

Do you have to be a freak to be a Pagan?

This is an old post, in internet-time at least, and I intended to comment on it sooner, but then decided not to, but then I keep thinking about it.

One of the first posts on the Gods and Radicals blog was “Respectability Politics: Act Like The System so that The System Will Listen?” That spawned a lot of “Yeah! Let your freak flag fly! We don’t need to be respectable!” type responses.

This is a problem that I’ve run into before in Pagan circles, so I’m sure it will come up again.

Shucks, it’s a problem I ran into in middle school! In my middle school, the “cool kids” were the freaks. They did drugs, rode skateboards, dressed like Kurt Cobain, listened to grunge music (though some of them were “goths” instead and listened Korn and Marilyn Manson while wearing black trench coats), had tattoos and piercings, had sex, made bad grades, and got in trouble at school a lot.

I didn’t fit in with them because I made straight A’s and was in honors and AP classes, and never got in trouble at school.

I also didn’t fit in with any of the kids in my honors classes because I dressed like Kurt Cobain and listened to grunge music and wasn’t a Christian. That last one was especially important. I remember getting into a debate in my AP Government class where I was the only one in the whole class who thought it was wrong to have prayer in school. So forget about making friends with any of those people.

In middle and high school I literally didn’t have any friends. I was the only kid in the entire cafeteria to eat lunch alone in the back. I couldn’t sit at any of the tables because I didn’t fit in with any of the cliques. I was too freaky to be respectable and too respectable to be freaky.

I thought that adults grew out of that middle school mentality, but sometimes when I see what goes on in the Pagan Community, it looks like a lot of people don’t. Being Pagan now is rolled into the whole package of being one of the freaky, rebellious, “cool kids”. If you have a college degree (in something other than a liberal art) and a “respectable” career and own a home in the suburbs and are married, you’re a sellout just like those kids in middle school who made straight A’s and never got in trouble.

One thing that really bothers me is when people conflate “freak” and “Pagan” so much that it seems like being a freak is more important than believing in and worshiping the gods. I know a lot of people who go to Burning Man, and they seem to think that’s some kind of Pagan event. Yes, there’s overlap between the communities, but going to Burning Man doesn’t make you pagan. Being polyamorous doesn’t make you pagan. Being an artist doesn’t make you pagan. Having a bunch of tattoos doesn’t make you pagan. I’m not saying it disqualifies you either, but most of the freaks I know aren’t pagans in any sense of the word, besides being freaks.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a freak. I just think that being a freak and being a pagan are two different things that don’t necessarily always have to go together.

It seems like a similar thing goes on in the gay community. When gay marriage became legal, my Facebook was filled with people angry that people are happy about it, because marriage itself is an oppressive institution, and gay people shouldn’t try to be “respectable” now and get married. Now there are legal battles going on about whether gay people can adopt children, and I’m sure the same thing will happen, because parenting is too mainstream as well.

You know, not all gay men look like Mr. Slave or Big Gay Al from South Park. My husband’s brother is gay, and has been with his husband for something like 20 years, and when they re-legalized gay marriage in California where they live, they got legally married. My husband and I went to the courthouse with them when they got married along with several other same-sex couples. It was nice. Lots of happy people around.

You would never be able to tell either of my brother-in-laws are gay just by looking at them. They just look like normal, middle-aged men. Does that make them any less gay? You’d think that two men living together and having sex with each would be Gay Enough.

I guess what really strikes me as ironic is that when you’re already a member of a marginalized community, the community itself gets all upset if you don’t conform to the stereotype that mainstream society has about your community. That doesn’t seem helpful to me. That post from Gods and Radicals has a picture of the cover of The Truth about Witchcraft Today with a picture of a woman in a business suit on the cover. The purpose of that cover is to show that even a woman who wears a business suit can be a witch. What’s the problem with that? Do Wiccans really need to wear goth makeup and crystals all the time?

I’ve already been an outsider my whole life. Unlike most pagans, I was never a Christian to begin with. I could always feel the gods and spirits around, even before I knew what they were. I already feel like I’m enough of a weirdo without forcing myself to do things I’m not interested in doing just because that’s stereotype that pagans are supposed to conform to.

When I discovered paganism in college, I thought at last I have found a community I can belong to, but so often it turns out to be just like trying to sit with the “cool kids” at lunch who looked down on me for taking honors classes instead of skipping school, even if the kids in honors classes also hated me for being in league with Satan.

And now I’m afraid that if I get any comments on this, it will probably be from people who are angry at me for saying that pagans can’t be freaks and should be more respectable. That’s not what I mean. I don’t think pagans have to be “respectable” either. Jason was totally right that mainstream society is never going to respect us no matter what we do. I’ve known that since second or third grade.

What I wonder about is if pagans will ever get to the point where we respect each other and quit with the constant, “Are you pagan enough?” bickering.

It doesn’t help that paganism is often defined by what it’s not rather than what it is, so the question of “Are you pagan enough?” is difficult when “pagan” doesn’t have a precise definition. To a lot of people it seems to mean “Not Christian.” Maybe since Christianity is conflated with conservative, traditional, hetero-normative values, that anyone who doesn’t fit into that mold is pushed into Paganism. So then being pagan is conflated with being everything that Christianity is not, so if you’re not freaky enough, then you’re not pagan enough.

You know, Jesus wasn’t exactly a conservative, mainstream kind of guy and probably wouldn’t get along well with a lot of the people calling themselves Christians now. Meanwhile, pagan pantheons have gods like Zeus and Tyr right alongside gods like Dionysus and Loki.

Oh well, by now I’m pretty used to eating lunch by myself.

Why I Call Myself a Heathen But Maybe Shouldn’t

Look through my backlog of unread blog posts here on my week off before summer session starts, I found these:

Why I Am Not a Heathen (Though I Kind of Wish That I Could Be) and Why I Am Not A Heathen 2: What Can You Do?

This is an issue I struggle with a lot myself too. I’ve taken the, “I’ll just call myself a Heathen anyway” approach right now, but I may change my mind in the future. Let me look at some of the points Pagan Church Lady brings up:

Using the Havamal as a basis of your morality

I think the Havamal is cool. Hey, I’m an Odin’s woman, so I have to, right? But I do think that people that use the Havamal as some kind of scripture are doing that because of Christian baggage. Just like the various book of the Bible, the Poetic Edda, including the Havamal, need to be taken in the proper context. The Havamal is a poem written in a particular time period from a particular point of view. We need to remember that we don’t live in the Viking Age anymore. We also need to remember our gods, unlike the Christian God, never claimed to be perfect, and that includes Odin, and we don’t actually have to obey or listen to every single thing he says.

I know some folks might disagree with me on that last point, but I really think there’s nothing wrong with thinking a god is wrong about some things. Assuming the gods are perfect and mindlessly obeying them is a monotheistic thing. If there are some misogynist things in the Havamal, keep in mind that this was written down by a misogynist culture, and hopefully either the humans writing it down misunderstood what Odin meant, or Odin himself has changed his mind since then.

Lore vs. UPG

I think “The Lore” is just the “UPG” of people who lived a long time ago. It’s useful to know about, but if you assume that the gods are real, then it would make sense that people would learn more about them over time. It’s also possible that the gods themselves change over time, and therefore we need to update our knowledge of them (see above about Odin and misogyny). Most Heathens I’ve met seem OK with some ideas that have become basically modern lore, like how Thor likes coffee or Freya likes chocolate, offerings they would never have received back in Viking times. They just want to make sure people know what is modern and what is ancient.

“UPG” does have some problems. It especially troubles me when various people’s UPG’s directly contradict each other (maybe that’s a leftover from my atheist days). But without UPG all we have is a religion from a thousand years ago frozen in amber like that mosquito from Jurassic Park.

Hating on the Wiccans

This seems to not be as bad as it used to be. Around these parts, Heathens have a big presence at Pagan Pride Day and at pagan festivals. There seem to be more and more Heathens who really don’t mind being included under the neopagan umbrella, and I haven’t heard “Wiccatru” thrown around as an insult for a long time.

Modern Heathens ARE Neopagans under Issac Bonewits’s definition, and I think it’s a good definition. I like words to have precise definitions. You can’t say you’re not a neopagan just because you don’t like some things that some neopagans do.

It kind of reminds me of those Christians who love to hate on Muslims, even though as far as I can tell, Christianity and Islam are extremely close. They’re probably closer to each other than they are to any other religions. That seems to just make them hate each other more.

Is this a Religion or a Getting Drunk and Dressing Up Like Vikings Party?

Oh my gosh, I could write a whole rant about this! I have met a bunch of Viking wannabes at various events, and it does really annoy me. SCA is not a religion. Hitting your friends with styrofoam swords is not a religion. It’s so silly, and is why a lot of outsiders don’t take us seriously.

It’s the Heathen version of Wiccans who think Wicca is all about dressing up in goth clothes and pretending to be spooky Halloween witches. I think people who do things like this will eventually get bored and go on to the next hobby, and hopefully leave us serious people behind.

You Need a Community

It’s totally unrealistic to expect all Heathens to be a member of a kindred to be legit Heathens. There just aren’t enough communities around for all Heathens to find one they click well with. And some people are just more social than others. But I’ve never heard anyone saying you can’t be a solitary Heathen, just that isn’t not as good as being in a community. And that may be true. I have no idea since I’ve never been in a kindred before, and don’t see that happening any time in the near future either.

I know for sure I’d rather be a solitary than be in a kindred that I don’t fit in well with.

Racist Bullshit

I’ve already written whole posts about this, where I compared Folkish Heathenry to Young Earth Creationism. I still think it’s a very good comparison. Both are folks basing their religion around a scientifically falsified idea. That’s just never a good thing to do.

Now I’m going to add a couple of other things Pagan Church Lady didn’t mention that also bother me:

You have to be a Republican (or at least a Libertarian) to be a Heathen

I still run into this a lot. I started on this path when the Iraq War started those many, many years ago, and was told if you are a Heathen, and especially if you follow Odin, you have to be in favor of going to war with Iraq. I thought the war was a terrible idea from the beginning, and the idea that Odin was in favor of such a terrible idea made me try to get away from him.

Now that pretty much everyone knows that I WAS RIGHT TOLD YOU SO, being a Libertarian has come into fashion, so now they can be against the war (but were silent back when I TRIED TO WARN YOU PEOPLE), but still be against social security, medicare, environmental regulations, SNAP and WIC, the Civil Rights Act, public schools, etc. And then of course in order to be a good Heathen, you have to agree with that. That’s the part that bothers me.

I still don’t understand why I’m disqualified as being a Heathen if I vote Democrat. Just look at the politics of Sweden or Norway. Democrats are conservative by their standards. (They are by my standards too, but they’re kind of the best we’ve got here.)

These folks are the Heathen version of “if you are Christian, then you have to be against gay marriage and abortion.” Lots of Christians are OK with gay marriage and abortion, and now I know how they feel. Liberal Christians exist. Liberal Heathens also exist.

We Aren’t a Nature-Based Religion

I named my blog “Heathen Naturalist” to piss these people off. I’ve already written a post about how I think that viewing nature as sacred and being a polytheist go hand-in-hand, and how I think “worshiping the gods and NOT nature” is a monotheistic thing. I don’t think our ancestors had that sharp division, and I think the main reason Heathens go on and on about this is because they want to distance themselves from those icky Wiccan hippies.

I know a lot more about nature than most Wiccans do. Our pre-Christian ancestors lived completely immersed in Nature, and I think a lot of our modern problems have come from us trying to separate ourselves from Nature. Part of that separation is from the monotheistic idea that God gave us dominion over Nature. I don’t know of anything in Heathen lore that says humans are the most important thing in the universe like it says in Judeo-Christian lore.

So Am I A Heathen Or Not?

I think I have more spiritual beliefs in common with Native Americans, the African Diaspora, and Shinto than I do with Southern Baptists, except that I’m white and a cultural outsider to those communities. What is a white animist and polytheist supposed to do? The most sensible thing to do seemed to be to worship deities from pre-Christian Europe.

However, a lot of Heathens I’ve met seem to be Southern Baptists who just substituted Odin for Jesus and the Poetic Edda for the Bible. It’s especially noticeable to me since I was never a Christian to begin with. Christian-like thought patterns like a huge emphasis on scripture and a separation of the divine from nature just don’t make sense to me.

There are plenty of Christians who aren’t Southern Baptists (or Quiverful, or Young Earth Creationists, or Dominionists), and they probably feel a similar way as I do. Some of them quit calling themselves Christians entirely and go be quasi-Christian Unitarian Universalists or Quakers or something like that. Others keep calling themselves Christians and just try to be an example of how Not All Christians Are Like That. That’s basically the situation I’m in with Heathenry.

Well anyways, that’s my little rant about that. I’ve been struggling with this question for the entire time I’ve even known that Heathenry existed, so I doubt it will go away soon. Sometimes I really do think I should just give up the Heathen thing entirely, when it seems like I’m the only Heathen in the world who does it the way I do it.

Hospitality for Heathens

John Beckett recently posted Hospitality for Humans about how to make people feel welcome at public rituals and events. Good timing, since I’m about to do my first ritual with my Meetup.

Hospitality is one of the Nine Noble Virtues, but it seems like a lot of Heathens don’t have the same idea of what it means that I do. I am reminded of my first and only time I tried to attend a public Asatru event.

It was some time around 2006 or so. I had recently graduated from college with my Bachelor’s degree and was still living with my college roommates in Austin. I was participating on an online forum for the Texas Asatru League, and they had posted about an event they were going to host over the weekend at a state park (if I remember correctly) that was about a two hour drive away. I decided to be daring and register for it. They said they were going to do an Odin Blot there, and it sounded like it would be really cool to do a ritual to my patron god with a bunch of like-minded folks.

I showed up around sundown, and went to the main dining hall. Inside, people were just starting to gather around a table. A woman was making corn tortillas from scratch in a tortilla press and frying them in a cast iron skillet on the stove. I came in and sat at the table, and nobody offered me food or drink. Instead, people gathered around and stared at me. I tried to politely introduce myself, and questions started. Who are you? Are you here alone? How did you hear about this event? Why did you decide to come here? Where are you from?

When I told them I was from Austin, one guy said, “Oh yeah, that’s where all the Communists are!” He then added, “but I’m sure you’re not like that.”

At this point I was in a cold sweat and my heart was pounding.

As soon as there was a break in the interrogation, I mean conversation, I excused myself, saying I needed to get something out of my car.

Instead, I jumped in my car and sped away.

I’ve never gone to another Asatru event again.

Keep in mind, this event was posted publicly on this forum that anyone could join. Anyone could register. I thought that event was open to the public. I had no trouble registering for it despite not personally knowing anyone who was going. I thought it would be an opportunity to meet some new friends, especially since I don’t have any Heathen friends.

I’m not sure if the Texas Asatru League still exists. I never got on their online forum again.

Say what you will about Wiccans, but I’ve never been treated that way at Wiccan gatherings. They can be the opposite, hugging me when I didn’t signal that I was OK with that and otherwise being a bit TOO touchy-feely with me, but at least they don’t call me a Communist just for living in Austin and act like I don’t belong there.

My Attempt at Community Building Reaches an Impasse

Today is the second anniversary of the Pagan and Heathen Meetup I started, and the good news is it seems to finally be reaching a critical mass where I actually have a “core” group of people showing up more than once, instead of a constantly revolving door of people who only show up once and I never see them again.

We meet the second Friday of the month in a local coffee shop. At our last meeting we had over a dozen people, so we had to push together three tables in there to make enough room. We had some new people, but for once it looked like we had more people who had been there before than newbies. We didn’t have to spend most of our time on introductions. I ended up sitting next to a guy who has been to a lot of meetings before, and he asked me the dreaded question, “Where do you think this group should go from here?”

I couldn’t really answer that question. Of course, when I first started the Meetup I had ideas, but then I actually started the Meetup and discovered a lot of those ideas probably weren’t realistic. I decided to give it at least a year, and the first year I lowered my goals down to, “just have people show up,” and that was pretty much it.

But now people are actually showing up and starting to ask, “Well, hanging out at a coffee shop socializing is fun, but what else have you got?” They’re starting to mention words like “structure” and “rituals” and “workshops”.

 

Well, there are some obstacles that we have to overcome first. And the biggest one seems to be not having a good place to meet to do anything else other than socialize.

The coffee shop where we meet is loud and sometimes crowded. They usually have music playing that we have to raise our voices to be heard over (last night seemed to be a compilation of all the hits of the 80’s). Since we’re near a university, if school is in session there are a lot of college students there hanging out. They have some outdoor seating which can be quieter because of lack of music, but last night it was too chilly for people to want to sit out there. When the weather is nice, outside is often just as crowded as inside.

The only other place we’ve ever met is a local park. Last Ostara I posted a potluck picnic there, and only one (kinda creepy) guy showed up. That wasn’t fun at all. However, this past Imbolc, I scheduled a hike at that same park, and six of my regulars showed up, and we had a good time. We just hiked, though. We didn’t do anything especially pagan-ish except when one of the members left an apple as an offering for the land spirits. That hike was mostly to scope out the place to see if there were any places we could go where it would be private enough to have a full-blown ritual at a later time.

We have some beautiful parks here, but just like the coffee shop, there’s no privacy. On the Imbolc hike I tried leading them to this place I thought was pretty remote, and we still passed by a few joggers out on the trails. It might depend on when you go, but I have a full time job, like many of my members, so the only meeting times that would work for me are evenings and weekends, which is when everyone else is at the parks too.

I’ll probably try again this year to do an Ostara picnic and see if more people show up, but that brings me to another problem with meeting at parks. This is Texas. From Beltane to the Autumn Equinox, it’s just too hot for anyone to want to be outside much. Ostara is pretty much our last chance to be outside in nice weather. It’s cooler at night, and it would be nice to do some full moon rituals out there, but our parks have a sunset curfew, so if the cops see cars parked in the parking lot, they’ll go in and kick us out.

When I was a member of my college student pagan group, we got to reserve a classroom in the evening all to ourselves. Then we could have privacy indoors to do rituals or discussions. But now as adults with jobs and families and so on, there just isn’t anywhere like that.

 

This is what I think about whenever the subject of pagan temples comes up. This would be so much easier if we had a building, or even just a room, that we could meet in where we could close the door and not have college students or joggers showing up and wondering what’s going on over there. It would be doubly awesome if it was our building, where we could leave stuff there permanently.

Critics of the idea say that historically temples weren’t meeting spaces for humans anyway, but only homes for the gods, that the traditional place of worship for polytheists is the home, and that what we’re really talking about are “community centers” not temples (as if there’s something wrong with a community center), and even that we’re really trying to re-create a Protestant Christian churchgoing experience out of some kind of nostalgia (um, I should remind you that I’ve never been a Christian in my life).

Look, times are different now. There aren’t any “wild places” you can go and be completely isolated. My choices for “wild places” are city parks or state parks that are open to the general public and full of joggers and people walking their dogs.

As for using my home, I have considered that, but given the occasional creepy dude that shows up to our Meetups, I really don’t feel like posting my home address on the internet for everyone to see (or even just the membership to see). I know some Meetup organizers do that, and that’s their choice, but I’d like people to respect my choice to keep my home secure and private and not open to the general public.

Maybe that stuff worked out thousands of years ago, when people lived in small villages and everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was pagan, and there actually was true “wilderness” left out there, but “doing it the way our ancestors did” just doesn’t work today.

Another option I’ve considered is to just privately invite certain members that seem trustworthy or at least not creepy to my home for rituals, but then we can’t have newbies participate, and I think they should be able to show up and see what a pagan ritual really is all about. Also, the people I didn’t invite would probably find out about it eventually, and might get pissed off and feel left out, like we’re forming some kind of clique.

In a nearby city, their pagan Meetup meets in the back room of a metaphysical store. That seems to be a good place, but we don’t have anything like that here. John Beckett’s group meets at a UU Church, but the UU church in my town doesn’t have their own building either and borrows a Christian church.

Of course, since I’m barely sustaining a Meetup group as it is, we really don’t have a group that would be dedicated enough to create an actual pagan temple/community center here, but I think that results in a kind of chicken-and-egg thing, because since we don’t have a good place to meet, it’s hard to build a dedicated group that can do more than just hang out at a coffee shop talking about the latest good movie we saw.

 

Anyway, that’s why I think modern temples are a good idea, but the reality still stands that there’s no way we’re going to have one here, so I’m still left with the question: What next for this group? I’m getting asked that more and more, and I still don’t have a good answer.

What We Need from Pagan Clergy

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

Personally, I think the distinction between mystics and everyone else is on a completely different axis than the distinction between clergy and laypeople. There are plenty of people who have mystical experiences who I wouldn’t consider to be clergy (like myself for example), and you can probably be a good priest without ever having mystical experiences (though they might help).

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

Yes, there are other things for priests to do, but those two rites are really, really important rites of passage that don’t occur in a person’s life very often, and when they do happen, it’s especially important to “get it right.” That’s where we laypeople really need a professional with a lot of experience handling these sorts of things. These rites are so important, such a primal need, that many atheists still have weddings and funerals.

And so far in my life, the pagan community has completely failed me in this regard. For example, when my husband and I got married, we got a liberal Christian minister to officiate even though neither of us are Christians and it wasn’t a Christian wedding. Why? Because of all the people we knew, he seemed to be the best man for the job, and that had nothing to do with which deity he worships.

Oh, when the local pagans found out that we were getting married, I had plenty of offers from people who wanted to officiate. But leading a ritual is a skill. It’s hard work to get it right. And frankly, I have been to some of the rituals some of these other self-proclaimed “priests” and “priestesses” have led, and they really weren’t very good. But I’d been to another wedding this Christian minister officated, and it was excellent, so I was confident he knew how to run a good ritual. His church is welcoming to GLBT folks, they believe in “creation spirituality” (not Creationism, but a type of nature-based Christianity), and the local ADF grove sometimes uses his church to hold events.

We wanted something that looked like a proper wedding, even if it wasn’t going to be Christian. We would have pagan guests there, but also Unitarian Universalists, atheists, and Christians. We needed something that would be pagan enough to stay true to ourselves, but not so strange as to freak out my husband’s elderly aunt. When we went to meet with the minister, he knew exactly what we meant! He seemed excited to be doing a wedding that wasn’t in a typical Protestant Christian style, and pulled out a notebook he had with scripts from lots of previous weddings he’d performed, including ones with pagan elements. We spent a couple of hours with him planning how we wanted the ritual to go, and it was the least stressful part of the whole wedding planning experience.

And that’s because he’s good at his job! He’s done non-traditional weddings before, he understood all of our concerns, and he understood what his role was in all this. He said when he performs rituals like this, he sees himself as ferryman steering the boat to the spirit world, while we’re the passengers. His job is to get us to our destination safely and back again, but he’s not the focus of the ritual, just the one who steers the boat.

This is something a lot of self-proclaimed “pagan clergy” DO NOT understand. When you lead a ritual, it’s not about you. If it’s a wedding, it’s about the people getting married. If it’s a funeral, it’s about the deceased and the mourners. If it’s a ritual in honor of a god, it’s about the god and the people trying to get in touch with the god’s presence. I actually can’t think of any type of ritual where the priest would be the center of attention rather than a guide.

But I’ve been to plenty of pagan rituals where it did seem to be mostly about the priest or priestess showing off how great they are. Months after my wedding, when the subject of gay marriage came up on Facebook, and people started saying things about how they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal since it’s just a legal contract, I found myself commenting about how important I think the marriage rite is, and how there’s a lot more to it than just signing a contract. Then this “high priestess” asked me, “If you think marriage is so important and meaningful, why did you have a Christian perform yours when neither of you are Christians?” I’m not sure what exactly she was getting at, but she was one of the people who offered to officiate, and I turned her down, so maybe she was still offended. My husband ended up jumping in saying we chose him because we already knew him, and since it was so important we wanted to make sure we chose someone who would do a good job.

When I got married, I didn’t want a ritual where people would show up in jeans and t-shirts, or topless, or in sarongs and bare feet, and I didn’t want the person leading the ritual to be reading off sheets of paper. Yes, our wedding had a couple of small mishaps, but the minister was skilled enough to not let those completely throw the whole thing off. And since a wedding is an important occasion, yes I requested that people dress nicely and not act like slobs, which made it a lot different than a lot of pagan rituals I’ve been to.

To me, marriage is more than just a legal contract. When you marry someone, you are entangling your thread of Wyrd with theirs. That’s why I liked doing the handfasting ritual where our arms were literally tied together with different colored chords (each chord represented one of our vows). Yes, there is a legal contract involved, but since I am a religious person, there is a spiritual component as well. We invoked the spirits of nature (it was an outdoor wedding) and the Ancestors (since weddings are important to them since we’re combining our family lines together), but didn’t name any specific gods. I figured ancestors and nature spirits were generic enough to not offend the Christians present (it’s not like there were any fundies, just some older, more traditional folks) while still keeping true to my own beliefs.

My husband and I both came away from our wedding very satisfied that we got a good ritual to mark such an important spiritual binding, and everything was done properly.

Contrast that with when my dad died. He didn’t get a funeral. He died in a hospice and was cremated immediately. His ashes were divided in thirds, and his brother got some, I got some, and my sister got some. He wanted to be scattered on Pikes Peak, but there was so much family turmoil after he died, that we certainly won’t do that all together like he suggested. I still have my portion, and am still planning to fulfill his request. I’m just not sure when I’ll get the chance. Maybe I can do it on the anniversary of his death.

But it still seems wrong to me that there was no funeral. I know that’s what he requested, but I still feel like something is missing. I felt like I need a ritual to mark something this important. Ideally there would be priests or shamans to perform some sort of funeral rite. Funeral rites are found in all cultures. You need something that not only helps the soul of the deceased get to the afterlife safely, but also allows the mourners to express how important this person was to them, and to honor their memory, and to help them find some kind of closure.

It felt like as soon as my dad died, he was more or less “disposed of” and it was time to move on with our lives right away, get that paperwork done, sign that death certificate, work out the will and split up the inheritance, pick up his ashes in a Ziplock bag in a cardboard box with his name printed on top.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I still feel like something’s missing. My mother-in-law kindly bought us a tree to plant in our yard by our ritual circle and sprinkle some of his ashes in the hole, which we did on Father’s Day. In my previous post I already talked about the Samhain ritual I did a couple of weeks ago to honor him.

But here’s the problem with that. In both those occasions, I basically had to be my own priestess. And that’s hard to do when you’re the one who’s so emotionally wrapped up in the occasion the ritual is for.

Doing your own devotions to your patron deities and spirits isn’t that difficult. Neither is doing your own seasonal holiday celebrations for Yule or Midsummer. But if you’re the one getting married, or you’re mourning the death of a person close to you, it’s hard to do those rituals all by yourself without help. It’s like trying to perform surgery on yourself. It’s easy to perform simple first aid on yourself, but if you need surgery, you want someone else to help, preferably a professional.

But I basically had to perform the rites all by myself. I’ve led rituals before, and I learned really quickly that when you’re leading a ritual, you really can’t get that emotionally involved in it yourself. You’re too busy making sure everyone else is OK. If you’re the one steering the boat, you have to concentrate on that, while everyone else gets to have the profound spiritual experiences.

So I’m left feeling like my dad didn’t get a proper sendoff. I was too upset about his death to do it properly myself, so nothing got done, because like with so many pagan things in my life lately, if I don’t do it, no one will.

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people.

We need more people we can trust to steer the boat while we’re too emotionally caught up in the journey to steer it ourselves. We need someone to safely get us to the other side and home again without crashing or capsizing us or getting us lost.

Paganism needs more people who are good at marrying and burying, and other rites of passage, so that I don’t have to call on a Christian to do it or it doesn’t get done. And yes, priests can be handy to celebrate seasonal holidays and do divination and oracular work, but that seems to already be fairly commonplace with pagans (though with varying levels of competence). I mean, I’ve done seasonal rituals and done rune readings for people myself, with quite satisfying results. That stuff is pretty entry-level as priestly functions go. If you mess up Yule, there’s always next Yule, but your dad only dies once.

We need priests who can take care of people’s spiritual needs when they’re getting married (a very stressful time, even if it is a happy occasion) or have had a death in the family, or are seriously ill, or having a baby, or in some other type of crisis. So called “priests” who hate people and only serve the gods can’t do that.

Being clergy is a job that requires skill and practice and experience. I just wish pagans had more people like that, instead of all these people calling themselves a “High Priestess” to mainly make themselves sound important, or people who blog about spending all their time with the gods while shunning humans. Because when something really important and life-changing is happening to you, those are not the kind of people you want to call for spiritual support.

How Samhain Went

October is over, and now we really enter the dark part of the year. All the activities for Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead are done, and I can reflect on how it all went. Samhain is the biggest holiday for Celtic and Celtic-inspired pagans, and since most pagans I know fall into that category, I participate (even though Yule is really the most important Heathen holiday). But more importantly, I think having a holiday to honor the Dead is a really good idea, especially this year, the year my father died.

This year’s Samhain season had its ups and downs, and unfortunately I’m left with some feelings of disappointment. Maybe it’s because this year’s Samhain was especially important to me, so I had a lot of anticipation.

I’m mentioned here before that I attend this semiannual pagan campout held for Beltane and Samhain each year. It’s a splinter group from a much larger pagan festival here in Central Texas, but I wasn’t involved in the schism. I’ve mainly been going to this one because it’s cheaper, quieter, and smaller than the big festival (which I have also been to a few times), and therefore usually more suitable to an introvert like me. This has been going on for a little over ten years now.

When this campout first started, there were a lot of activities, probably because people were trying to recreate the big festival. During the day there were crafts and workshops, and every night there was a bonfire. On some Beltanes there were unofficial handfastings, or at least re-dedication rituals for couples, but my favorite was always the Samhain ritual.

Some of the founding members would dress up as various death gods, and the rest of us would walk down a trail through the woods to the big pavilion, encountering the death gods along the way. At each step, one of them would have something to say to us. There was Odin, then Anubis, and finally when we got to the pavilion, we were welcomed to the Underworld by Hades and Persephone.

Then we’d partake in the Dumb Feast. People would bring dishes that reminded them of their Beloved Dead. An altar was set up with pictures of the deceased (including pets), and we’d say a few words about our loved ones, and then eat in silence. There was a small wooden coffin with pens and paper to write messages on. Then when people were done eating, the coffin was closed, and then carried in a procession to a funeral pyre set up in the main fire ring. Then it was burned, and we’d stand around in silence or say some more words about our loved ones. When the coffin was finally completely consumed by the flames, the rite was over, and we could relax and pull out the drums and have fun the rest of the night.

That’s how it used to be. Over the years, the ritual has shrunk. The woman who used to play Persephone moved away. She was one of my college friends, and when she graduated, she moved to Portland. When she left, the man who played Hades said he wouldn’t be doing it anymore without her, and that was the end of that aspect of the ritual. The man who played Anubis now acted as priest over the Dumb Feast along with his wife. They’d do a Wiccan ritual under the pavilion as priest and priestess calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Not my style of ritual, but at least it was a ritual.

Then the priestess got breast cancer, and last year her picture was on the altar for the dead. I had actually set up that altar myself and put a picture of our cat on it, and later when I passed by I noticed someone had added her picture. We had a dumb feast without much ritual to go with it, but when we burned the coffin, the man who used to be Anubis had a lot to say about his departed wife.

I hoped that would show people how important Samhain is. Now for the first time one of our own was on the altar. One day each one of us will die too. Don’t we also want to be remembered in a Samhain ritual after we’ve passed?

But at the beginning of this October, what I always feared happened. A post by one of the people who organize the campout appeared on the Facebook page, saying to let her know if anyone wants to do this coffin ritual this year, but otherwise they’re not going to bother with it. The guy who usually builds the coffin said he could build one if anyone really wants it, but someone else would need to take care of all the rest.

I commented on the post in a panic saying yes please build the coffin because my dad just died and I’ll take care of all the rest of the ritual. I was freaked out and upset until he finally replied saying that would be no problem.

And now I had committed to running this year’s Samhain ritual myself, because if I didn’t do it, no one would. The campout was the weekend before Halloween weekend, so it wouldn’t conflict with any at-home Halloween activities people had. That didn’t leave me much time to prepare.

I had already decided what I would make for Dad for the Dumb Feast. When I went to visit him in January, he made me some salmon. Dad loved cooking, and would sit and watch the Food Network all day, even when he was too sick to eat anything. He sat with me while I ate my salmon, and he drank his Ensure and talked about how much he’s looking forward to beating the cancer so he could eat solid food again. He was about to go into surgery to get the damaged part of his esophagus removed. He had gotten radiation and chemotherapy to kill the cancer in his esophagus, and then was going to have that part cut out.

The next day he had the surgery, but when the doctors cut open his chest, they saw the cancer had spread to his stomach, and just closed him back up again. While he was in recovery, the doctors called the family in and showed us pictures of his stomach dotted with tumors…

But I digress. I got Dad a nice salmon fillet and wrapped it in a foil packet with butter and lemon to cook on the grill and contribute to the Dumb Feast. I also brought pens and notepads for people to write messages to the Dead on to put in the coffin. When we got to the campground, the little wooden coffin was already on a picnic table under the main pavilion. I put the pens and paper next to it, and then set up the altar on the picnic table across from it. Pagans like to use sarongs for altar cloths, and I have a dark blue one with black bats on it (very different from the usual Celtic knots you see) that I got from the gift shop when I was an intern at Bat Conservation International in Austin. I like to use for Samhain. I think bats are appropriate animal spirits for this time of year. I put on a picture of my Dad that was taken at my wedding, the last time I saw him healthy (and didn’t know he would be dead in almost exactly a year). I added two Day of the Dead skull candles from the local grocery store, and my black Odin candle with the raven on the front, since Odin is the God of Death.

Next to the picture of Dad I put a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He said that was one of the few things he could drink when he was on chemotherapy that “went down” well, without making him nauseous. I also added a paper plate to put food offerings on for the Dead.

I ended up having about ten people attend the ritual, which was only a small fraction of the people who were at the campout. I designated another picnic table as the place to put the food, buffet-style, and then we sat down at another table. I told people we’d first say a few words about our loved ones, and explain why we brought what we did, and then the Dumb Feast would begin, and we’d serve ourselves and eat in silence. I told them while we were eating, anyone could go and put offerings on the plate, which was going into the coffin when we were done, and I also had pens and paper to write notes to put in the coffin. Then when it looked like most people were done eating, we’d close up the coffin and take it to the funeral pyre.

Of course, at first nobody wanted to talk, so I had to start. I told them about my dad, and struggled to keep from breaking down and crying (less than successfully). My husband also added some things. Then some other people spoke up briefly about their dead loved ones. Then we had the Dumb Feast, some people added offerings to the plate, and added notes to the coffin. When it looked like people were done, I put the paper plate with offerings into the coffin, and we closed the coffin up and proceeded to the funeral pyre in the big fire pit. A stack of juniper had been set up nicely, and the coffin was set on top. The fire was lit, and we stood around in silence watching it burn. Before it was completely burned, people started to squirm and look at me for some signal that they could end the ritual and start the reveling, but I didn’t budge until the coffin completely collapsed in the flames. These things need to be done to completion.

Once the ritual was over, more people started to gather around for the revel fire. I overheard the man who used to play Odin say (presumably to answer a question about why he didn’t participate in the ritual) that, “I don’t really consider myself a pagan anymore.” The man who used to play Hades stayed at his campsite the entire time. People said he is having trouble walking down the steep, rocky path to where the fire pit is due to a bad knee. Though he’s already said on his Facebook that he’s “pretty much an atheist,” so he might have not been interested anyway, bad knee or not. The man who used to play Anubis didn’t come at all this year.

If I hadn’t insisted upon a ritual, there really wouldn’t have been anything “pagan” about this campout at all. Same thing happened at Beltane when my husband and I brought that Maypole. Otherwise it’s just like any other campout with people sitting around knitting and talking by day, and singing songs around the campfire at night. Nothing religious at all about it really, just a social event. Obviously that’s what most people there want.

I know a lot of teens and tweens come and go in paganism as a “phase”, but these are people in their 40’s and 50’s. Was it just a phase for them too? Or are they older and wiser than me and have figured out that this is all silly after all? Maybe it’s only a matter of time until I also mature and figure that out for myself, and one day I look back on my Heathen years and say, “What was I thinking?”

But right now I still think rituals are important. I think they’re important no matter what you believe about the afterlife or deities. Rituals are a way to express how important an event is in your life. When someone dies, you want a ritual to say, “Hey, this person is no longer here, and I think this person was important and needs to be remembered.” My dad didn’t even get a funeral. He was just cremated and that was that. He said he didn’t want a funeral, But I still felt like something was missing. Without a funeral, it felt like he died and nobody cared.

Modern paganism is a way for us to have those important rituals in our lives outside of a Christian context. But will paganism even survive when so many people just view it as a phase that they grow out of? Part of the power of a ritual is continuity from one generation to the next. We honor the ancestors, partly because one day we will be ancestors ourselves, and we hope that our descendants will honor us.

But they won’t if the idea of honoring the Dead was just a phase we went through that we decided wasn’t worth continuing.

Pagan Community (or Lack Thereof)

I’m often jealous of people who have found good religious communities to be a part of. Being a solitary can be very lonely.

John Beckett goes to the UU Church in Denton, which apparently has a very active CUUPS group. My husband and I tried going to the UU church here for a while, but they all seem to be either disgruntled Christians who left overly conservative sects but are still Christians at heart, or atheists. When we said we were pagans, they had heard of it, but honestly seemed a bit put off by it. We never really ended up fitting in. My in-laws go to another UU church, and have found a community for themselves there, but my husband and I haven’t really gotten involved with that either.

UU’s are great people, but it seems to be all about social justice and very little spirituality. Don’t get me wrong, social justice is great, but if I start talking about spirituality they look at me like I’m some kind of weirdo. (And I am a weirdo, I just need to find people who appreciate that.)

One of my good friends is active in an ADF druid grove, but it meets about an hour and a half away from where I live now, and I don’t know anyone else there.

I have made an online acquaintance of one of the members of Hrafnar. I once got to meet her in person. I have her friended on Facebook and occasionally get to see her post about cool things Hrafnar does and be jealous. I went to a Heathen event in Texas once, and they weren’t very friendly.

Finally, last year in February, I started a Meetup Group, inviting all pagans and heathens in the area to meet once a week at a coffee shop. It’s been about a year and a half now, and so far it hasn’t really gone anywhere.

I have only one guy who showed up to the first meeting who still sometimes shows up. He says he’s a mixture of Druid and Discordian. Later, a Heathen guy and his wife started driving all the way from San Antonio and became “regulars” as well. He found out about me through the Troth email list. Maybe two or three other people have come to more than one meeting before, but that’s about it. I have 72 members now, but the vast majority has never shown up, and the rest only show up once and then I never see them again.

Meanwhile I’m paying $12 a month to host the Meetup site, and no one else wants to chip in. Other members sometimes suggest ideas for things they want to do besides the monthly coffee socials, but when I tell them to post it, they never do it. I set the site so that any member can post an event, but so far no one has done that.

Nobody but me wants to actually do the work to maintain a group.

I keep thinking, “Why do I even bother?” I’m the only one who cares enough to pay actual money for this and to post events for this, apparently.

I guess it doesn’t help that I’m not completely sure what I want out of this.

Well, no, actually I do know what I want. Basically, I want a pagan church, and I want to be a “regular” there but not on the leadership team. I want to show up for full moons and solstices and equinoxes and maybe sometimes have a bigger role in the occasional ritual, but not have to be completely running the entire thing myself. I’m not a natural leader; I only lead when no one else will step up. I want us to have our own building instead of borrowing one from the UU’s (though UU’s can be great allies to pagans), and I want there to be potlucks and charity drives, and Ostara egg hunts and Samhain pumpkin carving for the kids. (Yeah, I want there to actually be kids too. I want there to be something for everyone, at any stage of life, not just 20 and 30-somethings hanging out at a coffee shop talking about D&D or Lord of the Rings.)

But that doesn’t exist.

I really wish pagans could get their shit together enough to make something like this exist, but they don’t. They can hardly be relied on to show up for a Meetup once a month, and if you ask them to pitch in a few dollars for the Meetup site fees, they won’t even do that.

Forget buying a building to make into a church, or putting in the time and effort to keep a thing like that running.

I know that some pagans don’t want it. Maybe it’s because I was never a Christian to begin with, so I don’t have bad feelings about the whole concept of having some type of organization in my religion. I think it’s possible to do that without being oppressive. I was always jealous of my Christian friends who could find community and support in their churches.

Some pagans hate anything that reminds them of Christianity, so they balk at the idea of a pagan church. Or we can call it a temple if you like, or a community center. But really I’m looking for something that fills the niche that a church would fill in the life of a Christian person, or a synagogue for a Jew, or a mosque for a Muslim. I want a pagan version of that. Even Baha’is and Sikhs and Hindus have temples in some of the bigger cities. But I don’t know of any pagan temples or churches or anything like that. Why  not? I seriously doubt there are more Sikhs than us in the country.

There used to be a Lutheran church near where I live that went up for sale. It got turned into a dog grooming place. Ugh, what a waste. It has a good parking lot, the building itself is pretty, and there’s a yard in the back with a chain-link fence around it. I bet it has a kitchen inside that could have been used for ritual feasts, and we could have put a labyrinth in the yard. We could put up pictures and statues of pagan gods and goddesses inside. The First Pagan Church of Texas! That would have been great.

Then again, the UU church my in-laws go to has been vandalized more than once. Ugh, seriously? A UU church attended mostly by white-haired retirees being vandalized? That’s Texas for you. For similar reasons, my pagan Meetup group has all its info except for a short description hidden from non-members, and I moderate who gets to join. They have to fill out a few questions first so I can be sure they’re a real person. I also don’t have my picture or full name on the site.

That’s why I wish someone else would do it. Someone who isn’t as worried about being outed and losing their job, or worse. Then I can just attend quietly and if someone Googles my name, no pagan stuff will show up.

Which is another reason why I think we need better community, for mutual protection. The irony is that I think if we had a proper temple or something, it would make us seem more like a legitimate religion.

Instead, it seems like all pagans do is fight with each other. That’s certainly what online pagan “community” looks like. First it was Neopagan vs Reconstructionist, then Monist vs. Polytheist, or Devotional Polytheist vs. Immersive Polytheist… I don’t even know what that last one is about. Hair-splitting taken to the extreme, I’m sure.

I mean, I’m probably the only Nature-based Germanic Heathen in my town, which is why I opened my Meetup to all pagans, in the broadest sense.

And yet, I’m still lucky if more than a couple of people show up.