A friend of mine asked why there are so few autonomous Pagan sanctuaries and why most Pagan groups have such a high turnover rate in membership and lack organization and structure (she was not referring to closed groups like Wiccan covens but rather those whose membership is open and practice various forms of Paganism). In writing my response to her, I thought perhaps I might share my thoughts with others and see what they think. So here it is…
1- There is no common belief in what a Pagan is. A “Christian” is someone who believes Jesus the Christ was sent to humankind by God to save humankind from sin and Jesus’ teachings and way of life, according to the Bible, are examples of how to be a Christian. A “Buddhist” is someone who believes Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and then shared the means to achieve Enlightenment to his followers. The fact is that most religions have ONE common belief which is the foundation of their faith. Hindus are an exception to this as they do not have ONE common belief rather similar beliefs but they do share ONE heritage so that is their unifying force. Whereas Pagans do not have ONE common belief or shared heritage. The closest Pagans come to a common belief is a shared view of honoring the earth and its cycles. However, to what end (for what purpose) and how (i.e. practice, ritual) is still up for debate. Even the Pagan Pride Project has to preface its definition of Paganism by saying that not all fall under this definition or perhaps only parts of the definition. Furthermore, most religions have ONE belief with regards to deity; be it believing in one God, a Holy Trinity, or multiple Gods and Goddesses. Whereas Pagans can’t agree on this either. Without ONE common belief or shared heritage, there is no unifying force bringing all Pagans together. So Pagans are spread out among multiple Pagan groups, some without a unifying belief and some with a unifying belief but whose belief is not shared with other groups that don’t share their lineage and finally, solo practitioners who belong to no groups at all.
2- There is no shared Pagan Spiritual Leader/Prophet. Most of the major world religions have ONE Spiritual Leader/Prophet who founded the faith and established the ONE common belief; Christianity: Jesus, Buddhism: Siddhartha Gautama, Judaism: Moses, Islam: Mohammed. History has shown us that most humans rally behind ONE leader and ONE concept more readily than multiple leaders and multiple concepts. Think about it, most religions, nations, and groups were founded by one Prophet/Leader/King/Emperor.* Furthermore, it is the founding Spiritual Leader/Prophet’s teachings that establish the foundation for the faith of a given religion. Because Ancient Pagans either kept no written record of their faith or these records were destroyed by rival religions, there is no evidence of any Pagan Spiritual Leader/Prophet or teachings from any of the various Pagan sects. Furthermore, because of the rise of Christianity, ancient Pagan sects remained divided, called by many names (the term Pagan, meaning country dweller, is a term given to practitioners of the Ancient Pre-Christian Religions by Christians as a derogatory means to identify those who refused to be converted to Christianity) and having varying beliefs and practices. So Pagans have no written record of their faith (from ancient times) and no unifying historical leader or teachings. So Neo-Pagans base their faith and practices on oral history and what little has been written about Pagans by non-Pagans. Neo-Pagan Spiritual Leaders/High Priests/High Priestesses have taken the lead to create new forms of Paganism or attempt to re-create old forms of Paganism. For example, Gerald Gardner took concepts of Paganism and Witchcraft to form the new faith of Wicca. Whereas others have taken knowledge of Druids and Celtic religions to reconstruct the Druid path. So contemporary Neo-Paganism remains as divided as its predecessors.
3- A sizeable number of Neo-Pagans are fiercely independent – some to the point of being Anarchists – who view Paganism as the antithesis to organized religion and therefore, defy the concept of having a Spiritual Leader/Prophet or any kind of common belief. Furthermore, they seek nothing that resembles organized religion and view the idea of establishing an organization, sanctuary or school as proselytizing and therefore contrary to their faith. These choose to remain solo practitioners.
4- There still exists a stigma attached to Pagans/Neo-Pagans as being devil worshipers (which is ridiculous as “the devil” is a Judeo-Christian concept). This results in far fewer individuals being drawn to Paganism versus established religions. Also, most individuals who choose Paganism remain in hiding. They practice under their Pagan/Magickal name and lead a double life – lying to friends, family, and coworkers for fear of discrimination, rejection or losing income. This is why events like Pagan Pride Day are so important for those who are brave enough to be “out of the broom closet” (open about the fact that they are Pagan/Neo-Pagan) to share with others their beliefs and dispel stereotypes. As more and more Pagans become open about their beliefs and work with others to dispel stereotypes through events, media, and the internet, the climate will change and hopefully open ways of connecting to one another.
5- Lack of organizational structure in groups. Because of all of the above, particularly the need to hide behind Pagan/Magickal names, Pagans separate themselves from each other within Pagan groups. The groups remain largely event-based so that members come only to attend ritual services or workshops. So there is no real unity among members. There is no opportunity to dialogue with one another about spiritual beliefs and practices. As many Pagans are the only ones in their families, it can feel like a very solitary experience and it would help to be able to share this with other Pagans. If a member were to fall ill or worse die, no one in the group would ever know if a relative didn’t contact the group. The groups serve only to practice rituals or offer workshops but do not serve the other spiritual and social needs of its members. Organized religions have small sub-groups to attend to women, men, teens, children and their issues, or sub-groups based on topics such as social gatherings, community service, public outreach, they also have groups for the welfare of its members who visit them when ill or help to organize funerals. Perhaps there are those who do not need this support and therefore, do not see that other Pagans do.
To my knowledge, there are no Pagan groups in the MD/DC/VA area who provide all of the above type of support. The only group I know of that provides some of this is Cedarlight Grove. Please prove me wrong and let me know of a group that does, where they meet and if they have a website – post it to Comments below so that others might hear of it. Feel free to post about groups that provide this support in other areas of the country and worldwide as well, the more we know about them the better!
As for Sanctuaries, there are two I know of in the MD/DC/VA area Open Hearth Foundation and Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. These serve a very necessary need for a place to gather, so I applaud the efforts taken to create and sustain these sanctuaries.
So this is my assessment of Pagan Groups and Paganism today.
* Obviously, our nation (U.S.A.) is somewhat of an exception because we had multiple leaders inciting and leading the Revolutionary War (although we did have ONE hero who became our First President), however, the leaders of the American Revolution were all rallied behind one simple concept FREEDOM FROM TYRANNY.