It’s been 20 years since this brilliant article was penned by Peter Gold for the ADF publication Oak Leaves. 20 years ago I was just barely a teen, and I had just started calling myself a Wiccan. I lived in a small conservative town with a heavy Catholic population. I had been hearing about this thing called the internet, but we didn’t have it in our home yet. My access to anything Pagan, Wiccan, or otherwise, was limited to what I could find in the New Age section of Waldenbooks (remember those?) and at the library of the college my mother was attending.
It seems that this was something of a golden age for alternative religious paths like ours. Many of you have similar stories from the 1990s, of discovering a new faith, one filled with Gods and Goddesses, with magic, with rituals, through books, perhaps festivals or college groups, and eventually, through the internet. Even though for a lot of us, it felt like coming home, there was so much to piece together! So much research to do! It was like an entire world of spiritual truth had been hidden from us. If you were like me, you applied yourself to every book you could find; you squeezed every drop of wisdom and insight you could get from each word, and you followed up on every idea like a detective.
Then, if you were fortunate, you found others like you. It wasn’t all just books after all! There were real, living, breathing people who had these same experiences, beliefs, and passions. Suddenly, there was an explosion of options. There wasn’t just Wicca anymore, there was a broad umbrella of Paganism, with beliefs from all sorts of different cultures. And then people got the idea that if we were going to worship deities from all those cultures, we might start looking into how they were worshiped way back when. And once we started talking to all sorts of different deities, we realized they were separate beings too! This was my path, from Wicca to Paganism to Reconstructionism to Devotional Polytheism. Your path might have been similar, or it might have been very different.
But I’m willing to bet we have something in common here. I bet you had to piece it all together for yourself. It would have been so nice to have one central place to go, somewhere with warm and welcoming people who would patiently explain what was going on, involve you in their services so you could start having direct experiences, give you a support system when those experiences were more intense than you expected, and point you to just the right book to read to answer your next round of questions. Instead, what you probably found were scattered, loosely gathered groups of well-meaning people with many of the problems Gold describes in his piece: lack of organization, poor planning, no central location, no funding, no infrastructure, and no well-trained or qualified leaders.
It’s 20 years later. And unfortunately, that description is just as accurate today as it was then.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my journey to find my religious path, it’s that I don’t want to do it this way again. In my belief, I’m going to be reincarnating, and I’m going to be mighty frustrated if I once again have to start from scratch to find my spiritual way. I want all the work of this lifetime to mean something! All that trying, all that searching, all that reading, all that assembling the shattered puzzle pieces of history, sorting through fantasy and the schticks of con artists and the well-intentioned poor guidance and oh-so-many dry pages of scholarship because the only expert in a niche field just happens to be a gods-awful writer! I don’t want to do that again. I don’t want that to be all there is to our religion.
The only way this is going to change is if we stand up and change it. We need to start finding groups of people with whom we can agree enough to build something. We need to organize. We need to train our leaders and support them. We need to welcome congregants like Gold describes himself as in his article–not clergy, but laity. You know, that thing that any church needs to have a majority of? We need to–oh the horror!–pay for services and infrastructure. We need to actually care enough about our own services to schedule them and show up for them on time. If we don’t want our religions to be a joke, a trendy but ridiculous subculture, or a passing fad, we need to start taking them seriously ourselves.
It’s been 20 years since this article. It’s been decades longer since our traditions began their modern revival. How much longer are we going to wait to get started? Where are we going?