The Big Bad O-Word

Bees working together to build and care for a hiveIf you hang around in the Pagan and Polytheist world for long enough, you’ll hear people saying how much they hate organized religion. And long enough is, oh, about five minutes.

Even out in the mainstream public, it’s pretty common to hear people going on about how much they hate organized religion, but how they’re totally down with a personal private practice of spirituality. I get it: you don’t want to tell other people what to do, you don’t want them to tell you what to do, you just want to let everyone have their faith and be chill about it. That’s cool.

Most of the time, though, when people say they’re opposed to organized religion, what they really mean is that they’re opposed to the way many Christian churches have applied it. When you grew up having the church shoved down your throat, being shamed for natural human behaviors, being shunned if you don’t meet specific social criteria, or constantly asked to throw your money in the basket for God, it can really sour you on this whole organizational idea.

But right now, Pagan and Polytheist religions aren’t all that well-known. Oh, sure, we have more positive press than in decades past. But if you bring up Hellenismos or Kemeticism or Urglaawe or Gaulish Polytheism or Druidry or any of a number of other religious paths with the vast majority of people, you are going to get blank stares. For most people exploring their religious options, these paths don’t even show up in their searches.

What about the people who have already found their way to these paths? It’s a big lonely jungle out there, and you have to do a lot of hacking your own path. You have to overcome obstacles like not having any adherents near you, demands that you become a scholar, serve as your own clergy, start your own congregation if you want to have one. Oh, and by the way, you’ll have to host meetings in your own home, pay for all the ritual supplies, feed everybody who comes by, and write and lead the ritual yourself. If all that makes you want to give up and go solitary, you still have to be your own clergy, lay person, and scholar all at the same time. There’s no temple for you to go off and pray at, there’s no concerned minister for you to call on in your times of need–or, even better, to have call you because it’s a person who knows you and cares what’s going on in your life. There’s no community of neighbors to bring you casseroles when your loved one dies, or show up at your baby shower. And speaking of babies, what about childcare during services, or even services designed for children? What about passing on our young traditions to the next generation?

I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful counter-examples to these obstacles that can be cited, and I don’t want to diminish the wonderful efforts being made by dedicated groups and individuals. What I do want to convey is that I very strongly believe we need organization and infrastructure desperately if Pagan and Polytheistic religions are to survive and become genuine religious options for the public. Not everyone wants to be, or can be, clergy or business leadership for a religion. Some people–in fact most people–just want to participate as laity, to have religion be part of their lives instead of being their entire lives. But people need support–things like a strong community, a physical place to go, people who are trained to help them.

Our versions of organization and infrastructure don’t have to repeat the mistakes of other faiths. Offering things like physical temples, trained ritual leaders and counselors, and heck, let’s dream big, services that *start on time*, doesn’t have to also include things like dogma, shaming, and bullying. Having leadership doesn’t mean we all have to bow and scrape to those leaders,  let them hold leadership positions indefinitely, or accept poor behavior from them. Fundraising for meaningful projects doesn’t mean we have to exclude people from services who can’t afford to pay–in fact, applying good business management to a congregation’s activities means that it will become much more possible to take care of members that are in need. Promoting our religions out in public view, as viable options for those on their spiritual searches, doesn’t mean we have to become the infamous pushy door-to-door recruitment types.

The biggest obstacle in accomplishing these aims is lack of agreement from within the communities themselves. The stigmas against leaders, money, interfaith outreach, promotion, and the bureaucratic necessities of running any non-profit organization are holding us back. If we want to see services and resources within our lifetimes, if we want our faiths to be taken seriously, if we want seekers out there to know there’s something beyond the Abrahamic faiths, something different from monotheism, if we want to have any hope of our faiths outlasting our own short lifetimes, then we must build. We must organize. We must have infrastructure. We must do business. It’s not the shiny glamorous part. It’s not the Gods popping out of the sky and giving you special messages, or being the star of the ritual. It’s planning and time management and paperwork and sales, all things that most people have a difficult time with even in their work lives. But it’s what we need. We can turn “organization” from a big bad word into a tool that builds the kinds of communities we dream of having. It’s up to us.

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