Why Pagan Temples? A Not-Very-Good Reason.

John Halstead over at Patheos published a great series entitled “Why Church is No Substitute for Religion”, in the final episode of which he concludes that we need to be making our sacred places on an ad hoc and constantly-renewed basis, rather than focusing on buying land and building structures. He points out—quite correctly—that when your entire planet is “the special place”, it’s a bit odd to focus a lot of attention and resources on building and maintaining one particular building.

But as I look around the Pagan community, that’s what I see people trying to do.

Quite a lot, actually.

There’s the Matraeum of Cybele in Catskill, New York. There’s the proposed Buzzard’s Gulch project in Santa Rosa, California. There are dozens of proposed Pagan retreat centers and Pagan temples, most of which will never become reality because their constituencies don’t have nearly the money necessary in order for them to succeed.*

And I’m fine with that. Because what do these facilities generally have in common?

Free housing for whoever is trying to get them off the ground. For life.

Now, I have a prejudice here, and I want to state it at the outset, so there is no mistake: I don’t believe religion is or should be a professional occupation. I am appalled by televangelists and storefront preachers who bilk their adherents of money, and I don’t want to see my community follow suit.

Want to be a religious leader? Fine. Fine, even, if you ask a conference or other gathering which hopes to have you attend and speak to cover your expenses in doing so.

Sell your books, by all means, and get hired by a school or paid for your speaking engagements or workshops if you have something to teach. But free housing for life?

No, sorry, I can’t go for that. Nor can I go for the inevitable legacy of creating such sinecures. What will we see when the original beneficiaries die? A mad, vicious scramble by others to try to take over their cushy deal, is my guess.

Spiritual leadership is a dangerous enough path, encountering many a slippery ethical slope, without asking followers and faithful to put a roof over your head in perpetuity while your contribution remains to speak Wise Thoughts and (perhaps) to lead rituals. As someone who manages a wise thought now and again himself, I’m afraid I don’t see it as that big a deal.

Paganism is religion of the world. Forests and cliffs and beaches and rivers and deserts are our temples. And I think we do ourselves considerable harm when we elect to follow the worn path of the Abrahamic religions in pursuit of building funds and special privileges for those among us who, by dint either or service or of simple sheer longevity, have become Big Names.

I don’t want my religion to follow in the footsteps of the Falwells and Robertses and Bakkers, grubbing for dough meant primarily to serve themselves. I’d rather that we expect our leaders to make their ways in the world independent of using their religions as primary sources of income. And I’d rather we commit ourselves to a path in which anyone at any given time might step into the role of leader, rather than having Some People be More Special than others.

If our leaders are truly adept at “moving between the worlds”, surely they can manage to navigate the one that involves jobs and taxes and mundane responsibilities.

If not…maybe we need new leaders.

I guess what I’m saying here is that a “reward” of a cost-free life outside the workaday world isn’t something we should be handing out as some kind of prize to those of us who have been Pagans for a long time or who have helped Paganism to grow. I see a new generation of Pagan leadership coming up, and many, at least, of them are making it through their own hard work. They don’t expect to be handed a house simply for putting in 30 or 40 years of being cool and weird. I see them spreading Pagan values because they are out in the marketplace and engaging with non-Pagan folk, rather than huddling with others of their kind.

Pagan temples? Honestly, in my opinion we don’t need them. What we need is embrace of a model that makes religion something you don’t get paid for. Instead of trying to be “mock churches”, we should be working to establish in the mind of broader society that not all religion requires bricks-and-mortar facilities in order to be “real”.

But if we’re going to build them, let’s not do so while including plans for rent-free living on anyone’s part. Surely even a work-trade arrangement at a reasonable hourly rate towards a reasonable rental expectation is not too much to ask.

Because money corrupts, y’all. It just does. I have seen too many examples of the cutthroat feeding frenzy and naked self-dealing that can arise in Pagan circles when there is suddenly some money coming in.

It’s not worth it.

I have a lovely temple in my back yard. It’s made of trees. That’s good enough for me.

*I say this not to be mean, but because I’ve done fundraising for capital campaigns and I know what it entails.

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8 thoughts on “Why Pagan Temples? A Not-Very-Good Reason.

  1. Well, an interesting and thought-provoking invitation to discussion.
    It seems to me that you and John Halstead make a pretty big jump from the admonition that we should “(make) our sacred places on an ad hoc and constantly-renewed basis, rather than focusing on buying land and building structures”, to “rent-free, life long housing” to BNPs.

    While I agree that the latter is generally undesirable, smacking as it does of so many other “top down” models, I suggest that there are many other possible ways to create and maintain designated, long-term “Sacred Space”.

    Annwfn comes to mind, of course. While it’s history has not been untroubled, the model, I suggest, has proved robust enough for it to have survived for thirty years- this, with a succession of Caretakers who earn their housing through their work, rather than any Big Names that I can think of.

    But, models aside, my personal need is for both “ad hoc” spaces, AND established “Sacred Spaces” to which I may retire, now and then. When I travel, I like to visit sites that have been created and maintained for contemplation and worship- no matter the religion of the creators. One of my favorite places in all the world is a small Chapel, near Golden Gate Park, that is maintained by a sect of Catholic Nuns, and dedicated to Mary. I find as much peace there as I do sitting on a bluff, overlooking the ocean. They are both Sacred Spaces.

    Our own Oberon was once asked, during an interview, if Pagans considered Jesus to have been Holy. His response, I’m told, was, “Of course. Why should we exclude him?”

    That’s how I feel about Sacred Spaces. Some of them are ancient and intentional- like stone circles in Europe; some are accidental- taking our breath away as we stumble across them. I don’t see any reason to draw a line between the two, excluding either as less appropriate.

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    • I don’t disagree that sacred spaces can be buildings. But there are a lot of them about already.

      The “jump” to free rent for BNPs isn’t mine, nor John’s–it’s a pattern of connection that crops up over and over again as various schemes for Pagan temples and retreat centers get floated. More often than not, it seems, the root goal is to get some Name free housing, and the benefits to the community are the wrapping and sweetener to entice funders. Among other things, it’s an abuse of nonprofit status for the private benefit of individuals, which offends me professionally.

      I can think of a lot of ways that significant funds raised could be used to far more benefit for the community at large than in creating a retreat center. Those uses would be appropriate to a charitable purpose, and wouldn’t cost nearly so much money.

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  2. I’m not for the building of temples either. Heck, I find national parks to be large, governmentally own sacred spaces. Why can’t we relish in their glory instead?

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    • Yes…although people living in large cities are going to have a hard time accessing natural space that feels “wild”.

      As I said, I don’t see the need for Pagan temples, but then, I live in a tolerant area with a lot of available nature and a large Pagan community. My larger point is about conflating creation of “sacred spaces” with the economic subsidy of old-timers, which is just not a great idea in my book, for the reasons given.

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  3. Thank you. I’m also very suspicious of Pagan temples, churches and clergy. It seems often to be the case that the loudest advocates for tax-free religious status, temples and paid clergy are those who want to benefit from them.

    For me, as an agnostic/nontheist druid type, nature is my temple, whether that is an old-growth forest or a city park, and that’s all I need. We are all connected to the sacred (however you conceive it) all the time and should not require going to a special building and having a special person act as a middle-man between us and our experiences.

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  4. I think you’ll find that there are a LOT of ex-Catholic refugees (as well as ex-Jews, ex-evangelicals and ex-Mormons) in the Pagan community. For many, it isn’t religion itself they are fleeing so much as the miserable, authoritarian values. I grew up an atheist myself, so I can’t really speak to that experience.

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