An All-American Religion

A Proposal for Your Consideration

One of the features of modern neopaganism is its decentralized nature. Neopaganism as a category encompasses a large number of disparate religions, and even among what could be considered the “same” religion (such as Wicca) there are numerous sub-divisions and a near-complete lack of central authority or organization. Many neopagans view this as a strength instead of a weakness, often for reasons of self-determination and pursuit of individual truth. This ideal is found most often expressed in the sometime obsessive neopagan avoidance of dogma.

But would an organized form of paganism be useful? Are there benefits to a type of paganism that aspires to accommodate and tolerate all of the numerous forms of religious expression that are considered “neopagan”? Certainly there may be some benefit in terms of visibility, dispelling misinformation, availability to newcomers, and even participation in charity activities. Vastly different religious tradition might find such an environment a forum in which to establish common ground and foster stronger cohesion in the pagan community in general. Such a centralized network may also help to address the “legitimacy” problem that neopagans face – the mainstream tendency to dismiss neopaganism as a fringe religion or fad. And historical examples suggest that such a loose affiliation, ostensibly built around a central cult, can work.

Two examples of similar arrangements come to mind: China and ancient Rome. While both examples feature what is largely regarded as a singular religious system, both include widespread local diversity, a focus of ritual rather than mythological or scriptural dogma, and an ability to accommodate or assimilate elements or other religions, either in part or in whole. [1] These flexible and adaptable social structures were intimately tied to local cultural and state institutions, giving them a local flavor and applicability while maintaining a grander scale appeal and sustainability. Is it possible, then, that these two examples can be borrowed from and serve as the foundation for a form of American Neopaganism that can maintain its astonishing diversity while providing a loosely centralized framework that can allow neopagans to interact with each other and non-pagans more effectively?

Based in part upon the concept of the state pagan religion, and integrating elements of contemporary American history and culture, I believe that such a network can be established. Although obviously implementing such an “All-American Religion” would have complications and problems that would need to be addressed and considered, a nation-wide pagan cult that accommodates the widely disparate neopagan religions as well as local culture heroes could be achievable, and may contribute to neopaganism’s growth and acceptance as one of the “Great World Religions.”

Cultus Organization

Such a cult (I can’t for the life of me think of a suitable name! Americanism? American Paganism? I would love suggestions.) would be based around local temples. Each temple would be dedicated to a deity appropriate to the locality it was in, or even to a local cultural hero. That deity would be featured in a central shrine and tended to with ritual activities appropriate to the religious system of its origin (as adapted to modern sensibilities). Here’s where the accommodation to other religions comes in: attendees to the temple may set up shrines to other deities that they wish to see represented in the temple. All deities would be allowed (including Christian representations!) to have shrines at the temple, so long as there was demand for them and the shrines were upkept properly. Shrines and statues to respective deities might be organized according to pantheon or area of specialty, with mindfulness given to disputes between certain deities or conflicts between pantheons.

Presumably the activities of the temple would be operated by some manner of part time or even full time staff, which must be trained fairly comprehensively in the appropriate manner of tending to the shrines represented. [2] Counseling duties might be appropriate as well, although this would require an even greater amount of training in the various beliefs of other neopagans, and might prove too problematic to implement outside of larger cities. Donations of money, food, and other materials (incense for offerings, etc.) would be expected from attendees – requirements could be set at a higher level, but would probably be established by the local priesthood.

Temples would be organized according to a loose hierarchy, with some degree of control coming from a larger regional or state-level temple. State temples would also be dedicated to a deity, presumably one appropriate to the state in question (Ceres for Kansas, for example). State temples would include a kind of shrine or area in which the local temples in their jurisdiction would be represented somehow, perhaps by a small plaque representing the town or locality the temples served. In reciprocation, local temples would also include a shrine to the state deity in a prominent location.

In theory, larger temples encompassing federal districts of some kind could also be established (perhaps reflecting federal court districts). These temples would also be dedicated to certain deities, and those deities would be represented in shrines in all of the temples in that jurisdiction. Thus, a local temple would include a central shrine to its own deity, a shrine to the state deity, and a shrine to its district deity. A central national temple might also be conceived, although this degree of centralization may prove both undesirable and unnecessary, especially given the problem of deciding which deity such a temple would best be dedicated to. [3] Some manner of central office might be appropriate for administrative needs, but it need not be a temple, and such an office could be administrated by priests and officials from other temples on a rotational or electoral basis.

Some problems can be seen with this system. [4]  The establishment of local temples for cities seems straightforward. In considering townships and rural areas the issue becomes more complicated (especially given the relative low density of the neopagan population in such rural areas). Should there be county temples? Should large metropolitan areas that encompass several smaller cities have one temple for the whole area, one temple for each city in the area, or one for each city with a central temple over them all? What about cities that cross state lines, like Kansas City – should they be considered one city or two? Should smaller localities such as universities have their own temples? Should there be multiple temples in a single city? Perhaps population and demand should be the primary consideration in such decisions, but for the sake of hierarchy they must be considered at some point.

Establishing Temple Deities

Dedication of temples to deities is another complicated matter. With so many religious systems and pantheons represented in the neopagan community, how should an appropriate deity be selected? Should some pantheons be favored over others? Should the pantheon of the state deity determine the affiliation of local temples in that state? Is it appropriate to “borrow” or appropriate deities outside of Western traditions, such as Native American manifestations of deity or Chinese or Buddhist gods? And perhaps more important, should the rededication of temples to different deities as tastes change be accommodated?

Personally, I would argue that deities for state temples should in some way reflect the geography, state motto, and primary industries of the state in question. For example, I propose Ceres as the deity for Kansas, as Kansas has a Latin state motto and is a grain-centered agricultural state. This would leave most states with deities from the Greek and Roman pantheons, and although it would reflect a certain cultural bias, it also reflects to a certain degree the cultural and legal traditions that influenced the establishment of those governments. Local temples are probably best left to some manner of popular selection by the local neopagan community, although I would favor some consideration of the above factors in that selection.

The other open question is that of mythic figures and culture heroes. For example, in Lawrence, Kansas, James Naismith is regarded as a significant historical and cultural figure. I can think of a few arguments against raising him to a deified or semi-deified status and dedicating a local temple to him, but I can think of more in support of such an action. Local figures in history, city or state founders, or the subjects of other figures from American cultural mythology could be available for such treatment. [5] Political considerations may start creeping into such decisions, as would religious affiliations – a temple to the Rev. Dr. King might be a bit inappropriate, given that he was a Christian Minister – but the connection of the cult to cultural tradition and history may not only help people become more familiar with their local histories, and even the shortcomings of great figures from the past, but might also serve to further lessen the “legitimacy” issue by strengthening neopagan ties to the American culture at large. [6]

The more free-minded post-modern neopagans might ask why we can’t simply create local deities based upon the needs of specific communities. Well, why not? Such an undertaking would be perfectly legitimate. My own inclination is that deities with larger recognition may have more influence than freshly-minted egrigores reaching for godhood, but if a community decided that creating a god just for them is appropriate and effective, they should be free to pursue it. Likewise, local variations on more popular deities, similar to the localizations of deities found in Rome, Greece, and Egypt, should also be considered valid.

Services, Worship, and Festivals

Temples would need to accommodate widely differing modes of worship and celebration, particularly with regards to ritual offerings. I primarily use incense when making offerings for a number of reasons, including cost, ease, and the fact that slaughtering cattle to Jupiter is no longer seen as culturally acceptable. Offerings of incense or some manner of paper offering such as Chinese “hell money” would probably be easiest to accommodate and cause the least amount of PR problems. Food offerings should not be ruled out, perhaps with food laid before shrines consumed by temple priests or by worshippers themselves during ritual celebrations. Larger celebrations and festivals could also be held, space permitting, although a rental arrangement for space with the temple by smaller religious groups would probably be more workable than having the temple organize and fund such activities. Some kind of standard ritual calendar may be worked out, by either following the popular Celtic calendar or adapting it to North American climate, seasons, and national holiday schedule.

Other services may be available at temples, depending upon the funding and manpower available. Charity organizations, outreach and addiction programs, homeless shelters, and religious classes are all possibilities. Weddings, births, and other rites of passage are fairly obvious services temple priests could offer, for some manner of donation or fee. Any activity that a more traditional Church would offer for the community would be possible, and would help strengthen ties to the local community.

Community Building

While the establishment of such a cult would present many potential problems and issues – many of which have been mentioned above, and many of which I probably haven’t considered – the potential benefits or such an organization may prove to outweigh them. One of the most obvious is a potential for a greater cohesion in the neopagan community itself, so far as care is taken not to marginalize or appropriate religions or movements that are not fully represented in the community. Some form of offense at the practices and beliefs of others is certain to occur, and that must be worked through by the community and prevented from impeding the free exercise of other religious groups. By focusing on the community aspect of neopaganism and providing a place for ritual activities, and not on belief or myth, issues of dogma can be lessened or even avoided. Also, by providing a forum for a more accurate dissemination of beliefs and practices of other neopagan groups, a greater understanding, respect for, and tolerance of differing beliefs may be fostered. Newcomers to the pagan community will also find it easier to locate others to works with or teach them basics or the craft.

Such a cult will also provide something that the Christian community has enjoyed for some time but that neopagans are often sorely lacking: a means of integrating into the community at large. While there are some neopagan groups that provide charity services, many do not, especially given that many groups are small covens that lack the resources to engage in larger-scale charity works. Many neopagans are also solitary practitioners, and could make use of a local temple as a means of donating charitable items and monies to needy people or causes. Also, simply having a more visible presence may aide the neopagan community in dealing with a mainstream culture that still largely marginalizes it. A nation-wide network or temples would provide a readily accessible source for non-biased information on neopagan beliefs and practices to the non-pagan world, and better foster inter-faith initiative between neopagans and non-pagans.

Beginning the Discussion

Obviously, this idea is just a preliminary consideration not only of if such a cult would be desirable, but how it would work. There are many more potential criticisms and consideration than what has been discussed above, but also many more potential benefits as well. The establishment and development of such an organization would be likely plagued with problems, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, including funding, population density and lack of popularity, and legal establishment and organization, not to mention problems that currently plague the neopagan community, such as witch wars, cults of personality, and other concerns relating to establishment of authority. The neopagan community would have to be especially vigilant to these complications, given that certain Christian groups would most certainly work to discredit such an organization. Still, even given these problems, as well as objections from segments of the neopagan community itself, I believe that such an organization could prove successful and beneficial. While establishing and organization like this would certainly be a long-term investment or time and effort, beginning a discourse on how it can be worked out effectively is the first step.


[1] In a modern context, assimilation is probably best downplayed, especially given the imperialistic nature of Roman religious assimilation.

[2] There have been a lot of arguments against a full-time pagan clergy. I don’t buy most of them, but they should be duly considered in deciding how to establish a priesthood. Personally, I consider the requisite training to be one of the strongest arguments for a full-time priesthood. An arrangement that involves only one full-time priest and several volunteer assistants – at least for smaller temples – is plausible. A selection process for priests, including training and community approval, would need to be developed. Ideally the priest’s personal religious affiliation should not inhibit selection, although the priest would need to be willing to serve religious traditions that may be at odds with his own.

[3] Or, more specifically, the fact that most of the arguments I can think of would land Yahweh as that deity, and many neopagans would object to that.

[4] Aside from arguments by more liberal or feminist minded pagans against hierarchical systems in general, although I maintain that a system that best reflects the organization of the American government is most appropriate. It should be understood that the level of “control” that higher-level temples would have over local temples would be as minimal as possible, and limitations on such authority should be set.

[5] And before the criticisms of the glorification of the Patriarchy come to light, please consider the full extent of American mythic history. A temple to Susan B. Anthony or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be just as valid as a temple to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

[6] I recognize that many in the neopagan community will object to this on that basis, as they see paganism as a means of breaking the shackles of oppression that American culture has laid upon them. The real question being addressed here is this: Should neopaganism serve as a religion that strengthens ties to the community, or as a political tool to smash the system and establish a post-modern utopia? If it isn’t right for fundamentalist Christianity to push for a political agenda, then why should radical pagans think it okay to use religion for the same ends? But that is an argument for another time …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s