Church is no substitute for religion, Part 3: Why we need Pagan shrines not “temples”

Church is no substitute for religion, Part 3: Why we need Pagan shrines not “temples” March 23, 2015

This is the third of a 3-part series that explores the relationship between spirituality, religion, and church. In Part 1, I discussed the Sunday Assembly, which strives to be a church without religion, and how it is different from the UU.  In Part 2, I try to explain what’s missing from religionless churches like the Sunday Assembly and the UU.  And in Part 3, I explain how Paganism might be an answer to the longing of Nones for religion without church.

Statue of Isis at the Herbert Hoover National Historical Site in Iowa (photo courtesy of Melanie Moore)

Where are all the Pagans?

In the Part 2, I proposed the theory that what the religious “Nones” may be looking for is not the “religionless church” offered by the Sunday Assembly and Unitarian Universalism, but “churchless religion” — symbol, myth, and ritual, without the moralism, dogmatism, and hierarchy — a kind of “Hinduism for the West”.  And it so happens, that is how I have heard Paganism described sometimes.

So why aren’t people flocking to Paganism? I suspect that part of the reason we Pagans have not yet capitalized on the growth of the Nones is that people can’t find us.  Sure, we’re easy to find on the Internet.  And you can still find Pagan books in the (rapidly shrinking) metaphysical section of (rapidly disappearing) bookstores.  But I question whether people can really experience Paganism virtually or by reading a book.

Did you know that rock balancing has become an art form?

Imagine someone wakes up on Sunday morning (because that’s the day they’re conditioned to think about religion) and they decide, “I want to check out Paganism.”  Where do they go?  Reading a book or surfing the net are no substitute for physical religion.  Where can a person physically go and experience contemporary Paganism in the flesh?

“They can go anywhere,” you might say, “the holy is all around us.”  True enough, but it is a fact of the human experience that we tend to be blind to things which are everywhere.  Sometimes, when the holy is everywhere, it seems like it is nowhere.  We need special places and special times to remind us of the everwhere-ness and the everywhen-ness of the holy.

So where can a person go and experience public Paganism?  I live near Chicago, which is the third largest city in the U.S., and as far as I know, there is no special place for Pagan worship.  If I’m lucky, it will be near one of the eight Pagan holy days, and I can find a public group to circle with.  But if not, I have to six weeks until the next station on the Wheel of the Year.  What to do in the meantime?

Sekhmet Temple in Indian Springs Nevada

Pagan Temples

The solution to this is obviously to build something — somewhere where people can physically go to, individually and collectively, practice Pagan religion.  Such structures provide a place for the curious to go to and provide a kind of symbolic legitimacy in the eyes of the non-Pagan community.

Recently Pagans have been talking about temples again.  Some of this was spurred by the announcement of by the Icelandic Asatru Association, Ásatrúarfélagið, that they were building the first pagan temple in that country in 1000 years.  You can read The Wild Hunt’s coverage of it here.  Stories like these inevitably cause Pagans in other parts of the world, like myself, to start fantasizing about what it would be like to have a temple of our own.  For example, you can read about Star Foster’s beautiful vision of a contemporary Hellenic temple, which she wrote about back in 2012.

But there are number of practical reasons why most of these dreams are doomed to failure — at least for the foreseeable future.  Cara Shulz ran a great 2-part series at The Wild Hunt on the challenges of “Building Pagan Temples and Infrastructures”.   I tend to agree with Jason Mankey that building something like the something like the Ásatrúarfélagið temple in the U.S. is probably a pipe dream, at least in the foreseeable future.  There are some notable exceptions, including the New Alexandrian Library, but it’s not really a temple.

Giuliano Mauri’s “Tree Cathedral”

That which we would call a temple by any other name …

Which brings me to the question of what a temple is.  What I find interesting is that most of the discussions of Pagan temples seem to have in mind something that is both a place of worship and a community center.  The concept seems modeled on the Christian concept of a church.  But if we look back at ancient pagan places of worship, many of them looked less like community centers, and more like what I would call “shrines”.  For many Western religions, these two functions are merged in one building.  And when Pagans talk about building “temples”, we often follow this model, which unifies the community center with the shrine.  It’s another manifestation of the conflation of “church” with “religion”, which I talked about in Parts 1 and 2.

Sacred space can be marked in simple ways.

It’s somewhat surprising, given the degree of theological and ritual innovation in the Pagan community, that we don’t seem to think very far outside the box when it comes to places of worship.  As I wrote about in Part 2, Mormonism serves as an interesting example of the separation of two functions, and I wonder if Pagans might benefit from this model.  Many contemporary Pagans tend to eschew such divisions (which hint at metaphysical dualism) in favor of bringing all parts of our lives together in one place and time.  But there are problems, both practical and psychological/aesthetic, with trying to worship in a place that doubles (or triples or quadruples) as a bookstore, dining hall, and location for intermediate basket weaving classes.

Buddha shrine eliminates crime in Oakland neighborhood

So how can we Pagans offer the experience of “churchless religion” to people?  The answer, I think is public shrines.  I got this idea after reading a story about a neighborhood in Oakland which was plagued by drug dealers and illegal dumping.  One community member, Dan Stevenson, bought a small statue of the Buddha at an Ace hardware store and put it in the median.  Dan wasn’t even Buddhist.  Over time, though, people began leaving offerings of flowers and fruit.  Eventually, they erected a shrine around the Buddha, which the city allowed to remain.  People come every morning at 7 a.m. to pray.  And perhaps most remarkably, the crime rate for the neighborhood dropped 82%!  (Here’s some more links to get the rest of the story.)

Inspired by this story, I came up with three ways that we can bring Paganism physically to the public without building a full-scale community center or church …

“Agriculture” a.k.a. Ceres (Chicago Board of Trade)

1.  Public Pagan Statues: America’s “Green Men”

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of public statues and other public art with Pagan themes spread throughout the country.  We can claim these works of art as our own, by staging public rituals around them, and by turning them into shrines where offerings can be left.  Here’s a map of the U.S. with 30 public Pagan statues, and I know there’s got to be dozens more spread over the country.  When I was in San Jose for my first Pantheacon, I left an offering of cornmeal at the Quetzalcoatl feathered serpent statue there.  I also found a wonderful Dionysian sculpture (Pome De La Vigne) by Gustave Dore in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  

A monument to Dionysus

On one family road trip, we stopped and poured a water libation at the statue of Isis at the Herbert Hoover National Historical Site in Iowa (conveniently located just off I-80).  The statue of Ceres in Chicago which is listed on the map is somewhat inaccessible, sitting on the top of the Board of Trade building, but in front of the building are two other statues, one of Ceres and another of a goddess of industry (which are not listed on the map), where I plan to leave offerings next time I’m in town.  And at one time, there was a wonderful Cybele statue by Mihail Chemiakin in New York City (not sure where it’s gone).  And let’s not forget the Baphomet statue which has been in the news lately and is being erected by the Satanic Temple at the capitol building in Oklahoma City.  There are Pagan gods hidden all over the U.S. like Green Men in the Europe.

“Cybele” statue by Mihail Chemiakin in New York City

One advantage with working with existing statues is that they are public property.  While such statues are not entirely safe from vandalism, as the recent case case of the theft of the statue of Manannán mac Lir in Ireland demonstrates, public authorities have an incentive to prevent vandalism.  One complication is that offerings themselves might be interpreted by local authorities as litter, a “public nuisance”, or even vandalism, so we would need to do some research and plan in advance for encounters with overzealous police.  The treatment of roadside memorials might provide Pagans with some legal precedent in this area.

In any case, I recommend not just leaving offerings, which have to be cleaned up by someone, but “adopting” the statue — kind of like adopting a highway.  In so doing, we would commit to keep the space clean and to preserve the appearance of its sacred character.  If you’re not into anarcho-spirituality, perhaps an arrangement could be made with the local government to keep the site clean in exchange for an easement which would allow worshipers to leave offerings.

If you know of the location of other public Pagan statues, you can share in the comments below.

2.  Eco-Shrines: Reclaiming Our Green Spaces

Shrines can be created in natural places of special beauty.

But that’s just statues.  There are thousands of sites of natural phenomena, which have been created stone, water, wind, or living wood, which could serve as shrines.  However, we would need to be conscientious about the impact that anything we leave would have on local flora and fauna.  To that end, Mark Green, over at Atheopaganism, has come up with an idea of creating temporary shrines from natural materials:

“… sometimes when I’m in nature, I just like to build a little altar-y thing–an assemblage of found materials nestled, perhaps, in the hollow of a tree or on a flat stone: some spot that seems special. To me, they are offerings, kind of like love letters to nature; they say, I am connected to you, I was thinking about you, I love you.

Shrines can be 100% biodegradable.

“Well, first find a “magic place”: a tree with a hollow, or a flat rock in the middle of a stream, or a place where the sun angles down through the trees and illuminates the ground–anywhere that strikes you as special.

“Collect materials and place them, making careful consideration of their arrangement. This can be a highly meditative process; it is likely that you will find yourself in the Ritual State simply by focusing on creating the “art” of your installation.

Geometric shapes are a common way of indicating sacred space.

“Finally, “consecrate” your installation. Say or sing words to commend your artwork to that place, or to the world, or whatever is meaningful to you. Express your feelings until you know that the work is done.

“Be careful not to alter anything in a permanent way. These installations are moments in time, not monuments. So little is left of the wild places in our world that junking them up with durable human “handprints” is not appropriate: make your installation something that will naturally fall back into disarray as wind, weather, decay and the movement of animals scatter its components. …”

Hasfest Grove Altar 2012
Stacking stones is an ancient way of marking a holy place.

Anna Walther also talks about this practice in her essay, “Four Devotional Practices for Naturalistic Pagans”.  Natural materials can be arranged in geometric shapes, like the familiar quartered-circle to make a natural “medicine wheel”.  Stacking stones is an ancient way of marking a holy place (and is even attributed to a Biblical patriarch: Gen. 28:18).  Rocks can be balanced on top each other in all kinds of interesting configurations to create natural monuments.  They can also be stacked to make an altar on which other natural objects are placed.

In Shinto practice, ropes decorated with paper streamers called are tied around special trees to mark their sacred quality.

Or we might emulate the Shinto practice of tying a rope around a tree, or hang ribbons from the branches of a tree, to mark it as a sacred spot.

I think Mark has in mind doing this in secluded spots, but I see it also as a way to reclaim our public green spaces from the desacralizing influence of modern urban and suburban planning, a kind of guerrilla art that can be employed to re-enchant our public green spaces.  Public parks or any other green space, even a highway median, can be “reclaimed” in this way.

At first, at least, we would have to expect that these shrines would be removed by landscaping or maintenance staff or desecrated by ne’er-do-wells or iconoclasts.  But one of the advantages of the eco-shrine is that it is relatively easy to rebuild.  Some especially parochial people are bound to be creeped out by public shrines.  But I imagine that, if we kept returning to the same spot, rebuilding our natural shrines, that one day we would find that someone else had followed suit and built an eco-shrine before us.  And after years, the place might indeed become a holy place in the mind of the non-Pagan public as well.

If you have ideas for building an eco-shrine, share in the comments below.

Diana Graham’s “Eco-Shrine” in Hogsback, South Africa

3.  Permanent Pagan Shrines

Finally, if individuals or groups have the means, we can build more permanent shrines.  These would be smaller in scale than the community center or church, and thus more feasible for individual Pagans and Pagan groups.  Wonderful examples are the Sekhmet Temple in Indian Springs Nevada, which has shrines to Sekhmet, the Lady of Guadalupe, and the Mother of the World, and the Eco-Shrine of Diana Graham in Hogsback, South Africa.

If you know of another permanent shrine, share in the comments below.

This is not intended as a one-fits-all answer to the question of the “spiritual but not religious” demographic.  But I do think we Pagans might benefit from shifting from church/community center model to a shrine model of public religiosity.

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